In another article, I showed that Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, had full authority to define the faith. However, if we want to follow the true faith, we need to know where we can find it. So the question is, “What sources can be trusted to contain the faith revealed through Jesus and the apostles?”
In this article, I will show that the 27 books of the New Testament canon are the writings that can be fully trusted.
The Undisputed Apostolic Books
Before looking at which exact books are authoritative, it’s important to put this in perspective. We showed that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, are authoritative. So if we have any books written by one or more of them, we can trust those books to be authoritative, without needing any further argument.
There are 18 books for which there was virtually no doubt that they were written by an authoritative teacher, according to the data the pre-Nicene Christians had and the data they left to us:
|1 & 2 Corinthians||Paul|
|1 & 2 Thessalonians||Paul|
|1 & 2 Timothy||Paul|
So we can definitely trust these eighteen books to define the faith for us.
The Undisputed Books of “Apostolic Men”
But the church has never limited itself to those books. Instead, the writings of those who taught and worked alongside the apostles (called “apostolic men”) were also considered to have authority to define the faith. This only makes sense, since what the apostolic men were teaching had to have been the same faith that their supervisors, the apostles, taught.
Any books in our New Testament that weren’t written by apostles are included because there was good reason to believe that they were written by apostolic men. Three of these books deserve to be considered among the undisputed books, since they also have always been recognized as authoritative:
|Mark||Mark, companion of Peter|
|Luke||Luke, companion of Paul|
|Acts||Luke, companion of Paul|
The apostolic men were not hand-picked by Jesus, and therefore their teachings are downstream from doctrine, rather than upstream from it, as the apostles’ were. Yet we can fully trust their teachings because of how closely they worked with the apostles. If they were under the authority of the apostles and worked closely with them, we can trust them basically as much as we can trust the apostles.
The Worst-Case-Scenario Canon
So we have a list of 21 books that undisputedly have apostolic authority. The only books of the New Testament that aren’t included so far are Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Jude. In the next sections, I’ll show how we can know that they are also authoritative. However, I want to stress an important point—without any argument for canonicity, we can be confident that at least these 21 books are authoritative.
More importantly—these books, together, contain the whole of the faith. There are no Christian doctrines found in the other six books that are not found in these 21. The other six books in our New Testament are very valuable, because they state some things more clearly that these 21 do. However, the doctrines they contain can all be found by studying the 21 undisputed books.
Note: In fact, even if we were to restrict it to the eighteen undisputed books that were written by the apostles (which to my knowledge was never done and is against the consistent witness of the church), those eighteen would be enough to give us the Christian faith. After all, the sayings of Jesus found in Mark and Luke are mostly found in Matthew as well.
This upholds my contention that there is no doctrinal authority problem for Anabaptists. We don’t need an institutional church to tell us what books we can trust. A canon of Scripture is quite useful—but it’s not needed in order to find out what the faith is! We only need a canon if we want to know what books, beyond these 21, are also authoritative.
But might we need to trust the decisions of an institutional church to know what the New Testament canon is? Actually, we don’t, as I’ll show in the next section.
The Historical Canon
When reconstructing any particular teaching of the historic faith, our goal is to find out what Christians believed before any changes were made to that teaching, which happened in the 300s. After the Roman Empire legalized Christianity and turned a friendly eye toward our faith, major changes began to occur. So we typically stick to writings from before 325 and the Council of Nicaea, which was the first major change that occurred from the Roman Emperor’s favor.
However, the pre-Nicene writers didn’t clearly delineate a canon. We can’t find out from their writings exactly which books we can consider to be authoritative, because
- They didn’t often create lists of those books.
- Not every writer had access to all of the books that we have in the New Testament canon.
This could seem to be a problem for the historic faith view, but it doesn’t need to be. First, as I’ve shown earlier, we can know the apostolic teachings perfectly well just from the books that virtually every pre-Nicene writer agreed on. But more importantly for our purposes, we can also use post-Nicene information to see what the pre-Nicene canon would have been, had one been decided on.
That’s because, in the 300s, it became clear which books were accepted as authoritative. For example, Eusebius the historian created a list of books that could be trusted based on the practice of the churches from the beginning until his day. In some cases, he was even able to draw relevant information from pre-Nicene writings that are now lost to us.
Eusebius recognized the 21 universally acknowledged books, and he said that the other six were “disputed, but recognized by the majority.”1Quoted in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 199
- Athanasius of Alexandria also publicly taught this canon2Ibid, 208-9 and also influenced Rome toward acceptance of the same canon.3Ibid, 221
- Jerome also accepted this canon, and he had close ties with the bishop of Rome.
- Other witnesses in the 300s like Cyril of Jerusalem and Gregory of Nazienzus attest to this same canon, except for Revelation. However, Revelation was accepted by virtually all the pre-Nicene witnesses, so we need not worry about it.
- Augustine of Hippo believed this to be the canon, as did the local councils of Hippo and Carthage.
Besides agreeing upon the books that had received near-universal support by the pre-Nicene writers, these churchmen agreed on the following books, giving them weight, either because of evidence for their authorship by the following apostles or apostolic men, or because they were widely accepted by the church.
|Hebrews||Paul, or an apostolic man|
|James||James, brother of Jesus, bishop of Jerusalem|
|2 & 3 John||John|
|Jude||Jude, brother of James & Jesus|
Note that this is not based on the decision of an institutional church. This wasn’t a decision or an authoritative pronouncement, but rather, these men were reflecting a general consensus. Note the widespread geographic regions represented by the men listed above, including several of the most significant Christian communities of those years.
In short, the authority of the New Testament canon does not depend upon the authority of the institutional church or upon any ecumenical council. The 27 books of the New Testament were considered Scripture by the general consensus of both the pre-Nicene Christian church and the fourth-century church.
Here are some possible objections:
- What if the fourth-century consensus was wrong in this area about what the pre-Nicene Christians generally believed, as they were sometimes? Christians have always tended to be pretty conservative about what they consider to be Scripture. Even though beliefs change readily enough, the 27-book canon has stayed very settled since the fourth century, despite its detractors. So it’s unlikely that it changed quickly in the first few decades after Nicaea. There’s no reason to think that one of the fourth-century abuses was that any books changed in their level of acceptance due to influences external to Christianity. (This case matches the criteria for using post-Nicene evidence for pre-Nicene beliefs.)
- There were still people in the fourth century, and to an extent after, who accepted a slightly different canon. How should we weigh these detractors? We know that not all books were accepted by all churches. However, there really weren’t that many detractors that we know of. See my New Testament Canon Witnesses Chart for the relevant data.
So the historical canon can be determined without referencing the decisions of an institutional church. Just as there is no problem of authority for Protestants and Anabaptists, there is no problem of the canon.
So far, this article shows that we can know the apostolic teachings even without a canon, and that we can know the canon of authoritative books without the decisions of an institutional church. However, I’d like to go above and beyond, so I’ll discuss a few more aspects of this issue.
Argument from Consensus
Here is another argument that I’ll mention, even though it’s not needed. I’m a bit less certain of it, but I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on it in the comments.
Throughout the early church, Christians typically used the canon that their church or region had historically accepted. This may seem random to us, but no significant issues arose from this practice, that I know of. So, since pretty much all of us are in churches and regions that accept these 27 books as their New Testament, I don’t see why we can’t do it as Christians have always done.
And finally, I’ve been arguing for the canon, but I think we can have the canon without having arguments for it. Brother Joe at Pine View Mennonite Church can simply accept the canon that he has. After all, no major Christian group today disputes the 27-book canon, and these are the books through which the Holy Spirit has spoken to him. No reasonable argument can be made that the New Testament canon will be detrimental to his faith, so why do we need to bother him with arguments for the canon? Let him have the simple joy of thumping his Bible every Sunday without needing to worry that he might be a heretic.
Should We Worry About the Other Books?
Several other books besides the 27 in our New Testament were considered authoritative by one or more pre-Nicene Christians. The books that were considered were
- The Shepherd of Hermas
- 1 Clement
- The Apocalypse of Peter
- The Didache (The Teachings of the Apostles)
- The Epistle of Barnabas
Contrary to what some have said, these books did not “almost” make it into the New Testament. There is a huge difference in the level of acceptance between the canonical books and these books. See my New Testament Canon Witnesses Chart for the relevant data.
But even if these books had “almost” made it into the New Testament, we still wouldn’t have any confusion as to which doctrines are apostolic. That’s because these books are all in agreement with the apostolic faith as it appears in the 27 canonical books.
Finally, the books that actually taught a different faith had virtually no acceptance among Christians at all. This includes the spurious gospels. When skeptics ask us why we don’t accept the so-called Gospel of Thomas, it just shows their unfamiliarity with the actual history of Christianity.
Do we need a unanimous consensus in this case?
In most cases, when finding out the doctrines of the early church, I look for a unanimous consensus among the earliest witnesses. Where there is no unanimous consensus on a doctrine, the apostles likely didn’t establish an official Christian position on it. However, in the case of the New Testament canon, the consensus is not unanimous. Does that mean that we can’t trust the canon?
No. In the case of the New Testament canon, there was no question of doctrine involved. The disagreement about the extent of the canon wasn’t related to disagreement about doctrines of the church. The question is one of formality and practicality—which books we will give our full attention—not of doctrine. Thus, something less than unanimity is sufficient.
Can we reach infallible certainty about the canon list?
If a book was written by an apostle or an apostolic man, that book deserves the highest level of respect and obedience. However, our knowledge of whether a book is apostolic is not infallible. Does that mean that we can have no infallible certainty about what Scripture teaches? This is an argument that Roman Catholics often use against basing doctrine on Scripture.
However, this argument doesn’t work. Whether a book is apostolic or not is not infallible; however, it can be overwhelmingly evidenced. The evidence for the apostolicity of a book can be so strong that we are morally bound to accept its apostolicity and therefore its infallibility.
This is no different from accepting the authority of Jesus on the grounds of overwhelming but not infallible historical evidence, but then recognizing Jesus to be infallible. Nor is it different from a Roman Catholic having to use their fallible understanding to discover which of the Pope’s statements should be considered (by faithful Roman Catholics) to be infallible.
How does the Old Testament fit in?
So far, we’ve demonstrated the New Testament canon, which is what’s really needed for Christian doctrine, since we are no longer under the Old Testament Law. I don’t have space to go into the Old Testament canon, but, in short, I would suggest looking for “as the scripture says” and “it is written” statements in the New Testament and the early church to see what books the apostles and their followers considered to be Scripture.
There is no authority problem or problem of the canon for Anabaptists. For a discussion of the sufficiency of Scripture to contain all apostolic doctrines, see my post on the foundation of Christian doctrine.
- 1Quoted in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 199
- 2Ibid, 208-9
- 3Ibid, 221