Reflections on First Century Attestation for the New Testament Canon

As long as man has existed there has persisted the crusade to invalidate the divine. Mankind’s insipid mission to discredit and detach himself from accountability to a higher authority manifests itself in a number of sociological and philosophical ventures, but one avenue that is continually trod by the detractors is that of canonicity. Their argument maintains that if the primary text from which the comprehensive evangelical religious system can be found to be in contradiction, it can be invalidated and, ultimately, discarded, thereby removing the liability and responsibility one feels to any divine power.

It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the Christian understands what canonicity means and implies, and the corollaries that proceed from it. This, to be sure, is not a mandate for one to become an accredited scholar in historical theology or literary theory. However, the biblical theology that is brought to light by the canonical Scriptures lies at the heart of the Christian faith itself. The issue of canonicity is foundational to evangelical religion and, to the detriment of many, has remained largely ignored. There exists a vast swath of churchgoers who have given no time to the study of or reflection on the canon, why it is comprised of sixty-six books, and how it is that those books were received and accepted as divinely authoritative. The canon of Scripture is normative for the Christian’s life of faith. Accordingly, discerning between varied determinations regarding the canon and what is constituted therein is crucial for the spiritual vitality of the Christian.

With this in mind, when prompted to think about the twenty-seven canonical books which comprise the New Testament, one cannot help but think about the earliest books that were accepted and circulated through the nascent church. Literary detractors posit that the evangelical position of canonical authority is derived out of the belief that the traditionally accepted texts are, indeed, Scriptural, authoritative, and divine not because those same texts have proven to be so but because they have been believed to be so, therefore they are. The assault on the canon often begins with the suspicion that the evangelical understanding of Scripture is nothing more than a “canonical a priori” position held by the early church and transferred to subsequent generations.

However, a closer examination of history helps one find that the early church was not indifferent in what it accepted as canonically authoritative. Critics argue that since Athanasius was the first early church father to list the the same twenty-seven books of the New Testament seen in Bibles today in A.D. 367 there exists too much margin for error and human involvement to trust what is resolved to be canonical and divine. Regardless, pre-fourth century evidence for the New Testament prevails and serves to remind one that, despite opinion to the contrary, the early church was quite confident in its acceptance and attestation of the canon.

Notwithstanding the flurry of epistles and Gospels that circulated throughout the early church, strict criteria was employed when evaluating a text to determine its canonicity. (Geisler and Nix, 137–144) Generally, this necessitated a determination of a text’s apostolic authority, orthodox consistency, and catholic relevancy. Unless one was an apostle or had the affirmation of the apostles, the authority of the text was considered unreliable; this is why the apostle Paul’s letters are suffused with apostolic substantiation and demonstration. (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 2:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1) “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,” he writes in the letter to the Galatians, “that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11–12; cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; Eph. 3:3–5; 1 Tim. 1:13)

The apostle Peter, likewise, corroborates this notion when he writes, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:20–21) Notable German theologian Hans von Campenhausen similarly concludes, “It is the content of the prophetic or apostolic testimony which is decisive.” (Campenhausen, 330) Moreover, early acceptance of canonical texts goes back as far as the apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, in which he cites quotations from Luke’s Gospel (1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7), thereby evincing the fact Luke’s account was already determined to be canonical. Furthermore, in Peter’s second epistle, he makes mention of Paul’s writings, equating them “with the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Pet. 3:15–16)

The criteria and confidence applied by the early church in its reception of the canon as the divine Word reveal what ought to be the normative approach to Scripture itself. It was not a human process by which man asserted and ratified their authority. Rather, the councils and determinations of the early church on the canonicity of specific biblical texts merely exposed the church’s recognition of what God had already determined. As the great reformer John Calvin asserts:

If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist . . . Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her not its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted, but, acknowledging as the truth of God, she, as in duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. (7:69)

In the end, one must lean not only on the treasury of trustworthy resolutions throughout the history of the evangelical church but also, and more decisively, on the faithful words of the Lord himself, when he assures that “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.” (Matt. 5:18) As with everything else in the Christian’s life, the matter of canonicity find its essence and solace in a Person. The Christian’s consolation in the midst of the cacophony of Scriptural criticism and denunciation is Jesus Christ himself.

References

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1863), Vol. 1.

  • Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible, translated by J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

  • Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986).