Certainly, as Dr. Gaffin contends, God’s providential care in the production, use, and transmission of the canonical documents is important. But providence alone does not eliminate the need for specific criteria to determine what books are canonical. We need to be able to explain to both Christians and non-Christians why these particular documents are included in the Bible. And you cannot do that by simply saying God gave us these books.
One of the most important criteria for canonicity is usage. The early Christians started out as a people of the Book. They inherited a canon—the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition, the church came into being in response to the proclamation of a word from God. After people became believers, the proclaimed word was written down to be a continual guide for the life of the community. By use, the communities affirmed that such writings were authoritative for them. These were the books the church used from the very first to explain and proclaim its faith.
As important as usage is for determining canonicity, there is a more important reason why our 27 books are in the New Testament canon. These books have an inherent value and authority. The documents compel themselves upon us in a way that no creed or church decision could achieve. We do not believe the Bible because the church tells us to, but because the message it contains is so convincing. Canon is not an idea that was thrust on the Scriptures in the second or fourth centuries by the work of people like Irenaeus and Athanasius. Their comments and decisions were only recognitions of an authority already at work in the life of the church. They did not bestow authority on the New Testament documents. They acknowledged an authority already functioning.
The value of the documents is seen in the authoritative definition of Christianity that they give. Whether or not all of the writers knew they were writing Scripture is uncertain. They were, however, aware of the authoritative character of the traditions they recorded. The questions every document addressed defined the gospel and explained its implications: Who are Christians and how are they to live?
A second factor pointing to the inherent value and authority of the New Testament documents is their testimony to Jesus. Texts such as Acts 1:21–22 show how much the early Christians valued information about Jesus. In selecting a replacement for Judas, they required a person who had been with Jesus from the time of his baptism to his resurrection and ascension. Numerous texts witness to the fact that the life and words of Jesus were of paramount significance for the life of the church from the very first. (Note such texts as Mark 1:1; Luke 1:1–4; Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 7:10–12, 25; 11:23; 1 Tim. 5:18; possibly 1 Thess. 4:14f.; John 15:27; 19:35; 20:30–31; and 21:24–25). By the time of Justin (A.D. 150) the Gospels were being read along with the Old Testament Prophets in Christian worship, and shortly after that Tatian wove together his Diatessaron, a harmony of our four Gospels.
Chronicles Of The Christ Events
The New Testament writings further stand up to canonical scrutiny because they are the only writings having chronological proximity to the Christ events and the emergence of the early church. These documents emerge from the center of Jesus’ closest followers during his life, and from the earliest Christians immediately after his resurrection. They point to Jesus more clearly than any other writings. Therefore, they function in a paradigmatic way for Christians. As William Barclay pointed out, the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so.
Questions continued about some books for a long time. Sometimes those questions were motivated by theological and political concerns (such as the heresy of Montanism, a movement overemphasizing the end of the age and the prophetic activity of the Spirit in certain individuals). But while questions continued, the majority of the New Testament canon was settled before the end of the second century. The books being questioned were like soft edges around the hard core of unquestioned documents. Decisions made with regard to the soft edges would not change the character of the faith.
In other words, before the church had a canon, it had a Lord and a theology. That theology was found in the life and teaching of Jesus and in the earliest preaching of his followers. The New Testament writings are a literary crystallization of that apostolic tradition. These books functioned de facto on a par with the Old Testament long before lists were established. They became canonical because they were already authoritative. The usual “criteria” of canonicity are expost facto explanations why these books were accepted into the Canon. That is, they were explanations offered after the books were already accepted as authoritative.
But Were They Inspired?
In particular, inspiration was not used in the early church as a criterion of canonicity. Several Christians in the early centuries spoke of their work as inspired without any thought that it was canonical. Clearly the Scriptures were viewed as inspired, but that is not why they were canonical. They were accepted as canonical because of their inherent value as the authoritative traditions about Jesus and as authoritative descriptions of the Christian faith. No other books come close in terms of their proximity to Jesus and the birth of Christianity, or in terms of the clear definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Therefore, the Canon is a collection of authoritative books rather than an authoritative collection of books. The documents are self-authenticating, but that is not merely a personal decision. While each of us has to make that decision personally, each also has to consider the collective voice of the church as well.
But in the end, we do not believe the Scriptures because the church says they are canonical. We believe them because we encounter God in reading or hearing this Word and come to true belief. With anything less than such a faith, it matters little what we say about these writings.
Klyne Snodgrass is professor of biblical literature at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, and author of The Parable of the Wicked Tenant.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a doctor of sacred theology and a professor in the university. This rough-hewn son of a German peasant never fully abandoned his uncouth ways (at least according to his students). When John Eck opposed him in theological discussion, Luther called him an ass. When men asked him how to deal with spiritual depression, he told them to go to bed with their wives and make love or to go to the field with the ox and spread manure. When Philip Melanchthon, his scrupulous lieutenant, came to him for advice about a moral dilemma, the great reformer exhorted him, “Sin boldly!”
Luther’s peasant boldness enabled him to ride roughshod over the canon of Scripture. In the early 1520s his great Reformation discovery, that God saves by faith not by works, was under attack by the agents of the papacy. One of their most telling weapons was the Epistle of James, with its doctrine of works, epitomized by the text, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Luther sometimes defended himself by trying to explain the true relationship between faith and works, but once he took a bolder step: he denied that the Epistle of James was written by an apostle. Later, he took the boldest step of all. In his preface to his translation of James he asserted that even if the epistle had been written by an apostle, it did not belong in the Canon.
Luther based his idea on Romans 3:21, where Paul says that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the righteousness of God. Because Christ is the righteousness of God, Luther concludes that all true Scripture bears witness to him. Here then is Luther’s standard by which to measure any so-called Scripture: Does it preach Christ? Who wrote the document is immaterial. In his preface to James he asserts:
“The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not. All Scripture sets forth Christ (Romans 3) and Paul will know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 2). What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod does it.”
With bold hyperbole, Luther exclaimed that if we had a document from Judas Iscariot that taught justification by faith in Christ, we should esteem it more highly than the present epistle of Saint James. He therefore refused James a place in the canon of his Bible, but said he would not fight with those who accepted it. In fact, his view of James is not widely known because in later editions of his German translation of the Bible, this preface was dropped, and most people forgot his eccentric view of canonicity.
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