Most Protestants believe that Christian Scripture consists only of the 66 little books bound inside of the big book called The Holy Bible.
Why only these books? Because these are the only books that the Holy Spirit inspired.
How do we know that these are the only inspired books? Because the Holy Spirit led the church to affirm these books.
How do we know that the Holy Spirit led the church to affirm these books? Because this is what the church has always believed.
Except that it hasn’t.
Before the New Testament existed, Christians passed around lots of different letters, gospels, and treatises about following Christ. For a while they had the apostles around to teach them, but they all eventually died off. So, the churches had to figure out which writings were “authoritative”–that is, which ones were “Scripture,” which ones were just helpful but not authoritative, and which ones were heretical. They didn’t discern this by asking questions like: “Is the Holy Spirit working through this book?” or “Does this letter teach the Gospel?”
Martin Luther (in)famously used these sorts of questions to guide his study of biblical authority, which led him to reject the book of Revelation because it didn’t seem like the Holy Spirit produced it. He attempted to remove the book of Esther because it makes no mention of God and rejected the apostolicity of James, calling it an “epistle of straw” (a phrase he later retracted) because it does not mention the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Most of us would say that Luther went too far in trying to remove books of the Bible, but few can explain why he was wrong to do so. Most Protestants have a similar view of “inspiration” as Luther, but no one would deign to question the “inspiration” of any single book. We simply accept them because we are told to do so. For example, the Westminster Confession states, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (This is circular reasoning.) How do we know that it is the Word of God? The Confession goes on to say that, in addition to the fact that the Bible is really consistent (a claim that has been debated since the beginning of Christianity), “…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Bible], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”
So, there is no actual proof that these books are “inspired” other than “the Holy Spirit told me so.” We just believe they are and nobody should question it.
However, traditions much older than Protestantism have long affirmed books that do not exist in the Protestant Canon. Did the Holy Spirit lie to these other traditions? Were they hearing the Holy Spirit wrongly and Protestants suddenly came along and heard the Holy Spirit correctly? For instance, Roman Catholics have the “deuterocanonical” books called the Apocrypha. Elements of the Septuagint remain in the Orthodox Church canon (for instance, the story of Susanna in the book of Daniel). The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has 81 books in their canon. So, for us Protestants to say that the Holy Spirit has only inspired the books in our Bible, and that the church has always believed this, is wildly inaccurate (not to mention arrogant).
Rather than using some subjective idea of “inspiration” (or the always-debatable and Mormonesque reason: “The Holy Spirit told me so”) as the litmus test for canonicity, the earliest Christians almost unanimously had one criteria for determining what is authoritative or canonical: Apostolicity. Apostles were women and men appointed by Jesus to pass on the authoritative word of Christ. The apostles, as divinely appointed eyewitness to the risen Christ, had the unique function of relaying authoritative doctrine from Christ himself. Nobody else has that authority. Their teaching became the foundation of church.
As Early Christians attempted to discern which books and letters were “authoritative,” they appealed to apostolicity to do so. If a book or letter is not by an apostle, then it isn’t authoritative. In other words, Christian doctrine is whatever the Apostles say it is.
Even “Gnostic” heretics appealed to apostolic authority in order to claim that their teachings were authoritative. Irenaeus destroyed their claims by pointing out that the apostles’ teaching had been preserved by the apostles’ own disciples (Adv. Haer. 3.1). In other words: if you want to know what the Apostles taught, go talk to their disciples!
This is where Tradition comes in and muddies the waters. The authority of the apostles was in their teachings, but they didn’t write down everything that they taught. Sometimes their disciples would write things that accurately reflected the apostles’ teaching. For instance, the Didache (which means “teaching”–its full English title is The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles) is one of the earliest Christian documents in existence, but it wasn’t written by the apostles. Nevertheless, early churches believed that it so accurately reflected the teaching of the apostles that they passed it around to each other to use as a training manual for new converts.
Tertullian put it this way,
What [the apostles] preached—that is, what Christ revealed to them—ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letters. If this is true, all doctrine which is in agreement with those apostolic churches, the sources and originals of the faith, must be accounted as the truth, since it indubitably preserves what the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God…
Yet, as time went on and more of these kinds of sub-apostolic writings went around, it became harder to tell which ones were actually apostolic. In fact, early churches weren’t always successful in their pursuit. Some of the very books in our New Testament were recognized as “inauthentic” even in the Patristic era (e.g., 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Hebrews, and Revelation). Others were considered authoritative early on, but were later rejected (e.g., the Shepherd of Hermas, The Gospel to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse of Peter). Most interestingly, some in the Early Church determined that certain books were not apostolic, but made no qualms about the fact that other churches used them as Scripture. For instance, Amphilochius of Iconium claims in the late fourth century that some churches reject 2 and 3 John and 2 Peter. He also says that most Christians consider the book of Revelation to be “spurious.” But he doesn’t say anything negative about it.
So, while early churches recognized the apostolic tradition as the line—the authoritative boundary—of doctrine, they didn’t perfectly navigate that line. This leads to the uncomfortable, yet undeniable truth that our canon is not cut-and-dry. It’s is a complex and blurry line.
It’s most accurate to think of the Canon in terms of a spectrum of certainty. The Early Church certainly understood the difficulty in recognizing apostolic authority and allowed some wiggle room. If Protestants are correct, as I think they are, in claiming that the authority of the canon does not rest in the decision of the Church (i.e. Tradition), then we must stand in the tension and recognize that the line between apostolic and sub-apostolic is uncertain. There must be room for a “deuterocanonical” category in the New Testament–books that we know were not written by apostles, but that (more or less) accurately retain their teachings. Books with closer ties to the apostles (like 1 Clement or the Didache) would be more authoritative than those that don’t (or those that we don’t know about, like 2 Peter or Hebrews).
But have no fear. This isn’t cause for panic. It doesn’t mean that the books we have are not “inspired.” It simply means that we need a different understanding–a more historically accurate understanding–of what “biblical authority” is.
The question of whether the Canon is “open” or “closed” assumes all the wrong things about biblical authority. Instead of thinking about Scripture as a fence that encloses everything we have to believe, we ought to think of it as the mouth of a spring. The further from the source, the more diluted the water becomes. The closer you get to the source, the purer the water will be.
The Canon of Christianity is not The Holy Bible. The Canon of Christianity is the teaching of the Apostles, which is preserved in our New Testament as well as the writings of the Patristic era. That’s why it is absolutely necessary for us to study the writings of the Early Church. As Irenaeus and Tertullian said, if you want to know what the Apostles taught, then listen to their disciples.
What do you think? Is the Canon “closed?” What makes a book “inspired?” Is it important for our understanding of “authority” to align with that of the earliest Christians who compiled the New Testament?