How do we know we’ve got the right New Testament canon? – Part 3

Posted: January 19, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

Front Cover

In the second and slighter section of the book, Ridderbos inquires further into the nature of canonical authority. What kind of status do these writings have? Once again he seeks to ground the discussion in redemptive history. This time he chooses three categories in which to view the canon, deriving the categories from the NT itself: kerygma, marturia and didache (proclamation, witness and teaching).


Central to the NT documents is the proclamation of the basic apostolic message. That message is not primarily a religious/existential one (‘God can do this for you’) but a historical announcement: ‘God has done this in the resurrection of Jesus.’ This vein of communication runs right through the NT canon, though it is strongest in the Gospels and Acts. The authority of the NT is then limited in scope, not general: it is especially authority in the announcing of God’s acts in Christ. Yet because these acts have implications for every aspect of the creation, the apostolic announcement does also.


The apostles were commissioned to act as witnesses of the things they had seen and heard from Jesus. Ridderbos sees this word ‘witness’ as having strong legal overtones: the apostles are witnesses for God ‘in his great lawsuit against mankind.’ The apostolic kerygma (proclamation) recorded in the NT has the nature of personal eyewitness.

However, while the witness is factual it is not merely so. Because this witness is authorised by God, it also demands the response of faith. This double aim explains much of the flexibility and variations in narrating the gospel events – the Gospels are not ‘pure’ history, but history directed towards faith.


In relating to established churches the apostles take on the role of teachers. The message is the same, but the form is no longer that of announcement, so much as of ongoing religious instruction. They explain the gospel message in light of the Old Testament Scriptures, and draw out its implications for everyday life, i.e. for ethics. They warn against false versions of the message. They develop theological implications of the gospel events using reasoning. These teachings are expressed in culturally specific ways and can be difficult to make sense of from within a different culture (like ours!). This teaching strand is found especially in the NT letters, which represent ‘a more advanced stage of revelation’ than that found in the Gospels (!)

These three terms, taken from the NT itself, help locate the NT canon’s authority within redemptive history (i.e. within the context of the apostles’ ministry). They thus give a broad outline of the dynamic of the NT canon’s authority: they help to express what we mean about these books when we all them ‘the canon’.


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