Canon – Function

Canon (definition): Those books containing God’s spoken words (the Old and New Testaments otherwise known as Scripture, God’s Word or the Bible) preserved for the purpose of saving (physically, spiritually) His people (the covenant community).

A major deterrent to canonical confidence[1], is not only a poor understanding of the canon’s formation, but the intended function of God’s spoken words as communicated in the canon itself. This study (or part one) will address the latter, part two, the former. With that in mind, there are several important truths that must be understood with respect to God’s spoken words:

 

1. The exclusive instrument God has chosen to lead and have relationship w/His people (i.e., to save them) has been His spoken words (not feelings or Jesus’ face in pancakes or naan – or the more recent and local example, glitter bombs [Church of the Front Range]) (Exo 34:27 “in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” = God’s words were the means to covenant relationship w/OC Israel; Deu 31:8-9 = God’s words were the means to leading OC Israel; Isa 8:19-20 = Those led by anything other than God’s spoken words are counterfeits; Heb 1:1-2; 2Ti 3:16 “inspired” [Grk., “God-breathed” = Spoken by God] = What has been written down as Scripture is what was spoken [to the human authors] by God; 2Pe 1:19-21 = Gaining and maintaining a saving relationship w/God [“until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” = Until you get to heaven/the day of your eternal salvation is realized] requires that you give yourself to His “spoke[n]” words [“Scripture”] as the exclusive means to leading and living your life [versus to false teachers who lead thru feelings, their experiences or promises of false freedom [2:1-19]; What about Gideon’s fleece? See Jug 6:36 w/37-40).

2. Since the purpose of God’s spoken words is the salvation (physically and spiritually) of His people, we should: 1) always view His spoken words with this as their intention (i.e., whatever He has said is relevant/important to the subject of salvation – 2Ti 3:15), 2) never view His spoken words as an attempt at referring to or explaining all things (e.g., the Bible has very little to say about dinosaurs; the Bible spends very little time on the subject of Creation).

3. Never – including the present, have God’s people ever possessed all God’s spoken words yet they have always had what they needed to be faithful (Deu 29:29; 2Pe 1:3; e.g., 1Sa 10:10-11; Joh 20:30; Col 4:16; Rev 10:4).

4. God at times, has deliberately hidden His spoken words – or their understanding, until His people were ready to receive it and take the next necessary step in their journey of obedience (Neh 8:13-18 [Lev 23:34; Deu 16:16]; Eph 3:1-6 = OT saints not given full understanding as to the prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. Hence Mat 13:34-35 and Luk 24:27, 45-46//Luk 9:45, 18:31-34; Joh 12:16, 13:7, 20:9; *the importance of this truth to our church: do not become unsettled by the fact that as we mature, God corrects our poor understanding of His spoken words from the past – e.g., Calvinism, baptism, Insurrection or the unforgiveable sin, what other things qualify as a capital crime, etc. ** what has never changed: our view that what a person needs to do to be saved is more than simply put faith in Christ, they must also be faithfully obedient to His laws).

5. God has also deliberately foregone giving the exact application for some of His spoken words to accommodate the changing moral climates experienced by His people throughout the world and redemptive history (e.g., Deu 25:1-3; 1Co 5:1-5 w/2Co 2:6-8; see also 2Co 8:21; *important not to miss: though the church is given freedom as to the application of these laws, that does not make our decisions arbitrary or without God’s authority and backing[2]; Mat 18:18-20).

6. Under Jesus’ new covenant kingdom, God has deliberately changed the way we are to understand and apply some of His previously spoken (or preserved) words (e.g., Rom 10:20-21 w/Isa 65:1-2; 1Co 5:1-5; Col 2:11-12; Act 15:17 w/Amo 9:12 [LXX versus MT[3]]).

7. In addition, God has deliberately made some of His spoken words hard to understand (e.g., 2Pe 3:16) so that those who truly love Him will truly understand it and those who don’t, won’t[4] (Jer 29:13 “with all of your heart” = Hard work motivated by love is the condition to finding God; Isa 6:10 w/1:1-15 and 5:24 = Dull and dim are God’s curse on those who refuse to love Him by listening to His laws [to love is to listen]; Mat 13:13-15; Joh 8:42-43; Act 28:27; 2Co 12:7-10 [the theory of desirable difficulty] = We are better at understanding things [we are “stronger”] when those things are presented in a difficult way[5]).

8. Though not always apparent on the surface, there are no contradictions or inconsistencies between the principles established by God’s spoken words in the Old Testament and those established in the New Testament (Hence the reason: 1) Jesus and the NT’s speakers always appeal to the OT in support of their position or teaching – e.g., Act 24:14 [roughly, one out of every three verses in the NT is a direct or indirect reference to the OT], 2) Paul supports the OT as a source for becoming “wise” about NT salvation or training in righteousness [2Ti 3:15-16], 3) the Scriptures used at the start of the 1st century church to discern truth from error was the OT [the NT didn’t exist] – e.g., Act 17:10-11//e.g., Act 15:17 w/Amo 9:12 = No contradiction in the way James applies Amos since the intended goal of the prophet’s words agree with James’s interpretation [i.e., the Gentiles will be able to seek God’s salvation w/o becoming Jews [“all the nations who are called by My name”. Hence Paul’s struggle w/the Jews – Gal 6:13-15 w/3:28).

9. The two worst things therefore a person can be, are: 1) lazy in working hard to understand God’s spoken words (2Pe 3:16 = The reason they are “untaught and unstable” is due to their unwillingness to put forth the effort or work to “grow” in their understanding of God’s new covenant plan [the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” They are “unprincipled men” [lazy – literally, w/o a law governing their behavior- most esp. God’s law – e.g., 2Pe 2:7], vv17-18; why so bad: v16b, “to their own destruction”) and 2) under the impression that no changes or corrections will be made to their understanding of God’s spoken words as a consequence of their growth in understanding (and therefore refuse to change – or call into question what is being taught) (this too is implied in 2Pe 3:16-18 = People refusing to grow are people refusing to change; e.g., Act 6:8-7:53 [51]; Gal 4:1-10 [8-10]; why so bad: Heb 6:1-8).

10. The end of first-century supernatural offices, brought an end to any additional spoken words from God in human history (1Co 13:8-10).

 

[1] By canonical confidence I mean, confidence that what we possess as God’s spoken words is enough to save us.

[2] Arbitrary (def.) based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

[3] Based on the evidence from other extant Jewish sources (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls), some scholars believe the LXX rendering to be the more accurate/correct rendering.

[4] To say that something is hard to understand does not mean the same thing as beyond human understanding. If this were true, then hardly could Peter (for example) make an appeal to Paul’s wisdom – or encourage other Christians to read his letters since their message would be indiscernible (2Pe 3:14-15). It should also be noted that acknowledging the difficulties of Scripture (i.e., their interpretation) does no violence to the doctrine of Perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. Clarity is not the same as simplicity. In the words of Mark D. Thompson, “The clarity of Scripture [does] not mean, and [has] never meant, that there are no difficulties in Scripture.” (A Clear And Present Word, p.153).

[5] For a popular culture treatment of this subject see Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath (Part 2: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty).

Canon – Formation

Canon (definition): Those books containing God’s spoken words (the Old and New Testaments otherwise known as Scripture, God’s Word or the Bible) preserved for the purpose of saving (physically, spiritually) His people (the covenant community).

 

A major deterrent to canonical confidence[1], is not only a poor understanding of the canon’s formation, but the intended function of God’s spoken words as communicated in the canon itself. Having addressed the latter (function), this study will address the former (formation). With that in mind, there are several important truths that must be understood with respect to the formation of the Canon – or those books believed to contain God’s spoken words:

 

1. By the time of Jesus and the apostles, the Old Testament had long been accepted by the Jews as the first installment of God’s spoken words.

1.1. First century Jewish historian, Josephus claims that the same books found in (our modern-day) Old Testaments, had long been considered God’s spoken words by the Jews, “For although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured neither to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable” (Against Apion, 1.38-42).

1.2. First century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria likewise acknowledges the Old Testament as God’s spoken words using the same three-fold structure used by Jesus to describe them (Luk 24:44 “the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms”), “The laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated [God spoke] by the holy prophets … and psalms” (On the Contemplative Life, 25; See also Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus and Dead Sea Scrolls, 4QMMT).

1.3. The way that Jesus and the apostles speak about the Old Testament, it is clear they too saw it as the first installment of God’s spoken words (i.e., as Scripture) (e.g., Mat 4:1-11, 9:13, 15:3-9, 22; Mar 12:10; Luk 4:21, 18:20; Joh 5:39, 7:38 10:35; Act 1:16, Rom 4:3; 2Ti 3:15-16; Jam 2:8; 1Pe 2:6).

1.4. Furthermore, 33 of the 39 Old Testament books are referenced or directly quoted by Jesus and other NT speakers[2]. Those not referenced or directly quoted: Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Song of Solomon, Obadiah[3].

1.5. Point not to miss: The OT (as the first canon or installment of God’s spoken words) was not only a forgone conclusion by the time of Jesus and the apostles, but something they and the other NT speakers firmly believed and promoted.

 

2. When the Old Testament speaks about the coming new kingdom (new Israel) and its Messiah, it also speaks about new spoken words from God (i.e., a new “testament” from God)[4].

2.1. Support: 1) (Deu 18:18 “put my words in His mouth and he shall speak”) = Messiah will speak new words from God [fulfilled: Mar 9:7; Joh 6:14, 7:40; Act 3:23-24, 7:37], 2) (Isa 11:1 “rod of His mouth”) = Messiah will judge the earth w/new spoken words from God [fulfilled: 2Th 2:8; Rev 1:16, 11:15, 19:15], 3) (Isa 61:1-2 “bring good news”) = Messiah will bring new spoken words of salvation [fulfilled: Luk 4:18-19], 4) (Isa 2:2-3 “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem [shall go forth to the nations]”) = The new spoken words from God will go forth from Jerusalem to the nations of the world [fulfilled: book of Acts]. David Pao believes Isaiah 2 to be the paradigm for the entire book of Acts[5] (In this light consider, Luk 24:46-47).

2.2. Literature from the Second Temple period make it clear that the Jews knew the Old Testament was not the end of God’s spoken words. IOW: there would be a second installment:

“The Jews of the Second Temple period were not a settled group. Despite having returned to their promised land, they still conceived of themselves as in ‘exile’ – they were still oppressed by foreign rulers (Bar 2:7-10; 2Macc 2:5-18; 4Q504 2-5; T. Mos. 4:8-9). Thus, Israel was in a posture of anticipation and longing; they were waiting for God to fulfill His promises to break into the world and redeem His people…Another way [therefore] to articulate Second Temple expectations…is to say that the Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete. When the Old Testament story of Israel was viewed as a whole, it was not viewed as something that was finished but as something that was waiting to be finished….That Second Temple Jews regarded the Old Testament story as incomplete and in need of a proper conclusion has significant implications for the production of a new corpus of biblical books. If some Second Temple Jews became convinced that the story was completed in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth – such as the earliest Christians did — the it is not unreasonable to think that the proper conclusion to the Old Testament might then be written. Indeed, the very structure of the Old Testament itself, with its truncated and forward-looking ending, naturally leads to the expectation that there would be a second installment of writings to finish the job. Otherwise, one would be left with a play that had no final act.” – Michael J. Kruger (The Question Of Canon)

 

“A new Israel would require new Scriptures.” – David Meade (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism and the Origins of the New Testament Canon of Scripture.”)

 

3. The concept of a new covenant also points to a second installment of new spoken words from God.

3.1. Scholars have long observed that “where there is a divine covenant…there is a divine covenantal document [containing God’s spoken words].”[6]

3.2. So close is the connection between covenant and an accompanying document containing God’s spoken words, that the OT authors would frequently equate the two. To possess a covenant w/God meant to possess spoken words from God (Exo 24:7; Deu 4:13, 29:21; 2Ki 23:2).

3. It is therefore safe to assume that the early Christians – who were also highly covenantal in their understanding of their new faith, were expecting new spoken words from God (a New Testament to go with their new covenant).

 

“The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts [of God’s spoken words for that covenant]…If they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents [of God’s spoken words] to testify to the terms of that [new] covenant.” – Kruger

 

4. At least some of the New Testament authors were aware they were writing the second installment of God’s spoken words (i.e., the New Testament).

4.1. Consider for example, Peter’s use of the word “Scripture” when speaking about the writings of Paul (2Pe 3:16). Paul likewise uses the word “Scripture” when referring to a saying from Jesus in Luke’s gospel (1Ti 5:18 w/Luk 10:17). Certainly, such identification was not lost on the authors themselves. IOW: the authors (Paul and Luke) also shared the view that what they were writing was indeed Scripture (Consider Paul’s words in 1Co 14:37-38).

4.2. Assuming Luke felt the same way about his other book, the book of Acts, means we have accounted for over half the books in the NT (15 of the 27) or 139 of its 260 chapters (53%). Chances therefore are high that those writing the remaining portion also knew they were writing Scripture.

4.3. As additional support, many scholars believe that all of the NT’s authors believed they were preserving apostolic witness – i.e., that God was (through them) preserving (in written form) His (or Jesus’) spoken words to the apostles (Joh 14:26 w/17:8). And their belief shares substantial patristic evidence. The early church fathers, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus all believed this to be true. For example, they believed the gospel of Mark to be the embodiment of Peter’s teaching about Jesus (captured by his “ghost writer” Mark, before His death) (See 2Pe 1:3-15; Mark is identified in the NT as “John Mark”, the cousin of Barnabas and close friend to the apostles [Act 12:25]).

4.4. Finally, the literary structure of the New Testament also bears witness to canonical awareness and intent. The NT authors wrote their respective books to mimic the language and patterns found in the Old Testament. For example: 1) the author of Hebrews presents the terms of the new covenant through Christ in the same mode and manner as the terms of old covenant through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. So close is the literary structure of Hebrews to that of Deuteronomy, that David M. Allen concludes that Hebrews “does not just use Deuteronomy, it becomes the new Deuteronomy.” (Deuteronomy & Exhortation in Hebrews: A Study in Re-presentation), 2) Matthew appears to be molding his Gospel after the first five books of the Old Testament – or the writings of Moses (the Pentateuch). Even the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel bears witness to Scriptural (or canonical) intent. He begins with a genealogy and ends with a great commission – both vivid echoes of the book of Chronicles (1Chr 1-8; 2Chr 36:23), the last books in Israel’s history and the perfect place to therefore begin God’s new plan (and promise) of deliverance.

 

“Matthew constructs his Gospel partly to reflect the beginning and ending of Chronicles.” – G.K. Beale (The Temple And the Church’s Mission)

 

5. The church’s role was never to determine what should be a part of the New Testament canon, but to recognize what already was.

5.1. In the words of Bruce Metzger, “Neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.” (The New Testament, Its Background, Growth And Content).

5.2. Based on numerous quotations from the 2nd century early church fathers, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, all 27 books of our modern-day New Testaments had already been recognized as Scripture by the time of – or shortly after, the death of the apostles[7].

 

“We have learned from none other the plan of salvation, than from those 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.” – Irenaeus (Against Heresies)

 

“The fact that the collections of new Christian Scriptures used by Clement and Irenaeus…on the opposite sides of the Mediterranean Sea, resemble each other so closely, undermines the notion that churches, at a relatively late date in the second century, were only beginning to sort through a large mass of Christian writings.” – Charles E. Hill (Who Chose The Books Of The New Testament?)

 

5.3. Point not to miss: the self-authenticating qualities of the 27 books which make up the NT canon were so obvious, that their place in the Bible – as the second installment of God’s spoken words, was accepted and promoted immediately – or almost immediately after they were written.

 

6. What (then) were the “self-authenticating qualities” that caused the early church to recognize them as God’s new spoken words (i.e., NT Scripture)?

6.1. agreement with the Old Testament gospel, focus and theology: The NT authors used the OT Scriptures to prove their New Covenant beliefs, demonstrating the agreement that existed between their gospel, focus and theology and the prior covenant (OC) (e.g., 1Co 15:3-4; Act 8:35, 17:11, 18:24)[8].

6.2. authorship: All the NT books were written by an apostle – or someone appointed by them to write on their behalf: 1) Mark (for Peter), 2) Luke and Acts (for Paul, [Luke was his travelling companion – Col 4:14; 2Ti 4:11, Phm 1:24]), 3) Hebrews (early church attributed to Paul), 4) Jude (the apostle Judas [Thaddeus] brother of James and half-brother of Jesus – Luk 6:16; Joh 14:22; Mat 13:55), 5) James (an apostle, brother to Jude and half-brother of Jesus – Gal 1:19).

6.3. writing style and format: a common distinction between those books accepted as part of our New Testament versus the many writings that were not, are their writing style and format. Recovered fragments of the NT books were always written in “biblical [or book] majuscule”: a professional upright form of writing used in legal documents. In contrast, other books (pseudo scripture or gospels – e.g., the gospel of Mary) were always written in the informal style of cursive. Likewise, the biblical books were always written on a codex (think of a book w/pages) versus in the informal format of a scroll (the format used by the pseudo documents)[9].

6.4. circulation among the churches

“There may have been eight to ten or maybe even twelve other gospels circulating in the second or third centuries, so, two to three times as many non-canonical as canonical ones. But simply estimating the number of gospels in existence does not tell us how many people or churches were using each one, or for what purpose they might have been using them. Currently, archaeologists have dug up ten fragments from one of the maybe eight to twelve non-canonical gospels dated to the second or third centuries. [In contrast however], the number of fragments of one of the four canonical Gospels from the same period is about forty, so a ratio of four to one. This suggests that, even though there were more alternative [pseudo] gospels than canonical Gospels in existence, apparently these others weren’t being copied and circulated as much as the four.” – Hill

[1] By canonical confidence I mean, confidence that what we possess as God’s spoken words is enough to save us.

[2] See

“Old Testament Passages in the New Testament”, preceptaustin.org; For those not

listed, see Heb 11:32-34 for Judges, Mat 27:30 for Lamentations

[3] Though not referenced or directly quotes these books contain motifs and principles repeated and alluded to throughout the NT (e.g., the Kinsmen Redeemer motif of Ruth; the marriage covenant love of Messiah and His bride motif of SoS; the principles of true discipleship and learning established by Ezra and Nehemiah).

[4] What I will be arguing for in this – and the remaining points, is what has been referred to as the “intrinsic model” for canon formation. Simply put it argues that the phenomenon of canon was one that arose early and naturally as the consequence of the Old Testament witness (the current point) and deliberate sense the church possessed as to the need for writing down what they believed were God’s new spoken words.

[5] See Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus

[6] Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority

[7] See Charles E. Hill’s list in Who Chose The Books Of The New Testament?

[8] For an example of this in the patristic writings, see Justin Martyr’s, Dialogue With Trypoho

[9] See Hill, p.15-18