On what basis can we construct a canon of the New Testament? If we are to accept the ruling of the various councils, on what basis can we than say that scripture is the only authority for the church? On what basis can we say the canon is closed, or even should be closed?
Apart from Peter’s endorsement of Paul’s letters (including, perhaps, letters that are no longer extant) as scripture and John’s claim to have been told to record his Revelation (which is a claim to be writing scripture) we have little in the way of internal biblical evidence for the idea of a New Testament canon or for the idea that the NT writers believed themselves to be writing scripture. This is a later development. It is clear, however, that most of the NT writings were written as public documents and were intended for wide circulation.
Why subscribe to a notion of canon at all? There seems to be no evidence that the NT writers themselves did.
Apart from possible issues with the canon of the Old Testament (discussed in the previous post in this series) there is a definite problem when it comes to deciding exactly what constitutes the canon of the New Testament. The modern evangelical view of scripture is epitomised by the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, which states as one of its theses:
`We deny that church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.’
However, the canon of scripture was a product of early church councils. In this way, acceptance of the New Testament documents as scripture is a product of the very church councils that modern evangelicalism is otherwise (and justly) wary of. It seems to me that there are two options:
- One can accept the decisions of the councils as binding in this matter and, consequently, as binding in their other proclamations also. It is difficult to justify a situation where the ecumenical councils spoke with authority only with regard to scripture. Modern evangelicalism has often tried to evade this point by arguing that the councils merely confirmed the status of what everybody already recognised to be scripture. However, this provides no basis for contending that the canon is now closed (since the closing of the canon was exclusively a function of the ecumenical councils).
- Alternatively one must provide some other grounds for arguing for a fixed, and closed, canon.