If a person asks how we know which books belong in the NT canon (and which do not), they will often hear that the answer lies with the “criteria of canonicity.”
All we have to do, we are told, is simply look for books that meet these “criteria” and then we can know which books are in or out. What are these criteria? Typically things like apostolicity, orthodoxy, usage, age, etc.
Now, let me say there are a number of helpful things here. In particular, I agree that apostolicity is a key aspect of canon. However, I don’t prefer the concept of “criteria of canonicity” for a number of reasons:
1. The term “criteria” gives the impression that someone is standing over canonical books, judging them by some external standard not found in the canonical books themselves. It can imply that there is some neutral investigative starting place where we can use scientific criteria to evaluate books.
But, the idea that we can somehow validate the canon by external (and presumably neutral) standards is highly problematic. If the canon is God’s Word, and therefore the highest authority, we cannot validate it without, at the same time, using it. That is an inevitable reality when it comes to the task of authenticating ultimate authorities.
2. The whole concept of criteria of canonicity gives the impression that we have a canon because the church “picked” books and used these criteria when they did so. Some even suggest that the church “voted” on books.
However, this idea is incomplete at best; and even misleading at worst.
Sure, when it comes to some of the smaller, disputed books we might say that the church, in a sense, “picked” them. And obviously they picked them for some reason (though I still prefer the term “recognized” or “received”).
But, for the vast majority of NT books, this was not at all the case. Take the four Gospels, for example. There are no indications that they are in the canon because of some formal church decision, vote, or council. They were not officially “picked” by some criteria.
On the contrary, they seem to have been the Gospels that were handed down from the very beginning. Most Christians would not have even been able to articulate how they got into the canon.
Thus, to ask why early Christians “chose” the four Gospels would be the equivalent of asking (as my friend Chuck Hill likes to say) why a person chose their parents. It implies there was a choice when there really wasn’t one.
Simply put, the phrase “criteria of canonicity” over-inflates the role of the church.
3. It has also been pointed out that these criteria, at least taken separately, simply don’t work as a guide to which books are canonical. Take “orthodoxy” for example. Yes, all canonical books were orthodox. But, not all orthodox books were canonical. We have many books that were loved and cherished by the church, and regarded as theologically faithful, but not in the end considered canonical (e.g., the Shepherd of Hermas).
The only criterion that really works to get you canonical books is apostolicity. But, there’s still a problem here. And that is, how do we know that apostolicity is a reliable guide to canon? That leads to the next point…
4. In all of the discussions of the criteria of canonicity, there is one problem that is never really resolved: Where do these criteria come from? Or, Who decides these are the right things to look for? What is the criteria for the criteria?
Incredibly, I have seen very few attempts to even answer this question. Usually the criteria are simply listed out, without any justification for them. But even the attempts that have been made, I don’t find compelling.
For example, someone might argue that these were the criteria the early Christians used. Fine, but that just backs up the question one notch. Why should we think the early Christians got this right? Or, where did they get the criteria from?
In sum, I think the “criteria of canonicity” concept has some positives. But it also has some pitfalls. That’s why I prefer the term “attributes of canonicity” to describe which qualities make a book canonical.
This avoids the impression that these criteria are an independent, neutral standard which judges the canon, and admits that our understanding of canonicity, inevitably, comes from the very books under discussion.
For more on that point, see my book Canon Revisited, pages 73-87.
Richard Lindberg says
I remember Dick Gaffin teaching on this question. His conclusion was that God determined the canon of the New Testament. God sovereignly and providentially decided the books of the NT.
Dr Stan Theron says
Prof Kruger, I appreciate your positive Reformed articles including this one. I have an approach from a different angle, namely that Jesus and the NT the OT but differed radically from the rabbinic that emphasised working for forgiveness-grace-salvation. Jesus Christ assumed all authority in understanding and fulfilling the whole TeNaK, and authorised His Apostles to continue His Teaching. Since the first centuries believers “accepted” what was “received” from these emissaries, initially orally and within decades from the Apostles in writing. A careful reading of the NT in Biblical Greek reveals that Jesus, the Synod of Jerusalem and that well-schooled rabbi from Tarsus understood OT ethics as the Judaisers in their “Noachide Covenant” approach. It gives a complete answer to the critical approach of “situation ethics”. Even Barth in his arguments against Tillich held that the Word should ask the ethical questions, not the contemporary situation – I humbly add, or the PC approach of political humanism.
Jim Swindle says
Dr. Stan Theron, thank you for your many years of service to our Lord.
I’m trying to understand your position. I believe you left out a word or two. You write that “Jesus and the NT the OT but differed radically from the rabbinic.” Maybe you meant “Jesus and the NT accepted the OT, but differed radically from the rabbinic interpretation.”
I’m also not really following your statement that Jesus, the Synod of Jerusalem and the apostle Paul “understood OT ethics as the Judaisers in their ‘Noachide Covenant’ approach.” What is your understanding of how the ethics of Jesus, the Synod of Jerusalem and the Apostle Paul differed from the ethics of the Judaisers?
James Anderson says
I think in practice (esp. in modern evidentialist apologetics) the criteria are formulated retrospectively. We look at the canonical books and ask, “What set of criteria would select for these books while also excluding non-canonical books?” And then we present these criteria as if they were a priori, when in fact they’re a posteriori. But of course that’s all circular reasoning (and not the virtuous kind!).
Ken Temple says
Is not “criteria of canonicity” in some sense, redundant / a tautology ? What I mean is that, the original meaning of the word “canon” κανων (standard, rule, law, measuring rod, criterion), based on the Hebrew קנה (reed, rod, measuring stick). The later meaning “list” of God-breathed books, is based on the original meaning of “standard”, “rule”, “criterion”.
If a book is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), then it is automatically “canon” (standard, rule, criterion) when it is written.
The discernment/process/discovering of all the God-breathed books written in the first century, took a while for all the churches to get all the scrolls together, since all were scrolls in first and second century, and early forms of “codex” (sheets flattened and tied together) only started becoming standard practice (from what I understand) in the later part of second and third centuries.
The second meaning of “canon” as “list” of authoritative books, is based on the first meaning of “standard” / “rule”, which is based on the quality of being “God-breathed”.
Thanks for all your work in this area, Dr. Kruger. You and Dr. James White are a great blessing in this area of the canon and the early church, in equipping the saints in apologetic answers as we do evangelism and missions.
Glenda Smirh says
I agree with you if you are sati g that the boojs of the Bibke prove themsekves. Also, Jesus listed the OT cannon as the writings of Moses, the Psalms and thw prophets to the disciples on thw Road to Damascus.
Ken Temple says
Yes, they are self-authenticating (to God’s people – “My sheep hear My voice” (John 10:27; 1 Cor. 2:14-16), as Dr. Kruger and many others explain in books on the canon. Yes, Jesus confirmed the Jewish canon of Scripture, both, on the Emmaus Road to the two disciples in Luke 24:25-32 and and in the upper Room to the disciples in Luke 24:13-53. You are referring to verse 44 – where it says the Law, the Psalms (Poetic and Wisdom books, “Writings”) and the Prophets. (shorted to “the Law and the Prophets” in other passages) . . .
and, also Jesus confirmed this in Luke 11:51 – “from the blood of Abel (Genesis) to the blood of the Zechariah the priest (2 Chronicles 24:20-21 – Chronicles (originally one book) is the last OT book in the Jewish TaNakh = Torah, Nabi’im (Prophets) and Khetovim “Writings” (Poetry books and Wisdom literature and some historical books like Daniel and Chronicles) 1-2 Chronicles were the last books written by the Jews around 430 BC, around the same time as Malachi the prophet and time of Nehmiah’s ministry or a little afterward, closing the OT canon. Jesus was essentially saying, “from Genesis to Chronicles” = “from beginning to end” of God’s written word at the time of when Jesus was speaking.
The New Testament books were also self-authenticating to God’s people in the early church.
My point was the singular word “criterion” (standard, rule, principle, law) was the original meaning of “canon”, and out of that grew the meaning of “the list of authoritative, God-breathed books” for the complete Bible. Dr. Kruger’s article is about the plural criteria for discerning the books.
Jim Pemberton says
The canonicity of Scripture is fascinating. It’s a similar matter to other kinds of discussions where the categories of ontology and epistemology can become confused. That is to say in this case that what makes Scripture canon is a different matter than how we know that it’s canon. The answer is in what kind of epistemology we are prepared to rely on. If we have a merely evidential epistemology, then we will look for criteria and perhaps wrestle with where the criteria come from. If we also understand that the purpose of God in the canon of Scripture is to reveal himself, then we must understand that the Scriptures will be self-evident. So we must have a kind of fideistic or presuppositional approach, that is: a revelatory epistemology that at one time is different than evidential epistemology, but also foundational to an evidential epistemology.
Starting with this observation, we should also be able to conclude that the ontology of the canon is foundational to it’s epistemology.