How do we know we’ve got the right New Testament canon?

Posted: January 17, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

Front Cover

I’ve been reading Ridderbos’s book on the NT canon, and I’ve written a review of it. I think I’ll post it in pieces to make it easier to digest! It’s such an important topic, and you are so unlikely to read Ridderbos any time soon, that I think a summary and review could be valuable.

Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures

Herman N. Ridderbos

Why do we have a New Testament canon? Why do we think these books have a special authority that others don’t have? Why do we accept the 27 books we do as canonical, and not others? Why don’t we accept the Shepherd of Hermas, and why does 2 Peter get in, though few believe it was written by Peter? This question of canonicity is what Ridderbos is writing about.

I’m reading Ridderbos because my beloved Gaffin told me to. He structures his own writings as an extension and development of the thought of Ridderbos and Vos. I can see how Gaffin got some of his inspiration from this guy, but I have to say it’s hard going separating the gold from the – let’s call it bronze. It’s only a short book – 80 pages – but it could have been shorter still.


Writing in 1955, Ridderbos comments that Protestants have avoided this question in modern times, or dealt with it poorly. Agreed!  He sees the question of the canon as a crisis, or ‘creeping sickness’ that threatens to undermine Protestant Christianity.

In particular Ridderbos sees the canon scholarship as having divided into a historical camp, investigating how the current canon came to be accepted, as a historical question apart from theological considerations, and a biblical-critical camp that critically examines the NT documents in an attempt to determine or judge the extent of authentic canonicity in the corpus. Both of these are inadequate, and Ridderbos proposes a core question to redefine the study of canonics: “What is the basis for the church’s recognition both of the canon as such and of the 27 books in particular, and what light does careful investigation of the history of the canon shed on this recognition of the canon as Holy Scripture?” (p.3).

The key words in this fairly clunky question are the highlighted ones: basis and history. As we will see.

In the first and main section of the book, Ridderbos surveys modern attempts to find a basis for canonicity. Luther’s criterion was based on the books’ contents: whether a book preaches Christ. This resulted in a canon within the canon, of those books which are most clearly Christological. Others have viewed canonicity as based on our contemporary experience of encountering God in the Scriptures. The canon is those books which the Spirit uses in this way.

Ridderbos’s critique of these approaches is that they each introduce an external criterion for judging the Scriptures. And since we are the ones who would have to apply the criteria, these outside criteria ultimately subject the Scriptures to ‘human judgement about what is essential and central for Christian faith’.

The Reformed view is the the Scriptures are self-attesting, due to their ‘divine character’. The bos goes for this view. Even the witness of the Spirit is not the basis for the 27 books’ canonicity: rather that witness enables us to recognise the canon that objectively exists.

But what is this thing canonicity? What sort of authority does it entail? How do the 27 books come to have this, and are they are equally authoritative?  Stay tuned!


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