A primer on Canonicity

Apostolic Authority in antiquity

The Old Testament is approved holy writ by the testimony of the Lord Himself.

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Tes...
The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2) Currently housed in: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

This three-fold division is clearly recorded by the Jewish authorities and their specific contents are also recorded and align with the modern Old Testament of the Protestant Bible, though in a different arrangement. Jesus also affirmed the Common Tradition of Scripture by his statement that all the blood from Abel to Zechariah would be visited on the Jews in Luke 11:50-51. This starts with the first Murder and ends with the last murdered prophet in the Jewish bible.

For the New Testament, the teaching and example of the Lord and his apostles, whether conveyed by word of mouth or in writing, had axiomatic authority for them. If writing was the work of an apostle or of their disciples it belongs to the apostolic age. Later writings, whatever their merit, could not be included among the apostolic or canonical books.

Most of the New Testament authors do not base their authority on divine inspiration. When Paul asserts his authority (2 Cor. 13:10) he rests it in the apostolic commission which he had received from the exalted Lord. In his exercise of his authority, he told the Corinthian Christians, they would find the proof which they demanded “that Christ is peaking in me” (2 Cor. 13:3).

St. John stated that in his witness he experiences the Spirit’s guidance into “all the truth” as he brings to the disciples’ remembrance what the Lord had said and makes its meaning plain (Jn 14:26, 16:12-15).

To those who argued that the apostles and evangelists spoke before they possessed ‘perfect knowledge’ (so their works required gnostic amplification and interpretation) Iranaeus replied that they wrote after Pentecost: the power of the Holy Spirit with which they were invested then imparted the ‘perfect knowledge’ necessary for the execution of their commission.


The apostolic Faith set forth in the undoubted apostolic writings and maintained in the churches which had been founded by apostles. When new gospels or acts emerged and began to circulate under the alleged authority of the apostles decades and centuries after their own disciples had passed away, the most important question to ask about any one of them was: what does it teach about the person and work of Christ? Does it maintain the apostolic witness to him as the historical Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and raised from the dead, divinely exalted as Lord over all?


Works that enjoy local recognition alone ought not to be acknowledged as part of the Canon of the Universal Church.

Each individual  document that was ultimately acknowledged as canonical started off with local acceptance – the various epistles in the places to which they were sent, the Apocalypse in the seven churches of Asia, even the Gospels and Acts in the constituencies for which they were first designed. But their attainment of canonical status was the result of their gaining more widespread recognition than they initially enjoyed. But their attainment of Canonical status was the result of their gaining more widespread recognition than they initially enjoyed.


If any church leader came along in the third or fourth century with a previously unknown book, recommending it as genuinely apostolic, he would have found great difficulty in gaining acceptance of it: his fellow-Christians would simply have said, “but no one has ever heard of it!”


It was not until the red ribbon of the self-evident had been tied around the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that “inspiration” could serve theologians as an answer to the question: Why are these books different from all other books”

Summarized from The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce.


Author: Michael Kloss

There is a Sunday conscience, as well as a Sunday coat; and those who make religion a secondary concern put the coat and conscience carefully by to put on only once a week. - Charles Dickens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: