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.