AuthorityDialoguesReformedTheology & Spirituality

Canon Considerations: Authority And The Heart Of The Discussion

Without the Bible—and more specifically, the New Testament—the Christian faith would not exist today. This is a fact that Christians of any branch would readily agree upon. But how did we get this collection of 27 New Testament books?1 How do we know that we have the correct books—that we haven’t left any out or included any spurious ones? To frame the question more poignantly, can we trust the collection of books we call the New Testament, and if so, on what grounds? These are the questions I intend to address in this series of posts.

To begin with, let me offer a rough definition of canon to frame this discussion. In the most general sense, the canon is simply a fixed list of books, specifically, the 27 books we call the New Testament. From a Christian perspective, we can narrow this definition to say that canon is essentially another term for scripture; whatever books are considered scripture are canonical, and whatever books are considered canonical are scripture. At the most fundamental level, this means that the canon was not an artificial construct developed later in church history, but something that began to exist from the moment the writers of scripture put pen to paper under the inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit. But even with this understanding of the canon, we are still left to ask how inspired writing, i.e. scripture, was distinguished from normal, uninspired writing.

Before this question can be properly resolved, however, we must ask an even more fundamental question: on whose or what authority were these 27 books determined to be canonical? Is that determination based on the authority of the Church, individuals in history, or the texts themselves? The answer to these questions will shape every aspect of any discussion about the canon and, indeed, every subsequent discussion about the theology it contains.

In fact, this is the very issue that sparked the Reformation. While Luther2 and his contemporaries were exercised over the Roman Church’s doctrine of justification (specifically, how it was worked out in reference to the sale of indulgences), the formal cause of the Reformation was the issue of authority. Partly as a result of widespread corruption within the Roman Church and recurring disputes over the true heir to the pontificate, the reformers came to realize that the Roman Church had claimed an unwarranted degree of authority for itself.3 Only the scriptures could bind the conscience of man, the reformers argued, and the church, a body of sinful and fallible men, had placed itself in a position of authority above those very scriptures. The reformers’ repudiation of this claim to authority came to be expressed with the Reformation maxim sola scriptura.4 It is through the scriptures alone that God speaks to his people, and by virtue of that fact, they alone possess ultimate authority.

This notion of sola scriptura has significant implications for our discussion of how the New Testament canon formed. If scripture alone is authoritative, the canon of scripture cannot be determined by any authority external to scripture itself. As The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The authority of the Holy Scripture… depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God…” (emphasis mine).5 Scripture’s authority does not derive from anything else, but inheres in the God-breathed words themselves. Because of this, the canon must be viewed as self-authenticating: it alone has the authority to provide criteria by which we are able to recognize which books belong and which do not. Neither individuals nor the church have the power to definitively, authoritatively determine the contents of the canon, a fact borne out in the history of the canon’s formation (more on this point in a future post).

This perspective on the formation of the New Testament is not shared by the Roman Church due to its fundamentally different view of the nature of authority: the Roman Church does not hold scripture as sole absolute authority. Instead, in the Roman view, scripture and Church Tradition are equally authoritative. According to the Church’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”6 Despite this formal statement of the co-ultimacy of scripture and Tradition, Dei verbum goes on to state that through the “tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known.”7 In effect, this means that Church Tradition has functional authority over scripture, since it is only through the authoritative Tradition of the Church that the canon can be known. In other words, on the Roman view, the Church plays a determinative role in the formation of the canon. The canon thereby has derivative authority, since it would not be known apart from the authoritative declarations of the church.

Historically, the Roman view of authority was only made explicit in the wake of the Reformation, first at the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s—the first time the Roman Church made a self-consciously authoritative declaration about the composition of the canon—and later at both Vatican I and Vatican II, where Dei verbum was ratified. It is not difficult to see why, considering that the Roman view runs directly counter to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. But beyond that, it conflicts with the testimony of scripture itself and the testimony of the early church. In functionally elevating the authority of the Church Tradition over the authority of scripture, the Roman Church inverts the hierarchy set out in passages such as Ephesians 2:20. In this particular passage, the Apostle Paul explains that the foundation (themeliō)8 of the church is the testimony of the apostles9 and prophets (i.e. the Old and New Testament scriptures), not the reverse. Add to this Paul’s stern warning in Galatians 1:8 not to deviate from the message he preached and John’s warning in Revelation 22:19 not to add to the words of scripture and we can begin to see the rough contours of the doctrines of scriptural authority and sufficiency upon which the self-authentication model of canon is based.

Both of these doctrines were recognized in the early church, although not always addressed in the same terms or with the same clarity. For example, in Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that it is the apostles “through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”10 Athanasius, when he published his list of canonical books in 367, also wrote that they “are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.”11 Again, in Augustine we see a similar perspective:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth.12

In general, the church fathers held scripture as the final authority on matters of faith. Appeals to scripture, not their personal or institutional authority, were treated as though they settled matters when disputes arose. Cyril of Jerusalem is clear on this point when he writes that

concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning , but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.13

From the discussion so far, we can see that the idea of scripture as the sole ultimate authority (and therefore, the ideas of sola scriptura and the self-authentication model of canon it entails) did not originate with the Reformation. Indeed, it seems more appropriate to see the Roman view of authority as a novelty and a deviation from the earlier voice of the church. While the ideas of sola scriptura and the self-authentication model may have achieved greater clarity as a result of the Reformation—debate in the church tends to bring clarity where it was formerly lacking, as it did with the Trinitarian and Christological debates—they can be traced to the writings of the early church, where we see the church fathers recognize the authority of scripture is of a wholly different sort than their own.

But we are still left with a problem: doesn’t the idea of a self-authenticating canon seem circular? If the self-authentication argument simply boiled down to saying that canonical books are canonical because they call themselves scripture, the argument certainly would be fallacious. While this is not how the self-authentication argument will be developed, the argument is circular in a way that all arguments concerning ultimate authorities must be—a point recognized as far back as Aristotle. By definition, an ultimate authority cannot be established by anything external, because whatever external standard is used would then become ultimate. Any ultimate authority, therefore, must be authenticated internally, by standards it sets for itself. Such circularity is simply built in to the concept of ultimate authority, whether that authority is thought to be the human mind, the church, or the scriptures.

John Calvin illustrates the principle behind self-authentication well when he writes that “scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth [and canonicity, I might add] as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”14 Just as whiteness or blackness, sweetness or bitterness can only  be defined by their own characteristics, the canon can only be established by the characteristics which scripture itself exhibits. While the self-authentication argument is circular in this sense, it is not fallaciously so. As the examples of whiteness and blackness, sweetness and bitterness illustrate, we are already accustomed to this type of circularity and accept it without difficulty. We must do the same when thinking about scripture and the formation of the canon. This is the heart of the self-authentication model which I will explore further as this series continues. In the next piece, I will examine the covenantal nature of scripture along with the role of the apostles in the composition of the New Testament canon as we move towards a more complete picture of how the New Testament canon formed.15

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Jeff Hart

Jeff Hart

Jeff is currently a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia studying for a Master of Arts in Religion (Concentration: Theological Studies). He graduated from Olin College in 2013 with a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering and went on to work as an engineer at IBM for one year before beginning seminary. Jeff has also attended and worked for Summit Ministries in both their summer programs and Summit Semester (student in summer of 2012, mentor in fall of 2014).

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