Given or Formed?

Authority and Canonicity of the NT

Doorn 1992, drs G. van den Brink


In this lecture we want to discuss the authority and canonicity of the books of the NT in general and the catholic letters (and Hebrews) in particular. The question many people ask is this:
‘Do these letters truly belong to the New Testament canon?’ I would like to open this discussion by quoting some words of my teacher New Testament, the late professor Van Unnik, he expressed on March 30, 1973 on the occasion of the 337-th Dies Natalis (Birth Date) of the University of Utrecht. He then said the following:

‘No-one can deny that the volume of 27 larger and smaller documents dating back from the first centuries of our era, which is known under the name ‘New Testament’, has exercised a deep radical influence on the world at large and on the lives of individuals in a very exceptional way’. And  ‘Everyone, wherever in the world who gets a New Testament, always gets hold of the same volume’ (1)

Against the background of this data, which were handed down to us in the course of history, we want to look at the discussion in the early church with regard to whether or not to include in the Bible a number of Catholic letters. From the seven books which have been debated about until the 4-th century, there are six from our corpus namely Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude (2). In the light of the words by Van Unnik, we had better formulate our starting question as follows: ‘Are the historic facts such that we have to doubt the authority and canonicity of the catholic letters? Without pretending to be complete, we have to look at a few things to answer this question. Firstly: what do we understand by canonical and authoritative?  Secondly: what determines the authority of a New Testamentic book? Thirdly: how is the attitude of the apostolic fathers with regard to the New Testamentic books in general and the catholic books in particular? Fourthly: are there demonstrable reasons why the authority of certain books from about 200 A.D. was put under discussion?




The first issue we have to say something about lies in the field of methodology. When we are researching the newtestamentic canon, then what are we talking about? For scholars do not agree about this. It is already an old discussion whether the Greek word ‘kanon’ here should be understood in the sense of ‘rule'(3), meaning to say in the sense of authoritative norm for faith and life or in the sense of ‘list’ (4), meaning to say a book is only canonical if included in the list of canonical books. This difference in methodical approach has lived on till today. Von Campenhausen (5) states that a manuscript or collection of manuscripts can only be called canonical when the book is assigned a place equivalent to the Old Testament. This means that no earlier than in the easter letter of Athanasius in 367 AD  our newtestamentic canon is mentioned. Others (6) on the other hand claim that canonizing is not only the end stage, the entering in the list, but also the process where authoritative traditions were compiled, ordered and handed down in such a way that they began to function as Holy Scriptures. Metzger in his recent book about the canon of the New Testament summarizes the dilemma as follows: for the one the New Testament is a collection of authoritative books, for the other an authoritative collection of books (7). Back to our question what we are talking about when we ask if the catholic letters are rightly canonical. Although the scientific distinction between canonical and authoritative is formally just, it is actually not correct in our opinion to introduce this distinction in the early church and to limit ourselves to the question of where and when the book was included into the list of canonical books. The question that matters is if and where and when these books were authoritative in the early church. Because this was the main reason why a book later on was included in the list (8).




Thus we come to our second point. What determines the authority of a newtestament book? And does the New testament itself indicate this?

Firstly we notice the irrefutable authority of the words of Jesus Christ (9)  Jesus himself says: ‘ You have heard that it was said by them of old time…but I say unto you’. He speaks with the authority of the Messiah, the representative of God on earth. For Paul every difference of opinion is settled with the words:’this we say unto you according a word of the Lord’.

Secondly we read in the New Testament about the authority of the apostles. Jesus chose his apostles himself (12) and equipped them with his authority to be His representatives. He tells them: “He that receiveth you receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me ,receiveth Him that sent Me”. (13) Their authority particularly concerns the teaching of Jesus’ doctrine. For it was Jesus Himself who told them: “The Comforter which is the Holy Ghost whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you”(14). The apostles are the pillars and foundations of the Church of the New Covenant (15)

Paul is also aware of the calling and the authority he received from Jesus Christ , so that he can say that when someone brings another gospel, he is damned (16).This authority of an apostle, derived from the Lord, is the same as the authority of Jesus himself, it is an authority  which is equivalent to that of the Scriptures of the Old Testament (17).

Thirdly, in the New Testament the ‘ear- and eye-witness’ is mentioned as a characteristic of reliability and truth (18) Jesus himself refers to this when John the Baptist sends someone to ask whether he is the expected Messiah or not.He replies: “go back and report to John what you hear and see”(19).

John and Luke have strongly emphasized this criterion. John opens his first letter with:”… which we have heard ,which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” 20. Luke also starts his gospel with an appeal to eye-witnesses (21).

Next, it should also be said in this context that besides the authority also the written shape and the collecting of the canonical books are already mentioned in the NT. During the life of the apostles, their written and spoken words had the same authority (22). Paul says in 2 Thess. 2:15, “So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter”. (23). And in his second letter Peter speaks of a collection of letters by Paul which he places in line with the Scriptures of the OT (24).




Thus we see that in the NT already, authority is ascribed to the words of the Lord and to the apostles and to the eye-witnesses, equalling the authority of the OT. We find the same situation with the apostolic fathers. They are the first christian authors after the apostles who wrote between about 75 and 150 AD. Thus we find in this time both words from the gospel as well as from the letters of the NT quoted authoritatively in a wide-spread area, in Rome (25). and Antioch (26)., as well as in Alexandria and Asia Minor (28). Now it has been observed that the major part of the use of the NT with the apostolic fathers consists of references/allusions and only a very minor part of pure quotations. It would be out of the question however, to draw the conclusion from this that the use would therefore be less authoritative. The NT itself as well contains ten times as many references/allusions to the OT as literary quotations 29.

Let us now look at how it is with the acceptance of the catholic letters and Hebrews in the first period of 75 till 150 AD. For it is often said from a perspective of the 3-rd and 4-th century,that the status of a number of our letters remained doubtful until the church in the fourth century decided to include them into the NT-ic canon. Do the facts in the days of the apostolic fathers indeed point to this direction? Not so in our opinion. We see the book of Hebrews in those early days functioning in Antioch (30)., Asia Minor (31) Rome (32) and Alexandria (33). We know of the letter of James that it was read in Rome (34). Traces of 1 Peter are found in Antioch (35), Asia Minor (36) and Rome (37). Traces of 2 Peter only in Rome (38). 1 and 2 John were read in Asia Minor (39). We do not know any references from this time of 3 John, but most probably both 2 and 3 John were an appendix to 1 John from the beginning (40). Jude was also read in Asia Minor and the way in which Tertullian later on quotes this letter suggests that it had already had authority for a long time in North Africa (42). We conclude that the catholic letters and Hebrews were read far and wide in those early days (43). Even more important is that with the apostolic fathers there is no doubt of the local authority of these books




The question which finally draws our attention is this one: Why has the authority of a number of books been debated about from around 200 AD? We can suggest three reasons. Firstly the growing ecumenical alliance of the different parts of the world-church (44). Before, some books were hardly or unknown in certain areas.As far as we know, the letters of John for example were at first only read in Asia Minor and the letter of James only in Rome. And unknown makes unloved (45). That is why it is easily understood why its acceptance was attended by fierce debates.

A second reason is that in the second half of the 2-th century a narrowing of the concept of apostle takes place (46). In contrast with the apostolic days (47) the term apostle is now being restricted to the twelve disciples. Jude and James are no longer apostles in this sense of the word. And they, who for example did not know that the apostle John was called ’the elder’ in the circle of his disciples, could easily doubt the authorship of 2 and 3 John (48).

The third reason for criticism on the canonicity of certain books is the influx of sectarian and pseudepigraphic literature. The fact that the Montanists referred to the letter of the Hebrews for their view that after falling away, no more conversion is possible (49), has rather discredited this letter (50). And in the same way, the letter of Jude has been rejected by some, because it would refer to the apocriphal book of Henoch (51).




Now we have come to a recapitulation and conclusion of our findings. Firstly, we concluded that the essence of the canonicity of the NT-ic books is determined by their authority in the early church. Next we saw that the authority of the NT Scriptures, according to these books themselves, is actually based on two things. At first, the authority of the words of the Lord Jesus himself and secondly the authority and reliability of the first apostles and eye-witnesses. We also remarked that the catholic letters and Hebrews were from the start authoritative in those parts of the early church where they were known. Finally we found no fewer than three reasons why a number of these letters were debated on from 200 AD. With this, we have sufficiently answered our starting question in my opinion, whether the historic facts are such that we have to doubt the canonicity of some catholic letters. What has been handed down by apostles and eye-witnesses from the beginning, has been challenged and threathened, but has not been formed in the following centuries (52). Besides, an important conclusion is that because of the historical and unique revelation of Jesus Christ and the account of this by the first apostles and eye-witnesses, the NT canon has principally closed. And the size of this canon was in principal complete from the moment its books were written (54). To this collection of canonical books the catholic letters and Hebrews also belong, because the authors of these letters say:” … which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (55).



See the Dutch article: de canonvorming van het NT