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. (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 1969).

            2Wilber T. Dayton, "Factors Promoting the Formation of the New Testament

 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

 New Testament: How Do We Know for Sure?"; Klyne Snodgrass, "Providence Is

 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 Testament (Oxford: Clarendon,

1987) is the most significant of these by an American, while British evangelical

scholar F. F. Bruce has published The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove:

InterVarsity, 1988).

            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

            same duty.10

 

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

this outlook.

 

10Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: West-

1946) 131.



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

upon Israel. As he stated,

 

            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 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1927. Reprinted

Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) 455.

                13lbid.

            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 5:18 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 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Re-

formed, 1976) 48-49.

            18Ibid., 49.

            19Ibid., 73-74.



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 Princeton,

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

           

            20Ibid., 78.

            21Ibid., 79.

            22F. L. Patton, "Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield," The Princeton Theological

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.

            25Ibid., 239-40.



            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

other circles."31

            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.

 

            26Ibid., 244.

            27Ibid., 264.

            28Ibid., 266.

            29Ibid., 268.

            30Ibid., 269.

            31Ibid., 269-70.



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

Scripture.

            34Ibid., 139.

            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

question.

 

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

            employed.38

 

            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

 

            36Ibid., 142.

            37Ibid., 143.

            38Herman Ridderbos, The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures (Philadel-

phia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963) 45-46.

            39Ibid., 44.



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 Corinth) which evidently

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 (Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1984) 33.

            41Ridderbos, 39.

            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

Scripture, 266-67.

            431 Clement 63:2; 59:1.

            44Life of Constantine 1.11.2. Here Eusebius invokes the inspiring aid of the heavenly

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

Carthage in the west is viewed as having fixed the Latin canon. Young-

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-

            doubtable Augustine.48

 

He concludes: “The closing of the two canons and their amalgamation

into one are historical watersheds that it would be presumptuous to

disturb.”49

            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.

 

            48Youngblood, 27.

            49Ibid., 28.

            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.

            55Ibid., 172.

            56E.g., 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Cor 11:23.



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 3:16 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 3:16, 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 Syria, from this point forward, rejected the Apoca-

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 [1988] 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.

            60Ibid., 104.

            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

pronouncements:

 

            Thus led (as we believe) by divine Providence, scholars during the latter

            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 Carthage were not

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.

            63J. A. Lamb, “The Place of the Bible in the Liturgy," in the Cambridge History of

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

(February 5, 1988) 27.



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-

cient world.

            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 Ethiopic Church recognized the twenty-

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).

            68Ibid.

            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. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1968] 84).

            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

Augsburg, Cardinal Cajetan, following Jerome, expressed doubts con-

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

Rome that, at Trent, the Roman Catholic Church hardened its con-

sensus stand on the extent of the New Testament canon into a conciliar

pronouncement.73

            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, "Providence is not

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 Germany's history speaking in a

clear voice. It led a group of theologians at Wurtemburg to declare in

1934:

 

            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

 

            72Ibid., 443.

            73It is significant that the early Lutheran Confessions did not contain a list of the

canonical writings.

            74See Ridderbos, 39.

            75Klyne Snodgrass, "Providence is Not Enough," Christianity Today, 32:2 (February

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

us today.

 

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

 

            76Cited in G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1974) 162-63.

            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.

            78David G. Dunbar has objected that Ridderbos too easily lumps Protestant appeals

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 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986] 355). I would agree

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

the Scripture.



            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 5:17). See Bruce M. Metzger, The

New Testament: Its Background. Growth. and Content (New York: Abingdon, 1965)

274.

            8lRidderbos, 40.

            82Ibid.,41.

            83lbid.



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

does belong.

            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

York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899) 163.

            85Ibid.

            86Ibid., 165.

            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

interpres?”92

            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.

            90Ibid.

            91Ibid., 163.

            92 Ridderbos, 51.

            93Briggs, General Introduction, 166.

            94Ibid.



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 [1966] 82 n. 72, cited in Dunbar, "Biblical Canon, 360), "absolute

certainty, both in science and theology, rests only with the data (for the former, natural

phenomena; for the latter, scriptural affirmations)." Dunbar admits that "the shape and

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. '

            98Ibid., 146.

            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).

            100Ibid.



            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?

 

CONCLUSION

 

            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

assurance.

            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 3:16 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

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

www.grace.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu