Quotes of Scholars Regarding the New Testament Canon as Apostolic Texts

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.

Throughout the first 300 years of the Christian church, when the canon of the New Testament was taking shape, from 1st Century when there was no “New Testament” per se until it took final 27-book shape in the 4th Century, the consistent standard for inclusion of a writing was apostolic origin.  (Specifically, as to consistency from beginning of the period to the end, compare the quotes of Balla and Sanders.)

The emphasis added (bold print) in the quotes below is from me.

 Peter Balla

“Due to the scarcity of evidence, one cannot firmly conclude when exactly and as a result of what development the early church came to possess a twenty-seven-book collection called the New Testament and a two-part collection that comprises our Bible of Old and New Testaments.”

“It remains plausible that from a very early time, indeed, from the production of apostolic writings claiming high authority, there was  a process involving the writings, attributed to Jesus’ apostles, that were being read and re-read in the congregations of the mainstream church.  These writings guided the early Christian community in their everyday life and in their beliefs just as did the Septuagint (‘Old Testament’). ”

“The early church’s use of writings not later accepted should not prevent us from seeing that the larger part of the present New Testament canon was undisputedly held to have the authority of scripture, the same authority as the writings of the ‘Old Testament.’  The fact that writings attributed to the apostles were copied repeatedly, as per the manuscript evidence, and that they were published in codices, points to their widespread usage in the congregations, probably in worship from an early date, though we do not know exactly when.”

(Source: Chapter 22 “Evidence for an Early Christian Canon (Second and Third Century)” in The Canon Debate, edited by Lee M. McDonald and James A. Sanders, 2002.)

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F. F. Bruce
(1910-1990)

“One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect.”   (The New Testament Documents, p. 22, courtesy Apologetics 315)

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D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris

“Perhaps the most commonly mentioned criterion in the Fathers is apostolicity, which as a criterion came to include those who were in immediate contact with the apostles.”

(Source: their book An Introduction to the New Testament, Zondervan, 1992, p. 507-508.)

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Oscar Cullmann
(1902-1999)

“[The canonical books] forced themselves on the church by their intrinsic apostolic authority.”

(Source: as quoted in Michael J. Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, 2012, location 5126 in the Kindle edition)

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David G. Dunbar

“Broadly stated, the church regarded apostolicity as the qualifying factor for canonical recognition; however, this apostolicity should be understood not strictly in the terms of authorship but in terms of content and chronology.  That which was canon must embody the apostolic tradition, and this tradition was to be discerned in the most primitive documents: ‘the normative testimonies must derive from the period closest to Christ, namely that of Christian origins, the age of the apostles and their disciples.’ [Dunbar is here quoting Campenhausen in Formation of the Christian Bible p. 330]  The recognition of this apostolicity, moreover, was based primarily on the tradition of the church.  Those books that had functioned authoritatively for earlier Christians were received as an authentic apostolic tradition.  In turn, those documents were used in a negative way to exclude works of later vintage or varying doctrinal content, as happened, for example, in case of The Gospel of Peter.”

“[T]here is great assurance to be drawn from the widespread judgment of the early Christians that this group of writings comprises the authoritative teaching of the apostles.”

(Source: See Dunbar in bibliography, p. 358, 360)

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David L. Dungan
(1936-2008)

“The fundamental purpose of the entire orthodox Scripture selection process was to identify, with all the certainty their methods would permit, exactly those writings bequeathed to posterity by Jesus’ apostles.”

(Source: p. 78-79 of Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament, 2007.)

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James D. G. Dunn

“[T]he question of the legitimacy and limits of the canon has been posed sharply to twentieth-century scholarship…The issue is now more pressing than ever.  For in earlier discussion it could always be claimed that a mark of canonicity was earliness: the NT consists more or less of all the extant Christian documents from the first century.”

“I have not tried to explain or defend the canon in the traditional terms of ‘apostolicity,’ for I do not think it can be done.”

(Source: his book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 3rd edition, SCM Press, 2006, p. 417-418, 431 – Dunn is noting the difference of opinion between modern and ancient scholars on what distinguishes the NT writings from all other early Christian writings.  He sides with modern scholarship, but that just demonstrates Dunn’s acknowledgment that the ancient church considered these 27 documents to be distinguished by their apostolic origins.)

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C. Stephen Evans

Apostolic authority is not simply one criterion among many, as many of the historical treatments of the formation of the canon imply, but is essentially linked to the notion of canon as the central criterion.”

“Still, one might think that making the concept of apostolic authority central to the canon question is an exaggeration. Did not other criteria, such as catholicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, and inspiration count heavily as well in deciding what books should be accepted? I myself think that these other criteria turn out to be either inessential or else are valued because of a connection with apostolicity.”

“…[A]postolicity is the central of key criterion for canonicity…”

(Source: his essay “Canonicity, Apostolicity, and Biblical Authority: Some Kierkegaardian Reflections” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation ed. by Craig Bartholomew et al, 2006, p. 150, 151, 153)

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Denis Farkasfalvy

“Irenaeus…[who] concludes the most important formative period of the New Testament canon puts the criterion of apostolicity into the center of his system…”

(Source: See Farkasfalvy, p. 117-118 in bibliography)

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J. Norval Geldenhuys
(1918-1964)

“Our study has thus far brought us to the definite conclusion that by far the greatest and most potent factor in the forming and recognition of the canonical New Testament was the authority of the Lord and His apostles.”

(Source:  This is taken from the concluding chapter of Geldenhuys’ book Supreme Authority: The Authority of the Lord, His Apostles, and the New Testament, 1953, p. 121-122)

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Adolf von Harnack
(1851-1930)

“No greater creative act can be mentioned in the whole history of the Church than the formation of the apostolic collection and the assigning to it of a position of equal rank with the Old Testament.”

(Source:  his book History of Dogma, vol. 2, and highlighted in the introduction to Michael Kruger’s The Question of Canon, IVP Academic, 2013).   

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R. Laird Harris
(1911-2008)

“[W]e have absolutely no record that any writing of any prophet or apostle was rejected knowingly by any part of the church.”

(from his book Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, see bibliography)

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Charles E. Hill

“In time, the apostolic preaching came to written form in the books of the New Testament, which now function as “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles (2 Peter 3:2).”

“The church saw itself as empowered only to receive and recognize what God had provided in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.preface; 3.1.1-2)”

“It may be said that only the 27 books of the New Testament manifest themselves as belonging to that original, foundational, apostolic witness.”

(All from his article “The Canon of the New Testament” in the ESV Study Bible, p 2579-2580.)

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A. A. Hodge
(1823-1886)

“We determine what books have a place in this Canon or divine rule by an examination of the evidences that show that each of them, severally, was written by the inspired prophet or apostle whose name it bears.”

(on page 51-52 in his book A Commentary on the Confession of Faith per Michael Kruger, 2012, Kindle loc 1971, see bibliography)

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Charles Hodge
(1797-1878)

“The principle on which the canon of the New Testament is determined is…simple.  Those books, and only those which can be proved to have been written by the apostles, or to have received their sanction, are to be recognized as of divine authority.  The reason of this rule is obvious.  The apostles were the duly authenticated messengers of Christ; of whom He said, ‘He that heareth you heareth me’.”

(from his Systematic Theology per R. Laird Harris p. 292 – see bibliography)

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Michael J. Kruger

“Out of all [the] suggested criteria [of canonicity], however, the apostolicity of a book has emerged as the primary or dominant one.”

“[T]he New Testament books were written as apostolic books, thus bearing the full authority of Christ Himself from the very start.”

(from Kruger, 2012, Kindle locations 1971 and 5034, see bibliography)

“The Muratorian Fragment tells us something: that even in the 2nd Century there was a clear idea in people’s minds that recent productions were not even in play.  [That is,] they were not even contenders [for the New Testament canon].  Why?  This goes back to the apostles, right?  The only way you have a book that’s even a contender is if it’s from an apostle.”

(from his lecture “Contenders for the Canon” which is third in his four-part lecture series “The Canonization of the New Testament” found on iTunesU.)

“The sort of ‘nutshell’ version I use for the definition of the New Testament canon is ‘the collection of apostolic writings that are regarded as Scripture by the corporate church.’  This is my brief definition.  There’s several things about that definition that are interesting.  For one, you’ll notice it’s apostolic writings, which is a key part of what canonical writings are.  They’re also writings that we regard as Scripture, so they’re inspired, they’re God’s word, and they’re ultimately from Him.  And then the last part of that definition is that they’re the books of the corporate church.  In other words, they’re the books that the corporate church has adopted and recognized as being from God.”

(spoken at the 5:00 mark in a March 25, 2013 podcast interview with Jonathan Morrow of Think Christianly)

See also this statement from Dr. Kruger.

Kruger, Michael J.  Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of New Testament Books.  Crossway, 2012.  See chapter 5, which is titled “The Apostolic Origins of the Canon.”

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Hans Lietzmann
(1875-1942)

“In the acceptance of books as canonical…’the principle of apostolic authorship drew the line.’  By ‘apostolic authorship’ is, of course, meant ‘either direct or indirect apostolic authorship’.”

(Source: This quote is taken from a footnote on p. 122 of J. Norval Geldenhuys’ book Supreme Authority: The Authority of the Lord, His Apostles, and the New Testament, 1953, and atttributed to Hans Lietzmann’s book The Founding of the Church Universal, 1938, p. 135.)

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Lee M. McDonald

“…[A]postolicity insured acceptance.”

“If a writing was believed to have been produced by an apostle, it was eventually accepted as sacred Scripture and included in the NT canon.”

“All NT literature was believed to be written by apostles or those connected to an apostle.”

“In the early church, the concern for apostolicity essentially had to do with the proximity of the apostles to Jesus and their presumed firsthand knowledge of him and his ministry.”

“In sum, if it was believed that an apostle wrote a particular book, that writing was accepted and treated as Scripture.  There is no doubt that all of the books of the NT were placed in the canon because the majority believed that they were written by apostles or members of the apostolic community.”

(from his book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, p. 406-409)

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Bruce M. Metzger
(1914-2007)

“[In the writings of those who came immediately after the apostolic generation – such as Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp] allusions to the superior standing of apostolic writers, living so close to the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus, more and more set the earlier documents apart from the contemporary writings and helped to consolidate them as a distinct body of literature.”

“[T]he apostolic origin, real or putative, of a book provided a presumption of authority, for clearly an epistle attributed to Paul stood a greater likelihood of acceptance than one attributed, for example, to someone like the Montanist Themiso…In the case of Mark and Luke, the tradition of their association with the apostles Peter and Paul respectively was held to validate their writings.”

(from his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, 1987.)

“[T]he chief criterion for acceptance of particular writings as sacred, authoritative, and worthy of being read in services of worship was apostolic authorship.”

“The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic. But, while the collection of the New Testament into one volume was slow, the belief in a written rule of faith was primitive and apostolic… In the most basic sense neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to perceive and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.”

(from his book The New Testament:Its Background, Growth, and Content, Abingdon, 1965)

“In the absence of any official list of the canonical writings of the New Testament, Eusebius finds it simplest to count the votes of his witnesses, and by this means to classify all the apostolic or pretended apostolic writings into three categories: (1) Those on whose authority and authenticity all the churches and all the authors he had consulted were agreed; (2) those which the witnesses were equally agreed in rejecting; and (3) an intermediate class regard which the votes were divided.”

(from his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 202.)

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Kenneth Richard Samples

“We should not picture the apostles or the prophets (for the Old Testament) going into a trance and writing out things like zombies.”

“In the classical Roman Catholic view the Bible is essentially the church’s book. The church (meaning the apostles) wrote it and canonized it. The church put a stamp of approval on some books, but rejected others. Then Protestants, in Catholic thinking, came along and rejected the Catholic Church but wanted the canon.

But in the classical Protestant view the apostles wrote the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The church didn’t canonize it as though the text were uninspired until the church put its thumbprint on it. Rather, the church played a much more modest role of recognizing the canon. Inspiration is inherent in the books themselves; it’s not something the church adds to the books.”

“I think the reality is that the Scriptures do go back to the apostles and prophets. Historic Christianity is rooted deeply in the apostolic issue.”

(Source: This Reason to Believe blog post, part 2, part 3; note that in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant views, the apostles were the human instruments through which the New Testament came to be.)

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M. James Sawyer

“In the immediate postapostolic period we find a great stress on apostolic tradition alongside apostolic writings that had not yet begun to be collected into any kind of formal New Testament canon.  As the apostles died, this living stream of tradition grew fainter.  The written documents became progressively more important to the ongoing life of the church.”

“Emphasis on the necessity of apostolic authority (either directly or through an author’s association with an apostle) was declared by Papias (ca. AD 130) who connected the Gospel of Mark to the authority of Peter.  Likewise, it was acknowledged that Luke-Acts, while not written by a member of the inner apostolic circle, nonetheless preserved and propagated apostolic doctrines and had direct apostolic connection to Paul.”

“The question of the necessity of apostolic origin for a book to be considered canonical is demonstrated by the decades-long debate over the status of the book of Hebrews.”

“There was no simple credulity to accept even purported apostolic documents at face value.  [The ancient church] evaluated those claims both on the basis of external historical evidence and internal consistency with the received apostolic tradition and the undisputed received works that were regarded as having divine authority.”

(from his article “The Canon of the New Testament” in How the Bible Came to Be, an ebook excerpt of The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook.)

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Tertullian of Carthage
(160-220)

We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of disciples might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters. Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.

(Against Marcion 4.2)

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B. B. Warfield
(1851-1921)

“[I]n every case the principle on which a book was accepted, or doubts against it laid aside, was the historical tradition of apostolicity.”

“The early churches, in short, received, as we receive, into the New Testament all the books historically evinced to them as given by the apostles to the churches as their code of law; and we must not mistake the historical evidences of the slow circulation and authentication of these books over the widely-extended church, evidence of slowness of “canonization” of books by the authority or the taste of the church itself.”

(See Warfield in bibliography)

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B. F. Westcott
(1825-1901)

“My object in the present Essay has been to deal with the New Testament as a whole, and that on purely historical grounds.  The separate books of which it is composed are considered not individually, but as claiming to be parts of the Apostolic heritage of Christians.”

(Source: from the original preface to Westcott’s monumental book A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 1875.)

“Once again I can repeat, without the least reserve, that all the fragments of historical evidence which recent researches have brought to bear upon the subject, so far as I am able to interpret them, go to confirm the authenticity and authority of the books of the New Testament in accordance with the view to the Apostolic Scriptures which I have endeavored to exhibit.”

(Source: from the preface to the third edition of A General Survey...)

“The Bible is for us the sum of prophetic and apostolic literature…”

(Source: A General Survey… p. 42; his reference to “prophetic” is, of course, a reference to the Old Testament.)

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Some background on the authorities quoted here may be found at Authorities on New Testament Text and/or Canon.

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