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.