How do we know we’ve got the right New Testament canon? – Part 2

Posted: January 18, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

Front Cover

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?

To answer these questions, Ridderbos examines the way the canon arose within salvation history. This is the big idea from which his book gets its title, Redemptive History and the NT Canon. It has also been the missing element in canon studies. By considering the canon within this category of ‘redemptive history’, he deliberately brings together the historical and the theological dimensions of canon studies.

It is here that Ridderbos’s real achievement begins. That achievement is to assert the vital role of the apostles and apostolicity in creating the canon of NT Scripture. The apostles announced the Word of God to the world. God’s revelation to the world was in Christ, and he did not leave that revelation to be reported haphazardly. Rather Christ established, prepared, authorised and anointed the apostles for the task of announcing him to the world. Therefore their message is the authoritative announcement of God’s revelation in Christ, it is Christ himself speaking through his apostles. Their teaching formed a unique norming tradition or deposit for the church. It was natural then to give the apostles’ writings, and only them, the status of Scripture. The apostles themselves saw it this way.

This gives us a concept of canon which is closely tied to apostolicity. And therefore also a closed canon: the apostles are no longer writing! Furthermore, all the apostolic writings are seen to be equally canonical, since canon rests on apostolicity. And this status does not depend on the church’s recognition: the canon is itself apart from the church’s experience of it.

Thus, the church is justified in accepting a canon of New Testament writings: ‘By accepting a fixed, closed collection of writings as exclusively canonical, the church has acted entirely in keeping with the structure and intention of the divine plan of redemption revealed in Christ’ (p.30).

It is not possible to use apostolicity as an absolute criterion, because we are not sure who wrote some of the 27 books. Also the concept of apostolicity was a bit fluid, it wasn’t limited to just the twelve. We can investigate the history, but we can’t let the canon depend on the results of our investigations.

So how do we know which books should be in this canon?

Ridderbos basically affirms a nuanced version of the Reformed view: the church’s usage from the earliest days is the best assurance to us that we have the right books. He doesn’t mean the decrees of early councils, but rather the organic presence of these books with the church, accepted as apostolic and foundational, since the beginning. “The Church never knew anything else than that these gospels and these letters of Paul…were what it could trust and what had been delivered to it as its foundation” (p.41).

Ridderbos acknowledges that there were actually other respected writings around, such as the Didache. He is a bit vague about this issue of ‘the fringes of the canon’. Ultimately, he says, the criterion for including/excluding disputed books was their content. If they were not in agreement with the core apostolic writings, they were not recognised. This would seem to bring human judgement back in to a decisive role, but Ridderbos does not clearly resolve this problem. It’s just a few fringey books anyway!

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