Some Christian scholars today cast doubt over the canon of Scripture – those 66 books that the Church has long held to be the complete written revelation of God. They justify their views by claiming: (1) that surviving texts of the Old and New Testaments are corrupt and therefore unreliable, or (2) that early Church leaders deliberately excluded certain books for personal or political reasons.
As Craig L. Blomberg responds in his recent book – Can We Still Believe the Bible? – “there is not a shred of historical evidence to support either of these claims; anyone choosing to believe them must do so by pure credulity, flying in the face of all the evidence that actually exists.”
But what if we discovered an apostolic writing that has remained hidden for the last 2,000 years?
For example, in 1 Cor. 5:9, Paul alludes to an earlier letter to fellow believers in Corinth. We don’t have that letter, nor are we aware of its specific contents. Let’s say, however, that archaeologists unearth a clay pot containing a manuscript dating from the mid-first century and fitting the description of Paul’s letter.
Should the Church welcome 3 Corinthians as the 28th book of the New Testament? Not so fast.
The New Testament canon
The New Testament offers hints of the process of canonization, but little more. As Jesus prepares His followers for His passion and return to heaven, He promises to send the Holy Spirit, who will enable the disciples to remember Jesus’ teaching (John 14:26), testify further about Him (John 15:26), and proclaim truth (John 16:13).
In other words, the same Holy Spirit who authors Scripture will ensure that authentic testimonies about Jesus are written, preserved, and shared.
Some New Testament books receive a great deal of scrutiny before their inclusion, most notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation. And some don’t make the cut for a variety of reasons, such as the gnostic gospels of Judas, Barnabas, and Thomas.
So, what criteria did the early church use as a guide? Blomberg notes three predominant requirements: apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy.
Apostolicity. This does not mean that every book is written by an apostle, but rather that each book is written during the apostolic age.
In addition, no book in the New Testament is more than one person removed from an apostle or another authoritative eyewitness of the life of Christ.
Mark, for example, is not an apostle, but he is a traveling companion of both Peter and Paul. Early church tradition attributes much of Mark’s Gospel to the memoirs of Peter.
Luke, in a similar manner, travels with Paul and interviews eyewitnesses of Jesus.
Catholicity. This has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” simply means “universal.” Catholicity means that believers throughout the world to which Christianity was spreading were in agreement on the value of these books – and used them widely.
No books that were found only among one sect of Christianity or in a single geographical location are included in the New Testament canon.
Orthodoxy. This refers to the faithfulness of the books to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Blomberg writes, “It is a criterion that could not have developed if people had not recognized that the heresies afflicting the church in its earliest centuries were parasitic on orthodoxy. That is to say, the heresies developed in response to apostolic doctrine – modifying it, challenging it, trying to refute it, supplementing it, or simply rejecting it.”
By the late second century, we see lists of 20 to 22 books accepted as authoritative, increasing to 23 early in the third century, and finally to 27 by no later than AD 367, when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, writes his Easter encyclical to the rest of the Church and lists the books that Christians still accept today.
So, back to our original question: What if Paul’s earlier letter is discovered? While the letter would be instructive, and likely would pass the tests of apostolicity and orthodoxy, it would fail the test of catholicity. There is no evidence this letter was read widely in the early church.
The key is to remember that the Holy Spirit ultimately fixes the canon of Scripture. The tests of apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy do not determine which books are inspired; they simply help us discover them.
This column first appeared July 15, 2014, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.