Questions of Canon – Who Gets to Decide What’s in the Bible? Criteria for Recognition

Gutenburg BibleI once won a wrestling match 0-0. How can you win a match when no one scores any points? In this case, because we were tied at the end of an overtime period, the referee was forced to consult the criteria for a tie break. The first five criteria didn’t apply, so he was forced to consult the sixth (and final) criterion…most aggressive wrestler. In his opinion that was I. My brother, who was watching the match and still mocks me for winning a match 0-0, felt that the ref was confused and had it backwards. Backwards or no, it was certainly a subjective criterion! Was the formation of the canon of scripture similarly subjective? What were the criteria used to determine canonicity?

In our last post, we began to explore the formation of the canon of scripture – that list of the books which make up our Bible.

Did this happen randomly or haphazardly? Were these books just thrown together in a lump? Did they accumulate over the centuries in a pile without any real discernment as to their validity? No siree.

Was it instead a politically-driven, manipulative process whereby nefarious Church authorities foisted upon the unwashed masses an authoritative corpus of materials in order to control them? Uh-uh.

Though these kinds of theories excite those who enjoy the idea of being liberated from an authoritative word from on high, they are not the way in which the canon came to be. The formation of the canon is a whole lot more amazing (and at the same time, mundane) than this.

The understanding of canon was not based upon the arbitrary assertion of church authorities, but was instead due to the demonstration of these texts as the Word of God by the Holy Spirit. First Jewish believers (for the OT), then Christian believers (for the NT) simply came to recognize the nature of these books as the authoritative Word of God.

How were they able to do so? What criteria were used to recognize this? It wasn’t just a “hunch,” or a warm fuzzy feeling they received when they read these texts. They used criteria such as the following:

Prophetic/apostolic Origin – The first and most important criterion was that of having prophetic origin (for an OT book) or apostolic origin (for a NT book). Not just any Tom, Dick, or Harry could write scripture. Only a recognized prophet of God (and there were criteria for being one of those) or an apostle of Jesus Christ (those who were from the first eye witnesses (see Acts 1)) could produce scripture. An apostle need not have been the direct author, but needs to have been associated with the text in order for it to be recognized as valid (as Peter for Mark, or Paul for Luke). Because of this criterion, there can be no new revelation (no more apostles – the canon is complete…sorry Joseph Smith, Muhammad, et al.). Ultimately this is a Holy Spirit criterion, because the Spirit of God spoke through these authoritative witnesses: apostles and prophets.

Provenance – A second criterion is that these books had a known pedigree.   They could be traced back to the inspired author through a period of continuous use. You couldn’t just “find” a letter of Paul in 300 AD and expect that it would be received as scripture. There could be no Johnny Come Latelies to the canon of scripture. This is a Holy Spirit criterion because it recognizes the providential care of God in preserving these texts over the period of history from their authorship to the time of official canonical status.

Universal Recognition – A third criterion is universal recognition. Has this text been received and recognized throughout the broader Christian world, or is it the pet text of a particular narrow stream of the church? If it is only received as scripture in one city or valley, but rejected more broadly, it would not have received recognition as scripture. This is a Holy Spirit criterion, for it recognizes that the Holy Spirit unites all of God’s people, and preserves His Word through the witness of the church universal.

Consistency with Known Revelation – If someone claimed a text to be scripture which stood in stark contradiction to a known scripture, it would be rejected as non-canonical. Why? Because God is a God of order, not of disorder. He doesn’t lie and he doesn’t change his mind. His Word must likewise be consistent (if it is truly his Word). This is a Holy Spirit criterion as it recognizes that the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17).

Internal Testimony – there is one criterion which truly is subjective (in keeping with my powerful illustration, I’ve kept it until last) – the internal testimony of the Spirit. The “truthiness” of the text, the internal witness of the soul that assures the reader that this is not simply the words of men, but is, in fact, the Word of God. This is a Holy Spirit criterion in which the Spirit of God testifies with our spirit that this is indeed God’s Word.

There are other criteria as well, but these are the most important ones. In our next posts we’ll begin to explore the specific application of these criteria to the Old and New Testaments.