10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon: #3: “The NT Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture”

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Note: This is the third installment of a new blog series announced here.

Sometimes, even in the academic world, things get said so many times that people assume they are true.   And when that happens, no one bothers to look at the historical evidence in a fresh way.  This has certainly been the case when it comes to this third misconception about the New Testament canon. It is routine these days to assert that the New Testament authors certainly did not think they were writing Scripture, nor had any awareness of their own authority. Mark Allan Powell, in his recent New Testament introduction, affirms this view plainly, “The authors of our New Testament books did not know that they were writings scripture.”[1]  Gamble takes the same approach, “None of the writings which belong to the NT was composed as scripture…[they] were written for immediate and practical purposes within the early churches, and only gradually did they come to be valued and to be spoken of as ‘scripture’.”[2]

Now, from one perspective, I understand what these authors are trying to say.  Certainly none of the NT authors wrote with an awareness of a 27 book canon and understood their place in it.  They could not have fully foreseen the shape and scope of this collection.  But, these scholars imply that there was no authoritative intent when the NT authors wrote—and that is a very different thing.  McDonald even declares, “[Paul] was unaware of the divinely inspired status of his own advice.”[3]

But, is it true that the NT authors had no awareness of their own authority? My contention here is simple: the NT authors show evidence that they understood their writings to contain authoritative apostolic tradition.  Since the apostles were commissioned by Christ to speak for him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so, then these writings would have borne the authority of Christ himself.  Thus, whether we call these books “Scripture” is a bit beside the point.  To the earliest Christians, they were “the word of God.”

Now, in a blog post such as this we can hardly work through each book of the NT (nor would we need to do so in order to establish the overall point).  So, we will offer a brief comment on a few select passages:

1 Thess 2:13.  In perhaps Paul’s earliest letter, he is explicit about his own authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ when he reminds the Thessalonians, “You received the word of God, which you heard from us, and accepted it not as the words of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (2:13). By the phrase “word of God” (λόγον θεοῦ), Paul is no doubt referring to the authoritative “apostolic tradition” which they had already passed to the Thessalonians through their oral teaching and preaching. But, if Paul’s apostolic instruction bears divine authority, are we to think that the instruction contained in 1 Thessalonians itself does not?  Is this letter somehow exempt from that very authority? Paul acknowledges elsewhere that the mode of delivery for his apostolic instruction is secondary, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Thus, commenting on 1 Thess 2:13, Ernest Best is able to say, “Paul makes here the daring claim which identifies his words with God’s words.”[4]

1 Cor 14:37-38.  This passage is one of the most explicit about Paul’s apostolic authority, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.  If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38).  Most noteworthy about this passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord” (κυρίοu ἐντολη,).  Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses.[5] So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.” Fee calls such a pronouncement a “prophetic sentence of judgment on those who fail to heed this letter.”[6]  In light of such statements from Paul, we don’t have to wonder how the Corinthians would respond if we were able to ask them “So, do you think that Paul was aware of his own authority when he wrote you that letter?”   Perhaps Paul himself understood the way his authority would be perceived when he wrote the Corinthians a second time and said, “I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters” (2 Cor 10:9).

Luke 1:1-4.  Luke makes express claims to be passing down apostolic tradition. In his prologue, Luke claims that the traditions included in his gospel have been “delivered” to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”  Most scholars view the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as a clear reference to the apostles. And the term “delivered” is a standard reference to the way that authoritative apostolic tradition is passed along. Thus, Luke understood his gospel to be the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic “Word” that had been delivered and entrusted to him. Craig Evans comes to the same conclusion about the prologue, “Luke does not see himself primarily as a biographer, nor even a historian.  The Lukan evangelist is a writer of Scripture, a hagiographer who is proclaiming what God has ‘accomplished among us.’”[7]

Rev 1:1-3. The most explicit claim for a book’s authority no doubt comes from the author of Revelation.  The opening line of the book directly claims that it is the inspired prophecy of Jesus Christ delivered to John by an angel (1:1).  Consequently, there is a divine blessing attached with this book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3).  Moreover, the authority of this book is heightened by the inclusion of an “inscriptional curse” at the end, warning the reader not to add nor take away from this document lest they suffer divine judgment (22:18-19).  On the basis of these explicit statements, even McDonald is willing to acknowledge that Revelation “claims for itself such a lofty position that [it] would come close to the notion of inspiration and Scripture.”[8]

This has been a very quick sampling of NT passages, fitting for a blog post like this.  However, even this brief glance raises questions about the contention that the NT authors were unaware of their own authority.  It matters not whether we want to use the term “Scripture” to describe these books; if they bore apostolic authority then they bore Christ’s authority and would have been viewed as the very words of God. N.T. Wright sums it up well,

It used to be said that the New Testament writers “didn’t think they were writing ‘Scripture.’” That is hard to sustain historically today.  The fact that their writings were,  in various senses, “occasional”…is not to the point.  At precisely those points of urgent need (when, for instance, writing Galatians or 2 Corinthians) Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words.[9]

 



[1] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 50.  See also McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 249.

[2] H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 18.

[3] McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 9.

[4] E. Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 111.

[6] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 712.

[7] Evans, “Luke and the Rewritten Bible,” 201.  It is worth noting that there is some evidence Luke was regarded as “Scripture” quite early. 1 Tim 5:18 cites “the laborer deserves his wages” and introduces it with “For the Scripture says.”  Although it’s possible that 1 Tim 5:18 may be citing some apocryphal source, the only known match for this citation is Luke 10:7. One must at least consider the possibility that 1 Timothy is citing Luke’s gospel as Scripture.  See discussion in J.P. Meier, “The Inspiration of Scripture: But What Counts as Scripture?,” Mid-Stream 38 (1999): 71-78.

[8] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 31.

[9] N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 51.

Comments

10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon: #3: “The NT Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture” — 13 Comments

  1. Dear Mike,

    Excellent post. I think that most people who claim that the writers of Scripture did not think that they were writing Scripture misunderstand that nature of what Peter wrote in II Peter 1:19-20.

    Furthermore, Paul does distinguish the Lord’s command and his own command in I Corinthians 7, but then adds “…, but I think that I have the Spirit of God.”

    Even I John has some excellent examples of judgement on those who do not believe that the Christ (Messiah) has come in the flesh.

    Like you said about the number of verses that you give as examples.

    One last example and it does not have an apostle writing but saying it:
    Acts 5 and the Judgement of Ananias and Sapphira by Peter. That judgement is a very clear example of the AUTHORITY of the Apostles whether it be written or in oral form.

    But, is it true that the NT authors had no awareness of their own authority? My contention here is simple: the NT authors show evidence that they understood their writings to contain authoritative apostolic tradition. Since the apostles were commissioned by Christ to speak for him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so, then these writings would have borne the authority of Christ himself. Thus, whether we call these books “Scripture” is a bit beside the point. To the earliest Christians, they were “the word of God.”

    • Thanks, Bryant. Appreciate these thoughtful comments. Yes, the key is that the apostolic “voice” is fully authoritative whether in oral or written form.

  2. Pingback: What I Read Online – 04/24/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  3. I’ve enjoyed studying the notion of the apostolic tradition in the NT (see http://cbumgardner.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/appendix-two-the-apostolic-tradition.pdf), and I appreciate your incorporation of this concept into your discussion of canon, which is precisely the right thing to do. Here’s a good quote from Oscar Cullman in this regard: ““the apostle cannot . . . have any successor who can replace him as bearer of the revelation for future generations, but he must continue himself to fulfil his function in the Church of today: in the Church, not by the Church, but by his word . . . (John 17:20), in other words, by his writings.” Oscar Cullman, “The Tradition,” in The Early Church, trans. A. J. B. Higgins (London: SCM, 1956), 80.

    • Thanks, Chuck. Yes, the concept of apostolic tradition is key to understanding the origins of the NT canon. I appreciate the quote from Cullmann; he has done good work in this area.

  4. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
    Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. 2 Peter 3:15-17

    • Thanks for this. 2 Pet 3:15-16 is a key passage. The reason I did not include it in this discussion is because it doesn’t directly state whether the author of a NT book was aware of his own authority (as opposed to being aware of another author’s authority, as in the case of 2 Pet 3:15-16).

  5. Great to see your blog Mike. Good stuff here.
    Is there some tension in the fact that this topic works with quite a strict distinction between Scripture and Canon, whereas in an earlier discussion you seemed to oppose a strict distinction between Scripture and Canon?

    • Hey, Pete. Good to hear from you. Thanks for contributing to the blog. You mentioned that this topic “works with quite a strict distinction between Scripture and Canon.” I am not sure where this topic requires such a strict distinction. I would be comfortable asking “Did the NT authors think they were writing Canonical books?” and answering yes to the question. In particular, I very much think that Paul understood himself to be writing new covenant documents, i.e., new canonical books. Even though they couldn’t foresee the full shape of the canon, this would not require a sharp distinction in terminology.

  6. Michael,
    Very fruitful thinking. It does seem that Paul thought that he, as an apostle, had a special part to play in laying the foundation of the new covenant community. He certainly recognizes such a foundational ministry for apostles and prophets Eph. 2:20). As you point out, it would then make sense to think that the that the early church would anticipate the emergence of written documents that would accurately represent the tradition of the apostles.

    • Thanks, Bill. Yes, I think the existence of the canon flows directly out of the apostolic office–it is simply the written embodiment of the apostolic message.

  7. Dear Mike,

    Just received your new book, Canon Revisited. I hope you establish a section of the blog for remarks, reviews, etc.

    One thing I noticed in the Introduction, Page 20,
    “Of course, critics of biblical Christianity have roundly argued that Christians have no rational basis for holding such a belief about the canon. Christians can believe such a thing if they want to, it is argued, but it is irrational and intellectually unjustifiable. It must be taken on “blind faith.”

    My comment is on the last sentence in particularly, “blind faith.” There is NO such thing as blind faith. Faith requires an object. Faith is never blind. It is parallel to knowledge in that it it “intuitive, intellectual and experiential.” Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. Knowledge will lead you only so far. Faith takes what knowledge has given and continues on. Faith/trust/belief are all required in EVERYTHING that we do, say and hear. The critics of Biblical Christianity use faith, but there faith is limited to reason alone. You know as well as I do that that is a slippery slope. Again, faith and knowledge are both “intuitive, intellectual and experiential.” Both are needed, but it is faith that saves (I Corinthinas 13:8, …”where is knowledge it will pass away;” Ephesians 2:8-10)

    • Thanks, Bryant. Yes, I agree that unbelievers misunderstand the meaning of faith. Of course, as I am sure you know, my words on p.20 were describing the views of the critics, not my own view! I appreciate your comments about how faith is a good thing from the perspective of Scripture.