[Editor’s Note: This is the final post (originally appeared on Aug. 10, 2012) in a four-part series by L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, on the New Testament canon. In this post he writes on the collection of Acts and the General Epistles and addresses some lingering questions: who “chose” the NT; can we adjust the canon? His answers provide a helpful apologetic for trusting in and proclaiming the NT. ]
This is my final post regarding the NT Canon. I am sure we will continue the conversation for many years. My prayer is that it has been profitable to the reader and, in some sense, provocative. In this post I want to briefly discuss the rest of the NT documents and clean up a couple of remaining matters.
While we don’t have all the writings of the first and second centuries, the evidence so far suggests an early recognition of the bulk of the NT canon. The following seems a reasonable description. The Synoptic Gospels were written and received rapid acceptance in the churches as the authoritative source of the words and deeds of Christ. Roughly contemporaneous with them, Paul’s letters began circulating as a collection, probably soon after Paul’s death. Shortly after the writing of John’s Gospel, the Gospels were gathered and published as a fourfold Gospel canon. This leaves the question about Acts, general epistles and the Revelation.
Most modern Christians are surprised to find out that the Acts and General Epistles generally circulated together as a codex much like Paul and the Four Gospel Codex. Regarding the manner in which the Acts and the General Epistles were gathered and published and by whom, less can be said with confidence. However, it is likely that the collection of these books was in some way related to the fourfold Gospel codex. When Luke is separated from Acts, it is unthinkable that Acts was simply set-aside without plans for publication. I think it likely that the Acts/General Epistles was published soon after the Gospel Codex with the same canonical implications.
Finally, the Book of Revelation, written in the mid to late AD 90s by the aged apostle John, circulated independently from the rest, likely due to its late production, likely after the publishing of the rest. As a result many questions regarding Revelation lingered.
There were also questions among the orthodox about 2 Peter, Hebrews, and 3 John in the minds of some. Furthermore, some highly regarded other works like the Shepherd of Hermas. In broad generalization, we can describe the questions like this: “Why is this book in the Canon” or “Why isn’t this book in?” Notice that there is an “in” that is constant. That there were questions are only natural and, in fact, reflect the ability of people to have differing opinions. The same types of questions show up in the 16th century as well. Questions in the minds of some, however, do not necessarily reflect widespread chaos regarding the NT documents.
So who chose the NT? The Fathers regarded the NT as “handed down to them.” This is the appeal of the third Council of Carthage in AD 397 and the second-century bishop, Serapion, among others and it is telling of the orthodox attitude. C. E. Hill in Who Chose the Gospels suggests (I believe rightfully) that if you had asked the early church “who chose the NT,” they would have responded, “no one.” They would have considered the question much like “How did you choose your parents?” The documents were handed down to them from the apostles, of whom, as Serapion stated, “We receive as Christ.”
Finally, there is a question regarding if we may adjust the Canon. My answer would be, no. If these were considered the New Covenant documents, then only a newer new covenant would instigate a new canon. We were right to expect a New Covenant, because the OT promised it. There is no indication in Scripture that another covenant is forthcoming. Furthermore, the New Covenant is so expansive in its scope (through eternity) that there is really no room for a newer covenant. No reason exists to expect a new covenant or new scriptures.
What if we actually found an unknown apostolic document, say, 3 Corinthians for instance? Would its apostolic status force us to adjust the Canon? Absolutely not! Certainly such a discovery would be wonderful. However, because the Pauline collection came from Paul’s retained copies, the exclusion would not have been accidental at all, but by Paul’s choice. That fact that these are missing from the Canon says something about their origin and value among the apostles and their followers. Second, let’s not forget that as evangelicals we should trust in the sovereignty of God. Evangelical Christians may have great confidence in their NT. Let us then, as Augustine said, tolle lege (“take up and read”).