By Terry Wilder
Criteria of Canonicity
The basic criterion for recognizing books as being part of the New Testament is whether they were considered “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3.16). Books do not become inspired because they are recognized as being canonical; rather, they are recognized as being canonical because they are inspired by God. Thus, the church did not “produce” the canon.
Three principal criteria seemed to emerge which the early church used in recognizing books that had been God inspired and thus canonical: apostolic origin, recognition by the churches, and apostolic content.
Apostolic Origin—The Lord had commissioned His apostles to be His authoritative spokesmen after His ascension. Additionally, the Holy Spirit inspired and gifted these men, enabling them to write inerrant Scripture and teach inerrant doctrine. Therefore, the canonical books were to be related in some way to one of these authoritative, inspired apostles. The early Christians essentially asked, “Is this particular work under question the work of one of the apostles?” Or, “If it is not the work of the apostle himself, was it produced under the supervision of and with the stamp of approval of one of the apostles?”
Jesus’ apostles wrote most of the books in the New Testament. For example, John and Matthew were apostles. Additionally, Paul accounts for roughly half of the books. Luke, who wrote two New Testament books, was not an apostle. The early church, though, generally recognized him as Paul’s protégé, advisor, traveling companion, and physician. They believed that the apostle Paul supervised and approved what Luke wrote. Or consider the writer of the Gospel of Mark; although John Mark was not an apostle, early Christians generally recognized Peter as Mark’s historical source. These works thus meet the criterion of apostolicity.
Recognition by the Churches—This principle asked how the earliest leading churches regarded the book. If the churches at Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Carthage for example accepted a book as authoritative, then chances were strong that the church as a whole would give it serious consideration for inclusion.
Apostolic Content—This criterion asked whether a particular book’s content agreed with the doctrine the apostles taught orally or wrote when they were still alive. If anything was contrary to the apostles’ actual teaching, it was considered spurious and not the Word of God. The early church leaders—those who had heard the apostles, or who at least had heard the immediate disciples of the apostles—recognized that as time wore on, these distinctions would become increasingly difficult to determine. This motivated them to determine and delineate the genuine New Testament canon in the earliest Christian centuries. This means the only apostolic doctrine we know today is what we get out of those written Scriptures.
So, all of this leads to what was perhaps the “prime” criterion: “Was this book produced by an apostle or under the auspices of an apostle, and does it obviously correspond in doctrine to what the apostles themselves taught when they were on earth as God’s divinely appointed spokesmen?”
An example of this criterion at work is the Gospel of Thomas, a book that did not attain canonical status. This writing bears the name of an apostle, but it is not in accord with what the apostles taught. The book for many years was clearly recognized as a Gnostic forgery representing the heresy of Gnosticism. The fact that an apostle’s name is attached to it does not mean that it was apostolic; its content does not agree with apostolic doctrine.
“These things I have spoken to you.”
Not all the books that the apostles wrote became Scripture. For example, Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, two of which are lost and thus not in the canon. Nonetheless, the New Testament that we possess today can be trusted.
Jesus, while on earth, did not specifically mention writings that would become what we know as the New Testament. However, He did seem to “pre-authenticate” the New Testament when He told His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14.25‑26, writer’s translation).
The prophets of old spoke “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.21). We can affirm with confidence that those who penned the New Testament wrote in like manner. Their work is God’s inerrant word, entirely true, and the result of His sovereign oversight and provision. By God’s grace and providence, the early church recognized those books that were inspired of God were to be included in the New Testament canon.
Dr. Terry L. Wilder is professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Read this article in expanded form in the Spring 2013 issue of Biblical Illustrator at lifeway.com/biblicalillustrator. Also watch for a fuller treatment of canonicity in the Summer 2015 issue of Biblical Illustrator.