Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 1)?

[Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on August 7, 2012. In this four-part series, L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, addresses the complex but very important question of the New Testament canon: why is there a New Testament; why are certain documents but not others included in the New Testament; and what does all this mean for ministry in the church and engagement with the world? Check in next Monday for part 2.]

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. “The NT Canon (the authoritative collection of books) was formed over a period of sorting and sifting overseen by the Holy Spirit that was essentially completed by AD 200. The early church councils settled the fuzzy edges of the Canon.” This was what I heard as a young Christian. I suspect you’ve heard something similar. Upon further study I am convinced that this is at least 100 years too late in its date and places far too much emphasis on the church councils. This week I will address many aspects of the NT Canon to defend my thesis. In this post, I want to briefly explore the origins of the idea of a New Testament. Why did the early Christians endorse the idea of new Scriptures? If someone came to you and said, “we have new scripture for you,” you would rightly refuse it. Why is it that they did not?

Before we do that, however, let’s first correctly understand the early church councils. No evidence exists that the early councils actually debated the Canon. They only listed their books. If we evangelicals embrace the list in the councils we make two mistakes. First, to grant the councils the final word is to give too much authority to these councils. This is something evangelicals have always hesitated to do. Second, they also endorsed the OT Apocrypha as Scripture. If we take them as authoritative, we must also adopt these extra books to the OT. Again, we are on good grounds not to do so. Instead, it is better to evaluate the councils than submit to them. I think it is clear they were endorsing the Testaments as they were handed down to them in Greek. Regarding the NT, the choice is correct. In the OT, they were simply listing the books of the Septuagint that included these extra books. The councils, then, are best understood as a witness to our present 27-book NT.

So then, why were the early believers willing to accept roughly contemporaneous documents as authoritative Scripture? This question comprises two concepts. First, there is the very idea of Canon, i.e., a closed set of authoritative writings that in itself is authoritative. Second, when the question comes to the NT, why add to the OT Canon, which, by definition, is closed?

Because few works survive from the 1st and 2d centuries when these decisions happened, answering these questions is not easy. But there are works that do survive and what they explicitly cite and infer will help answer these questions. Examining the Church Fathers from before AD 150 we see every book of the NT cited as an authority. 3 John is often said to be missing, however, a few sources do show echoes of 3 John. So we see that the books in the present NT Canon were recognized, but what about the whole set?

Many scholars suggest the idea of a canon came from Marcion (a Gnostic-like heretic, expelled from the church of Rome c. AD 144). Marcion did produce a canon that was an edited edition of Luke and Paul’s letters. It is said that the early church’s response was a longer canon. This hypothesis, however, is coming under more and more suspicion in the academy. It is more likely that the origins of a Canon concept are earlier than Marcion. Irenaeus, writing only a few decades after Marcion and Tertullian, about 60 years later, both chastised Marcion for destructive not creative activity. Furthermore, some documents previous to Marcion are responding to the existence of an authoritative set of books. If so, it is most likely that Marcion was editing orthodox documents rather than “orthodoxing” documents.

So why is it a closed collection? Christians inherited the Canon concept from the Jews. So that Christianity already had a Canon: the OT. The Jewish historian Josephus contrasts the OT with a myriad of Pagan scriptures and notes that Judaism has a “fixed number of books.” Certainly sounds like “Canon” doesn’t it? The Second-century Christians not only had a Canon (the OT), there existed a body of literature that they recognized as NT Canon.

Yet it was not just a second-century phenomenon. It is clear that the new Scripture was being recognized very early. Both 2 Peter 3:15-16 (Paul’s letters) and 1 Timothy 5:18 (the Gospel of Luke) affirm new works as Scripture (equal with the OT). What led to this phenomenon?

I believe that the answer is found in understanding that the OT was “the book of the Covenant.” Ancient Near East covenants usually were accompanied by documents stipulating the terms. Within the OT, portions of it were called “the book of the covenant” (see, Exod 24:7; Deut 29:20; 31:9, 26; 2 Kgs 23:2, 21; 2 Chr 34:30). The same description can be found in Second-temple Jewish literature (see 1 Maccabees 1:56–57 and Sirach 24:23) referring to the whole OT. Thus, both the OT itself and later Jews considered the OT to be “book(s) of the covenant.” So then, with the advent of the New Covenant, covenant documents naturally would be expected. It is the prophesied New Covenant that is the impetus for new Scriptures (covenant documents).

This explains a few things for us: 1) the rapid recognition of apostolic documents as Scripture, 2) the limitation to apostolic men as authors for they were the witnesses of the covenant, and 3) it also explains the name of the collection. We are used to “New Testament,” but the title in Greek “he kaine diatheke” is better translated, “the New Covenant.”

Thus, the idea of a NT Canon was not the result of the councils, or a reaction to a Roman heretic. Instead, the NT flows organically from the establishment of a new covenant, predicted by the OT prophets, and instituted in and through the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the very fount, not only of all Christian blessings, but also of the NT Canon.


The following sources were employed in this post (and great for further reading!): Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2d ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997 (reprint, 1987); C.E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004; C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010; A. J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, & C. L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B & H, 2009.

Andy Davis on Christ’s View of the Bible

Regular readers may know that I serve as one of the elders of First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina. My fellow elder Andy Davis, who serves as our church’s senior pastor, has recently finished writing an eleven-part series of short essays on Christ’s view of the Bible. He also serves as a visiting professor of historical theology at Southeastern Seminary, where he teaches courses on Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans, and John Calvin. Andy’s series was published at Two Journeys, a blog sponsored by FBC Durham that focuses primary on matters of practical theology and church health. Many of the elders and ministry staff contribute to Two Journeys.

In a day when a growing number of evangelicals seem confused (again) about the inspiration, authority, and truthfulness of Scripture, Andy makes the case that Jesus suffered from no such confusion. Even Southern Baptists, who endured our own “battle for the Bible” in the 1980s and 1990s, need to be reminded about Jesus’ view of the Scriptures. To that end, I hope you find Andy’s series helpful.

What is Christ’s View of the Bible? Introduction

Christ Would Rather Die than Disobey Scripture

Christ Taught that He Fulfilled Scripture

Christ Taught the Unbreakable Permanence and Authority of Scripture

Christ Lived Sinlessly Moment by Moment by All Scripture

Christ Staked His Life on the Word of God

Christ Proved His Deity by a Single Word of Scripture

Christ Proved the Resurrection by a Single Verb Tense in Scripture

Christ Instilled Passion for the Scriptures in His Followers

What Scripture Says, God Says

What is Christ’s View of the Bible? Conclusion

If you would like to read a helpful book that presents a traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture, I would highly recommend D. A. Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture (Crossway, 2010).

(Image credit; Note: this post was cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)


Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 19: Why a Great Commission Resurgence? Because of the Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

The impetus for a Great Commission Resurgence comes from the heart of God who gave the Great Commission. God’s people know of God’s mission for His world because God has revealed it to them through His Word. God has ultimately revealed Himself in the incarnate Word, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He also reveals Himself by His written Word, which is the Bible, the Word given by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles. A Great Commission Resurgence will not truly be a resurgence of God’s mission unless it is rooted in and governed by the Word given by the God of mission.

A GCR will never be authentically pursued or sustained without a commitment to and preservation of “the faith” or the “teachings” of Christianity. Those teachings, which are called “doctrines”, are revealed by God to us in the Bible. It is, of course, fundamental to the nature of the Great Commission that disciple-making is rooted in baptism and teaching. Baptism signals an identification with the crucified, resurrected Christ and entrance into His church, while teaching indicates the formation of a life consistent with Christian baptism through the authoritative teaching of Holy Scripture.

As it is true that a GCR cannot be pursued or sustained apart from such a commitment to “the faith”, it is equally true that “the faith” cannot be known apart from the Bible. Christian “doctrine” is not merely human musings about God, nor is it a set metaphysical abstractions. Doctrine, in its most fundamental sense, is the teaching of Scripture itself. The “doctrine of Christ,” for example, is what the Scriptures teach about Christ. While our expressions and explanations of biblical doctrine necessarily involve language and concepts that lie outside the Bible, the doctrines themselves, in the primary sense of the word, are the teachings of God’s Word.

The Bible is truly the “Word of God.” Repeatedly the prophets claim “God said,” and “thus says the Lord.” The words of Scripture are perfect, sure, and trustworthy (Psalm 19). These texts are, as the apostle Peter puts it, “a word more sure,” by which he means that the Bible supercedes any other claim to revelation, including Peter’s own experience with Christ (2 Pet 2:16-21). In these words, and through His Son, God indeed has spoken (Heb 1:1-2).

Christians have long confessed what the Scriptures claim, that the Bible is inspired and authoritative. Paul instructs us that the very text of the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16) and Peter informs us that the writers of the Scriptures were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote (2 Pet 1:21), explaining that “men spoke from God” as the Bible was composed. So, we believe, both the text and the authors are inspired by God. Because of this, we hold that the Bible is a divine book.

The authority of Scripture is rooted in a variety of claims. The prophets of the Old Testament claim that they were proclaiming the word of God. The apostles claim that they too were penning divine words as they composed what we call the New Testament (e.g., 2 Pet 3:16). And, of course, Jesus taught from the Scriptures as from a book with God’s authority. There was no question in his His mind – these are the very words of God. Because they are God’s words, they are by their very nature authoritative for the people God created.

A whole set of doctrines accompany the doctrines (the biblical “teachings”) of inspiration and authority. We will consider a few of these, and then trace some of the implications of the inspiration and authority of Scripture for a GCR.

Because the Scriptures are inspired by God, because they are in fact God’s words, we affirm several corollary doctrines in our doctrine of Scripture. For example, because the Bible is God’s Word, we expect the Scriptures to be consistent with the nature of God. We, therefore, affirm that the Scriptures are “perfect” (Psa 19:7), that they are given to us without any error or impurity. The term “inerrancy” has long been used to express this biblical affirmation. Jesus himself expected that the Scriptures “could not be broken” (John 10:10) and that not even the smallest part of the Word would pass away (Matt 5:17).

Likewise, because the Scriptures are inspired by God, we affirm the teaching that the Bible is sufficient for life and doctrine (2 Tim 3:16-17). The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is the affirmation that the Bible itself is sufficient revelation for God to bring sinners to salvation and for God’s people to live as God desires. Put another way, the doctrine of sufficiency affirms that no man needs any further revelation from God in order to be redeemed and sanctified. While the Bible does not teach us everything about everything, it is sufficient in such a way that we need no further divinely inspired revelation from God in order to know God and obey Him.

Finally, the doctrine of the supremacy of Scripture affirms that no other source of knowledge is sovereign over divine revelation itself. The Lord is Lord of knowledge; all our thinking, and all our claims must be subjected to the Lordship that God exercises through His word. To set human wisdom above the wisdom of God, or to allow other sources of knowledge to gain supremacy over the “knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5) is demonic. While I may obtain certain useful information for life from a source other than the Bible, no other source may have a magisterial role over the Scriptures;, instead, other sources of knowledge and ways of knowing must function in a ministerial capacity. That is, Scripture rules while other sources of knowledge serve. And the Lord, by His Word, stands in judgment over knowledge itself.

Let me suggest a few areas in which the necessity of a commitment to biblical inspiration and authority matters for a GCR. First, a GCR is about making -disciples, followers or learners of Jesus. The questions arises, then, about what constitutes the “teaching” that is to be given to Christ’s followers. Paul tells us about the matters of “first importance” that are handed down to the church (1 Cor 15:3-5), and Jude urges the defense of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3). Without the Scriptures the church has no sure knowledge of what constitutes “teaching”, or matters of “first importance,” or “the faith” that is worthy of defense. Disciple-making is the goal of the Great Commission, and no real disciples are to made apart from biblical teaching. Thus a commitment to the authority of Scripture is vital to a GCR.

Another facet of a GCR is the need for the reproduction of healthy churches around the world. This blog series features a number of entries that speak about some vital components of church health. We have to consider what our source of knowledge is for prescribing what constitutes the nature of the church, church health, church polity and governance, and all manner of church practices. There is no shortage of ideas about what constitutes the nature and function of a church, but a GCR that neglects the central biblical teachings about the church will not be a Great Commission Resurgence, but a resurgence of human novelties, which will have no eternal benefit.

Also, we must consider the ways in which the authority of Scripture matters for missional strategies that are crucial to a GCR. Christians determine certain ways of fulfilling the task we call the Great Commission. We employ evangelistic methods, church planting methods, and strategic initiatives. But what is to prevent such strategies and methods from being mere human inventions, and what is to keep us from using strategies and methods that are inconsistent with or contrary to the very teachings of Scripture? Unless we submit to the reality that the Bible is God’s divine word, and that it is authoritative, sufficient, and supreme, we will always be susceptible to the whims of theories and movements that amount to little more than the strongholds of 2 Corinthians 10, which set themselves up against the knowledge of God.

We have said before that a GCR is the natural producte of the Conservative Resurgence of the past 25 years. In no way is this more true than the way that the GCR is rooted in fidelity to the inspired, authoritative Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, which tell of the love and life of God revealed and promised to the nations.