Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Canon of the New Testament as Self-Authenticating

The task of the early church in the development of the canon of the New Testament was different from ours today. In the early church, Kruger notes “in the early stages of the development of the New Testament, the canonical process was not so much about the early church choosing books on the basis of some formal criteria as it was a matter of early Christians receiving what had been handed down to them from the very start (82).

Thus, Paul wrote a letter. The church that received it kept a copy of it. Paul wrote another letter. The second church kept a copy, and also got a copy of the letter to the first church. It was the same process for the third church, the fourth church, and so on. And in the process, perhaps Paul himself kept a collection of his own letters.

There never was a time when these letters were not “scripture”, and there never was a time when these letters required “a table of contents”. And there never was a time when this collection of letters required the ratification from some outside body in order to be considered to be authoritative.

Our task is different. As noted in my previous post, it’s important to state what Kruger is and isn’t trying to accomplish. He states his purpose early in the Introduction of the work:

This volume is concerned with the narrow question of whether Christians [today] have a rational basis (i.e., intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully being on the New Testament canon. Or, put differently, is the Christian belief in the canon justified (or warranted)? (20)

Kruger finds that justified, warranted belief in the New Testament canon in what he calls the “self-authenticating” view.

Before getting into the meat of his presentation, he clarifies an epistemological question:

…for some who are used to a more foundational epistemological, the idea of a self-authenticating canon of Scripture might seem a bit strange. We tend to think that we are not justified in holding a belief unless it can be authenticated on the basis of other beliefs. But as we have already noted, this approach overlooks the unique nature of the canon. The canon, as God’s Word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority. So, how do we offer an account of how we know that an ultimate authority is, in fact, the ultimate authority? If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority. Thus, for ultimate authorities to be ultimate authorities, they have to be the standard for their own authentication.

Although this whole line of thought can sound a bit circular to some, that is inevitable given the nature of the question being asked…

“There is no escape from [at least some] epistemic circularity in the assessment of our fundamental source of belief”

…  a self-authenticating canon … is not all that different (in principle) from the way we apply the teaching of Scripture to any other question before us, whether politics, science, the arts, or anything else. And whenever the Scripture is applied to an issue, it is perfectly appropriate (and necessary) to use extrabiblical “facts.” For example, if we want to apply the teachings of Scripture to, say, the field of bioethics (stem-cell research, human cloning, etc.), then we cannot read the Bible only; the Bible does not speak directly of these things. It does not tell us what the cloning is and what it entails. We actually have to acquire some outside information about these bioethical issues before we can reach biblical conclusions about them. So it is when it comes to applying the Scriptures to the question of canon. But just because our conclusions required extrabibilical data does not mean the conclusions themselves are unbiblical or uncertain. We can still have biblical knowledge even with extrabiblical data...

The Westminster Confession affirms a similar idea when it says that authority belongs not only to those teachings “expressly set down in Scripture” but also to that which “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture (WCF 1.6). Similarly, even thought eh Scripture does not directly tell us which books belong in the New Testament canon (i.e., there is no inspired “table of contents”), we can account of that knowledge if we apply Scripture to the question. …

When we do apply the Scripture to the question of which books belong in the canon, we shall see that it testifies to the fact that God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein the belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed. This epistemic environment includes three components:

·         Providential exposure. In order for the church to be able to recognize the books of the canon, it must first be providentially exposed to these books. The church cannot recognize a book that it does not have.

·         Attributes of canonicity. These attributes are basically characteristics that distinguish canonical books from all other books. There are three attributes of canonicity: (1) divine qualities (canonical books bear the “marks” of divinity), (2) corporate reception (canonical books are recognized by the church as a whole), and (3) apostolic origins (canonical books are the result of the redemptive-historical activity of the apostles).

·         Internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. In order for believers to rightly recognize these attributes of canonicity, the Holy Spirit works to overcome the noetic effects of sin and produces belief that these books are from God.

(From pages 91-93).

I’ll go into more details about these elements next time, Lord willing. 


  1. Very ironic that I was discussing with a RC on facebook just a few hours ago who attempted to use that very phrase "table of contents" as an attempt to force me to agree that an external justification of Scripture as God-breathed is necessary. I said pretty much the same thing in reply.

  2. Hi Ryan. I’m sure you’ve seen this post.:

    would an “inspired table of contents” really solve the problem as Patton (and Catholics) maintain? Let us imagine for a moment that God had inspired another document in the first century which contained this ‘table of contents’ and had given it to the church. We will call this the 28th book of the New Testament canon. Would the existence of such a book satisfy Catholic concerns and thus eliminate the need for an appeal to church tradition? Not at all. Instead, they would simply ask the next logical question: “On what basis do you know that this 28th book comes from God?” And even if it were argued that God had given a 29th book saying the 28th book came from God, then the same objection would still apply: “Yes, but how do you know the 29th book came from God?” And on it would go. The Catholic (and Patton’s) objection about the need for a ‘table of contents,’ therefore, misses the point entirely….

    Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication. The Catholic model so over-emphasizes church tradition as the only means of knowing that, at least in practice, they ignore the internal qualities of the books themselves. The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture. It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God.

  3. Yes. Or more generally, as I wrote to the RC:

    Do you think "a precondition for knowledge of any proposition is external justification"? If so, what external justification do you have for believing that proposition?

    Still waiting on a reply to that one :)

  4. Circularity is only problematic in it's most basic form. If the elements of the argument are true then it's not circular, it's concurrent. Concurrence is valid.

    In the case of the scriptures, they are self-authenticating because of their interaction with the history they are part of.

    Incidentally, this is also why the Koran is self-refuting.