Sunday, May 03, 2009

The New Testament Canon And Evangelicalism

I've been studying some issues related to the New Testament canon in recent months. I've considered preparing a series of articles on the subject, which I would post after all of the articles are written. But I've decided to take a different approach. There are a lot of subjects related to the canon that I want to address, and there's a lot I want to say about some of those subjects. It would take me a long time to put everything together into one series, and I think it's less likely that people will read everything if I post it all around the same time. What I intend to do, instead, is post individual articles as I have the time and interest to do so. All of the posts will be accessible under the labels at the end of each post ("canonics", "Jason Engwer", etc.), so they'll be organized in that sense. But there may be a few days, a week, or longer between each post, and the topic and depth of coverage can significantly change from one post to another. The amount of time I have and my knowledge of the issues, for example, will vary.

My perception is that canonical issues aren't discussed as often as they should be among Evangelicals. A much better case can be made for an Evangelical view of the canon than is commonly made. I want to get some information and arguments on the table that are often neglected.

If anybody wants to post their own comments on the subject, or wants to request that I address some canonical issue in particular, you can do so by posting a comment in any of these threads. Since I don't have a series of articles already written, I can change course or expand the discussion if needed.

In this introductory post, I want to recommend some resources and give some representative examples of what critics of Evangelicalism have said about the New Testament canon. I won't be addressing every claim made by every source I cite. And the examples below are just several of many more that could be cited. Anybody who has much experience with atheists, Roman Catholics, and other critics of Evangelicalism should know that canon issues often come up, and the credibility of the claims that are made can vary a lot from one source to another.

I'm largely dissatisfied with the material I've read on the New Testament canon over the years. But one of the best sources I'm aware of on the topic is Everett Ferguson's chapter in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), pp. 295-320. He addresses many of the misleading claims made by sources like the ones I'll be quoting below. There's a good chapter on the canon in D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction To The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), pp. 726-743. We've discussed canonical issues on this blog many times, and you can access some of our posts on the subject here.

I'll close this introductory post with some representative examples of comments made about the New Testament canon by critics of Evangelicalism. Some of the critics are more credible than others, and some of the claims are more reasonable than others. But this sort of diversity is what you'll find if you spend much time interacting with people on canonical issues. How prepared are you to address such claims?

"Many Christians today may think that the canon of the New Testament simply appeared on the scene one day, soon after the death of Jesus, but nothing could be farther from the truth. As it turns out, we are able to pinpoint the first time that any Christian of record listed the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as the books of the New Testament - neither more nor fewer. Surprising as it may seem, this Christian was writing in the second half of the fourth century, nearly three hundred years after the books of the New Testament had themselves been written. The author was the powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius. In the year 367 C.E., Athanasius wrote his annual pastoral letter to the Egyptian churches under his jurisdiction, and in it he included advice concerning which books should be read as scripture in the churches. He lists our twenty-seven books, excluding all others. This is the first surviving instance of anyone affirming our set of books as the New Testament." (Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], p. 36)

"It is no secret that for the first 100 years of Christian history there was no New Testament, nor were particular writings of Christian luminaries treated as scripture. On the contrary, only the Old Testament was accorded the status of scripture among the groups which would become the proto-orthodox. Christians interpreted the OT scriptures in many varied and sometimes contradictory ways under the claimed inspiration of the spirit of Christ, but their writings did not carry the weight of scripture....Marcion gives us the first attestation to the Pauline epistles. Without him, Paul's letters may never have been known....In that Marcionite congregations were called synagogues, and were referred to as Satanic, it is interesting that John the revelator calls a group of churches in Asia Minor (Marcionite territory) 'synagogues of Satan.'...Church leaders arbitrarily set up standards for accepting a writing as authentic and authoritative. The critera included a claim to have been written by an apostle, a claim to have been written by someone who knew an apostle, and a writing had to reflect the beliefs of a broad part of the proto-orthodox movement. Another word for this is tradition. Since many of the newly authored writings had no basis for apostolic authorship claims, the church looked for and/or created stories on the thinnest of rationale to claim apostolicity for the various expanded canon. This is a place where protestant adherants to the sola scriptura principle need to take a breath and realize that many of the NT books which were finally declared canonical are there only on account of church tradition. As Bonhoffer put it, 'Protestants, in denying the authority of tradition, have cut off the branch on which they sit.'...Today's protestant fundamentalists have Marcion to thank for their doctrine of scripture alone. Prior to him, there was no apparent interest in according authority to any Christian writings, let alone calling them scripture....Irenaeus of Lyon, writing against Marcion ca 190 CE was part of the scramble to create an authoritative canon to counter him and to define the faith. His dubious criteria for choosing just four gospels out of the dozens floating around at his time gave us the 'historical Jesus' as we know him. As he said, there can only be four gospels because there are four winds (directions of the compass), seems a bit tenuous as a means of weeding out other gospels. Why just four? 'Just because...' None of the four chosen can make a strong case for apostolicity." (Debunking Christianity)

"If no one till St. Athanasius (in 367) listed the 27 New Testament books, who was it that knew what he knew before a council finally settled the issue? We have no record of any such person who got it all 'correct.'" (Dave Armstrong)

"How do you know what constitutes the New Testament canon? How do you know for certain that these 27 books here in your New Testament are in fact inspired and should be in the New Testament? And how do you know for certain that maybe some inspired books haven’t been left out of the canon?...Tell me, what is so obvious in Philemon to indicate that it is inspired? And what is so obviously unorthodox in The Shepherd or the Didache or Clement’s letter or any of the other first- and second-century Christian writings?...Like it or not, you have to take the say-so of the Catholic Church that in fact those copies are accurate, as well as her decision that those 27 books are the inspired canonical New Testament Scriptures....Tell me, what’s in these books that so obviously makes them inspired? If you didn’t know that Philemon was written by Paul or that 3 John was written by John, would you give either a second reading?" (Catholic Answers)

"If you need a Bible to get doctrine, but you obviously need to use doctrine to get a Bible, then you’ve got a pretty big problem....'When did the New Testament we have first appear?' 'In A.D. 367, in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius.'...The Reformation clearly demonstrates the fallacy of believing the Holy Spirit will enlighten each individual Christian as to the extent of the canon. It was in this period the canon received its first challenges in over a thousand years. Most of the reformers followed Luther in removing Revelation from the canon....My point is you don’t have a reliable Bible unless the Catholic Church’s decision regarding the canon was infallible." (Catholic Answers)

"Athanasius's Festal Letter 39 (367) is recognized as the first document to list our present twenty-seven-book New Testament as 'canonical.'...Further, it is an interesting anomaly that evangelicals generally use Athanasius's New Testament list for support on canonical issues but tend to ignore his Old Testament list, which includes apocryphal books. If he is authoritative for one, why is he not authoritative for the other?" (Craig Allert, A High View Of Scripture? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007], p. 51 and n. 39 on p. 51)


  1. I'm excited about this series, Jason. I look forward to reading it.

    Would it be possible to eventually include some material on why Hebrews is considered part of the canon? I have some thoughts on the issue (e.g. appealing to Hebrews 5:23), but my knowledge in this area feels deficient.

  2. My apologies. I meant Hebrews 13:23.

  3. Yes, Matthew, I do intend to address the canonical criteria, including why Hebrews should be included. Hebrews 13:23 is relevant, though there's a lot of other data involved as well.

    I don't know what the timing will be, in terms of when I'll be addressing the canonicity of Hebrews and the related issues. I've had a lot of overtime at work in recent weeks, so it looks like I may not have much more time for these posts this week. I expect to get at least one more posted later in the week, but I may not even get that done.

  4. I have found the 'Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture' series, general editor Thomas C. Oden, helpful in learning about some of the issues behind the selection of texts for inclusion in the NT, from the introductions to the various NT volumes.

    The commentaries selected have also been interesting for learning how the early church fathers constructed their arguments from Old and New Testament texts. For the most part, we don't use the same reasoning methods today, but understanding their thinking provides some insight into how we ended up with the content we have today.