Revisiting a fallible NT collection in light of self authenticating documents


Looking through church history, particularly within the first four centuries, we find multiple lists describing the NT collection of documents that are considered Scripture. This leaves us with questions like which list is right? And who determines (or discovers) which list of documents is correct? And can we be absolutely certain that a particular list is correct? The history of the canon led me to conclude that the list of NT books is fallible, even if the documents themselves are inspired.

A particular post on Canon Fodder got me thinking. How does the idea of self-authenticating documents impact the canon. Particularly how does it impact our ability to know that we have an inspired and infallible list of inspired and infallible documents. In the post Dr. Kruger concluded that tradition (the early church passing on the apostolic teaching) is important but it is not the only way to know which books belong in the canon.

… I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God.  However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”).  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.

What is this intrinsic authority?

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

Dr. Kruger expands on this idea in an interview with Derek Thomas:

Our belief that we have the right 27 books is certainly founded on the fact that God providentially worked in the early church.  But, our answer to the question of how we know we have the right books can go further than just saying “God’s providence.”  I argue in Canon Revisited that God has provided a reliable means by which God’s people can recognize his books (through the help of the Holy Spirit).  Part of that means is the fact that God’s books bear divine qualities; they have attributes that reflect God’s power and character.

I agree with Kruger that the inspired documents are self-authenticating and that the Holy Spirit was active in the role of the canon process. However, even with documents possessing these qualities, we are not any closer to obtaining absolute certainty regarding the collection of NT documents.

A document may be inspired and therefore possess divine qualities. However the book must still be assessed. While the assessment does not cause the document to be inspired, it is the recognition of the document as such, that allows the church to accept it. And it is fallible man that is still responsible for discovering or correctly evaluating that the book possesses these qualities. Unless people are able to recognize these qualities with absolute certainty, this would make the process of assembling the list fallible. This would be further complicated by man having to also understand what constitutes true divine qualities so that he may be able to identify them correctly in the document.

If the documents possess self-authenticating qualities, then who is to examine these documents and assess them? Was this a recognition that was done at a point in time by the early church to stand throughout history? Or is this something we encourage every believer to do today? How do we resolve conflicting claims?

If we are to evaluate the documents today, we are at a disadvantage. The early church would have had the “apostle’s teachings still ringing in their ears” and would have witnessed their signs and wonders which would help them recognize the documents that were written and inspired. Furthermore, we are reliant on their first cut of recognizing these books because these are the ones that are preserved for us to examine today. In this we are trusting their evaluations and relying on tradition.

The example of James

The epistle of James is part of our 27 document NT canon. However, history shows that this document, despite any self-authenticating attributes, has had a tough time keeping its place in the canon. James was missing from the Muratorian Fragment (2nd century) and was one of the books that was still being disputed in the early part of the fourth century as noted by Eusebius (Eccl Hist 3.25).

Martin Luther’s Preface to the New Testament in the 1522 edition calls James an “epistle of straw“. In the preface to the book of James itself, he writes “[t]hough this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, …  However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…”. Luther goes on to describe the characteristics in the book that cause him to  consider it unworthy of a place in the canon.

Who evaluated the epistle of James correctly?

  • the many in the early church who recognized it
  • those in the early church who did not
  • Martin Luther
  • The Magisiterium at Trent
  • Each believer must evaluate the book

How ever we wrestle through these questions it seems we are still left with a certainty problem. And therefore I still have to accept a fallible list of infallible books. However the NT canon is a collection of documents that we can still have confidence in and accept.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting a fallible NT collection in light of self authenticating documents

  1. There is a logic problem here. If the canon is not infallible, the possibility exists that an error was made and there is, therefore, a book in the Bible which is not actually inspired. Therefore the Bible could not be infallible.

    If the inspiration of the various books is self-authenticating, then there should never have been any controversy over whether a particular book was inspired and was to be included in the canon.

    Martin Luther was a rather arrogant man who felt free to alter not only the canon but the text of the Bible to make it fit with his theology. Regarding his addition of the word “alone” to the text of Rom 3:28 he wrote to a friend that if anyone were to ask on what authority he added it, to answer them by saying that Martin Luther willed it so. Christians would do well to ignore his opinions on the matter.

    The bishops gathered at Trent did not rule on whether or not any book was to be included in Scripture. That was determined a long time before. What Trent did was to take the canon and say you either accept this canon or you are no longer Catholic. That’s a major difference.

    Lastly, 1 Tim 3:14-15 is quite clear on the subject: “I write this to you in the hope that I may be able to come to you soon; but in case I should be delayed, I want you to know how people ought to behave in God’s household — that is, in the Church of the living God, pillar and support of the truth.” Note that it is the church which is designated the pillar and support of the truth. Therefore it is the church’s job to determine the canon. I understand that some Christians might be concerned that this authority is put in the hands of a mere human but they should remember that the inspired books of the Bible came from the hand of mere humans inspired by the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit could lead men in their authorship, it should not be a problem if He inspires them in determining their canonicity.

  2. Gary

    Thanks for joining the discussion. You provide lots of ideas but right now will focus on the ones that relate most to this post.

    1) I think what you are calling a logic problem is actually not a logical problem, though it could be a theological problem.

    The argument I am making in clearer logical form is this:

    The individual NT documents are inspired/infallible.
    The collection of the documents is not inspired/infallible.
    Therefore the possibility exists that the collection contains an error.

    Can you tell me what does not follow or is a fallacy in this argument.We can’t assume that the *possibility* of error means there is an error.

    Regarding your point – “If the inspiration of the various books is self-authenticating, then there should never have been any controversy”, I think you are claiming:

    If there is controversy then NT documents are not self-authenticating
    There is controversy.
    Therefore the NT documents are not self-authenticating

    While logical in form, I would argue that your antecedent is false. There is controversy not because the books can’t be self-authenticating but rather because man has to do the evaluation and he is fallible. That of course was the point of the post.

    I would venture that the better case is:

    If there is controversy then Magisterium is not authoritative and infallible
    There is controversy.
    Therefore the Magisterium is not authoritative and infallible

  3. Gary:

    2) regarding Luther, for now I will just say that I used him as an example of how it is difficult to know with absolute certainty (in an epistemological sense) that the canon is right. He and others including early church fathers have disputed James so the self-authenticating nature of this book does not seem to be clear to all. For the record I am not disputing James and do think it belongs in the canon.

    3) In a sense, I do agree that the church (universal and local) was responsible for receiving and evaluating the books we now have in our NT because they were the ones who received them as well as the apostles. I outline how that probably worked in the series “canonization case study: First Corinthians.” And just because the church had the responsibility does not mean they had infallibility during the process.

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