Saturday, July 17, 2010

The NT as Scripture

One of the unquestioned assumptions we often run into in discussions of the canon is that it took Christians a certain amount of time to elevate the NT to the canonical status of the OT. But it isn’t obvious what that assumption is based on.

1. Presumably, that assumption hinges on something like this: Jews had venerated the OT for centuries, so there’d an initial barrier to overcome in raising the newly-minted writings of the NT to the same exalted status. That’s not something which would happen overnight.

Now perhaps there’s some truth to this argument. Indeed, many Jews never made that transition. They never became Christians.

2. However, even on its own terms, it doesn’t follow. After all, an OT prophet like Moses or Isaiah didn’t ask his audience to mull over what he said for a few centuries before honoring his message as the word of God. No. The obligation to believe and obey was instantaneous.

There was, of course, a distinction between true and false prophets, but if a prophet was a true prophet, then his message demanded immediate acceptance.

3. But even if, for the sake of argument, we postulate that Messianic Jews were somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the NT writings as Scripture, most converts to the Christian faith were converts from paganism, not Judaism. And I don’t see that a pagan convert to Christianity would have any psychological threshold to cross before receiving the NT writings as inspired Scripture. Nothing over and above his conversion itself. For the OT was never his standard of comparison.

If anything, his heathen background might predispose him to be too inclusive rather than too exclusive concerning what was “inspired.” Too indiscriminate rather than too discriminating.

4. We do have an intermediate group: gentiles who converted to Christianity via Judaism. In other words, gentiles (Godfearers, proselytes) who first converted to Judaism, then converted to Christianity.

But in their case, I don’t see that accepting the NT as Scripture would be any more of a hurdle than accepting the OT as Scripture. After all, they already came to the OT from scratch.


  1. I'll add some thoughts of my own to the points Steve has made, which I agree with.

    The evidence suggests that New Testament books were viewed as scripture in the New Testament itself and among the earliest patristic sources. See the examples discussed here. It's true that references to New Testament documents as scripture become much more frequent and somewhat more explicit from the second half of the second century onward. But that would be explained partially by the fact that we have so much more literature from that timeframe. And those later sources don't seem to be struggling with the issue or needing to convince their audiences. Irenaeus, for example, refers to a wide variety of New Testament books as scripture without seeming to anticipate any significant dispute about it. He apparently expected at least most of his readers to have already accepted the view that the books in question are scripture.

    If the critic is focusing on the length of time it took to reach a general consensus on the New Testament canon, it should be noted that it also takes lengthy periods of time to reach a consensus on other canons of literature. To this day, there are disputes over what Plato wrote, what John Chrysostom did and didn't write, etc. See here.

  2. Donald Hagner wrote a work in which he analyzed the works of the OT and the NT in 1 Clement. Not much of this work is available on Google Books:

    But Hagner's conclusion is that not only did Clement quote extensively from a variety of NT works, but "that no great change in the valuation of the new writings took place between the time of Clement and the end of the second century." (Pg 348)

    I think it's possible to say that Clement didn't understand what it was that he was quoting. But he was citing the NT extensively in 96 ad.

  3. The aspect of this that usually bugs me is the notion that a bunch of men in councils somewhere, somehow decided on what was and wasn't scripture, centuries after they were written. This is a very Roman-ish notion that can easily lead one to the position that the Church is the creator and arbiter of the truth rather than the recipient, which is very much the way I think Rome behaves.

    Yet, that's not at all what we see represented in the letters we have from the NT authors. We have letters and books that were immediately received as the whole truth regarding gospel and doctrine. The secondary recipients would have viewed them the same as the tertiary and on. This has continued over the millenia until today among believers. The only modification is that, by necessity of this being centuries later, our understanding is laden with more tradition and history and commentary than the fathers had.