The Origins of Canon

Outspoken critic of scriptural inerrancy James Barr questioned the idea of the New Testament’s necessity for existence. “The idea of a Christian faith governed by Christian written holy scriptures was not an essential part of the foundation plan of Christianity”, said Barr. In the extrinsic model of canon (view that canon is a product of the later church) there is no reason for early Christianity to have a canon. It’s a fair question when you think about it historically. Who has the right to add books to the Bible?! In the second chapter, The Origins of Canon, Kruger (The Question of Canon) argues that in light of the beliefs of the first century church, a New Testament canon is the expectation. I will summarize the three beliefs below.

  1. The early Christians, (who were Jews) believed that Jesus was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah who brought redemption. They were anticipation and longing for God to fulfill his promises (Is 49:6; 52:8; Zech 14:9; Amos 9:11-15). The O.T., it can be said, was incomplete pointing to a future fulfillment. The pattern in the O.T. was “event-proclamation” therefore it is expected that God would provide new divine revelation following redemption (Dt 18:18). They believed the arrival of Messiah would bring about divine revelation following the redemption accomplished on behalf of his people.
  2. Early Christians, who were Jews, “breathed covenant theology” says N.T, Wright thus Israel understood its relationship with God in terms of covenant. With covenants, written texts are expected. In Messiah, God had inaugurated a new covenant with Israel (Jer 31:31) and a document was a proper expectation. Even critics such as Harnak acknowledged the expectation of a document with a new covenant. The N.T. confirms these expectations as it reveals itself as a covenant document. It has its own “inscriptional curse” Rev 22:18-19 at the end of the corpus. The N.T. has declarations that it should be read to the people and some argue the Gospels are structured for liturgical readings. And there are striking parallels between the O.T. and the N.T. organization of books. Pentateuch:Gospels; Historical Books:Acts; Prophetic Books: Epistles
  3. Early Christians believed the apostles were Christ’s authorized agents to deliver and transmit the new message of redemption. Jesus sends out the Twelve and says, “it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mat 10:20) Early church leaders recognized the Apostolic distinction. The Apostles received the Gospel from Jesus, God sent Jesus who sent his Apostles. (Clement) Initially this was orally, however once they witnessed the expansion of the church they could no longer oversee the church in person and communicated through their writings.

In summary, Kruger argues that it is not only reasonable but expected that the New Testament would emerge and be considered as Scripture. Kruger quotes Paul Achtemeier for a helpful summary

The formation of the canon represented the working out of forces that were already present in the primitive Christian community and that would have made some form of canon virtually inevitable. (78)