Are All the Biblical Books Self-Evidently Canonical?

Are All the Biblical Books Self-Evidently Canonical? July 19, 2018

Even St. Paul’s books were disputed by at least two major early figures, or at least not introduced as “Scripture” per se. For example, we have no positive evidence that St. Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) regarded Philippians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, or 1, 2, and 3 John. as biblical books. That’s eleven out of 27 books. The same is true of 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, with regard to St. Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 155). St. Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria do not expressly state that Philemon is canonical, in the period between 160 and 250.

Moreover, 1 Peter was not considered canonical in the period from 30-160, and was first accepted only by St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200) and St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215). The same is true of 1 John, which was also first accepted by St. Irenaeus. It was still being disputed by a minority in the “late” period of 250-325 (as was 1 Peter). The Book of Acts was scarcely known or quoted in the period of 30-160, and only gradually accepted from 160 to 250. It was either not known or not cited by St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius, and Papias, and the Didache (all prior to 150 A. D.).

St. Justin Martyr, St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen all cite or allude to it, but do not specifically refer to it as canonical or inspired Holy Scripture. This is hardly consistent with a scenario of little doubt or “virtually no struggle” over its canonicity (not to mention the Average Joe reading it and immediately discerning that it is Scripture without having the benefit of previously received Christian tradition and a current-day Bible).

All of the information above was originally obtained (for my first book) by exclusively Protestant sources: New Bible DictionaryOxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and From God to Us: How We Got the Bible (Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, Chicago: Moody Press, 1974).

All of this supports my contention that it is not simply an easy matter of reading all the biblical books and “knowing” that they are inspired and canonical from internal evidence alone. Church authority was required, and that is my ultimate contention here. I am opposing Protestants who foolishly maintain that Church authority was not necessary in the establishment of the canon. A rational, intelligent approach to the issue of the canon demands that we acknowledge the complexity of the process (and, I would say, the necessity of Church authority in some sense, even from a Protestant perspective).

As for books eventually decided to not be part of the biblical canon: The Acts of Paul was accepted by Origen, and appeared in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic translations. The Gospel of Hebrews was accepted by St. Clement of Alexandria. 1 and 2 Clement and Psalms of Solomon were included in the Codex Alexandrinus from the early fifth century. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 3, 16) tells us that 1 Clement had been read in many churches. The Epistle to the Laodiceans, known to be a forgery by St. Jerome, was included in many Bibles from the sixth to fifteenth centuries; even reappearing in 16th-century German and English Protestant Bibles.

Norman Geisler informs us that The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians is part of the “New Testament Apocrypha,” a classification of books which he describes as those which had been “accepted by a limited group of Christians for a limited time but never gained very wide or permanent recognition” (Ibid., pp. 121,124). He includes the Seven Epistles of Ignatius as well.

According to F. F. Bruce (The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988), The Preaching of Peter was “regarded highly” by St. Clement of Alexandria (p. 194). Bruce also noted the apparently docetic work, Gospel of Peter:

In the second century it was read and appreciated by Christians who were disposed to take it at face value as composed by Peter. Even Justin Martyr appears to quote it in one place. (p. 200)

Bruce states that St. Clement of Alexandria even quoted from the “thoroughly gnostic” Gospel according to the Egyptians “not once but four times” (p. 189), explaining that “Clement can take a gnostic saying which it ascribes to Jesus and give it an ethical reinterpretation which could give no offence to anybody.” The same father (exercising what Bruce calls “hospitality”) approvingly cited Traditions of Matthias and Sibylline Oracles (p. 191). He also quoted uncanonical sayings of Jesus, known as agrapha.

According to Brooke Foss Westcott (A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament: Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 6th edition, 1980, from 1889 edition, 110-111; cf. Bruce, ibid., 127), Justin Martyr also repeatedly cites a work called Memoirs of the Apostles (e.g., ten times in his Dialogue With Trypho).

St. Athanasius thought The Didache was good enough to include alongside the canonical books, in the same list where he first lists the 27 NT books, and to be profitably read in churches for edification (Bruce, ibid., 209). St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) took the same position (Ibid., 211), as did Rufinus (d. 410) (Ibid., 225).

St. Peter in 2 Peter 3:16 (RSV) refers to St. Paul’s “letters”, in which “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. ” But all we can determine from this is that Peter considered Paul’s letters (i.e., those of which he was aware) to be Scripture. We don’t know how many or which ones he was talking about. 

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states about the book of Hebrews:

The author and his readers alike were not personal disciples of Jesus, but had received the gospel from those who had heard the Lord (2:3) and were no longer living (13:7). . . . The passage that is most conclusive against the Pauline authorship (2:3) is equally conclusive against any other apostle being the author. (Vol. II, 1357-1358, “Hebrews, Epistle to the”)

This standard Protestant biblical reference work regards 2:3 as “conclusive” evidence that no apostle wrote the work. St. Paul saw the risen Jesus. Therefore, He was a witness of Jesus (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8; Acts 22:6-11), and fully qualified to be an apostle, on this well-known ground. The biblical definition of apostle is somewhat fluid and flexible (as is the case with most biblical offices at their early stage of development), but if apostolicity and known authorship are two ways to easily identify a book as canonical, then Hebrews fails on both counts. The Church at length acknowledged its intrinsic status as Holy Scripture, but it would not have been so easy for an individual.

It has been argued that the widespread belief of the early Church that the book was written by St. Paul was the reason it could be accepted. But such a theory is not evident in the book itself. It can only be arrived at by complicated comparisons and internal analysis, which is, of course, beyond the average individual’s capacity to determine.

Authorship by an apostle was not strictly required in the understanding of canonicity of the early Church. Some Protestants seem to think it was necessary but it was not. That only made it easier to conclude that a book was inspired. F. F. Bruce explains this:

Jerome’s insistence that canonicity is not dependent on particular authorship, not even on apostolic authorship, reveals an insight which has too often been ignored in discussions about the canon of scripture, in earlier and more recent times alike. (The Canon of Scripture, 227)

Bruce states that St. Augustine took the same view:

[F]or him, as for Jerome, canonicity and authorship are separate issues.

Like his older contemporary Jerome, he distinguished between canonicity and apostolic authorship. (Ibid., 232, 258)

The more accurate ancient criteria for canonicity is described by Bruce as follows:

Even at an earlier period, apostolic authorship in the direct sense was not insisted on, if some form of apostolic authority could be established. . . . If a writing was the work of an apostle or of someone closely associated with an apostle, it must belong to the apostolic age. Writings of later date, whatever their merit, could not be included among the apostolic or canonical books. (Ibid., 258-259)

Bruce makes an interesting statement about the Gospel of John:

Justin says nothing about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel . . . The first known writer to call the evangelist John is Theophilus, bishop of Antioch c. AD 180 (To Autolycus, 2.22). (Ibid., 129)

The author of 1 John is anonymous. I believe that all three epistles were written by the Apostle John, author also of the Gospel bearing that name, but again, this would not necessarily be immediately or easily apparent to a casual reader. “Elder” or “presbyter” is hardly a conclusive identification. I could write a letter signed, “the apologist” — but this would hardly tell people that the author was Dave Armstrong!

Anti-Catholic polemicist Ken Temple stated: “Paul and Peter claim inspiration in their writings: I Corinthians chapter 2, 7:1, 40, 2 Peter 1:12-21, 3:1, 3:16.”

He is eisegeting 1 Corinthians 2, in order to come to that conclusion. None of the words used are a compelling proof of inspiration. Rather, Paul is expressing guidance by the Holy Spirit such that all Christians have, or should have. Obviously, not all of us have been inspired to write Scripture. So St. Paul writes, for example: “‘. . . what God has prepared for those who love him,’ God has revealed to us through the Spirit . . .” (2:9-10). So this is a spiritual illumination, but not just for apostles and/or inspired writers of Scripture, but “for those who love him.” In 2:12, he explains that the indwelling Spirit helps us “understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”

This has nothing to do with inspiration and Scripture, as indicated again in 2:13: “. . . those who possess the Spirit.” Paul continues his general teaching on the indwelling Spirit and discerning spiritual things, referring to the “gifts of the Spirit” in 2:14 and “the spiritual man” in 2:15. When he concludes “But we have the mind of Christ” (2:16), this is also not referring solely to inspiration of biblical writers at all. It’s a common theme in Paul (cf. Rom 8:6, 27; 11:34; 15:6; 1 Cor 1:10; cf. Heb 8:10). Moreover, the beginning of the chapter refers to Paul’s previous oral proclamation, not to written Scripture at all (2:1-4).

All 1 Corinthians 7:40 tells us is that Paul has “the Spirit of God.” Yes; so do all Christians (Jn 14:16-18; Rom 8:9-11′ 1 Cor 2:12; 3:16-17; 6:19; Gal 4:6; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:12-16). But we all don’t write the Bible, do we? So this proves exactly nothing, and is more desperate circular reasoning and eisegesis.

2 Peter 1:19-21, on the other hand, actually addresses inspiration (though it doesn’t prove what Ken thinks it proves). We all agree that Scripture is inspired. But technically, Peter is not here claiming inspiration for his own writing in which he makes this remark; also there is an application to spoken prophecy in 1:21 (“men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”), which may later be recorded in scripture, but not necessarily so (and there isn’t all that much prophecy in the NT).

Only the author of Revelation actually expressly claimed inspiration (i.e., for the writing he was putting down, as he was writing it: as the OT prophets claimed direct inspiration). Since Peter here refers generically to “scripture” and “prophecy,” and not to his present writing, this doesn’t disprove my contention. All it does is suggest that Scripture is inspired, as all Christian believers agree.

Again, in 2 Peter 3:16 Peter calls Paul’s writings (he doesn’t tell us which ones) “Scripture.” Sure: no one disagrees. I don’t know what connection 3:1 has to this. Peter says that this is his second letter. He still doesn’t claim that it is Scripture. We believe it is. Perhaps there is other internal evidence suggesting that it is, but this does not disprove my assertion.

We can’t conclude that Peter’s simply calling his letter a letter means that he is calling it Scripture, because he equated Paul’s letters with Scripture. That doesn’t follow, even if Peter’s letter is indeed Scripture, as we believe. I don’t think the biblical writers necessarily always knew that what they were writing was inspired. They often seem to not be aware, or if so, to not state such a thing, as a function of humility.

As for my opinion, I have the support of F. F. Bruce (in his section, “Inspiration,” in chapter 21: “Criteria of Canonicity”):

By inspiration in this sense is meant that the operation of the Holy Spirit by which the prophets of Israel were enabled to utter the word of God.

. . . Only one of the New Testament writers expressly bases the authority of what he says on prophetic inspiration. The Apocalypse is called ‘the book of this prophecy’ (e.g., Rev. 22:19); the author implies that his words are inspired by the same Spirit of prophecy as spoke through the prophets of earlier days . . . his appeal throughout the Apocalypse is not to apostolic authority but to prophetic inspiration . . . That they [the NT books] were (and are) so inspired is not to be denied, but most of the New Testament writers do not base their authority on divine inspiration . . . when he [Paul] needs to assert his authority . . . he rests it on the apostolic commission which he had received from the exalted Lord.

. . . [T]he divine inspiration of the Gospels of Mark and Luke is not to be denied, but these works were accepted, first as authoritative and then as canonical scripture, because they were recognized to be trustworthy witnesses to the saving events.

Clement of Rome acknowledges that Paul wrote ‘with true inspiration’ [1 Clem. 47.3]. But he makes similar claims for his own letter.

[Footnote 38: 1 Clem. 63.2; cf 59:1 . . . The freedom with which the idea of inspiration was used by some of the church fathers is well illustrated by a letter from Augustine to Jerome, in which Jerome’s biblical interpretation is said to be carried through ‘not only by the gift but at the dictation of the Holy Spirit’ (Augustine, Epistle 82.2 = Jerome, Epistle 116.2) . . .]

. . . Similarly Ignatius claims to speak and write by the Spirit: he, indeed, had the gift of (occasional) prophecy. ‘It is not according to the flesh that I write to you’, he tells the Roman church, ‘but according to the mind of God.’ [To the Romans, 8.3]

. . . But at this stage [Origen’s time] inspiration is no longer a criterion of canonicity: it is a corollary of canonicity. ‘It was not until the red ribbon of the self-evident had been tied around the twenty-seven boks of the New testament that “inspiration” could serve theologians as an answer to the question: Why are these books different from all other books?’

[Footnote 47: K. Stendahl, ‘The Apocalypse of John and the Epistles of Paul . . .’, p. 243 . . .] (Ibid., 264-268)

Yes, exactly. This perfectly complements and supports my argument. I am contending that one particular way of determining the canon is inadequate. I’m also arguing that the Church is necessary for Christians to have a definite understanding or framework of which books are biblical and which are not. Such an approach is not some sort of blast “against the Bible”. The Bible can’t be used to produce an argument based on what individual biblical books supposedly claim, when they don’t in fact claim it.

Deciding a canon is different from making Scripture what it is, because Scripture is inherently inspired. In other words, the canon is not identical with Scripture, anymore than a table of contents is identical with the book it describes by chapter.

I don’t deny any “self-attestation”; I only deny that this alone was sufficient to establish a known canon with definite boundaries, or that it is as sweeping a characteristic of “all” the biblical books as some Protestants make out.


(originally 6-22-06)

Photo credit: Lawrie Cate (3-9-09) [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]


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