It should be the firm conviction of every committed Christian that any such enterprise as weighty as the authentication of the canon must begin and end the inquiry at the testimony of Jesus on the matter, as recorded in the scriptures and borne witness to by the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of the Christian. For many a statement like this smacks of circularity, of question begging, and understandably so. It implies that one would have to take the canon for granted in order to analyze the canon, the very object in question.
As circular as this may appear, the Christian has only two choices when deciding on the starting point for the process of investigation. One, the subject submits his intellect and reasoning to the ultimate authority of Christ. This assumes that Jesus Christ himself is God, and as such he is the fountainhead and beginning of all knowledge and truth concerning any fact or experience (Prov.1:7; Lk.24:44; Jn.1:1-3; 5:39; 14:6; 17:17; Col.2:3). Also that God, in his sovereign providence and superintendence, exercised his omnipotent power to insure the inclusion and/or exclusion of any and all material he pleased.
The other option open is for the subject to assume the autonomous position. This would assume that human reasoning, apart from God, can function flawlessly, evaluate absolute truth, and act as an independent authority to assess and determine what is and is not God’s authority (to appeal to the means of logic, inductive historiography, empirical evidences, etc. as authoritative means to validate the Bible implicitly usurps God’s self-referential authority in the Bible itself, and presupposes we know absolute truth in advance). Further, this would assume that some sort of infallible theory of knowledge exists outside of the person of God himself, whether one of correspondence, coherence, or a synthesis of the two, in which God himself is subject to.
As St. Augustine said, our choices are between the City of God and the City of Man. This is not a false dilemma, but rather a true dichotomy! The Christian then, in the attempt to bring all of his life (including the intellectual exercises) under the subjection of Christ, must adopt the first epistemic option. For no one can examine the eye ball without, of course, using and trusting the reliability of their eyes in the process, despite how circular it may seem. By the Light of Scripture, we can see the light of Scripture!
In this posture, the Christian is seeking to take his own thoughts captive to Christ (II Cor. 10:5) thus setting Jesus apart as Lord before (rather than after) the reasoning process begins (I Pet.3:15). From this vantage the subject can enjoy “the renewed spirit of their mind,” which is essential to “proving what is good...acceptable...and perfect...concerning the will of God” (Eph.4:23; Rom.12:2).
The Necessary, Infinite Reference Point
Even with a careless reading of the Bible, cover to cover, it is manifestly clear that Jesus is both the subject and object of the collective whole (I Pet.1:11; Is.61:1-2 cf. Lk.4:18-21). Therefore, it would be critical to begin where Jesus starts and go no further than he projects as to what is canonical. Hence, the question of canonicity is founded squarely upon Jesus’ retro authentication of the OT, his pre-authentication of the NT, the epistle’s cross verification, and finally, the organic element of the recognition of the canonical books and its closing in the early church era.
Jesus’ retro-authentication of the OT
Jesus’ retro-authentication of the OT can be found in a number of places and in a number of ways. The idea of “canon” (lit. “Rule, measure or standard”) may be defined as a morally binding authority for all areas of faith and practice – one’s controlling axiom. In Mt.4, during Christ’s wilderness temptations, Jesus views the Pentateuch as that “Rule,” quoting Deuteronomy in answer to all three recorded attacks from Satan. In other places Jesus recognizes the dynamic element of the scriptures – their divine origin and the human instrumentality that God used to create them. In more than one instance Jesus equates Moses’ words with God’s: “For Moses said...” (Mk.7:10), and else where, “He who made them...said...” (Mt.19:4-5). Jesus also exemplifies canonicity through the almost redundant use of “It is written...” In every case Jesus uses this formulaic statement (26 of the 39 times in the gospels), he explicitly expresses that what follows in his quoting from the OT scriptures is divine, fully authoritative, and binding on his hearers.
The Bible Jesus used is identical to what is today recognized as the Protestant OT canon. A survey of the development of the OT canon can be somewhat ambiguous due to numerical differences in the total amount of books included. The many intramural Jewish squabbles in antiquity generate some problems when seeking to determine what books were included in the first century Palestinian canon (Jesus’ Bible). In Jesus’ day there was descent among rabbinical scholars concerning the inclusion of five of the canonical books. This, combined with the lumping of Samuel, Kings, the Minor Prophets, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles as a single book all contribute to the messiness of tracking the canonical development of the OT. However, the Christian can be sure that the 39 OT books he possesses are the same as the “22” or “24” books that Jesus’ considered canonical. Background analysis reveals that this was the dominant consensus within first century Palestine. The writings of both Philo of Alexandria and Josephus attest to the conventionally recognized OT scriptures as such – The Hebrew Bible – our OT canon.
In Lk.24:44 Jesus attests to the tripartite division of the OT – “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms...” (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Hagiographa). This has great import for understanding Jesus’ view of the OT. In the words that surround this quotation, Jesus demonstrates the utter “necessity” of all the events in his own life and ministry by appealing to each of the three sections of the OT. This is Jesus’ verification that the words of all three divisions of the OT are the self-disclosure of God’s irrevocable plan and decree for the history and redemption of his creation.
Perhaps the finest attestation to the OT’s inspiration made by Jesus is found in his refutation of the Sadducees in Mt.22:23-33. In v.32 Jesus swings the whole argument for the resurrection of the dead on the tense of the verb είμι or “am.” The Greek verb, in the imperfect tense, indicated to Jesus’ hearers that Yahweh was still the God of the fathers. This in spite of the fact that when Yahweh spoke these words to Moses in Ex.3:6 Abraham had been dead for 329 years, Isaac 224, and Jacob 198. Thus, Jesus’ certainty of the resurrection of the dead rested securely upon one seemingly insignificant word from the OT. After linking the “word of God” with the “power of God” in v.29, Jesus goes further to attribute this verse from Exodus to that which “was spoken...by God” himself.
Further still is the internal evidence of the NT that Jesus and the apostolic community had adopted the OT as its own canon. With only the exceptions of Ezra, Nehemiah, Ester, Ecclesiastes, and Song, the NT quotes directly or alludes to every book of the OT canon over 600 times.
It should be manifestly clear that if one were to ascent to Jesus’ divinity and perfection it would necessitate the believer also having an exceedingly high view of the Old Testament. Anything less would call into question the knowledge, judgment, righteousness, and integrity of the person of Christ.
Jesus’ pre-authentication of the NT
In several passages from the gospels Jesus approbates and augments the authority of his own words and works to the apostles (Mt.10:40; 28:18-20; Lk.10:16; Jn. 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:13; 17:20; 20:21; as well as Acts 1:7-8). In passing it is worth mentioning an example of the efficacy of the divine authority vested in the Apostles by Christ as evidenced in Acts 5. At this pivotal event in the history of the infant church, Ananias and Sapphira are caught in a lie; one that cost them their very lives. Notice the progression and relationship of the objects of that lie: lying to the Apostles (v.3), is as lying to the Holy Spirit (v.4), is as ultimately lying to God (v.5). This in nowise elevates the Apostles to divine status, it is nevertheless, a marked illustration of Christ’s exalted authority being exercised instrumentally through the immediate presence of his Apostles (cf. Mt.16:17-19; 18:15-20; Jn.20:23; Acts 16:4). It is again made clear that the veracity
of the NT, as with the OT, rest on the self-attesting words of Christ as recorded in the gospels.
Within the epistles themselves is a network of inter-dependent self- attestation and cross-verification. Taken together, these establish their content as inspired of God. In I Thess.5:27 Paul “charges” the recipients “by the Lord” that the letter be circulated throughout the church community at large. In 2:13 of the same book Paul reminds his audience that they had rightly received their (Paul and his associates) words “as they are in truth, the word of God.” Similarly, in I Cor.14:37 Paul demands that his writings be received as “the commandments of the Lord.” Paul’s letters are further buttressed by Peter univocally placing them along side the “rest of the scriptures” (II Pet.3:16). Likewise Paul attests to the authority of Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke’s gospel when he quotes Deut.25:4, “You shall not muzzle the ox...” and “...a laborer is worthy of his wages” (Lk.10:7) together, and without any distinction in binding authority of the two.
It is through this interconnectedness and self-attestation of the NT that the words of Paul in II Tim.3:16 should be read. Granted, a prima facie reading of this verse would render its application to the OT canon, however, given Christ’s pre-authentication and the internal testimony of the epistles, the Christian exegete may safely apply the admonition to the whole scope of the canon (all 66 books).
The Organic/Historical Element of Development
The privileged vantage we have in history must not lead us to ignore some of the critical historiography back of the closure of the canon. The Bible is not a mystical volume which simply fell from heaven. The process and finality of the canon’s closing expresses a semblable beauty to the unity and multiformity found in the writings themselves.
Kernels of the canon’s formal closure can be found in the writings of church fathers as far back as the late apostolic – early patristic period (1st and 2nd centuries). Due to the flourishing of the Gospel and the rapid expansion of the kingdom of God (which had permeated throughout the entire Roman Empire, cf. Col.1:23), seizing onto a unified consensus concerning a monolithic canon was difficult for the budding church community. Because of geographical obscurity, the satellite churches beyond the direct care of the apostles themselves or their authorized associates were often left with only a books self-attestation and the Holy Spirit’s witness when determining the doctrinal and/or liturgical value of a book. This would have especially applied to books such as Hebrews, where authorship is ambiguous at best.
Even during these formative years, there was a threefold criterion available for testing the authentication and inclusiveness of a book. The same three applied to the OT as well and would become a rubric for the conclusive book count in Athanasius’ Festal Letter in A.D. 367, as well as the ecumenical decision of the Counsel of Carthage A.D. 397.
They are as follows:
1. Apostolic (NT) – Prophetic (OT) authorship and/or authentication (e.g. Mark’s proximity with Peter, and Luke’s with Paul, etc.)
2. Doctrinal consistency of content. Christ honoring and in utter agreement with known apostolic preaching.
3. The continued recognition by the universal church as well as edification and spiritual fruitfulness among the body of Christ as products of the book’s reading and hearing.
From the time of the apostles, each and every book in the canon has met these criterions, and number three is confirmed and compound with each successive year that passes.
“For there must also be factions (αίρεσεις – lit. heresies) among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (I Cor.11:19). This verse from Paul is not directly speaking of the scriptures but, it does have ample application as to how the process of canonization would be accelerated in the coming years.
As early as the late first century disciples of the Apostles such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Ignatius were writing prolifically to the churches abroad. In their letters there is sufficient evidence that what we today call the NT was widely accepted as scripture, fully authoritative and binding (canonical). In these three men’s writings alone the only books that see no direct usage is Mark (for they used Matthew), II & III John, Jude, and II Peter.
As Paul’s words above state, there must be heresies against which truth may stand out. By A.D. 140, just such events began to force the church to officially recognize the canonical writings as a single corpus. Valentinius was a Gnostic heretic who in his own writings would recognize the authority of the canonical books yet rejected their truth, seeking a syncretism of sorts between the church’s Christ and the Greek’s Paganism. Among his following, his work (e.g. “Gospel of Truth”) was exalted above that of the Apostles. Also there was Marcion. He had, independent from the church, sought to develop his own canon, one without any Jewish overtones. He completely rejected the entire OT, all the gospels save Luke (excluding the first and second chapters). He accepted all Paul’s letters except the Pastorals.
By A.D.170 at least two collections sought to remedy these problems. One was Justin Martyr’s harmony of the four gospels – the Diatessaron. This was paramount. The works of Irenaeus point out that the Gnostic would accept only one or another of the gospels and pit it against the others. Perhaps more importantly, was what has come to be known as the Muratorian Canon. The list of books in this document reflects the majority of the NT canon we possess today. It also condemns many heretical works, refusing their use in community worship.
As mentioned earlier, the Festal Letters of Athanasius, of A.D. 367 finds the NT canon in its full and final composition. The letter contained this admonition: “Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away.” In A.D. 397, the Counsel of Carthage, an ecumenical counsel was comprised, having representatives from both the Eastern and the Western traditions of the church. The decree of this counsel stated: “aside from these canonical Scriptures nothing is to be read in church under the name of Divine Scripture.”
Since that time Christian orthodoxy has enjoyed the virtually uninterrupted instruction, edification, and grace which can come only from the word of God – in its multi-formity of many books and in its necessary unity as one book – the Canon!
The Protestant today is part of a community or body which flows from this glorious canon of Scripture. It is clear that the church did not create the canon, but rather it creates us!
I have chosen not to focus on the Apocrypha (inter-testamental writings) in this post. The NT fails to recognize their canonicity; therefore the efforts to “canonize” them are worth little attention here. Jude’s illustrative use of the Assumption of Moses and I Enoch (1st cent. Jewish works) is in nowise conclusive that these documents were canonical anymore than Paul’s quoting the works of Epicurus, Epimenides or Aratas do theirs. Judas Maccabees, in his writings, recognized himself merely as a historical redactor, and that God was silent during his days (see: I Macc.4:46; 9:27; 14:41).
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4