It is worth making the distinction made by Kruger (2012) in relation to the difference between de facto and de jure objections (p. 20). This positional paper is based on the latter which in contrast to the de facto, which seeks to establish with certainty that belief in the 27-book canon as a false belief, while the de jure response to an objection simply seeks to provide a rational basis for the belief that the current canon is what God intended. It is not feasible to expect that any argument on this subject, given the pre-suppositions everyone has about theology, can prove the truth of the canon to a skeptic and this paper has no similar illusions. The Apostle Paul to the Gentiles makes mention of this truth in his letter to the Corinthians and indeed it persists into the present evil age, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
This argument begins by examining the historical process for the establishment of the New Testament together with the theological implications for a closed canon and how that influences the modern revelation of God.
Historical Process which Resulted in the Acknowledged Canon by the Church
For anyone that fails to believe in God and therefore has no sense for a divine consciousness the question about history is reduced to a one-dimensional problem on the human level seeking to understand who’s will prevailed and why. For those of us fortunate enough to conceive of an infinitely greater will of an infinitely greater being the question is multi-dimensional in that our God can and will use humanity to accomplish His will or at other times interrupt the normal order of the universe to impose His will upon His created order, as is recorded in many miraculous events in Biblical history. I will use the term “natural man” to describe men and women, boys and girls who fall in the first camp and “spiritual man” to describe the fortunate few in the second. Christians claim that the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, is inspired by God and is inerrant and reliable, it has been preserved through two millennia and today stands as the only authority by which Christians may judge lives lived before a Holy and righteous God. In my study of objections raised about these claims I am struck by the pattern whereby most objections can be reduced to unbelief.
As an example, I recall the common contemporary scholarly argument of Smith (2000) that the canon came about long after the books thereof were written, that it’s constitution was artificial because the constituent books were written with a different purpose (as cited by Kruger, 2012, p. 160). To suggest that the formation of the canon is a result of political power struggles that inevitably arose long after the original authors penned the writings is entirely within the realm of the natural, but it denies the possibility that they were not collected by man but by a God intent in giving his people the documents of the covenant He had made with them (Kruger, 2012, p. 104). The narrative of redemption, initiated by God, because of man’s fall from grace at the beginning of human history, is not an after-thought but rather something anticipated and ordained from eternity past by a God who is outside of the temporal chronology of time we mortals experience. The Bible testifies to the Eternal Trinitarian Arrangement (Isa. 49:8; 53:10-12; John 6:37-40; 10:18; 14:31; 17:2,4; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Eph. 1:3-8; 3:10-12; 2 Tim. 1:9) whereby the second person of the One-Triune God, the Son, willingly submitted to the will of the Father and emptied Himself of His glory by the miraculous virgin birth of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Kruger (2012) does well to remind us that it is the covenant people and not individuals who are entrusted with the oracles of God (p. 104) and the Bible testifies (Rom. 3:2). Furthermore, Kruger (2012) identifies the pattern whereby after God’s special and powerful works of redemption in history are accomplished the documents pertaining to that covenant are made available (p. 109; Exo. 20:2; John 20:31). Not only the covenant documents but also those who represent the authority from God are delegated that authority and sent as a witness to the people of the covenant as is evident in the Apostles being sent by Jesus who in turn was sent by the Father. God so intended, even ordained, that this gospel message would be preached and established as official Christian doctrine within the churches established and labored over by these same Apostles (Kruger, 2012, p. 109).
In response to this overwhelming body of evidence that testifies to a redemptive narrative arc of history that flows in one continuum the skeptics like Koester myopically focus the discussion upon a second-century heretic named Marcion as the cause for the creation of the canon by the church father Irenaeus in a defense against the faith (Kruger, 2012, p. 161). McDonald, Barr and Gamble follow Koester and Smith to conclude that the “idea of a Christian faith governed by Christian written holy Scriptures was not an essential part of the foundation plan of Christianity” (as cited by Kruger, 2012, p. 161). There is a strong warning against rejecting the witness of the Apostles, ministers of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:6) because it rejects Jesus, the mediator of that covenant (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), and ultimately the Father (Luke 10:16).
Kruger explains the connection between the covenant and the canon in chapter 5 when referring to the structure of Ancient Near East treaties comprising of preamble, prologue etc. and ultimately relevant the structure includes the deposits of the written text as permanent witnesses to the covenantal arrangement (p. 164). Kline says of this, “The duplicate tables of the covenant at Sinai reflect the custom of preparing copies of the treaty for each covenant party” (as cited by Kruger, 2012, p. 165). Kruger says, “canon is inherent to and derives its function from the concept of covenant” (p. 165).
Throughout this section I have sought to establish that, according to the natural man, the cause for the collection of the 27 books of the New Testament Canon is purely a function of the will of man and the natural outworking of that but for the spiritual man, it is the culmination of the for-ordained will of the Almighty God and therefore not subject to challenge by the puny will of man. In the next sections I will attempt to briefly discuss the implications of these theological convictions on the people of God and his preserved revelation to us in the Bibles we hold in our hands today.
Theological Implications for a Closed Canon
If the NT revelation of God to His people is complete and captured within the 27 books of the closed canon then does God still speak to His people today? Or stated another way, can God speak to His people through a closed canon or is it necessary to have new revelations from books that ought to be added to an ever-expanding canon?
Outside of the scope of this paper is the discussion on the myriad of ways God can reveal Himself to his people, save to say, He is not limited to our imaginations and can accomplish His purposes with or without written revelations. The question of the completed or closed list of books that constitute the NT is not new but according to Kruger (2012) the early Christians wrestled with these questions and for them it was commonly believed that the canon was closed. Examples include Dionysius, Irenaeus (p. 282), Gaius and Origen (p. 283). These examples reveal that contrary to common contemporary thinking, the composition of the books of the canon was not a fluid matter where books where easily added to the list of approved books of the NT (p. 286). There was not unanimous agreement either that the books selected where in fact the right ones nevertheless God is capable to work through human agency, including human error and fallibility, in order that His perfect will, plan and purpose can be established. There was no official formal declaration on the canon but rather the consensus was established over a process of time and settled upon by the fourth century, though from God’s perspective the canon was complete the very moment the last apostle penned the Holy Spirit inspired word of God (p. 286).
Kruger (2012) makes the point that the fact that the 27 books of the NT were available to the church throughout its history and by contrast certain books, albeit they may be inspired, were not available but lost, means these books were never canonical to begin (p. 97). God did not choose to preserve the books and hence they were lost. To argue that man lost them is an argument that goes against the sovereignty of God and elevates the will of man such that he or she can frustrate the purpose of God who becomes reactive and must resort to “plan-B” or C or …Z to deal with the crafty worms. This to me is almost on the point of being heretical. A God who is frustrated by humans is not the God I believe in. In addition to the providential exposure of the church to the 27 book NT canon is the idea of the redemptive narrative arc, God reconciling fallen humanity to Himself, that all scripture has.
The OT is act 1 of the redemptive story and the NT books fit, with doctrinal and historical unity as they conclude the first act. Gospel of Thomas lacks this redemptive-historical unity and is not narrative and thus can be rejected according to Kruger (p. 149).
The historical process the church used to establish which books constitute the NT was based upon the understanding of the covenantal relationships that God had used in dealing with His chosen people, specifically the Mosaic and New Covenants, together with the plan of salvation of a people by God Himself through a mediator and savior Jesus Christ. The theological implications result in a tradition handed down from Jesus to the Apostles who establish the church with the documents of the new covenant as defined and complete when the Apostles wrote the books even though official recognition and unity on that composition was a process that took three centuries to solidify. Although heretical teaching and the church’s response thereto played a role it was always the purpose of God to have His covenant written down as witness to future generations and His is the ultimate first cause.
“Should Christians abandon their commitment to the canon’s authority because biblical critics, who view scriptural interpretation as merely a human enterprise, claim to have discovered theological incongruities? No, because Christians have no grounds for thinking that those without the Spirit can rightly discern such things—indeed, Christians have good grounds for thinking they cannot.” (Kruger, 2012, p. 147). I believe this rhetorical question speaks to those who have ears to hear.
Kruger, M. J. (2012). Canon revisited: establishing the origins and authority of the new testament books. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.