A Theological View of Canonicity

Introduction

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).[1]

The word of God has been given to Christian’s for instruction according to Romans 15:4, and additionally, Paul writes, “for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). In a world that seeks to undermine and destroy the word of God, why should God’s word be established and canonized? The word of God has been under attack since the beginning, and the attacks have not relented but intensified. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the preservation of God’s word, its recognition as Scripture throughout the Old Testament and the development of the New Testament.

Deconstructionism is a post-modern tenant that seeks to dismantle the meaning of words, whether spoken or written. Donald A. Carson provides a clear definition.

There is no escape from the hermeneutical circle [i.e., by interpretation of what is written], none whatsoever. As for words (structuralism), but words are viciously self-limiting. In the strongest form of deconstruction, not only is all meaning bound up irretrievably with the knower rather than with the text, but words themselves never have a referent other than other words, and even then with an emphasis on irony and ambiguity. The ‘plain meaning’ of the text subverts itself. Language cannot in the nature of the case refer to objective reality. [2]

If words have no meaning, then it is impossible to know God has articulated objective truth, and it is impossible to establish when He spoke it carried authority. To gain a canonical view of the Scriptures requires understanding how they came into existence and its affirmation. Is there a difference between canon and Scripture? When did Scripture become canonized? This paper seeks to provide an overview of the biblical and theological view of the canon of the New Testament. Additionally, an analysis and critique of A. C. Sundberg’s ideas on canonicity and Scripture.

What is Canon?

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

If God breathes out all Scripture, then there must be a finite number of books and words that were God-breathed. The goal is to determine what is and what is not Scripture. Canon is a “rule” or a “standard” according to Kostenberger, Kellum and Quarles in, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.[3] They go on to state, “The term eventually came to refer to the collection of the Christian Scriptures.” Wayne Grudem defines canon as the following: “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.”[4]

The canon is what most evangelical Christians know today as the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and the thirty-nine books of the Old. The Scriptures have developed through history as God worked through the writers. The Scriptures have a human and a divine element of transmission. Human, in that men, wrote them down using their style and personalities, divine in what they wrote the Spirit of God has inspired.

In God’s mind, the Spirit-inspired books achieved canonical status immediately upon completion. The more significant issue became its recognition as canon. The establishment of canon is critical to knowing God through His word. Grudem provides his reasoning:

The precise determination of the extent of the canon of Scripture is therefore of the utmost importance. If we are to trust and obey God absolutely we must have a collection of words that we are certain are God’s own words to us. If there are any sections of Scripture about which we have doubts whether they are God’s words or not, we will not consider them to have absolute divine authority and we will not trust them as much as we would trust God himself.[5]

Sundberg’s View

How did the canon of the Old and New Testaments come into existence, and when were they recognized as Scripture? Additionally, is there a difference between canon and Scripture? If the New Testament canon was developing in the first century, and Christians understood what encompassed Scripture, when were these books finalized? These questions are not easy to answer, and many have made assertions or theories. Kostenberger, Kellum, and Quarles state, “The basic facts and data pertaining to the canonization process of the NT are not widely disputed.” They go on to say, however, it is the interpretation of the date and the formation of the canon that becomes debatable.[6]

A.C. Sundberg posited the New Testament canon as “a closed list of authoritative books.”[7] Sundberg also argued the canon was not officially recognized until the end of the fourth century and put forth a difference between Scripture and canon.

Craig Allert provides a succinct analysis of Sundberg’s position regarding canon and Scripture.

Sundberg’s research has led some to agree that an essential distinction be made between the terms “Scripture” and “canon.” Sundberg thus argued that “Scripture” should be understood as writings that are held in some sense as authoritative for religion. “Canon,” on the other hand, should be understood as a defined collection that is to be held as exclusively authoritative with respect to all other documents. The issue here is one of anachronism: We should not refer to a document as “canon” that would historically have been referred to as “Scripture.” Thus, we cannot claim canonicity for a New Testament document that is cited with the same formula as an Old Testament document unless we are prepared to say that the church fathers had a larger Old Testament canon than we currently have. Based on these conclusions, Sundberg argues that a New Testament canon did not appear in Christianity until the latter half of the fourth century, when lists of canonical books begin to appear.[8]

It is not simple to put a date to the closing of the canon, so it is easier to argue for the later date of the fourth century. Did Christians living in the first and second centuries understand which books were Scripture, and would they consider them canonical? What seems clear is that the early church fathers did not appear hung up on labeling the canon as we know it today. The early church utilized the writings of the New Testament and understood these books were special. The Lexham Bible Dictionary describes it like this,

The early church fathers were not insistent on deciding what is in the canon because they were also guided in other ways. What eventually came to be known as the biblical text was central to the faith of the early church fathers, but they were also guided by the Holy Spirit and the tradition passed down from the apostles that they called the “rule of faith,” essentially corresponding to the Apostles’ Creed. [9]

Did Sundberg have a legitimate claim on the idea of a canon? After all, many books did not gain early acceptance.

Critique of Sundberg’s View

Sundberg’s theories must be considered and not dismissed as without merit. While Sundberg makes valid points from a modern perspective, making definitive statements about a closed canon in the first or second century would be more difficult. The early church was still wrestling with certain books, and even utilizing other non-canonical documents, thus making it difficult to declare the canon closed at this time in history.

Allert provides clarity on this topic, “We can talk of an authoritative body of Christian Scripture in the first century, but we cannot claim that that collection of writings was closed even into the fifth century.”[10] Allert’s comments are valid, as it is not always as straightforward as one might think.

Sundberg viewed canon and Scripture as separate issues. Canon meant no longer fluid. However, Scripture was considered sacred writing. It seems this is splitting theological hairs, but it does evidence Sundberg’s thought process. Sundberg argued for a later date for the canon to be finalized based on his perceived difference between canon and Scripture. Why would there be a difference in Sundberg’s mind? Sundberg viewed canon as a historical invention. He was not the first proponent of this view. Johann Semler came before him and argued that God’s Word and Holy Scripture were not the same things. These arguments fail to recognize the divine aspect of the Scriptures, and since it is words written by men, ultimately, it carries no more authority than any other writing.

In response, orthodox Christianity must affirm the dual nature of Scripture, and if God has spoken, then ultimately, there is no difference between canon and Scripture. The Muratorian Fragment and Athanasius’s 39th Letter provide further evidence worthy of investigation concerning Sundberg’s theory.

The Muratorian Fragment

The Muratorian Fragment or Canon presents a considerable concern for Sundberg’s theory. The fragment contains one of the oldest canonical lists of the New Testament. It includes one of the earliest references to the New Testament writings. Most scholars date the fragment to the second century. The Lexham Bible Dictionary states,

Muratori concluded that the fragment was based on a canonical list first written around ad 196. Today many scholars date the origin of this list to approximately ad 170–200. A second-century date of composition is based largely upon the fragment’s reference to the Shepherd of Hermas. Before arguing that the writing should not be read alongside the prophets and apostles, the author notes that the Shepherd was written during the tenure of bishop Pius of Rome. Pius may have served as the bishop of Rome until sometime between ad 154 and 161.[11]

Sundberg challenges the second century’s origin because the early date presents problems for his theory. Non-canonical works included in the fragment helps Sundberg’s claims, but is it enough to allow for a later date? The author rejected the heretical writings, including, most famously, Marcion. The fragment included most of the books now accepted as New Testament canon except for Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. If canon and Scripture are separate categories, how would one view Paul’s quotation of Greek Philosophers? While Paul’s words and actions are Scripture, it does not assume the philosopher’s to be on the same level, as some might argue.

The Muratorian Fragment is a significant artifact and provides credible evidence that the canon was already in play and utilized by the New Testament church.  

Athanasius

Athanasius (296-373) was the Bishop of Alexandria and was a proponent of the term canon to describe the approved books of the Old and New Testaments. He wrote in his festal letter of 367, “There must be no hesitation to state again the [books] of the New Testament.”[12] The list Athanasius provided is the exact list of the New Testament canon today.

The significance of this statement by Athanasius is that it provides clarity as to the timeframe these books were being codified as canon and widely recognized throughout the Christian world as the finalized list of books.

The Catholic Encyclopedia clarifies Athanasius’ thinking when it came to the authority of the Scriptures and assigned different categories to books. His highest regard was for the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, but he also recognized the value of other writings.

Alexandria, with its elastic Scriptures, had from the beginning been a congenial field for apocryphal literature, and St. Athanasius, the vigilant pastor of that flock, to protect it against the pernicious influence, drew up a catalogue of books with the values to be attached to each. First, the strict canon and authoritative source of truth is the Jewish Old Testament, Esther excepted. Besides, there are certain books which the Fathers had appointed to be read to catechumens for edification and instruction; these are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Esther, Judith, Tobias, the Didache, or Doctrine of the Apostles, the Shepherd of Hermas.[13]

Additionally, Francis Turretin said, “In this sense, Athanasius (near the beginning of Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae [PG 28.283]), tells us that the books of the Christians are not infinite but finite and comprehended in a ‘certain canon.’”[14]

            Athanasius provides a robust symbiotic relationship between canon and Scripture, showing that he saw the value in other writings, but he differentiated between the divine and human works.

Theological View of Canon

“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

A proper theological view of the canon may begin with the Scriptures. After all, it is that which is divinely inspired that carries the utmost authority. The words of Scripture itself bear a significant witness to their validity. They are self-attesting and have an internal consistency that other books do not possess.

A cursory look to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ would also be a benefit to see how He viewed them, and when He said, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” (Matt. 5:18) it carried the full weight and authority of God.

Peter tells us the prophecies of the Old Testament tie directly into the gospel of Christ and New Testament believers. They looked forward to the coming Christ. New Testament Christians look back and can see the fulfillment of these prophecies. The two testaments are inextricably linked, according to Peter (1 Peter 1:10-11).

Paul’s words are also of the utmost importance for the New Testament church. It appears Paul had in mind the entirety of the Scriptures, not just his words, not just the words of Christ, but both testaments.

John Calvin provides a helpful understanding of the passage (2 Tim. 3:16-17) related to Paul’s reference. Does he speak of “all” as in both testaments, or is he more singularly focused?

All Scripture; or, the whole of Scripture; though it makes little difference as to the meaning. He follows out that commendation which he had glanced at briefly. First, he commends the Scripture on account of its authority; and secondly, on account of the utility which springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired; for, if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence.[15]

Calvin declares the Old Testament as Divine Revelation, and it is evident by much of what Paul quotes that he had a canonical view of the Old Testament. Peter had a Scriptural view of Paul’s words in (2 Pet. 3:16), but whether canonical is questioned. Tom Schreiner makes this statement, “This indicates that at quite an early stage the Pauline letters were valued enough to be read on a fairly wide scale, though any notion of a canon of letters is anachronistic at this stage.”[16]

It is challenging to intertwine the words Scripture and canon together in one sense canon, which man uses to wrap his mind around God’s authoritative and declarative words, which is called Scripture. Canon is that which we bundle it all together and declare it to be the word of God. It is attested down through history and recognized by the church fathers and tradition. Once again, the Lexham Bible Dictionary is helpful,

Early church historian Eusebius is perhaps most helpful in understanding the process of canonization. Eusebius puts forward a list of “New Testament” books, “disputed” books, and “spurious” books. Eusebius then says that he has done so “in order that we might be able to know both [the writings affirmed by the church] and also those which the heretics put forward under the name of the apostles; including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or even some others besides these, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles. To none of these has any who belonged to the succession of ecclesiastical writers [that is, church writers] ever thought it right to refer in his writings.[17]

Forming an appropriate theological view of the canon involves the words of God, an understanding of how the early church and their traditions viewed canon, and the self-attestation of Scripture.

Conclusion

There seems to be little doubt the New Testament writers viewed the Old Testament as Scripture and most likely as canonized by the first century. The New Testament is not as easy a topic to discern. There are strong indications and references to the New Testament being scripture and that the writers, church fathers, and church understood many of the writings as canonical.

It is not as easy to place closed quotes around the books [in the first century], and in this respect, Sundberg has a legitimate theory. To abandon the divine attribute of inspiration it might be said, all bets are off.

Are we on firm ground that what we hold in our hands today is what God intended for a canonized list of the books of the Bible? In faith and the providence of God, we can trust and have reasonable assurances that, as Grudem stated, “canon is the list of the books that belong in the Bible, and that is trustworthy and sure. “

Bibliography

Allert, Craig D. “The Formation of the New Testament,” in Faithlife Study Bible Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016.

Barry, John D. and Van Noord, Rebecca. “Canon, Timeline of Formation of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Calvin, John and Pringle, William. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Carson, D.A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Köstenberger Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: an Introduction to the New Testament. Seconded. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2016.

Laird, Benjamin. “Muratorian Fragment,” ed. Barry, John D. et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament,” ed. Herbermann, Charles G. et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Turrettinus, Franciscus, Francis Turretin, George Musgrave Giger, and James T. Dennison. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications = Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992.


[1] All Scripture citation in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016) unless otherwise noted.

[2] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 72.

[3] Köstenberger Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: an Introduction to the New Testament, Second (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2016), 3.

[4] Wayne, Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 54.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid., 13-14.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Craig D. Allert, “The Formation of the New Testament,” in Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).

[9] John D. Barry and Rebecca Van Noord, “Canon, Timeline of Formation of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benjamin Laird, “Muratorian Fragment,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] George Reid, “Canon of the Old Testament,” ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913).

[14] Turrettinus, Franciscus, Francis Turretin, George Musgrave Giger, and James T. Dennison. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 1. Vol. 1. 10 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications = Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992), 95.

[15] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 248.

[16] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 396.

[17] Ibid.

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