How can We Trust the Canon Created by the Early Church?

First of all, I do not accept that the church fathers created the canon. I think that is an entirely wrong category for what happened. It is the wrong category by their own talk about the books of the New Testament. Rather they were convinced that God had given some documents that were as inspired, as authoritative, and as binding as Old Testament books that were already recognized. The question is how do you recognize these documents? How do you recognize them over-against competitors? It was not as if the church fathers were just hanging around and then decide to create a bunch of authoritative documents and call them the canon. Instead, they were asking “granted that God has given us certain materials that we all recognize, what is the limit of those materials?” And they developed certain criteria.

Those criteria were fundamentally three:

The first, is the material apostolic? By that they did not mean that it had to be written by an apostle – one of those first designated by Jesus. Rather, it had to either be written by an apostle or associated with an apostle in some sense within a full-generation. Mark‟s gospel, for example, was known to be connected with Peter. Luke’s was known to be connected with Paul. They were trying to preserve the central place of the first witnesses who were in living contact with Jesus himself, rather than allowing a long succession of later narratives to come onboard. When you start dealing with the Gospel of Peter – a 2nd century document without any living connection to Peter, long beyond the time of the apostolic period – one of the reasons it is not accepted is because it does not meet the first criterion.

Secondly, has this always been universally recognized throughout the church, or is it just a local thing that has been built up by some sort of aberrant group in Egypt or in Babylon? Is it something that is massively accepted by the whole church? And we recognize – just as they did – that sometimes some documents took a little longer to be accepted in other places. But it was an important criterion to avoid a parochial judgment.

Thirdly, they asked if the message is in line with the gospel they understood. Is it in line with what has been passed down in the documents already accepted in the teachings that the first apostles recognized? The possibility of false documents being circulated was recognized from the earliest period. Paul himself warns the Thessalonians that sometimes people were using his name trying to claim some authority invalidly. This is why when Paul dictated his letters, he made sure he signed them himself – his signature, “by the hand of me Paul, so I write in all my letters.” The question of authentication was pretty important, and the church tried to handle it well.

All this criteria followed does not mean that the authority rested in the church. The church merely came to recognize a packet of documents that God himself had given. That is the way it should be worded. To think of the canon as a massive conspiracy theory in which a lot of priestly people in Rome picked and chose in order to get rid of a lot false teaching is really getting the history all backwards. It has been wrongly touted this way for a long time, as if the first teaching structure of the early church was massively diverse and gradually became narrower as the orthodox – those nasty right-wing bigoted people – finally cut off Gnostics and others. The history is being distorted when it is explained like this. And historians rightly responded again and again. The canon starts off with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and as it begins to expand, there are variations of teachings that eventually are judged to be outside the camp. In one of the earliest documents in the New Testament – Paul’s letter to the Galatians – he is dealing with another gospel that is really no gospel at all. That is because there was already an accepted gospel and now something is distorting it; and Paul begins to challenge it. As the challenges become more and more diverse you get into the 2nd and 3rd centuries and begin to see the claims of things that are very far removed from what is the New Testament. If someone doubts this, all they really have to do is compare, for example, the Gospel of Peter to the Gospel of Mark. I would strongly suggest that people read the two documents and see if they sound alike. Are they talking about the same things? Are they heading in the same direction? You will quickly see that it is not the case.

Lastly, today we speak of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. There are some people of more skeptical persuasions that think this suggests there were different messages or gospels, such as a Markan teaching, a different Lucan teaching, and a different Johannine teaching; and they cannot really be fit together. But that is not what the earliest documents call them. In all of the earliest documents, it is ‘The Gospel according to Matthew,’ ‘The Gospel according to Mark,’ and so forth. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the one gospel – according to different witnesses with different slants and perspectives that coalesce in a variety of different ways. So it is no surprise that all four canonical gospels, as we refer to them, make-up the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to four different authors.

For example, all four accounts are similar in structure. They begin with the origins of Jesus Christ; then mention John the Baptist; then go through periods of Jesus’ ministries, teachings, and sayings – with different emphases, admittedly; until ultimately there is a drive towards Christ’s death and resurrection. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is this message about who Jesus is, what he said and taught, his death and resurrection, and what it means. Looking at the so-called Gospel of Thomas, it is not a gospel. First of all, it is almost certainly a mid-2nd century document. But date aside, it does not have any of the gospel storyline. It is 114 separate sayings with 3 little snippets of narrative that do not include the Passion or the resurrection of Christ. It is not a gospel. That fundamental distinction simply has to be acknowledged or the history is distorted.