This article is designed to help the lay believer learn some basic facts about the New Testament canon—the kind of facts that might be helpful in a conversation with a skeptic or inquisitive friend.
- “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess”
- “Apocryphal Writings are All Written in the Second Century or Later”
- “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books”
- “Some NT Writers Quote Other NT Writers as Scripture”
- “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century”
- “At the End of the Second Century, the Muratorian Fragment lists 22 of our 27 NT books”
- “Early Christians Often Used Non-Canonical Writings”
- “The NT Canon Was Not Decided at Nicea—Nor Any Other Church Council”
- “Christians Did Disagree about the Canonicity of Some NT Books”
- “Early Christians Believed that Canonical Books were Self-Authenticating.”
The first of these facts is one that is so basic that it is often overlooked. It is simply that the New Testament books are the earliest Christian writings we possess:
1. “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess”
One of the most formidable challenges in any discussion about the New Testament canon is explaining what makes these 27 books unique. Why these and not others? There are many answers to that question, but in this blog post we are focusing on just one: the date of these books. These books stand out as distinctive because they are earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century. Sure, there are a few scholars have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success. After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.
Now, a few qualifications are in order. First, it should be noted that there are disagreements about the dating of some New Testament books. Some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century. Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books. This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.
Second, some may point out that 1 Clement is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, and it is not included in the New Testament canon. True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c.96 A.D. This date is later than all our New Testament books. The only possible exception is Revelation which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D. But, some date Revelation earlier. Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.
Just to be clear, we are not arguing here that books are canonical simply because they have a first century date. Other Christian writings existed in the first century that were not canonical—and perhaps we will discover some of these in the future. Our point is not that all first century books are canonical, but that all our canonical books are first century. And that is a point worth making.
In the end, every Christian should remember one basic fact, namely that the New Testament books are distinctive because, generally speaking, they are the earliest Christian writings we possess. None are earlier. If so, then it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe. On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.
2. “Apocryphal Writings are All Written in the Second Century or Later”
These are writings that were not included in the New Testament, but have a similar genre (gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, etc.). And these writings are often attributed to famous individuals; e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John.
While we cannot go into extensive detail about these various apocryphal writings, we can at least note one basic fact that is often overlooked: all of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second century or later. Thus, this post is the corollary of the prior one. Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century.
What is particularly noteworthy about this fact is that even critical scholars agree. While there is dispute over the dating of some New Testament books (e.g., 2 Peter, the Pastoral Epistles), there is virtual unanimity over the late date of apocryphal books. There are, of course, fringe attempts to place some apocryphal writings into the first century—e.g., Crossan argues that a “cross gospel” embedded in the Gospel of Peter is from the first century—but these suggestions have not been widely received.
The observation of this simple fact quickly calls into question sensationalistic claims about how these “lost” books contain the “real” version of Christianity.
Of course, one might argue that later texts can still preserve authentic first-century Christian tradition. After all, a text doesn’t have to be written in the first century to contain material from the first century. True. But, we would still need to have a compelling reason to accept these later texts over our earlier ones. And when it comes to these apocryphal writings, compelling reasons are in short supply.
For one, we know that many of these apocryphal writings are outright forgeries, pretending to be written by someone who was clearly not the author. That fact alone raises serious questions about the reliability of their content. Second, many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks (!). And third, many of these apocryphal writings contain a Gnostic-style theology that did not even emerge until the second century, and therefore could not represent authentic first-century Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Philip).
To be clear, this does not suggest that it is impossible, in principle, for an apocryphal writing to be first century (it’s just that we have not found one yet). Nor does this suggest that apocryphal writings could not (or did not) ever contain reliable Jesus tradition. We know that early Christians sometimes appealed to apocryphal gospels as containing some true material (more on this in a later post). But, and this is the key point, the scraps of apocryphal literature that may be reliable do not present a version of Christianity that is out of sync with what we find in the New Testament books, and are certainly not in a position to supersede what we find in the New Testament books.
In the end, apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.
3. “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books”
One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles.
Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15). When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20). Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).
In sum, the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself. They were his mouthpiece. As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church. Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles.
But, the apostles didn’t just teach about Jesus orally. At some point—a very early point—the apostolic message was written down. Often it was written down by the apostles themselves. At other points it was written down by companions of apostles who were recording their message. Either way, the authoritative apostolic message found its way into books.
For obvious reasons, the church would value apostolic books over and above other type of books. And this is exactly what happened. The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship. These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon. The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.
In fact, the church’s overt dependence on apostolic writings is precisely why we see a proliferation of “apocryphal” books in the second century (and later) that were named after apostles. We have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and even the Gospel of the Twelve! Rather than raising doubts about the apostolic nature of the New Testament, these apocryphal writings actually serve to confirm it. They show that the early church valued apostolic books so much that forgers had to try and mimic the genuine ones in order to get a hearing. For more on the late date of these apocryphal writings, see prior post here.
Of course, some modern scholars dispute the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books, claiming they were written by later authors only pretending to be the apostles. However, these claims are by no means proven, and many other scholars dispute them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.
In the end, the New Testament canon exists because of an early Christian belief that the apostles spoke for Christ. That belief led Christians to value apostolic books. And those apostolic books eventually formed the New Testament that we know today.
4. “Some NT Writers Quote Other NT Writers as Scripture”
One of the most controversial issues in the study of the New Testament canon is the date when these books were regarded as Scripture. When were these books first used as an authoritative guide for the church? Critical scholars will argue that these books were not written to be Scripture and were not even used as Scripture until the end of the second century.
But one of the most basic facts that Christians should know is that some New Testament writers actually quote other New Testament writers as Scripture. This demonstrates that the concept of a new corpus of biblical books was not a late development, but one that seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon is 2 Pet 3:15-16 where Peter refers to Paul’s letters “Scripture” on par with the books of the Old Testament. It is noteworthy that Peter mentions multiple letters of Paul, indicating that he was aware of some sort of collection. And, even more importantly, he assumes his audience is aware of this collection as well. There is no indication that the scriptural status of Paul’s letters is a new or novel idea—Peter mentions it quite casually and naturally.
The implications of Peter’s statement should not be missed. It shows that apostolic letters (in this instance Paul’s) had a scriptural status in early Christianity. If so, then it hard to imagine Peter would not have expected his own letter to be received with the same authority. After all, just a few verses earlier Peter made it clear that the teachings of the apostles were on par with the Old Testament itself (2 Pet 3:2).
Another example of this phenomenon is found in 1 Tim 5:18 which says: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.’” While the first quote comes from Deut 25:4, the latter quote is an exact match with Luke 10:7. Although one might suggest that Paul is citing oral Jesus tradition, that option is precluded by the fact that he introduces the saying with “the Scripture says.”
Although Paul might be citing some unknown apocryphal gospel (that just happens to have the exact same wording of Luke 10:7), why should we prefer an unknown hypothetical source over a known source? We know that Luke actually was used as Scripture in the early church—the same cannot be said of this hypothetical apocryphal gospel.
Of course, because these two passages seem to cite other NT books as Scripture, scholars have argued these books are forgeries, having a late date probably around the turn of the century (c.100). We cannot delve into these academic debates here, but it should be noted that these debates are by no means settled. Moreover, even if one concedes the late date for these books (for the sake of argument), that still puts the date of the canon at a remarkably early time.
If the NT writers were citing other NT writers as Scripture, then that suggests the canon was not a later ecclesiastical development, but something early and innate to the early Christian faith. And that is a basic fact that all Christians should know.
5. “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century”
When it comes to basic facts about the NT canon that Christians should memorize, one of the most critical is the statement by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, around A.D. 180: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced.”
Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church. Indeed, Irenaeus is so certain that the canon of the gospels is closed that he can argue that it is entrenched in the very structure of creation—four zones of the world, four principle winds, etc.
In an effort to minimize the implications of Irenaeus’ statement, some scholars have suggested that only Irenaeus held this view. He is thus portrayed as lonely, isolated, innovator who is trying to break into new and uncharted territory. This whole idea of a fourfold gospel, we are told, was invented by Irenaeus.
But, does this Irenaeus-as-innovator approach fit the facts? Not really. There are several considerations that raise doubts about it:
1. Irenaeus’ own writings. When Irenaeus talks about the fourfold gospel in his writings, he gives no indication that he is presenting a new idea, or that he is asking the reader to consider a new concept. On the contrary, he speaks in a manner that assumes the reader knows and follows these same gospels. He speaks of them naturally and unapologetically. In short, Irenaeus does not write like a person advocating the scriptural status of these books for the first time.
2. Irenaeus’ contemporaries. The idea that Irenaeus was alone runs into a serious challenge, namely that there were other writers at the end of the second century that affirmed these same four gospels as exclusive. The Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, and Theophilus of Antioch are examples. Apparently, Irenaeus was not the only one under the impression that the church had four gospels.
In addition, one should consider Tatian’s Diatesseron—a harmony of the four gospels written c.170. The Diatesseron not only tells us that these four gospels were known and used, but it tells us that they were seen as authoritative enough to warrant harmonization. After all, why would one bother harmonizing books that were not authoritative? If they weren’t authoritative, then it wouldn’t matter if they contradicted each other.
3. Irenaeus’ Predecessors. Although the evidence prior to Irenaeus is less clear, we can still see a commitment to the fourfold gospel. For instance, Justin Martyr, writing c.150, refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels.
This is confirmed by the fact that Justin cites from all three Synoptic Gospels, and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3). The fact that Justin was the mentor for Tatian (who produced a harmony of the four gospels) provides yet another reason to think that he had a fourfold gospel.
In the end, there are ample reasons to reject the idea that Irenaeus was the inventor of the fourfold gospel canon. Not only did his contemporaries have this same view, but this view was even shared by those before him. Thus, we must consider the possibility that Irenaeus was actually telling the truth when he says that the fourfold gospel was something that was “handed down” to him.
6. “At the End of the Second Century, the Muratorian Fragment lists 22 of our 27 NT books”
One of the key data points in any discussion of canon is something called the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). This fragment, named after its discoverer Ludovico Antonio Muratori, contains our earliest list of the books in the New Testament. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list it contains was originally written in Greek and dates back to the end of the second century (c.180).
Some have argued that the list should be dated to the fourth century (e.g., Sundberg and Hahneman), but the consensus of scholars today still places the list in the second century. Joseph Verheyden sums up the modern debate, “None of the arguments put forward by Sundberg and Hahneman in favour of a fourth-century, eastern origin of the Fragment are convincing.”
What is noteworthy for our purposes here is that the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that the Muratorian canon also seems to affirm the Apocalypse of Peter. However, the author of the fragment immediately expresses that some have hesitations about this book. Those hesitations eventually won out, and the Apocalypse of Peter was never widely affirmed by the early church, and never earned a final spot in the canon.
The fact that there was some disagreement during this time period over a few of the “peripheral” books should not surprise us. It took some time for the issue of the canon to be settled. This occasional disagreement, however, should not keep us from observing the larger and broader unity that early Christians shared regarding the “core” New Testament books.
If there was a core canon from an early time period, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this. First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books. Books like 3 John, James, 2 Peter and so on. Early Christianity was not a wide open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything. Instead there was an agreed-upon core that no one really disputed.
Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or James, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
Thus, the Muratorian fragment stands as a reminder of two important facts. First, Christians did disagree over books from time to time. That was an inevitability, particularly in the early stages. But this list also reminds us of a second (and more fundamental) fact, namely that there was widespread agreement over the core from a very early time.
7. “Early Christians Often Used Non-Canonical Writings”
For Christians struggling to understand the development of the New Testament canon, one of the most confusing (and perhaps concerning) facts is that early Christian writers often cited from and used non-canonical writings. In other words, early Christians did not just use books from our current New Testament, but also read books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
Usually Christians discover this fact as they read a book or article that is highly critical of the New Testament canon, and this fact is used as a reason to think that our New Testament writings are nothing special. The literary preferences of the earliest Christians were wide open, we are told. Or, as one critic put it, early Christians read a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts.
Because this fact is used to criticize the integrity of the New Testament canon, then all Christians should be keen to learn it. While the fact itself is true—early Christians did read and use many writings not in the canon—the conclusions often drawn from this fact are often not.
When scholars mention the Christian use of non-canonical writings, two facts are often left out:
1. The manner of citation. It is important to note that while Christians often cited and used non-canonical literature, they only rarely cited them as Scripture. For the most part, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying writings. This is not all that different than practices in our modern day. A preacher may quote from CS Lewis in a sermon, but that does not mean he puts Lewis’s authority on par with Scripture itself.
A good example of this phenomenon is the use of the Gospel of Peter by the church at Rhossus at the end of the second century. Scholars often appeal to this story as evidence that early Christians had no established gospel canon. However, there is no evidence that the church there used the book as Scripture.
When we ask the question about which books early Christians cited most often as Scripture, then the answer is overwhelmingly in favor of the books that eventually made it into the New Testament canon.
2. Frequency of citation. Another often overlooked factor is the relative degree of frequency between citations of New Testament books and citations of non-canonical books. For example, scholars often appeal to Clement of Alexandria as the standard example of an early Christian that used non-canonical literature equally with canonical literature. But, when it comes to frequency of citation, this is far from true.
J.A. Brooks, for instance, has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.” When it comes to gospels, the evidence is even better. Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times, whereas, he cites just the gospel of Matthew 757 times.
In sum, Christians need to memorize this simple fact about the New Testament canon: early Christians used many other books besides those that made it into our Bibles. But, this should not surprise us. For, indeed, we still do the very same thing today even though we have a New Testament that has been settled for over 1600 years.
8. “The NT Canon Was Not Decided at Nicea—Nor Any Other Church Council”
For whatever set of reasons, there is a widespread belief out there (internet, popular books) that the New Testament canon was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD—under the conspiratorial influence of Constantine. The fact that this claim was made in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code shows how widespread it really is. Brown did not make up this belief; he simply used it in his book.
The problem with this belief, however, is that it is patently false. The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament canon (nor did Constantine). Nicea was concerned with how Christians should articulate their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. Thus it was the birthplace of the Nicean creed.
When people discover that Nicea did not decide the canon, the follow up question is usually, “Which council did decide the canon?” Surely we could not have a canon without some sort of authoritative, official act of the church by which it was decided. Surely we have a canon because some group of men somewhere voted on it. Right?
This whole line of reasoning reveals a fundamental assumption about the New Testament canon that needs to be corrected, namely that it was (or had to be) decided by a church council. The fact of the matter is that when we look into early church history there is no such council. Sure, there are regional church councils that made declarations about the canon (Laodicea, Hippo, Carthage). But these regional councils did not just “pick” books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.
Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there.
This raises an important fact about the New Testament canon that every Christian should know. The shape of our New Testament canon was not determined by a vote or by a council, but by a broad and ancient consensus. Here we can agree with Bart Ehrman, “The canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.”
This historical reality is a good reminder that the canon is not just a man-made construct. It was not the result of a power play brokered by rich cultural elites in some smoke filled room. It was the result of many years of God’s people reading, using, and responding to these books.
The same was true for the Old Testament canon. Jesus himself used and cited the Old Testament writings with no indication anywhere that there was uncertainty about which books belonged. Indeed, he held his audience accountable for knowing these books. But, in all of this, there was no Old Testament church council that officially picked them (not even Jamnia). They too were the result of ancient and widespread consensus.
In the end, we can certainly acknowledge that humans played a role in the canonical process. But, not the role that is so commonly attributed to them. Humans did not determine the canon, they responded to it. In this sense, we can say that the canon really chose itself.
9. “Christians Did Disagree about the Canonicity of Some NT Books”
When it comes to basic facts that all Christians should know about the canon, it is important that we recognize that the development of the canon was not always neat and tidy. It was not a pristine, problem-free process where everyone agreed on everything right from the outset.
On the contrary, the history of the canon is, at points, quite tumultuous. Some Christians received books that were later rejected and regarded as apocryphal (this was discussed in an earlier post). More than this, there was disagreement at times even over some canonical books.
For instance, Origen mentions that books like 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and James were doubted and disputed by some in his own day. Also, Dionysius of Alexandria tells us that some thought that Revelation was not written by the apostle John and should therefore be rejected.
It is important that we be reminded of such disputes and debates lest we conceive of the history of the canon in an overly-sanitized fashion. The canon was not given to us on golden tablets by an angel from heaven (as claimed for the Book of Mormon). God, for his own providential reasons, chose to deliver the canon through normal historical circumstances. And historical circumstances are not always smooth.
What is unfortunate, however, is that these disagreements amongst Christians are sometimes used as an argument against the validity of the 27-book canon we know today. Critics claim that such disagreements call into question the entire canonical enterprise. Why should we trust the outcome, it is argued, if some Christians disagreed?
Several factors should be considered in response. First, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that these disputes only affected a handful of books. Critics often present the history of the canon as if every book were equally in dispute. That is simply not the case. As we saw in a prior post, the vast majority of these books were in place by the end of the second century.
Second, we should not overestimate the extent of these disputes. Origen, for example, simply tells us that these books were disputed by some. But, in the case of 2 Peter, Origen is quite clear that he himself accepts it. Thus, there are no reasons to think that most Christians during this time period rejected these books. On the contrary, it seems that church fathers like Origen were simply acknowledging the minority report.
Third, we should also remember that the church eventually reached a broad, deep, and long-lasting consensus over these books that some disputed. After the dust had settled on all these canonical discussions, the church was quite unified regarding these writings. Of course, critics will suggest this is an irrelevant fact and should be given no weight. For them, the decisive issue is that Christians disagreed. But, why should we think that disagreements amongst Christians are significant, while unity amongst Christians is insignificant? The latter should be given the same consideration as the former.
But, even after offering these three responses, we should recognize that there is still a deeper issue in play for those who think disagreements amongst Christians invalidate the truth of the canon. Beneath this objection is a key (and unspoken) assumption, namely that if God were to give his church a canon he would not have done it this way.
Put differently, there is an assumption that we can only believe that we have the writings God intended if there are very few (if any) dissenters and if there is virtually immediate and universal agreement on all 27 books. But, where does this assumption come from? And why should we think it is true?
Indeed, there are many reasons to think it is false. For one, how does the critic know how God would give canonical books? This is a theological claim about how God works and what he would do (or wouldn’t do). But, how does the critic know what God would or wouldn’t do? To what source is he appealing? Surely, not the New Testament for that is the very source being criticized!
But, even more than this, we have good reasons to think that some dispute amongst Christians would be inevitable. Just the practical reality of giving books in real time and space, in real historical circumstances, spread out over different authors, on different continents, and at different times, would naturally create dispute in some places.
Whenever someone shows angst over these early canonical disagreements, I often ask a simple question: “What did you expect the process would be like?” It is at this point, that people often realize they have an overly-pristine expectation about how God would deliver his books—an expectation that is entirely their own and not derived from Scripture or from history.
All of this reminds us that God sometimes uses normal historical processes to accomplish his ends. And those historical processes are not always neat and tidy. But, this should not detract from the reality that the ends are still God’s.
10. “Early Christians Believed that Canonical Books were Self-Authenticating.”
How do we know which books are from God, and which are not? There are many answers to that question, some of which we have covered in prior posts. Certainly the apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God (see post here). And, the church’s overall consensus on a book can be part of how we identity it as being from God (see post here).
But, it is interesting to note that the early church fathers, while agreeing that apostolicity and church-reception are fundamentally important, also appealed to another factor that is often overlooked in modern studies. They appealed to the internal qualities of these books.
In other words, they argued that these books bore certain attributes that distinguished them as being from God. They argued that they could hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believed that canonical books are self-authenticating. As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Origen is quite clear that the divine qualities of books play a role in their authentication: “If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings…it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God.”
Elsewhere Origen says similar things. He defends the canonicity of the book of Jude because “it is filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace” and defends the canonical gospels because of their “truly venerable and divine contents.” He even defends the canonicity of the book of Hebrews on the ground that “the ideas of the epistle are magnificent.”
Tatian is very clear about the role of the internal qualities of these books: “I was led to put faith in these [Scriptures] by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts.”
Jerome defended the epistle of Philemon on the grounds that it is “a document which has in it so much of the beauty of the Gospel” which is the “mark of its inspiration.” Chrysostom declares that in the gospel of John there is “nothing counterfeit” because the gospel is “uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harp or any music…something great and sublime.”
Right before citing Matt 4:17 and Phil 4:5, Clement of Alexandria says that you can distinguish the words of men from the words of Scripture because “No one will be so impressed by the exhortations of any of the saints, as he is by the words of the Lord Himself.”
These examples (and more could be added) are sufficient to show that the early church fathers believed that evidence for the canonicity of books can be found in the books themselves. In other words, canonical books are self-authenticating.
Of course, at this point one might object: “If the internal qualities of these books really exist, then how do we explain why they are rejected by so many? Why don’t more people see these qualities?”
The answer lies in the role of the Holy Spirit in helping people see what is objectively there. Due to the noetic effects of sin (Rom 3:10-18), one cannot recognize these qualities without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Needless to say, the non-Christian will find this explanation to be largely unpersuasive. “Isn’t a little suspicious,” he might object, “that Christians claim they are the only ones who can see the truth of these books and everyone else is blinded to it? That seems enormously self-serving.”
This objection is understandable. But, if Christian doctrines concerning the fall, original sin, and the corruption of the human heart are true, then it naturally follows that a person without the Spirit cannot discern the presence of the Spirit (such as whether He is speaking in a book).
Moreover, it is not all that different than the reality that some people are tone-deaf and therefore unable to discern whether a musical note is “on key.” You can imagine a tone-deaf person objecting, “This whole ‘on key’ thing is a sham run by musical insiders who claim to have a special ability to hear such things.” But, despite all the protests, the truth of the matter would remain: there is such a thing as being on key whether the tone-deaf person hears it or not.
In the end, the church fathers teach us a very important truth. The NT canon we possess today is not due to the machinations of later church leaders, or to the political influence of Constantine, but due to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities.
Or, as Harvard Professor Arthur Darby Nock used to say about the formation of the canon: “The most travelled roads in Europe are the best roads; that is why they are so heavily travelled.”
Originally posted as a blog series at Canon Fodder.
* Dr. Michael J. Kruger (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is President and the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He is one of the leading scholars today in the study of the origins of the New Testament, particularly the development of the New Testament canon and the transmission of the New Testament text. He is the author of numerous books including The Gospel of the Savior (Brill, 2005), The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010, with Andreas Köstenberger), Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012), and The Question of Canon (IVP, 2013). He is also the co-editor of The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012), and Gospel Fragments (Oxford, 2009). Dr. Kruger is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and also serves (part-time) as Pastor of Teaching at Uptown PCA in downtown Charlotte.