How the Bible Came to Be (pt 8)

Retrospective Criteria for Recognition 

In our final section, we can consider some of the factors that the earliest churches used as they considered whether or not a specific writing was to be understood as a legitimate part of the collection of Scripture. These factors are sometimes called the “criteria for canonicity,” though as we have discussed, the self-understanding of the believing community was that they were recognizing rather than establishing the limits of the collection. So, a better descriptor for these factors might be retrospective criteria for recognition. 

As the churches reflected on the biblical writings, there were several key characteristics that influenced the reception of these books in various communities. These retrospective criteria for recognition were not clear-cut “tests” for biblical books; rather, these were ways of thinking about the books that were in use among the churches. So, what characterized an authentic New Testament writing?

These are a few of the questions the earliest churches were asking about the writings they were circulating.

Prevailing Question #1: Does this Writing represent True Teaching? 
The prevailing criteria for recognition among the earliest stages was continuity with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. This factor is sometimes understood as a writing’s orthodoxy and apostolicity. Orthodoxy refers to the question of truth. Is what is written here true? The criteria for what was true in a New Testament writing was whether it accorded with the Hebrew Scriptures and whether it accorded with the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

Accordingly, the feature of “apostolicity” was perhaps the central criteria for inclusion in the growing group of New Testament writings. Apostolic here can refer to whether a writing was actually written by an apostle himself or also whether the author was a close associate of the apostles. More broadly, and perhaps more centrally, “apostolicity” referred to a writing that represented the teaching of the apostles and was from the time of the apostles. Later writings, such as apocryphal gospels, pseudonymous letters, or general Christian literature from later periods were rejected because they were not written in the apostolic age.

For example, in the Muratorian Fragment, the author affirms the readability of Shepherd of Hermas (an influential early Christian writing) but rejects its authoritative status. The author writes, "But Hermas wrote The Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time" (lines 73-80, emphasis added).

Here the author is concerned about when the book was written, its connection to the prophets and apostles, and its widespread usage in the churches ("but it cannot be read publicly to the people in the church"). Most of the time, there were not just one but several factors in play. The characteristics of "apostolicity" and "continuity with the Hebrew Bible" were essentially the anchors of this discussion. A two-fold question, then, dominated any deliberations: Is this writing apostolic (from the time and teaching of the apostles) and does it "accord" with the Hebrew Scriptures? 

Guidance for this combination of characteristics is found in 2 Pet 3:2. As Peter states, "you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles" (2 Pet 3:2). In other words, truly "apostolic" writings would have a direct connection to the "holy prophets" and "the commandment of the Lord and Savior." Identifying the presence of these two types of connections generally and quickly "ruled out" most possible rival writings.

The beginning and end of Paul's letter to the Romans is a good example of how these elements (the prophetic witness of the OT, the teaching of Jesus, and the gospel preached by the apostles) mark the blazing center of New Testament writings. 
  • Rom 1:1-6: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David  according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."
  • Rom 16:25-27: "Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen." 
Prevailing Question #2: Is this Writing Widely Recognized? 
The second prevailing question early readers asked of possible Scriptural writings was, "Is this writing widely recognized as authoritative Scripture?"

A distinctive feature of the books that became canonical was their early and widespread authoritative usage in the churches. This feature is sometimes called "catholicity." The writings of the New Testament were the “catholic” writings. Here, “catholic” does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church but rather to the fact that these writings were utilized not by a single group but by many diverse groups in many diverse locations. They were in this sense “universal” (the ancient meaning of “catholic”). The canonical writings were not deemed authoritative Scripture necessarily in every church, but in churches “everywhere.”

Of course, there were a myriad of social, political, and theological factors that influenced each community as they considered these questions. However, these particular types of questions were asked with regularity and consistency. What is more, there were also disagreements and differences of opinion about certain writings or about the importance of these various criteria. However, as some of the external evidence indicates (see pt 7), these debates took place within the context of an early church community that had a remarkably consistent shared emphasis on the types of concerns noted above.
Or: Go to pt 1
Biblical Canon
August 17, 2017


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