How Did the Early Church Recognize the Canonicity of a Book? #6 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

There is a misconception, popularized by books like The Da Vinci Code, that the way the books of the Bible were chosen consisted of politically infused church councils voting on the books they liked, and voting out the books they didn’t like.  However, a careful reading of church history totally disproves this misconception.

As noted in a previous post, the church understood its role as recognizing what books God, himself, had inspired.  This job of recognition was something the early church took very seriously, but how did they go about doing it?  What were the criteria they used?

We know that propheticity was a necessary condition for canonicity, but sometimes church fathers who were trying to assess propheticity of a book were removed by decades, or even centuries, from the original composition of the books.  So what did they do?

Norman Geisler and William Nix, in their book A General Introduction to the Bible, describe the criteria that were actually employed by the early church in this process.

  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?  This was the most fundamental criteria.  Once this was established, the book’s inspiration was recognized.
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?  If there were doubts about the author’s being a true prophet of God, miracles served as divine confirmation.
  3. Did the message tell the truth about God?  According to Geisler and Nix, “Any teaching about God contrary to what His people already knew to be true was to be rejected. Furthermore, any predictions made about the world which failed to come true indicated that a prophet’s words should be rejected.”
  4. Does it come with the power of God?  Geisler and Nix explain, “Another test for canonicity was the edifying effect of a book. Does it have the power of God? The Fathers believed the Word of God is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), and consequently ought to have a transforming force for edification (2 Tim. 3:17) and evangelization (1 Peter 1:23).”
  5. Was it accepted by the people of God? Geisler and Nix point out that “the initial acceptance of a book by the people to whom it was addressed is crucial. Paul said of the Thessalonians, “We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). For whatever subsequent debate there may have been about a book’s place in the canon, the people in the best position to know its prophetic credentials were those who knew the prophet who wrote it. Hence, despite all later debate about the canonicity of some books, the definitive evidence is that which attests to its original acceptance by the contemporary believers.”

Geisler and Nix summarize:

The most important distinction to be made at this point is between the determination and the discovery of canonicity. God is solely responsible for the first, and man is responsible merely for the last. That a book is canonical is due to divine inspiration. How that is known to be true is the process of human recognition. How men discovered what God had determined was by looking for the “earmarks of inspiration.”

It was asked whether the book (1) was written by a man of God, (2) who was confirmed by an act of God, (3) told the truth about God, man, and so on, (4) came with the power of God, and (5) was accepted by the people of God. If a book clearly had the first earmark, the remainder were often assumed. Of course the contemporaries of the prophet (apostle) knew his credentials and accepted his book immediately. But later church Fathers sorted out the profusion of religious literature, discovered, and gave official recognition to the books that, by virtue of their divine inspiration, had been determined by God as canonical and originally recognized by the contemporary believing community to which they were presented.

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  • tildeb

    I am flabbergasted that anyone would take this list as a serious attempt to differentiate which books are more authentic representations of godly inspiration due to the obvious fact (to me, at least) that there’s no way to check the accuracy of decisions independent of those doing the evaluations! Your level of trust in their neutral expertise (that assumes pure motives) far exceeds my own.

  • How would you go about authenticating it,tildeb?

  • tildeb

    Like any good academic paper, Karla, I would list all the relevant documents under review, present my thesis, and attempt to show why my selection warrants consideration and leave it up to the reader to determine its value. I wouldn’t hide behind these nebulous terms of prophecy and god as if they – rather than I – were doing the selecting (and thus sidestepping any responsibility to justify my purposes and goals). How very convenient.

    Don’t you think that’s rather cowardly, not to mention suspiciously dishonest, to invoke exactly that as a justification (as a real and active agent) for which one is trying to demonstrate… but without any means to validate other than by my say so?

  • emmzee

    tildeb, if you’re interested in a more complex scholarly approach than is found in Geisler and Nix (not to say that there’s no value in their work, I think there is value, it just doesn’t go deep enough for me) check out the audio lecture series by Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh), which is available here:
    He presents what I think are a cogent case for what might be termed an evangelical understanding of the formation of the canon. I found it very helpful to listen to his lectures.

  • I think this was written not as an answer to skeptics, but to comfort those who already believe the bible is the word of god. Because this doesn’t even approach anything that sounds convincing to me. I am curious how an apologist could build a case for the posterity of the autographs of the bible to a non-believer. Seems like it would be pretty tough to do so without the standard mix of presuppositions that make christianity sound reasonable.

  • I have always been struck by Irenaeous’ assertion that the reason there are four gospels and no more is because there are four winds and cherubim have four faces. I can’t help but think that if he actually had some credible evidence that those particular documents could be traced back to apostolic sources, he would have cited it.

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  • Boz

    Was Irenaeous the type of guy to cite sources in other areas of his writing?

  • I have no idea. However, he seems to be trying to give the best reasons he can think of for trusting these particular four gospels and rejecting all others. I guess my question would be this: Is there any reason to think that he has any unstated reasons that are any better for favoring his gospels over those he deems heretical?

  • MaryLouiseC

    But Eric, aren’t you yourself starting with the presupposition that God doesn’t exist which makes atheism sound reasonable to you?

  • MaryLouiseC

    I don’t see that Irenaeus’s analogy can be used to discredit the Gospels or their authorship. He attributed them to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in his Adversus Haereses. What more do you want of him?

  • MaryLouiseC

    A good question, Boz. Randolph Richards, in his essay entitled Will the Real Author Please Stand Up? (in Come Let Us Reason edited by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan) notes that, in that era, it was acceptable to use material without documenting its source. We should not impose modern standards or ways of doing things on on other people in other eras.

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