Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #10: “Early Christians Believed that Canonical Books were Self-Authenticating.”

reading bible

Note: for the complete series see here.

How do we know which books are from God, and which are not?  There are many answers to that question, some of which we have covered in prior posts. Certainly the apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God (see post here). And, the church’s overall consensus on a book can be part of how we identity it as being from God (see post here).

But, it is interesting to note that the early church fathers, while agreeing that apostolicity and church-reception are fundamentally important, also appealed to another factor that is often overlooked in modern studies. They appealed to the internal qualities of these books.

In other words, they argued that these books bore certain attributes that distinguished them as being from God. They argued that they could hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believed that canonical books are self-authenticating.  As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Origen is quite clear that the divine qualities of books play a role in their authentication: “If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings…it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God.”[1]

Elsewhere Origen says similar things. He defends the canonicity of the book of Jude because “it is filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace”[2] and defends the canonical gospels because of their “truly venerable and divine contents.”[3]  He even defends the canonicity of the book of Hebrews on the ground that “the ideas of the epistle are magnificent.”[4]

Tatian is very clear about the role of the internal qualities of these books: “I was led to put faith in these [Scriptures] by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts.”[5]

Jerome defended the epistle of Philemon on the grounds that it is “a document which has in it so much of the beauty of the Gospel” which is the “mark of its inspiration.”[6]  Chrysostom declares that in the gospel of John there is “nothing counterfeit” because the gospel is “uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harp or any music…something great and sublime.”[7]

Right before citing Matt 4:17 and Phil 4:5, Clement of Alexandria says that you can distinguish the words of men from the words of Scripture because “No one will be so impressed by the exhortations of any of the saints, as he is by the words of the Lord Himself.”[8]

These examples (and more could be added) are sufficient to show that the early church fathers believed that evidence for the canonicity of books can be found in the books themselves. In other words, canonical books are self-authenticating.

Of course, at this point one might object: “If the internal qualities of these books really exist, then how do we explain why they are rejected by so many?  Why don’t more people see these qualities?”

The answer lies in the role of the Holy Spirit in helping people see what is objectively there. Due to the noetic effects of sin (Rom 3:10-18), one cannot recognize these qualities without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Needless to say, the non-Christian will find this explanation to be largely unpersuasive.  “Isn’t a little suspicious,” he might object, “that Christians claim they are the only ones who can see the truth of these books and everyone else is blinded to it? That seems enormously self-serving.”

This objection is understandable.  But, if Christian doctrines concerning the fall, original sin, and the corruption of the human heart are true, then it naturally follows that a person without the Spirit cannot discern the presence of the Spirit (such as whether He is speaking in a book).

Moreover, it is not all that different than the reality that some people are tone-deaf and therefore unable to discern whether a musical note is “on key.”  You can imagine a tone-deaf person objecting, “This whole ‘on key’ thing is a sham run by musical insiders who claim to have a special ability to hear such things.” But, despite all the protests, the truth of the matter would remain: there is such a thing as being on key whether the tone-deaf person hears it or not.

In the end, the church fathers teach us a very important truth.  The NT canon we possess today is not due to the machinations of later church leaders, or to the political influence of Constantine, but due to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities.

Or, as Harvard Professor Arthur Darby Nock used to say about the formation of the canon: “The most travelled roads in Europe are the best roads; that is why they are so heavily travelled.”[9]

 


[1] Princ. 4.1.6.  

[2] Comm. Matt. 10.17.

[3] Cels. 3.21. 

[4] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.12; translation mine.

[5] Address to the Greeks, 29.

[6] Prologue to Comm. Phlm.

[7] Hom. Jo. 1.2.

[8] Protr. 9. 

[9] Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 286.

Comments

Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #10: “Early Christians Believed that Canonical Books were Self-Authenticating.” — 12 Comments

    • Thanks, Thomas. Your question is a good one and has come up a lot historically. But, there is a significant difference between the Mormon approach the Christian approach. For Mormons, the experience of the Spirit is the grounds for their belief in Scripture (as they call it, a “burning in the bosom”). But, the historical Christian view (and the view of the church fathers) is that the grounds for our belief in Scripture are the objective qualities of Scripture, not some experience with the Spirit. Sure, the Spirit helps us see those qualities, but it is not the experience with the Spirit that is the grounds for our belief. This may seem like a minor difference, but it is really quite substantial. This difference is why the Mormon position is “subjectivism” while the Christian position is not. Sure, there is a subjective component to the Christian view (everything that involves a person has a subjective component!), but our view is that there are objective qualities of Scripture that are really there regardless of one’s experience.

  1. Thanks for the series. I found it via The Gospel Coalition. I hadn’t heard about any doubts over the canonicity of II Peter and I’m going to research it now.

  2. Dr. Kruger, what then do you make of Martin Luther, who rejected Jude’s inspiration? Was Luther then not one of God’s sheep? If he was a sheep, then he should have heard God’s voice speaking through Jude, via those objective qualities.

    • Thanks, Devin. I cover this objection extensively in Canon Revisited. In short, the self-authenticating nature of Scripture has never been understood to be mean that each individual Christian immediately and incontrovertibly recognizes a book as Scripture, so that there was never any disagreement, discussion, or debate in the early church. So, Luther’s view here proves nothing. The self-authenticating view allows that there can be (and probably always will be) individuals or even pockets of Christians that differ. But, the collective witness of the church as a whole is the key issue. Moreover, it is clear (from the quotes I gave) that this was not a foreign concept to the early church fathers. It is clear that they viewed this a viable concept even in the midst of disagreements. The opinion of the fathers would hold some weight with you, I am sure. Of course, I know that you may bring up the issue of the Apocrypha and ask about whether that disproves the self-authenticating view. That is a complex question that I also cover in Canon Revisited. In short, I think the broad and wide consensus on the OT canon in first century Palestine is sufficient to prove the view that God’s people recognized God’s OT books (though I know you will question that consensus). Whether the affirmations at Trent challenge that consensus is a discussion we will have to leave for another time.

      • Dr. Kruger,

        Okay, so individuals differ, such that we cannot trust any one person’s discernment that a book is inspired. Thus “the collective witness of the church as a whole is the key issue.” The self-authentication of the inspired books is known, not through individual discernment, but through the collective discernment of the Church.

        But how do you then identify what “the Church” is? We have to look to this Church to know the books, so we need to know how to identify it.

        And why should we think that a group of fallible individuals, themselves individually not trustworthy to discern the canon, somehow become trustworthy once they meet together?

        Taking a different approach, why should we trust the words of the Church Fathers you cite when they say that the Scriptures are self-authenticating? After all, these same men taught and believed things about baptismal regeneration, the sacrament of Holy Orders, apostolic succession (some were bishops!), and so on that you would deem serious errors. How do we know that they did not get the latter group of doctrines correct while erring in their belief that the inspired books were self-authenticating? In other words, what is the principled reason for trusting them on one teaching (self-authentication of Scripture) while distrusting them on another (e.g. the sacraments)?

        God bless,
        Devin

        • After all, these same men taught and believed things about baptismal regeneration, the sacrament of Holy Orders, apostolic succession (some were bishops!), and so on that you would deem serious errors.

          That papers over significant differences between the fathers on these very topics (for example, there was no uniform definition of “apostolic succession,” the sacraments were not numbered or treated in the same way as modern Roman Catholicism, etc.), not to mention many others. Protestants find much in the early fathers which which they agree, so casting this issue in such stark terms is rather misleading and certainly not scholarly.

          It’s instructive that Roman Catholic lay apologists won’t (can’t?) seriously debate church history, so they retreat to a kind of skeptical philosophy. But let’s not run in circles like Bryan Cross does and just be open about your commitments: you think the only way to have assurance on these matters is to submit to the Magisterium. Yet, epistemologically, your position ends in the same place as anyone else’s: how do we trust your decision to submit to Rome, since it was fallible after all, and it disagrees with so many of the church fathers and other Christians (the entire Eastern Orthodox denomination) on so many subjects?

          • Dei Verbum, let’s focus on the one I named first: baptismal regeneration. Please explain the alleged “significant differences” of the Fathers on this doctrine.