Canonical Development and the Self-Authenticating Scriptures

Timeline of New Testament Canon

Timeline of New Testament Canon
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A problem exists with the nature of canonicity — the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon of Scripture is determined. Scholars debate two different approaches: the Community-Canon approach, and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. John C. Peckham defines the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” (Peckham 2011) This is a fancy way of describing the difference between books being deemed as part of the canon because the Church placed them on the list, and books being deemed as canonical because they are inspired.

Peckham’s explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach allows for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative. Why? Because an inspired scripture is of no use to anyone if it is not identified as such. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the inspiration of the writing, and this witness of the Holy Spirit takes place within the community of believers — the Church. Actually, the definition of the Community-Canon approach is incorrect; books are not canonical because they are placed on the communities list of authoritative books, but the community places books on the list because it recognizes their intrinsic authority (inspiration). Thus, in practice, the two approaches to canonicity are simply different ways of discussing the same process.

The pure Intrinsic-Canon approach (which is another way of defining the Self-Authenticating  Scriptures) has a number of problems, the most important of which is that the community does create certain guidelines or standards to judge whether a book is canonical or not. According to F.F. Bruce, the community decided “the teaching of the apostles in the Acts and Epistles was regarded as vested with His [Christ’s] authority.” (Bruce 2008) This, then, was the standard used to judge against the disputed books of Hebrews, II Peter, and II & III John, of which the authorship was unknown or in dispute. Eventually the community recognized the disputed books as authoritative and inspired despite their not meeting the community’s initial guidelines.

Another example of a community-based standards for canonicity is the argument that the canon of the Old Testament was closed around 400 B.C., and that any work written between then and the New Testament books is therefore not canonical. This argument was made by Flavius Josephus, as we will see in the next chapter. The argument is repeated by any number of Protestants when they write about the issues surrounding the canon of the Old Testament, but this canonical standard is wholly arbitrary. The argument seems to be that no canonical books were written after 400 B.C., so any book written after 400 B.C. is not canonical, which is a circular argument at best.

Another way of stating the previous argument is that Malachi was the last prophet, ushering in the intertestamental period. Even people who argue for this position recognize its weaknesses. Rabbi Hayyim Angel, writes:

Even if Malachi were the last of the biblical prophets, there is no statement at the end of his book or anywhere else in the Bible stating categorically that prophecy had ceased. For example, Nehemiah battled false prophets (Neh. 6:5–7, 11–13) but did not negate the existence of prophecy in principle. (Angel 2011)

Still, Rabbi Angel, along with Protestants in general, assume a definite end to the prophetic era after the prophet Malachi; Protestants say this prophetic silence ended with the coming of John the Baptist. We have mentioned this argument in a previous post discussing the Lutheran scholastic Johann Gerhard. For now it is enough to mention the argument I heard as a youth — that the intertestamental period was typologically connected to the period prior to the coming of Samuel the Prophet. This is a rather weak argument, as analogies do not constitute evidence, let alone proof.

The inclusion of the community into the recognition of an authoritative collection of documents creates another problem: which community, using which criteria? John C. Peckham writes:

If each community is authoritative to determine their own canon, then since mutually exclusive canons of sacred writings are posited by various communities, the “Christian canon” is not authoritative over and against the canon of any other community but is authoritative only within the community or communities that determine and/or recognize it. This amounts to a canonical relativism that is mutually exclusive to a universally authoritative biblical canon (cf. Matt 24:14; 28:19–20; Acts 17:30; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16). (Peckham 2011)

Let us take a moment to examine the development of the New Testament canon. It might surprise you to know that the recognition of the New Testament scriptures occurred gradually. For several centuries there were multiple canons in use, and various bishops published their own canons for the churches under their authority. Other church fathers published their own lists, and despite the argument that the canon was firmly fixed in the fourth century, there continued to be different lists published into the eighth century, of which the following is a representative list.

  1. The Muratorian Fragment (c. 170)
  2. Melito (c. 170)
  3. Origen (c. 240)
  4. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 324)
  5. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350)
  6. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 360)
  7. The Cheltenham List (c. 360)
  8. Council of Laodicea (c. 363)
  9. Letter of Athanasius (367)
  10. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 380)
  11. Amphilocius of Iconium (c. 380)
  12. The “Apostolic Canons” (c. 380)
  13. Epiphanius (c. 385)
  14. Jerome (c. 390)
  15. Augustine (c. 397)
  16. Third Council of Carthage (397)
  17. Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 400)
  18. Codex Claromontanus (c. 400)
  19. Letter of Innocent I (405)
  20. Decree of Gelasius (c. 550)
  21. Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae (c. 550)
  22. John of Damascus (c. 730)
    (Marlowe, Ancient Canon Lists n.d.)

These lists differ with each other as the makeup of the canon. As late as 730 A.D., St. John of Damascus included the Canons of the Holy Apostles, by Clement in his list of New Testament Scripture. The first list of the New Testament canon as we know it today was in the 367 A.D. Easter Letter of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, but unlike what many say, was authoritative only for the Alexandrian see. (Schaff, NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters 1892, 1126) In the west, Canon 36 of the Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) is often cited as fixing the complete canon of the New Testament. This is problematic for two reasons: first, because this council was only authoritative for the African Church; and second, because the canon of Sacred Scripture began with the Old Testament, including what the Protestants now refer to as the Apocrypha. It would be hard to accept the one without accepting the other. The text of Canon 36 is as follows:

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings [I & II Samuel; I & II Kings], 3 two books of Paraleipomena (Chronicles], 4 Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus], 5 the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras [Ezra and Nehemiah], 6 two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon, because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept. (Marlowe, Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) n.d.)

Between the apostolic era and the fixing of the New Testament canon, there were controversies over which books were inspired and which were not. Revelation was rejected by some because of the propensity of the heretics to weave apocalyptic fantasies from its strange imagery. Hebrews was rejected because no one knew who wrote it; Pauline authorship was often asserted, but could not be proven. Jude was rejected because it quotes from the apocryphal book of Enoch. II Peter was rejected because it was thought to be spurious, as were II and III John. James was always in the canon of Alexandria, but was not widely known outside that jurisdiction. The late fourth century Codex Siniaticus includes the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. The early fifth Century Codex Alexandrius contains I and II Clement. (Lieuwen, The Emergence of the New Testament Canon 1995) So you see, the idea of the self-authenticating Scriptures doesn’t square with the history of the New Testament canon.

Bibliography

Angel, Hayyim. “The End of Prophecy: Malachi’s Position in the Spiritual Development of Israel.” Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. February 25, 2011. http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/end-prophecy-malachis-position-spiritual-developmen (accessed January 16, 2014).

Bruce, F. F. “The Canon of Scripture.” BiblicalStudies.org.uk. Edited by Robert I Bradshaw. Religious & Theological Students Fellowship. March 2008. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/canon_bruce.pdf (accessed January 4, 2014).

Lieuwen, Daniel F. “The Emergence of the New Testament Canon.” St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney (Dallas area) Texas. 1995. http://www.orthodox.net/faq/canon.htm (accessed January 15, 2014).

Marlowe, Michael D. “Ancient Canon Lists.” Bible Research. n.d. http://www.bible-researcher.com/canon8.html (accessed January 16, 2014).

—. “Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).” Bible Research. n.d. http://www.bible-researcher.com/carthage.html (accessed January 15, 2014).

Peckham, John C. “Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination.” Themelios 36, no. 2 (August 2011): 203-215.

Schaff, Philip. NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 4. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Copyright Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1892.