By Elias Ayala
(M.A.T & MDiv)
In exploring the question as to how the canon of scripture came to take the shape that it did, many questions arise as to the legitimacy of the process. How do we know that we have the right books? Were the current books of the New Testament simply voted upon by Christians who had an agenda they wanted to push? Did the early Christians simply accept the books that supported their particular theological perspective? These are all important questions, however, without going into detail concerning these points, I will provide a short explanation as to how we should understand the notion of “self-authentication”. Contra the Roman Catholic model, whereby the Church determined which books were to be considered canon or not, the Protestant view (and I think the correct view), posited that the canon of scripture was “recognized” as authoritative as opposed to being “declared” authoritative. I think the traditional Protestant understanding of canonicity stands unique when compared to different models which see external validation as the primary and sometimes only means whereby an authoritative canon can be established. However, I think it is vitally important to consider what the scriptures say about itself when constructing a viable model for canonicity.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater to swear by, He swore by Himself” (Hebrews 6:13). This brief verse is packed with great theological implications that are very much related to the subject matter at hand. From this verse alone we learn that there is no greater authority than God Himself; no greater external referent to appeal to to validate a promise declared by God. Likewise, when considering the issue of canonicity, what greater authority can be appealed to to establish God’s Word? I want you to think about that for a moment. There is no higher authority. This being said however, I do not want to give the impression that we are to simply dismiss external evidence of authenticity in regards to the New Testament canon. External considerations are vitally important for they help us establish things like apostolicity (is the book connected to an apostle, or someone who knew them?), the testimony of the early church as to the nature and role of the scripture, etc. What I am seeking to point out is that while these external issues are important in establishing the authority of scripture, they do not stand independent of the issue of the “nature” of scripture itself and what scripture says about itself.
While external evidence is extremely important, I think John Calvin was right when he wrote, “God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word…Scripture is indeed self-authenticating”. Furthermore, the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck rightly noted in regards to how many of the Church Fathers considered scripture, “In the church fathers and scholastics…Scripture rested in itself, was trustworthy in and of itself and the primary norm for church and theology”. And of course, Jesus himself declared, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). Jesus refers here to the Old Testament specifically, but no doubt the writings of the New Testament were also recognized to be divinely inspired by the early church. But how did this recognition come about? In a simple sense, Jesus said that “My sheep will hear my voice” (John 10:27). It should be noted that the “words” of God are God’s words independent of anyone recognizing them as such. We know this much to be true today given the fact that there are many who reject the authority of God’s Word, but given this rejection, if the Bible is what it declares itself to be, then it is what it is regardless of what others think about it. This being said, how can I reconcile my statements regarding the self authenticating nature of scripture, and my assertions that it can and often is vitally important to appeal to external evidences for canonicity?
The answer is nicely summarized by Michael Kruger, an expert in Canonical studies, he writes, “We shall argue that when it comes to the question of canon, the Scriptures themselves provide the grounds for considering external data: the apostolicity of the books, the testimony of the church, and so forth. Of course, this external evidence is not to be used as an independent and neutral “test” to determine what counts as canonical; rather it should always be seen as something warranted by Scripture and interpreted by Scripture”. (Excerpt: The Canon Revisited, Chapter 3). Hence, the utilization of external sources of evidence comes from scripture itself and does not reduce to placing external evidence over and above the authority of scripture. This way, we can utilize external data in the validation process without subjecting God’s Word to the authority of a solely external source, whether it be particular evidences or a declaration via a church council. Even in the very process of validating the canon, we want to do so in a way that does not invalidate what the canon says about itself.
A common objection at this point manifests itself in the assertion that such line of reasoning commits the logical fallacy of “circular reasoning”. However, circular reasoning is not always a fallacy. For no one can escape utilizing some form of it when dealing with their intellectual ultimate authorities. In our reasoning, at bottom, there is a stopping point upon which all else within our worldview rests upon. Depending on the individual, that intellectual starting point, that ultimate authority in reasoning will differ from person to person. For the Christian at least, our ultimate starting point (i.e. God’s Word), provides meaning and coherency to everything else we believe about anything. The scriptures provide us a view of reality, a means and process whereby we gain knowledge, and how we should live our lives. Hence, as Christians we should not shy away from the fact that the Word of God stands at the center of our lives because in them, God speaks to us.