Grace Theological Journal 11.1 (1991) 29-52
Copyright © 1991 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
EVANGELICALS AND THE CANON OF
THE NEW TESTAMENT
M. JAMES SAWYER
The conservative American evangelical apologetic for the shape of
the New Testament canon has been historically the weakest link in its
bibliology. Arguments for the shape of the canon have been built upon
unexamined theological assumptions and historical inaccuracies. Con-
temporary evangelical apologists for the New Testament canon have
downplayed the reformers' doctrine of the "witness of the Spirit" for
assurance of the shape of the New Testament canon, appealing instead
to historical evidences for the apostolicity of the New Testament
documents and to a theological argument of providence for the closure
of the New Testament canon in the fourth century. There are, however,
methodological weaknesses with each of these appeals. It is suggested
the evangelicals reassert the doctrine of the "witness of the Spirit" as a
key feature in their apologetic for the New Testament canon rather
than rely exclusively upon historical arguments.
* * *
THE PROBLEM OF CANON DETERMINATION FOR EVANGELICALS
Over the past two decades American evangelical scholarship has
risen ably to the defense of the doctrine of the inerrancy of the
Bible as a touchstone upholding the historic position of the Church of
Jesus Christ with reference to its authority. While volumes have been
penned discussing the nature of biblical inspiration and the consequent
authority of the scripture, it seems curious that in all the bibliological
discussions one crucial issue is scarcely mentioned: the issue of canon.
Apart from R. Laird Harris's Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible,1
Wilber T. Dayton's article, "Factors Promoting the Formation of the
New Testament Canon",2 David Dunbar's chapter, "The Biblical
1R. Laird Harris, Inspiration
and Canonicity of the Bible, rev. ed. (
Canon," Bulletin a/the Evangelical Theological Society 10 (1967) 28-35.
30 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Canon," in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon,3 Geisler and Nix's
discussion in their General Introduction to the Bible,4 Merrill Tenney's
chapter in his New Testament Survey,5 and a recent series of articles in
Christianity Today,6 American evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy
of Scripture7 have had little to say concerning the shape of the canon.8
The twenty-seven books which compose the New Testament scriptures
together with the Jewish scriptures are assumed to be the complete
written revelation of God to man without further comment or debate.
It has been charged that conservative evangelicalism's reticence to
discuss the issue of canon is due to the fact that it "finds itself im-
prisoned within a 19th century biblicism which believes that to question
the canon is to undermine the authority of Scripture.”9 Outside the
evangelical fold, the question of canon has been debated for decades
with the discussion centering on the nature of canon itself. Emil
Brunner has noted:
...the question of canon has never, in principle, been definitely an-
swered, but it is continually being reopened. Just as the church of the
second, third and fourth centuries had the right to decide and felt
3Donald Carson and John Woodbridge, eds., Hermeneutics Authority and Canon
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986).
4Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible
(Chicago: Moody, 1971).
5Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
Tenney's approach to canonicity mirrors closely that of Geisler and Nix, hence
it is not treated separately.
6The February 5, 1988, issue of Christianity Today (32:2) included five brief
articles covering different issues and perspectives on the subject of canon; Ronald
Youngblood, "The Process: How We Got Our Bible"; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "The
Testament: How Do We Know for Sure?"; Klyne Snodgrass, "
Not Enough"; David G. Dunbar, "Why the Canon Still Rumbles"; Kenneth S.
Kantzer, "Confidence in the Face of Confusion."
7Throughout this discussion the term "conservative Evangelical" is
employed in the restricted sense of one who affirms the inerrancy of Scripture.
More latitudinal Evangeli-cals have recently published significant works on the
NT canon. Bruce Metzger's The Canon of the New
1987) is the most significant of these by an American, while British evangelical
scholar F. F. Bruce has published The
Canon of Scripture (
8Dayton's article "Factors Promoting the Formation of the New Testament
Canon" is the one discussion which raises some of the same issues that concern me,
but he focuses his attention in a different direction than this article.
9Richard Lyle Morgan, "Let's Be Honest About the Canon," The Christian
Century 84:717 (May 31,1967) (italics mine). This confounding of the issues of
inspiration and canonicity occurs on both the conservative and liberal side of the
theological spectrum. One need only remember that some of those who do not
profess evangelical convictions attempt to prove that Luther did not hold to
inerrancy since he questioned the canonicity of certain New Testament books.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 31
obliged to decide what was "Apostolic" and what was not, on their own
responsibility as believers, so in the same way every Church, at every
period in the history of the Church, possesses the same right and the
While the issue could perhaps better be stated that the church in every
generation has the responsibility before God to re-examine its founda-
tions, the thrust of Brunner's comment is accurate. The question he
raises is the question of the certainty of historical knowledge. The
question has profound implications for the faith. How does the
twentieth century believer know in fact and with certainty that his
canon is the canon given by Jesus Christ?
I would propose that the evangelical approach to canon deter-
mination has historically been the weakest link in its bibliology. This
weakness has persisted for several reasons. (1) Canon has not been a
pressing issue of debate on the larger theological horizon. (2) It has
been assumed that the canon of the New Testament was closed defini-
tively in the fourth century. (3) Apostolicity has been assumed as the
controlling issue because of the early mention of this feature by the
Fathers. (4) The New Testament canon has been accepted uncritically
because of the theological assumption that through divine providence
the early church was led (infallibly) to its canonical decisions.
This discussion will address the question of the New Testament
canon by (1) looking critically at the traditional inerrantist apologetic
for the canon, (2) tracing briefly the development of the New Testament
canon up through the Reformation, and (3) proposing an alternative
method by which the believer is assured of the shape of the canon.
EVANGELICAL PROPOSALS ON CANON DETERMINATION
Conservative evangelical understanding of the criteria by which
the New Testament books were recognized as canonical follows the
basic outline laid down by B. B. Warfield and his fellow Princetonians,
Charles and A. A. Hodge, over a century ago. These criteria focused
exclusively upon the question of apostolicity. The unstated corollary of
apostolicity was the conviction that divine providence had led the
church to recognize all and only those books which were apostolic. An
examination of Warfield as a principle architect, and of R. Laird
Harris and Geisler and Nix as contemporary adherents demonstrate
Brunner, Revelation and Reason,
trans. Olive Wyon (
32 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
B. B. Warfield
Warfield echoed the sentiment of the early church in stressing the
primacy of apostolicity in canon determination.11 He argued that
apostolicity was a somewhat wider concept than strictly apostolic
authorship, although in the early church these two issues were often
confounded.12 "The principle of canonicity was not apostolic author-
ship," contended Warfield, "but imposition by the apostles as 'law’.”13
The practical effect of this subtle distinction is to allow for the inclusion
of books such as Mark, Luke, James, Jude and Hebrews which were
not actually penned by the apostles, but were, according to tradition,
written under apostolic sanction. Warfield asserted that the canon of
Scripture was complete when the last book of the New Testament was
penned by the apostle John.14 From the divine standpoint the canon of
Scripture was complete. However, human acceptance of an individual
book of that canon hinged upon "authenticating proof of its apostoli-
city." 15 The key idea here is the concept of apostolic law. Scripture was
authoritative because it was written by an apostle who imposed his
writing upon the church in the same fashion as Torah was imposed
We rest our acceptance of the New Testament Scriptures as authoritative
thus, not on the fact that they are the product of the revelation-age of
the church, for so are many other books which we do not thus accept;
but on the fact that God's authoritative agents in founding the church
gave them as authoritative to the church which they founded….It is
clear that prophetic and apostolic origin is the very essence of the
authority of the Scriptures.16
11F. F. Bruce surveys the concept of apostolicity in the early church and documents
numerous occasions where this factor is mentioned as being a primary criterion in canon
determination. He also mentions other issues related to apostolicity which were mentioned
by some patristic writers as offering evidence that a book was indeed canonical (The
Canon of Scripture, 256-69, esp. 256-58). R. Laird Harris, surveying the same material,
insists that the sole criterion was apostolic authorship (Inspiration and Canonicity of the
Bible, 219-45, esp. 244-45).
12B. B. Warfield, "The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament,"
Revelation and Inspiration (
14Warfield argued here for a date of ca. A.D. 98 (ibid.), but since Domitian
died in A.D. 96 contemporary evangelical scholarship would make this date ca. A.D. 95.
15Ibid. (italics mine).
16B. B. Warfield, "Review of A. W. Deickhoff, Das Gepredigte Wort und die
Heilge Schrift and Das Wort Gottes," The Presbyterian Review 10 (1890) 506.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 33
The fact that these manuscripts were hand-copied, coupled with the
lack of modem methods of travel, made the slow collection of the
manuscripts a foregone conclusion.
The problem for the church today, as Warfield admitted, is that we
cannot at this day hear the apostolic voice in its [a New Testament
book's] authorization. Beyond the witness one apostolic book was to
bear to another--as Paul in I Timothy authenticates Luke--and
what witness an apostolic book may bear to itself, we cannot appeal at
this day to immediate apostolic authorization.17
To answer the question of canonicity, Warfield took as a test case
the Second Epistle of Peter, a book whose canonicity had been re-
peatedly doubted over the centuries, and proceeded to investigate the
provenance of the epistle to prove its canonicity. He asserted that if
one demonstrated that the letter was old enough to have been written
by an apostle and that the church had from the beginning held the
book to be an authoritative rule of faith, then "the presumption is
overwhelming that the church from the apostolic age held it to be
divine only because it had received it from the apostles as divine."18
Having completed his external proof, Warfield then examined critical
objections to Petrine authorship based primarily upon internal evi-
dence to see if indeed the critical were valid. The objections Warfield
dealt with were six. (1) Peter's name was frequently forged in the
ancient church. (2) The external support of 2 Peter is insufficient.
(3) The epistle plainly has borrowed largely from Jude, which by some
was judged unworthy of an apostle, while others held this to be a proof
that 2 Peter belongs to the second century, due to the assumed lack of
genuineness of Jude. (4) The author exhibits too great a desire to make
himself out to be Peter. (5) The author betrays that he wrote in a later
time by numerous anachronisms. (6) The style of 2 Peter is too diver-
gent from that of 1 Peter to have been written by the same individual.19
In typical style, Warfield concluded:
The state of the argument, then, really is this: a mountain mass of
presumption in favor of the genuineness and canonicity of 2 Peter, to be
raised and overturned only by a very strong lever of rebutting evidence;
a pitiable show of rebutting evidence offered as a lever. It is doubtless
true that we can move the world if the proper lever and fulcrum be given.
17B. B. Warfield, "The Canonicity of Second Peter," in The Selected Shorter
Writings of B. B. Warfield-II, ed.
John Meeter (
formed, 1976) 48-49.
34 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
But if the lever is a common quarryman's tool and the fulcrum thin air!
The woe to the man who wields it. What can such rebutting evidence as
we have here really injure, except his own cause?20
Having dismissed the critical objections, he concluded that the book
was genuine and that to question its canonicity is to lead the Church
astray into heresy.21
Warfield's argument is closely reasoned. He refuted arguments of
his opponents by showing their inadequate basis and contradictory
presuppositions. However, even his colleague and friend at
Francis Landy Patton, in eulogizing Warfield noted that the rationalism
of Warfield's system of logic was built upon probability which pre-
cluded the absolute certainty of his conclusions.22
R. Laird Harris
Harris's 1957 work, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, re-
vised in 1969, was among the first in recent years to address seriously
the question of the canon from a conservative evangelical perspective.
Harris follows Warfield closely in insisting upon apostolic authorship
as the criterion for New Testament canonicity.23 He goes beyond War-
field by denying that the Reformation principle of the witness of the
Spirit is a valid test of canonicity of a book of Scripture.24 Harris
painstakingly demonstrates that the crucial question for the early
church was, "Was the work written by an apostle?" To answer this
question he deduces numerous quotations from the ancient fathers
which attest the apostolic authorship of the New Testament books.
To answer the question of the presence of books which make no
claim to apostolic authorship, he asserts that such books were written
by disciples of the apostles who carefully reproduced their master's
teaching. With reference to Mark, Harris notes the ancient tradition
connecting the second gospel with the Apostle Peter: "…Papias
explicitly states that the second Gospel is accepted because of Peter,
not because of Mark."25 Harris concluded:
It appears that Mark and Luke were not mere second-generation disci-
ples who followed their masters in time and wrote what they pleased, but
were disciples who followed the teachings of their masters in such a way
that they presented their masters' teachings, and their production had
L. Patton, "Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield," The
Review 19 (1921) 369-91.
23This corresponds to the requirement of prophetic authorship as the requirement
for canonicity of an OT book.
24Harris, The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, 292-93.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 35
their masters' authority. ...We are reminded of Tertullian's use of the
phrase "apostolic men," referring to Mark and Luke. In both cases It
should be noted that these are not mere companions of the apostles but
are, as it were, assistants, understudies, who reproduced their masters'
teachings. ...Quite clearly Mark and Luke are not authoritative in
their own right; rather they are authoritative because of their adherence
to their apostolic masters.
With reference to the book of Hebrews, Harris cites the early
traditions which ascribe the work to Paul, noting that the lack of that
apostle's characteristic salutation was, according to Pantaenus, due to
the fact that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, rather than the
apostle to the Hebrews. He notes, too, the statement of Clement that
the epistle had been composed in Hebrew and then translated into
Greek by Luke.27 This early testimony notwithstanding, Harris denies
Pauline authorship to the book of Hebrews because the author of the
epistle himself claims to be a second generation believer (Heb 2:3-4).
But having said this he asserts that, "No apostle other than Paul is
seriously mentioned in connection with the writing of Hebrews.”28
So committed is Harris to the proposition of apostolic authorship,
that having noted the fact that the author himself claims to be a second
generation believer, not of the apostolic inner circle, he then notes that
wherever the epistle was accepted as canonical "it was accepted into the
canon only in those places…where it was considered to be a genuine
work of Paul. Appeal was not made to its antiquity nor to the testi-
mony of the Holy Spirit, nor to any other auxiliary reason. Authorship
was what was decisive."29
Harris recognizes the dilemma in which this position places him.
If the book is not Pauline in authorship, should it be excised from the
canon? His previous judgment notwithstanding, he proposes that the
book was written by Paul employing Barnabas as his amanuensis.30
"This would at once explain the unquestioned acceptance (no other
anonymous work was so accepted), variation in style from Paul's, the
anonymity where the details of authorship were not known and only
the style problem appeared, and the double tradition of authorship in
While he seriously proposes the Paul-Barnabas authorship of
Hebrews, he recognizes that this cannot be proven beyond the shadow
of a doubt, and allows that there may have been some other amanuen-
sis. Even so, the basic thrust of the argument remains the same.
36 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Apostolicity in the strict sense remains the governing criterion for
acceptance into the canon.
Geisler and Nix
Norman Geisler and William Nix evidence a widening of the very
narrow position adopted by Harris. Taking a different starting point
than Warfield and Harris, they assert that canonicity is determined by
God. Humans do not determine canon; they merely discover the al-
ready existent canon which God has given. The key concept in the
discovery of canonicity was the recognition of a book's inspiration by
God.32 In addition, canonicity is seen as being inexorably linked to
authenticity. While Harris made apostolicity the sole criterion for the
church's subjective determination of the already existent objective
canon, Geisler and Nix propose five principles which guided the ancient
church in its discovery of canon. It should be noted that these five
principles involve assumption on their part. There is no documentation
from patristic sources that these principles were consciously employed.
The first of these principles is that of authority. Specifically, this
criterion looks at the book itself and asks the question, "Does it have a
self-vindicating authority that commands attention as it communi-
cates?,”33 Many books were either rejected or doubted because the
voice of God was not heard clearly.
The second test for canonicity was that of the prophetic nature of
the book. Whereas the former test looked at the book itself, this test
looked at authorship. “ ...A book was judged as to whether or not it
was genuinely written by the stated author who was a spokesman in the
mainstream of redemptive revelation, either a prophet (whether in Old
or New Testament times) or an apostle.”34 This criterion evidences a
loosening of the principle of apostolicity which Harris asserts, since
Geisler and Nix would include New Testament prophets (presumably
Mark, Luke, James, Jude, the author of Hebrews). By this test all
pseudonymous writings and forgeries are to be rejected.35
The third test for canonicity which Geisler and Nix contend was
operational in the early church was that of authenticity. By authenticity
is meant authenticity of doctrine rather than authorship. This test
would compare the teachings of any book vying for entrance into the
32Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 133.
33Ibid., 138. This criterion is akin to the Reformed doctrine of the autopistie of
35Ibid., 140. Geisler and Nix are careful to point out that pseudonymity adopted as a
literary device would not exclude a book from the canon. The case in point here would
be the book of Ecclesiastes in which many understand the author to have written
autobiographically as though he were Solomon. Such a device would in their view be
allowable since it involved no moral deception.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 37
canon with the doctrine of the already accepted books. Since truth
cannot contradict truth, if the book under consideration was found to
be at variance with the rest of the canon it would automatically be
rejected as non-canonical.
The fourth test was one of power. "Does the book come with the
power of God?" Since the Word of God was living and active and it was
profitable for edification, if a book was not viewed as achieving this
goal it was rejected.36
The fifth and final test was its reception: Was it generally accepted
by the orthodox church? This they admit "is rather a confirmation, and
does serve the obvious purpose of making final the decision and
availability of the books."37
While Warfield consciously addressed the problem of history and
the problems involved in certainty of historical knowledge, Geisler and
Nix seem implicitly to appeal to the authority of the early church in
determining the shape of the New Testament canon. Their appeal to
inspiration as the controlling factor and the five principles which they
propose guided the ancient church in reaching its decisions as to what
books were in fact inspired seem to have little relation to the present.
The decision was made by the ancient church and stands today without
Weaknesses of the Evangelical View
Whether the criterion be inspiration, apostolicity or something
else, I believe that we must acknowledge the a posteriori nature of the
methods of canon determination which have been proposed. Ridderbos
appropriately has noted:
As their artificiality indicates, these arguments are a posteriori in
Character. To hold that the church was led to accept these writings by
such criteria, in fact speak here of a criteria canonicitais is to go too far.
It is rather clear that we have to do with more or less successful attempts
to cover with arguments what had already been fixed for a long time and
for the fixation of which, such reasoning or such criteria had never been
He also stated that "the church did not begin by making formal
decisions as to what was valid as canon, nor did it begin by setting
specific criteria of canonicity."39 Brevard Childs concurs in this assess-
ment noting, "It is hard to escape the impression that the later exposi-
tions of the criteria of canonicity were, in large part, after-the-fact
38Herman Ridderbos, The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures (Philadel-
phia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963) 45-46.
38 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
explanations of the church's experience of faith in Jesus Christ which
were evoked by the continued use of certain books.” 40
The real problem of these a posteriori explanations is that they
inject another level of canon into the discussion. As Ridderbos con-
tended: "Every attempt to find an a posteriori element to justify the
canon, whether sought in the authority of its doctrine or in the consen-
sus of the church that gradually developed goes beyond the canon
itself, and thereby posits a canon above the canon which comes in
conflict with the nature of canon itself.,”41
The questions of inspiration and apostolicity must be briefly
addressed. Geisler and Nix, as noted above, make inspiration a cri-
terion for canonicity. While I do not dispute the truth of this statement,
I contend that it is inadequate and does not solve the problem. The
concept of writing under inspiration was common (albeit not universal)
in the ancient church.42 Clement makes this claim for his epistle to the
Corinthians.43 Clement does not use the Pauline term qeo<pneustoj but
does state variously," ...the things we have written through the Holy
Spirit (gegra<mmenoj dia> tou? a[gi<ou pneu<matoj)" (63:2) and "to the
words which have been spoken by Him (Jesus Christ) through us"
(59:1). Even Eusebius makes the claim for his Life of Constantine.44
Yet, neither Clement nor Eusebius claim that their writings have the
authority of Scripture. My point here is not to argue that Clement or
Eusebius were or were not inspired, but that the criterion of inspiration,
as it is understood today, for canonicity was not consciously employed
by the ancient church.45 With reference to the claim of apostolicity, we
must admit that the apostles wrote more documents than have been
preserved for us (e.g., a lost letter of Paul to
bore the full weight of their apostolic authority. While we may argue
that these documents were not inspired and were, therefore, not pre-
served, from a strictly logical point of view, we merely beg the question.
Thus, while either of these two criteria alone or both together can
40Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (
Fortress, 1984) 33.
42For a more detailed discussion of the concept of "inspiration" or writing under the
leading or influence of the Holy Spirit in the ancient church see Bruce, Canon of
431 Clement 63:2; 59:1.
Word as he writes. For a fuller discussion of the concept of inspiration in the early
church see Sundberg, "The Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,"
Interpretation 29 (1975) 365-70.
45See Thomas A. Hoffman, "Inspiration, Normativeness, Canonicity, and the
Unique Sacred Character of the Bible," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982) 457-58.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 39
contribute to our assurance as to the shape of the New Testament
canon, they fail to fully answer the question at hand.
If we insist upon apostolicity as the means by which we are
assured that our twenty-seven book New Testament is in fact the
canon of Jesus Christ, as did Warfield and Harris, ultimately we are
forced to rely upon the "assured results of higher criticism" for the
certainty of our Scriptures, since even as Warfield noted, "We cannot
this day hear the apostolic voice in its authorization." Ridderbos
rightly contends "an historical judgment cannot be the final and the
sole ground for the acceptance of the New Testament as canonical by
the church. To do so would mean that the church would base its faith
on the results of historical investigation.,”46
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
Discussions of canon tend to develop in one of two directions
depending upon the definition of canon adopted by the theologian.
Warfield and Geisler and Nix adopt a material definition and stress the
objective existence of a God-given standard, which exists by virtue of
its divine inspiration. In this sense canon emphasizes the inherent
authority of the writing. The second type of discussion, taking its clue
from the original usage of the term "canon," stresses the formal develop-
ment of the canon in the sense of a completed list, an authoritative
collection, a closed collection to which nothing can be added.47
The question of whether the canon is a "collection of authoritative
books" or an "authoritative collection of books" hinges on what defini-
tion of canon one adopts. If one argues that the individual writings are
canonical because of their divine inspiration, then he would logically
see the canon as a collection of authoritative books. If, on the other
hand, one views the canon in the sense of a completed list to which
nothing can be added, he would tend to see the canon as an authorita-
tive collection. However, I believe that at this point, to be consistent,
one would have to admit that the authority of the collection is imposed
by ecclesiastical authority.
The common evangelical view of the development of the New
Testament canon views the canon as having arisen gradually and
through usage rather than through conciliar pronouncement which
46Ridderbos, 36. He also argues that the judgment of the early church is an
insuffiecient ground for accepting a book as canonical: …It is equally obvious that a
posteriori the historical judgment of the church as to what is not apostolic can never be
the final basis for the acceptance of the New Testament as holy and canonical" (p. 35).
47Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, notes that the term canon had
both a material and a formal sense.
40 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
vested the books of the New Testament with some kind of authority.
Athanasius' festal letter (A.D. 367) is generally viewed as the document
which fixed the canon in the east and the decision of the Council of
blood summarizes this position:
The earliest known recognition of the 27 books of the New Testament as
alone canonical, to which nothing is to be added and from which
nothing is to be subtracted, is the list preserved by Athanasius (A.D. 367).
The synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Third Synod of Carthage (A.D.
397) duly acquiesced, again probably under the influence of the re-
He concludes: “The closing of the two canons and their amalgamation
into one are historical watersheds that it would be presumptuous to
Evangelicals insist upon the primacy of the written documents of
Scripture over and against all human authority. However, in so doing
they tend to overlook the fact that other authority did in fact exist in
the ancient church, particularly the authority of Jesus Christ and His
apostles. They often fail to appreciate that the church was founded not
upon the apostolic documents, but rather upon the apostolic doctrine.
The church existed at least a decade before the earliest book of the
New Testament was penned, and possibly as long as six decades until
the New Testament was completed. But during this period it was not
without authority. Its standard, its canon, was ultimately Jesus Christ
Himself,50 and mediately His apostles. Even in the immediate post-
apostolic period we find a great stress on apostolic tradition alongside
a written New Testament canon.51
As the apostles died, this living stream of tradition diminished.
The written documents became progressively more important to the
ongoing life of the church. The question of competing authorities in
the sense of written and oral tradition subsided. However, even as late
as the mid-second century we find an emphasis on oral tradition which
stands in some way parallel to the written gospels as authoritative.
50Andrew F. Walls, "The Canon of the New Testament," in The Expositor's Bible
Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979) 632-33.
51In the NT itself we find on occasion the preference for a personal visit over a letter.
Paul declares his desire to be with the Galatians (Galatians 4). In other places we find this
same mentality (e.g., 1 Thess 3). On other occasions a letter was preferable to a personal
visit, e.g., 1 Corinthians. See F. F. Bruce, "Some Thoughts on the Development of the
New Testament Canon," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 65 (1983) 39.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 41
There was a problem in knowing how to sort out which tradition
was genuine and which was spurious. The answer, proposed by Papias,
was that a tradition which was traceable to the apostles themselves was
regarded as genuine. Eusebius quotes Papias as declaring:
But I shall not hesitate to put down for you along with my interpretation
whatsoever things I have at any time learned carefully from the elders
and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like
the multitude, take pleasure in those that speak much, but in those that
teach the truth; not in those that relate strange commandments, but in
those who deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith and
springing to truth itself. If then anyone came, who had been a follower
of the elders,-what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by
Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by
any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the
Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord say. For I did not think that
what was to be gotten out of books would profit me as much as what
came from the living and abiding voice.52
Theo Donner objects to the interpretation of Papias' words which
would make him downplay the importance of the written Scripture. He
insists that Papias was "relying on oral tradition only for his com-
mentary on the words of the Lord, not for the actual content of the
words.”53 McGiffert notes that Papias' statement should not be inter-
preted to mean that Papias' faith was in oral tradition as opposed to
written tradition, but that the oral tradition supplemented the written
tradition.54 In his following discussion of Papias, Eusebius notes that
Papias preserved heretofore unwritten tradition of the words of Christ
on the authority of Aristion and John the elder.55 The point here is that
at this period the two, written and oral tradition, existed side by side.
The concept of an authoritative Christian tradition can be traced
back into the New Testament itself. Paul speaks of the chain of
receiving and delivering a body of teaching.56 It is, therefore, not
surprising to see in this early period both written works and oral
tradition existing side by side in some sort of authoritative fashion.
52Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3. 39.3-4, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post
Nicene Fathers, 2d ser., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Ware, trans. A. C. McGiffert, vol. I
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 171.
53Theo Donner, "Some Thoughts on the History of the New Testament Canon,"
Themelios 7:3 (April 1981) 25.
54Eusebius, The Church History of Eusebius, trans. by Arthur Cushman McGiffert,
NPNF, 2nd series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1951) 1:l7ln5.
56E.g., 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Cor .
42 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Without doubt, the earliest Bible for the Church consisted of the
Old Testament scriptures, interpreted Christologically. Additionally,
in the New Testament itself we find at least one case of some New
Testament books being placed on a par with the Old Testament. In
2 Pet the apostle makes reference to the ignorant and unstable
who twist the letters of Paul "to their own destruction as they do the
rest of Scripture." The second occurrence is 1 Tim 5:18 where the
author coordinates a quotation from Deut 25:4 (“Do not muzzle the ox
while he is treading out the grain”) with a citation from Luke 10:7
(“The laborer deserves his wages”), citing both as Scripture. This
probably indicates that even at this early date the writings of the
apostles were viewed in some circles as being on a par with the Old
Testament.57 However, F. F. Bruce has contended, "such hints would
not necessarily indicate a new corpus of sacred scripture: if Paul's
letters are reckoned along with 'the other scriptures' in 2 Pet , that
might in itself imply their addition to the Old Testament writings,
perhaps in kind of an appendix, rather than the emergence of a new
and distinct canon.”58
The earliest solid evidence we find of a New Testament canon, in
the sense of an authoritative collection of writings, comes not from the
hand of the orthodox church with its apostolic tradition, but from the
second century heretic, Marcion. It was in part this heretical threat
which impelled the church to come to grips with the extent of its
authoritative writings. The earliest evidence we possess of a canonical
collection of books by the ancient church is the Muratorian Canon,
dated in the mid to late second century.
Another factor which affected the formation of the New Testament
canon was theological. The Montanist movement, with its claim to a
continuing prophetic revelation, relied heavily upon the Apocalypse.59
This provoked a reaction of mistrust in prophetic literature in the
ancient church particularly with reference to the Apocalypse.60 The
orthodox church of
lypse, although it had earlier looked upon the book with favor.61
57In a recent study on p46 Young Kyu Kim has argued on calligraphic grounds that
the papyrus, which contains ten of the Pauline epistles plus the book of Hebrews should
be dated before the late first century reign of Domitian ("Paleographic Dating of p46 to
the Later First Century," Biblica 69  254). If correct this would argue even more
strongly for the authority of the apostolic writings in the early church.
58Bruce, "Some Thoughts on the Development of the New Testament Canon,"
Bulletin o/the John Ryland Library 65 (1983) 39.
59For a fuller discussion of Montanism's influence in the formation of the canon see
Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 99-106.
61Ibid., 119; cf. W. G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, 17th rev. ed.,
trans. H. C. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973) 502-3.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 43
Evidently, this was a situation where the apostolic tradition was looked
to in adjudging the heterodox nature of the Montanist position. In an
attempt to discredit this position, parts of the ancient church were not
averse to denying books it had previously approved, in order to cut the
ground out from under the heterodox.62
The production of Tatian's Diatessaron must be considered in the
process of the development of the canonization of the New Testament.
Tatian, a pupil of Justin Martyr, took the four canonical gospels and
from them composed a harmony (c. 170). This work supplanted the
canonical gospels in the Syrian church well into the fifth century, at
which time the hierarchy made a concerted effort to stamp out the
work and restore the four canonical gospels to their rightful place
within the canon.63
Yet another factor which affected the collection of the books into a
coherent collection was the introduction of the codex as it replaced the
scroll. Bruce notes, "The nearly simultaneous popularization of the
codex and the publication of the fourfold gospel may have been
coincidental; on the other hand, one of the two may have had some
influence on the other.”64
The Festal letter of Athanasius (c. A.D. 367) is well known as
the first list to contain all and only the present twenty-seven book
New Testament Canon. Thirty years later the Synod of Carthage,
under the influence of the great Augustine, reached a similar conclu-
sion. Youngblood gives the common Protestant evaluation of these
led (as we believe) by divine
half of the fourth century settled for all time the limits of the New
Testament canon. The 27 books of Matthew through Revelation consti-
tute that New Testament, which possesses divine authority equal to that
of the Old.65
The problem with such a sweeping assertion is that it does not fit
the historical facts. First, the synods of Hippo and
ecumenical councils, but local assemblies whose decisions held sway
only in the local sees. The Festal letter of Athanasius, to be sure, gives
us the judgment of a key figure of the ancient church, but it did not
62See Metzger, 105.
A. Lamb, “The Place of the Bible in the Liturgy," in the
the Bible, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) 567.
64Bruce, “Some Thoughts,” 49.
65Youngblood “The Process How We Got Our Bible," Christianity Today, 32:2
44 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
bind even the Eastern Church.66 The ancient church never reached the
conscious and binding decision as to the extent of canon. Proof of this
fact can be seen in the canons of the various churches of the an-
While the canon in the west proved to be relatively stable from the
late fourth century, the canon in the oriental churches varied, some-
times widely. The Syriac church at the beginning of the fifth century
employed only the Diatessaron (in place of the four gospels), Acts, and
the Pauline epistles.67 During the fourth or fifth century the Peshitta
was produced and became the standard Syriac version. In it the Diates-
saron was replaced by the four gospels, 3 Corinthians was removed
and three Catholic epistles, James, 1 Peter and 1 John were included.
The Apocalypse and the other Catholic epistles were excluded, making
a twenty-two book canon. The remaining books did not make their way
into the Syriac canon until the late sixth century with the appearance
of the Harclean Syriac Version.68 While the Syrian church recognized
an abbreviated canon, the
seven books of the New Testament plus The Shepherd of Hermas,
1 & 2 Clement and eight books of the Apostolic Constitutions.69
Even in the west the canon was not closed as tightly as commonly
believed. A case in point is the apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans.
In the tenth century, Alfric, later Archbishop of Canterbury, lists the
work as among the canonical Pauline epistles. Westcott observed that
the history of this epistle "forms one of the most interesting episodes in
the literary history of the Bible.”70 He noted that from the sixth
century onward Laodiceans occurs frequently in Latin manuscripts,
including many of which were prepared for church use. So common
was the epistle in the Medieval period, it passed into several vernacular
translations, including the Bohemian Bible as late as 1488. It also
occurred in the Albigensian Version of Lyons, and, while not trans-
lated by Wycliffe personally, it was added to several manuscripts of his
translation of the New Testament.71
66Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 215, notes that while there was a basic unity of
content in the East, their canons still reflected a diversity for centuries after Athanasius.
67The Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse were omitted. Hebrews, viewed as
Pauline, was accepted, while Philemon was either unknown or rejected. The fourth
century Syrian fathers included 3 Corinthians as canonical (W. G. Kummel, Introduction
to the New Testament, 502).
69Ibid. The Ethiopic version is dated as early as the fourth century by some. Others
would attribute it to the seventh century (Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testa-
ment, 2d ed. [
70B. F. Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New
Testament, 3d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1870) 426.
71Ibid., 429. Cf. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 238-40.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 45
On the eve of the Reformation, Luther was not alone in having
problems with the extent of the New Testament canon. Doubts were
being expressed by loyal sons of the Church. Luther's opponent at
cerning the canonicity of Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Of
the latter three he stated, "They are of less authority than those which
are certainly Holy Scripture.” 72 Erasmus likewise expressed doubts
concerning Revelation as well as the apostolicity of James, Hebrews
and 2 Peter. It was only as the Protestant Reformation progressed, and
as Luther's willingness to excise books from the canon threatened
sensus stand on the extent of the New Testament canon into a conciliar
The point of this survey has been to demonstrate that the New
Testament canon was not closed in the fourth century. Debates con-
tinued concerning the fringe books of the canon until the Reformation.
During the Reformation, both the Reformed and Catholic Churches
independently asserted the twenty-seven book New Testament canon.
Youngblood asserts that the canon was closed by providence and we
have no right to question that closure. The problem with his assertion
is that it is an extra-biblical pronouncement to which, apparently, the
theological equivalent of canonical authority is being given.74 While it
is proper to argue that divine providence did superintend the collection
of the New Testament canon, we cannot equate providence with the
belief of the majority. If this were true, we should all be Roman
Catholics today! As Klyne
Snodgrass has asserted, "
enough.”75 The problem of an appeal to providence for support of an
argument is that there is no objective criterion by which one is to judge
what is and is not providential. One's place in history can radically
affect his interpretation of an event or process. A chilling example of
this phenomenon is seen in the "German Christians'" response to the
rise of Adolf Hitler. The "German Christians" spoke of the "Lord of
History" who was at that moment in
clear voice. It led a group of theologians at Wurtemburg to declare in
We are full of thanks to God that He as Lord of history, has given us
Adolf Hitler, our leader and savior from our difficult lot. We acknowl-
edge that we, with body and soul, are bound and dedicated to the
73It is significant that the early Lutheran Confessions did not contain a list of the
74See Ridderbos, 39.
5, 1988) 33.
46 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
German state and to its Fuhrer. This bondage and duty contains for us,
as evangelical Christians, its deepest and most holy significance in its
obedience to the command of God.76
Rather than focus solely upon the external criteria of apostolicity,
inspiration or providence for our assurance that our present twenty-
seven book New Testament canon is indeed the canon of Jesus Christ,
there is a better way for us to approach the problem. This way is not
new but is a return to and recognition of the Reformers' doctrine of the
witness of the Spirit and the self-authenticating nature of Scripture for
THE AUTOPISTIE OF SCRIPTURE AND THE WITNESS OF THE SPIRIT
Discomfort with the traditional conservative evangelical apolo-
getic for the canon is not new. A century ago this became a central
focus of Charles Briggs' attack on the Princetonian bibliology. 77 More
recently, Ridderbos has argued that the common apologetic for canon
ultimately leads a person to one of two alternatives, a certainty based
upon what amounts to be "assured results of higher criticism," or the
infallibility of the church.78 For the evangelical Protestant neither of
these alternatives is ultimately satisfying.
Ridderbos and Briggs both build their rationale for canon recog-
nition upon the Reformers, arguing that the autopistie of the writings
themselves objectively, and the witness of the Spirit subjectively, form
the proper matrix through which we should view the shape of the
canon.79 Shifting the means of our certainty of the form of the canon
in G. C. Berkouwer, The
77See this writer's Th.D. dissertation, "Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in
Late Nineteenth Century American Theology" (Dallas Theology Seminary, 1987) 214-
27. While Briggs' name is infamous as a convicted heretic and he did indeed deny the
inerrancy of Scripture, his doctrine of canon was never challenged as being heterodox,
even by his greatest theological foe, B. B. Warfield.
to divine providence in guiding the church's recognition of the canon together with
Roman Catholic claims of ecclesiastical infallibility. "To be sure, there is a formal
similarity, but materially there is a great difference in the theological program here at
work...." (“The Biblical Canon," Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ed. D. A.
Carson and John D. Woodbridge [
that there is a difference between an appeal to an infallible Pope or hierarchy and to
consensus. However, the question still remains if indeed the "leading of the Lord" does
not ultimately vest some kind of infallible authority in the consensus of the church.
79F. F. Bruce asserts apostolicity as a valid objective criterion for determining
canonicity, but goes on to assert the "self authenticating authority" of the NT books (The
Canon of Scripture, 276-77). This criterion is akin if not identical to Briggs' autopistie of
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 47
from the objective external criterion of apostolicity alone in no way
should imply down-playing the importance of this factor as a ground
of canon. Rather, as Warfield and Ridderbos both have noted, no book
of the New Testament as we possess it contains a certificate of authenti-
cation as to its apostolic origin. That is, from our perspective, separated
by nearly two millennia from the autographa, we cannot rely upon
such means as the known signature of the apostle Paul to assure a
books authenticity. Hence, we cannot use apostolicity as the means by
which we are ultimately assured of the shape of the canon. The same
can be said for the criterion of prophetic authorship, unless we merely
beg the question and assert that the book itself is evidence that its
author was a prophet.
The starting point of canonicity must be a recognition that at the
most basic level it is the risen Lord Himself who is ultimately the canon
of His church.80 As Ridderbos has observed:
The very ground or basis for the recognition of the canon is therefore, in
principle, redemptive-historical, i.e., Christological. For Christ himself
is not only the canon in which God comes to the world, but Christ
establishes the canon and gives it its concrete historical form.81
It is also the risen Christ who causes His church to accept the
canon and to recognize it by means of the witness of the Holy Spirit.82
However, this does not relieve the believer individually or the church
corporately of the responsibility of examining the history of the canon,
nor does it give us the right to identify absolutely the canon which
comes from Jesus Christ (i.e., the material canon) with the canon of the
church (i.e., the formal canon). As Ridderbos has said, "the absolute-
ness of the canon cannot be separated from the relativity of history."83
In short, the church confesses that its Lord has given an objective
standard of authority; for our purposes today that consists of the
written documents. But we must also recognize that, due to sinfulness,
insensitivity or misunderstanding, it is possible for us subjectively to
80lt might be objected here that the earliest church did have a written canon, that of
the Old Testament. While this is true, it was the OT interpreted Christologically by the
Lord Himself and His Apostles. Thus, the risen Jesus Christ was the standard, the
canon, by which even the OT was measured. Metzger has cogently argued the OT was
not the ultimate authority in the infant church, rather it was Jesus Christ. The apostles
did not preach the OT but rather bore witness to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ
who had come to bring the OT to fulfillment (Mark ). See Bruce M. Metzger, The
New Testament: Its Background. Growth. and Content (New York: Abingdon, 1965)
47 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
fail to recognize properly the objective canon Christ has given. We may
include a book which does not belong, or exclude a book which
How then are we to determine what properly belongs to the
canon? Is it, "every man for himself"? Charles Briggs has proposed a
viable method for us to consider today, a method which balances and
supplements the objective historical evidence with immediate divine
testimony. Following the Reformers he proposed a threefold program
for canon determination built upon the "rock of the Reformation
principle of the Sacred Scriptures.”84 The first principle in canon
determination was the testimony of the church. By examining tradition
and the early written documents, he contended that probable evidence
could be presented to men that the scriptures "recognized as of divine
authority and canonical by such general consent are indeed what they
are claimed to be."85
With reference to the Protestant canon this evidence was, he
believed, unanimous. This evidence was not determinative, however. It
was only "probable." It was the evidence of general consent, although
given under the providential leading of the Spirit. It was from this
general consent that conciliar pronouncements were made. It did not,
however, settle the issue, since divine authority could not be derived
from ecclesiastical pronouncement or consensus. The second and next
higher level of evidence was that of the character of the scriptures
themselves. This is the Reformers' doctrine of the autopistie of the
scriptures. Their character was pure and holy, having a beauty, har-
mony and majesty. The scriptures also breathed piety and devotion to
God; they revealed redemption and satisfied the spiritual longing within
the soul of man. All these features served to convince that the scriptures
were indeed the very Word of God. As Briggs stated, "If men are not
won by the holy character of the biblical books, it must be because for
some reason their eyes have been withheld from seeing it.” 86 It is in
light of this concept that we should understand the Syriac church's
rejection of the Apocalypse and Luther's rejection of the book of
James. In both cases there was a pressing theological reason which
kept them from seeing the divine fingerprints upon specific books of
the New Testament. In a very real sense it was their zeal for the truth of
the apostolic faith/gospel which blinded them.87
84Charles A. Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (New
87See Geoffrey Wainwright, "The New Testament as Canon," Scottish Journal of
Theology 28 (1975) 554. cr. also R. Grant, "Literary Criticism and the New Testament
Canon," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 16 (1982) 39.
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 49
The third and highest principle of canon determination was that
of the witness of the Spirit.88 The witness of the Spirit was to be
distinguished from the providential leading of the Spirit in history in
that the latter was external to the individual whereas the former
involved the individual directly. Briggs stated, "The Spirit of God
bears witness by and with the particular writing...in the heart of the
believer, removing every doubt and assuring the soul of its possession
of the truth of God.”89
Briggs saw the witness of the Spirit as threefold. As noted earlier,
the Spirit bore witness to the particular writing. Secondly, the Spirit
bore witness "by and with the several writings in such a manner as to
assure the believer”90 that they were each a part of the one divine
revelation. This argument was cumulative. As one recognized one
book as divine, it became easier to recognize the same marks in
another of the same character. A systematic study of the scriptures
yielded a conviction of the fact that the canon was an organic whole.
The Holy Spirit illumined the mind and heart to perceive this organic
whole and thus gave certainty to the essential place of each writing in
the Word of God.91 This factor became very important for Calvin in his
discussion of the canonicity of 2 Peter. He saw in the epistle nothing
that was in conflict with the other Scriptures which he did accept. This
became significant in his acceptance of the epistle as canonical despite
reservations concerning its style. "For Calvin properly would have us
understand not only that such books were accepted by the church from
ancient times but also that they contain nothing which is in conflict
with the remainder of Scripture, which was never contested in any way.
Is not an important truth to be found, with respects (sic) to the
limitations of the canon, in the statement: Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius
Third, the Spirit bore witness "to the church as an organized body
of believers, through their free consent in their various communities
and countries to the unity and variety of the...Scriptures as the
complete and perfect canon.”93 This line of evidence was a reworking
of the historical argument but strengthening it with the "vital argument
of the divine evidence.”94 Whereas before, the church testimony was
88This third step is the highest level since it is built upon the previous two steps. The
witness of the Spirit should not be construed as being opposed to the first two steps but
operating in conjunction with them.
89Briggs, General Introduction, 165.
92 Ridderbos, 51.
93Briggs, General Introduction, 166.
50 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
external and formal, whenever we come to recognize the Holy Spirit as
the guiding force in the Church in both the formation and recognition
of the canon, "then we may know that the testimony of the Church is
the testimony of divine Spirit speaking through the Church.”95
Focusing on the principle of the witness of the Spirit for assurance
in canonical questions introduced a subjectivity factor which rendered
the question of canon, in the absolute sense, undefinable.96 While the
Reformers did attempt in their creeds to define the limits of canon,
Briggs contended that in so doing they betrayed their own principle of
canon determination. If scripture was self-evidencing, then that evi-
dence that God was the author was to the individual.97 In addition,
doctrinal definition, in order to be binding upon the Church, had to be
held by consensus of the whole church. Both the Reformed churches
and the Roman Catholic Church represented but a fraction of the
church catholic, hence, they could not give definitive pronouncement
to canon questions.98 He held that the question of canon must then be
regarded as open to this day in the subjective (formal) sense. An
individual believer was thus free to doubt the canonicity of a particular
book without the fear of being charged with heresy.99
Summarizing Briggs' method of canon determination: first, the
logical order began with the human testimony as probably evidence to
the divine origin of Scripture. This testimony brought the individual to
esteem the Scriptures highly. Next, when he turned to the pages of
Scripture itself, they exerted an influence upon his soul. Finally, the
divine testimony convinced him of the extent of the truth of God, at
which point he shared in the consensus of the church.100
Geisler and Nix proposed five tests for canon which were employed
in the early church, authority, prophetic nature, authenticity, power
and reception. These tests have a great affinity with Briggs' threefold
95 Ibid., 167.
96Ibid., 142-44. Even John Warwick Montgomery has noted ("The Theologian's
Craft," CTM 37  82 n. 72, cited in
certainty, both in science and theology, rests only with the data (for the former, natural
for the latter, scriptural affirmations)."
limits of the canon are not scriptural affirmations. Therefore...we cannot claim abso-
lute empirical certainty for our canonical model" (p. 360). This is not to deny that from a
practical perspective some theological formulations attain a "certain" status.
97Briggs, 142-44. This fact is merely a distillation of the teachings of the Reformers;
see Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:7:1,4,5; and the Gallican Confession,
article 4. '
99Ibid., 64. Ridderbos has stated: "There was never any discussion of the canonicity
of the majority of the NT writings. The church never regarded these writings as being
anything else except the authoritative witness to the great period of redemption" (The
Authority of the New Testament Scriptures, 44).
SAWYER: EVANGELICALS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT 51
program. However, there is one crucial difference. For Geisler and Nix
the question is strictly historical, how did the ancient church reach its
conclusions? For Briggs the question concerns the modern believer.
How are we today assured of the shape of the canon? Briggs' proposal,
while injecting an uncomfortable subjective element into the process,
does, following the Reformers, recognize the active role the Spirit of
God plays in the recognition of His Word. If Goodrick is correct in his
analysis of qeo<pneustoj, that Scripture is alive "with the vitality of
God Himself,"101 this, too, lends credence to the active and continuing
role of the Spirit with reference to Scripture. Briggs' proposal provides
a viable apologetic as to how we can bridge the gap between the
relativity of historical knowledge and the certainty of faith.
Admittedly if we follow this path we open the door to a subjective
factor with which many evangelicals would be uncomfortable. I must
admit my own discomfort with what I am proposing. I would much
prefer an absolutely logical, rational position which could not be
assailed. Yet from a methodological perspective I feel forced to this
position. As Kraus has observed, ''as long as the gap between proba-
bility and demonstration remains, there also remains the necessity of a
subjective and volitional response to the appeal of truth before there
can be certainty.”102 A strictly inductive and rational approach to the
question of canon leaves us only with probability, a very high degree of
probability to be sure, but probability as opposed to certainty. We as
evangelicals insist upon the necessity of a "personal relationship with
Jesus Christ" which by its very nature must be subjective. Is it so
difficult for us to admit that God still speaks to us today concerning the
Scripture? Or did He cease testifying to its nature in the fourth century?
The question of the canon of the New Testament is clearly not as
simple as it appears in survey texts and popular presentations. Among
evangelicals, theories of canon determination have tended to stress
external criteria for assurance that the Scripture we possess today is in
fact the whole extent of the revelation which God has given to the
believer. While I do not believe this is totally invalid, I have suggested
weaknesses in this approach if by it we want to build absolute
Earlier I used the phrase "the assured results of higher criticism"
to describe our apologetic for our New Testament canon. I use the
phrase advisedly, not hyperbolically, for it is indeed literary criticism
101'The Edward W. Goodrick, "Let's Put Second Timothy Back in the
Bible,"Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25:4 (December 1982) 486.
102Kraus, Principle of Authority, 270 (italics mine).
52 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
upon which we engage when we seek to explore the provenance of a
document. I use this phrase also to bring to mind the arrogant recon-
structionist claims of the nineteenth century concerning the nature of
Scripture. As we have watched archaeologists' shovels undercut these
"assured results" we have rejoiced that the historic faith of the church
in its scriptures has been vindicated again and again. Yet, American
evangelicals have forsaken their Reformation heritage and slipped into
the same type of rationalism regarding the canon as that for which we
castigate liberals of a bygone era. My point here is that we as evangeli-
cal Christians are by definition, people of faith. I believe that when we
attempt to build our apologetic for our New Testament canon solely
upon rational ground, we betray the faith principle.
The individual's ultimate assurance that the scripture he has re-
ceived is indeed the Word of God must be grounded upon something
more (but not less) than historical investigation. Scripture as the Word
of God brings with it its own witness, the Holy Spirit, who alone can
give certainty and assurance.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com