|Christ the Good Shepherd Icon|
Jesus Christ spoke of Himself as the good shepherd and that his true sheep hear his voice and will not follow another (Jn. 10:4). As we have been considering the doctrine of canonicity of the scriptures, these words assume an even greater importance. For the Scriptures do make the claim that they represent the voice of God speaking to mankind in general and his covenant people in particular. Certainly then it would follow that this “voice” would be recognized by those for whom Christ is their shepherd. This process of recognition by the communitas fidelum or community of the faithful is more or less the summary of how the canon came to be established: it was recognized rather than determined. And it came to settlement not so much by decree but by popular support.
Let me break down what we can know about this historically. First of all there are the rulings of the Councils of Laodicea (363), Hippo (393), and Carthage (399) which all produced statements about the canon of scripture. What is important to know here is that none of these councils gathered to determine this question in particular, but in the course of their business they created their lists of Holy Scripture to clarify to the bishops and pastors of their respective regions what was the long-held belief of the Christian church on this matter. How do these lists read? Like the table of contents in your New Testament.
Before and after these Councils there are also the affirmations of the canon by very important teachers in the ancient church. Bishop Athanasius was the leader of church in Egypt and Libya and one of the leading theologians at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. One of his responsibilities as bishop was to write an annual letter to all of the pastors in his see to tell them when and how Easter was to be celebrated that year. Included in these Festal letters (as they were known) would also be helpful advice and directions on other matters. In the 38th Festal letter of Athanasius, he clarifies to this group what books of the Bible are to be taught as scripture. What does Athanasius’ list look like? Like the table of contents in your New Testament.
In 400 AD, Jerome of Bethlehem, known for his skill in the ancient Bible languages of Hebrew and Greek, is given an important commission from Pope Damasus in Rome. Make a fresh translation of the Bible from the original languages into Latin for the use of the church in Europe. When Jerome makes this translation (known as the Vulgate Bible) he does include the Apocrypha with the Old Testament, but the Latin New Testament contains the same books listed in the table of contents in your New Testament.
After Dr. Luke, Eusebius is the most important historian of the Christian Church. He was a scholar, a bishop, and served as priest to the Emperor Constantine. At the end of Constantine’s life in the 340’s, he commissioned Eusebius to have made 50 copies of all the scriptures for the Churches in Constantinople. The copies he made were of the Old and New Testaments as we know them today.
Just an aside, there is today a popular myth that Constantine dictated and edited the canon at the council of Nicea. This didn’t happen. In fact, the canon wasn’t even under consideration at the time. However, Constantine did effect our New Testaments in one way---the inclusion of Revelation. In the Western Empire, the book of Revelation was always embraced, but in the East it was disputed by many because it was so weird and different from the rest of the New Testament. Constantine loved it and used phrases from it in his political speeches all the time. The upshot is Eusebius wasn’t so stupid as to produce Bibles at Constantine’s expense without including Revelation. But this inclusion paved the way for grudging acceptance in the East. To this day the Eastern Orthodox consider Revelation canonical but do not include it in their liturgical readings.
Those are the historic stepping stones to this doctrine of canonicity but is there anything from the books themselves that might suggest some sort of criteria? Certainly nothing was ever written down but there are several uniform characteristics shared by all the New Testament writings:
1. Apostolicity— Jesus told his apostles they were His official and chosen
representatives and carriers of His message. It follows that their writings
would have the weight of Christ’s authority. Luke, Mark, and Hebrews
are not written by apostles per se, but it is clear they are under apostolic
2. Antiquity—There were books (such as Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache) which were popular and considered by some to be inspired but were excluded because it was known they were written beyond the lifespan of all the apostles.
3. Affirmation of Christ—I Jn. 4:2-3. The test of the incarnation (1 John 4:2-3) was extremely important. Even though there is diversity in presentation, the Gospels and Epistles seem to speak with unity about the person and work of Jesus.
4. Acceptance of the Faithful. God seemed to work providentially in history that these books and not others were accepted and embraced by those indwelt by the Holy Spirit. There is a collective “thus sayeth the Lord!” that is experienced nowhere else.
So does this mean the Canon of Scripture is fixed permanently, never to be opened again? Technically no, but in all probability, yes. After all, there was no official ‘fixing’ of the canon in antiquity, just a recognition that what is included seems complete and from the Lord. But if we could look for a trend in history, there have never been any serious efforts by orthodox Christians to add or subtract from the Canon since the 4th Century. Today, if an archaeologist were to uncover an ancient filing cabinet and found misfiled in the annual budget folder the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, it would certainly be read out of curiosity but probably never be included. Not because it lacked any value, but rather the question seems to have been settled a long time ago.