Scripture and Canon (Traditional Evangelicalism)

The Grave of B.B. Warfield, the Lion of PrincetonWhen dealing with questions regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture, few men can lay claim to being necessary to read on the subject, even nearly a century after their death. Yet even 98 years later, if you are dealing with this subject, you will have to read the works of B.B. Warfield.

Warfield is so well-regarded, and so influential, especially for Old School Presbyterians like myself, that it is exceedingly difficult to offer any criticisms of this giant’s theological formulations – especially in the area of canonicity.

If one were to ask Warfield, “How can we show that these twenty-seven books are the only ones that belong in the New Testament?”, his answer be to point to historical criteria, such as apostolicity, orthodoxy, usage in the early Church, etc. These criteria are put forward as defining marks of whether or not a book can be considered canonical. This model argues that the authority of the canon can be established by doing a meticulous historical investigation of the New Testament books and showing how they meet the above mentioned criteria. Whether you’re reading Warfield, F.F. Bruce, or Bruce Metzger, they all use the same all-inclusive methodology, that is, an appeal to the historical origins of the New Testament writings. They are all committed to the idea that external data is required to authenticate the Scriptures.

B.B. Warfield unashamedly takes this position when he writes, “It is a most assured result of biblical criticism that every one of the twenty-seven books which now constitute our New Testament is assuredly genuine and authentic.” F.F. Bruce and Alexander Souter have much the same thing to say.

Across the board, when reading the works of the traditional evangelical authors on this subject, the primary standard for canonicity is apostolicity. In the final assessment, apostolic authority is not just one standard among others for evangelical authors but it is linked to the idea of canon as the primary standard. Warfield himself argues that apostolicity is the central standard for canonicity.

This model of standards for canonicity is correct to focus on the historical nature and origins of the canonical books and whether or not they actually do pass on authentic information about the “historical Jesus.” One of Warfield and Geisler’s strengths are attentive selection and demonstration of historical evidence that reinforces the historical integrity of the books of the New Testament.

Ultimately, however, I have serious problems with the way this pattern of determining canonicity argues for authentication. I freely admit that it maybe that I have simply read too much Van Til, but I don’t believe for a second that any investigation, whether it be historical or theological, can be conducted in a neutral fashion, as Warfield and Geisler seem to believe. The simple reality is that it isn’t so easy for scholars of any persuasion to check their presuppositional baggage before taking their historical/theological flight. Something is always going to slip through security, so to speak.

The can be no religiously neutral way to undertake these investigations, since there isn’t a religiously neutral way to undertake any sort of investigation! One of the things we learn from the repeated testimony of Scripture itself is that “in him [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Not only is this religiously neutral undertaking impossible, for the Christian it is sinful, since we are commanded to “take every thought captive” and think “Christianly” (for lack of a better term).

The more difficult historical problem is even speaking of any standard employed within the early Church for determining canonicity. More often than not, this is an anachronistic rationalization for books that were already recognized as canonical. The church was attempting to explain what it already possessed, not decided what to possess. Frankly, these standards excessively overstate the church’s active role in the process of canon development, when was more passive; that is, the canonical process was more a matter of the Church passively receiving what had been handed down to it from the very beginning.

The philosophical problem with this view of determining canonicity is two-fold. First, what happens when Warfield’s “assured result of biblical criticism” changes? The vast majority of modern New Testament scholars reject the apostolicity of the Pastoral Epistles; does that mean that we should cut these letters out of our New Testament? Once we’ve attached the cannonical horse to the cart of “biblical criticism” what we’ve actually done is created a canon that is forever fluid. Frankly, modern biblical criticism is a capricious whore who cannot be trusted.

The second philosophical problem is that authenticating the canon on the basis of the “assured result of biblical criticism” (that is, an ostensibly independent, neutral standard) means we’ve subjected the canon to an authority outside itself. Those of you among my readers who have read Cornelius Van Til will recognize the shades of his thinking here in my own objections. If this independent standard is an external authority over Scripture, then how can the Bible be the ultimate standard for truth if the Bible is dependent on it?

To be fair, the Roman Catholic model comes out ahead here, because it at least professes to ground the canon on divine authority (via an infallible pope and church), while my evangelical brethren grounds the canon on human authority (via supposedly neutral evidence)!

Recommended Resources

Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Philadelphia, Penn.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1948.

Geisler, Norman L and William E. Nix. From God To Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1974.


2 thoughts on “Scripture and Canon (Traditional Evangelicalism)

  1. But see, it’s not just on the authority of the pope and Church that we accept the canon authoritatively. We believe the Church is guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit, yes; but we also believe the Church Fathers who settled on the canon in the first place were guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit — who, Jesus said himself, was going to “guide us into all truth.” The fact that the pope said it doesn’t make it true: the fact that it’s true makes it true; we just have assurance that the pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, speaks the truth with authority in matters of faith and doctrine. We can tell that it’s true by other means: by history; by the evidence of the Early Church; by the consensus of the Church Fathers. is The Church tells us what it tells us because it is supported by 2,000 years of Tradition — which, despite how Protestants take that word, is mostly history. Be still, my historian’s heart.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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