This post was originally published on February 8, 2010.
These discussions all focus on the question “how do we know which books belong in the canon”? There are two important points I want to make regarding the canon before looking at the process and how I can accept a fallible list of infallible books. First is that God determines the canon by inspiring the author of the books. Second is that man is left to discover which books are inspired and therefore part of the canon. The question then is did the Holy Spirit aid this process and to what degree can we infer infallibility of the discovery phase. I provided some difficulties regarding the infallibility of the list here and here.
So how did God determine which books/letters were inspired? He chose and enabled a prophet/apostle to speak and later write what He revealed. The history of the transmission of the OT and NT demonstrates that God speaks through prophets and apostles giving them a message that is clear, confirmable, and unmistakably from Him. These prophets/apostles in turn deliver this message – Thus says the LORD – verbally to others. These messages are often confirmed with near-term prophetic fulfillment and/or signs and wonders. Sometimes the prophets recorded their messages in writing (Isaiah 30:8; Jeremiah 36:2) and other times they did not (Elijah). These verbally transmitted messages could be tested and accepted or rejected by the original audience based on criteria set out by the LORD (Deut 18:15-21). Once the audience was able to confirm the prophet/apostle as authentic, the future writings could also be confirmed. This is the basic process that was used to discover the inspired texts and correctly add them to the canon.
We will look at this process using the letter First Corinthians. As we look at this letter as a case study it is helpful to keep in mind that the church was not founded on apostolic writings but the oral teaching of the apostles (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15). A casual reading of the book of Acts confirms this as does that fact that the church existed for over 10 years before any NT book was written and over 60 years before all the NT books were written.
Before the letter was ever written Paul first visited Corinth after leaving Athens. He remained in the city for 18 months. While he was there Paul taught and testified that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor 15:1-4; Acts 18:1-11). This would likely have been around 50-51 AD. The message Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians regarding Jesus was confirmed in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:1-5). This demonstration is described in more detail in a later letter as the signs and wonders consistent with being an apostle (2 Cor 12:12). This is an essential part of the process where the Holy Spirit is confirming the apostle and the message are from God. This should not be under-estimated as even Jesus was affirmed through signs and wonders (Acts 2:22; John 3:2).
Think about what this would have been like. You are a Gentile living in the 1st century in Greece and you are out at the market when you see the posting – a new philosopher is in town and will be talking tonight at an assembly hall – for free. You decide to check it out. When you get there the teacher, Paul gets up and opens up the OT to the Book of Isaiah and starts reading from the passage on the Suffering Servant. He then starts teaching that the Servant that Isaiah was talking about has already come in the person of Jesus who is the Messiah – God’s Anointed One – and He has suffered and died on a cross as the one true sacrifice for sins that is once and for all – and has been raised from the dead.
As he is talking your child leans over with an inquisitive looks and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… are we gonna stone this nut after class”. As class indeed winds up and the families start heading out of the hall – some sizing up the stones and rocks that are nearby, they are approached by a common sight… Bob the beggar. Bob is a regular outside the hall, a young man who can not walk, and for years waits for those coming out of class to take pity on him and give him some money or food.
As the teacher – Paul – comes out the main doors into the crowd he reaches out to Bob and heals him in the name of Jesus – the same One whom he had just finished teaching on. Bob immediately jumps up, thanks him and runs down the street in joy. The crowd stunned, drop their stones. Your child leans over with a look of awe and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… Did you see that? Hasn’t Bob been lame for the last several years after that big accident? How did he do that?”. The next week the hall is packed as many come to hear from this new teacher Paul.
That is the picture painted of Paul’s ministry in Corinth. In addition to his preaching and signs, Paul also claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8; Acts 1:21-22) and used his life style to confirm his message (2 Cor 1:12;Matt 7:15-16).
Before there were letters written to Corinth there was a visit to the city by a man named Paul. In Part II, we will examine how this visit leads to the writing and later acceptance of the epistle we call First Corinthians.