Why did the early church decide to indoctrinate a canon of New Testament books in the first place?

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A common question that we hear is “how did we get the Bible?” This is a very good question. Perhaps an even better question would be “Why did the early church decide to indoctrinate a canon of New Testament books in the first place?” After all, they already had their Old Testament. Whose idea was it to develop an entirely new list of books we call the “New Testament,” as canon and add it on top of the Old Testament as sacred scripture? That is a very bold move! If the church decided it was okay to create a whole new set of books for their scripture, should we continue to add more books as we see fit? Many of us feel that is is never appropriate… but why?

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word κανών, “kanon,” meaning “rule” or “standard.” Today when we speak of canon, we refer to the books which belong to our Bible. They are the “standard” we use to understand that which is true to the Christian faith, separating doctrine from heresy. The first Christians did not have the same Bible that we have today. They only had what we call the Old Testament. However, something was stirring. Jesus had spoken about the fulfillment of Old Testament scriptures in Matthew 5:17-19. Furthermore, the people knew that Jeremiah prophesied about a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) which the early church understood was established by Jesus (Heb. 8:8-13). When Moses delivered the Old Covenant to the People of Israel, it led to a canon of written scripture. We cannot know for sure, but the early church probably picked up on this, believing that a new canon for the New Covenant was well underway. (1)

So how were these books determined? Some would say that the councils of Hippo and Carthage in the late fourth century decided which books are canon. Although this is true, it can be very misleading. It is not as though these councils willy-nilly decided on some books and rejected others based on their personal feelings about the matter. The books had already been circulating around because they seemed to carry a “weightiness” to them, as though the Holy Spirit already has His finger on them. Early churches were already circulating these books and letters because they recognized the Holy Spirit’s power in them. They believe that they “received” certain books from God. The councils started with these books and weighted them against a strict set of criteria: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity. (2)

  1. Apostolicity: Did it comes from the apostolic age (the first century), and is it closely connected with one of the apostles (including Paul)?
  2. Orthodoxy: Is it orthodox? Is the book pure from the standard doctrine of the early church, handed down to us by the apostles, and free of contradiction from other books?
  3. Catholicity: Has it been proven to be useful across the church in a large-scale level?

Every book in our Bible is inspired by God in a very special way that no other book can relate to. They serve as very highest authority for truth and discernment. But this does not mean that God never did any revelatory activity outside of canon. The Bible speaks of many different prophets who heard the word of God. (Gad in 1 Samuel 22:5, Nathan in 2 Samuel 7:2, Ahijah in 1 Kings 11:29, to name a few) Acts 11:26 speaks of prophets who came from Jerusalem into Antioch. The Bible also speaks of female prophetesses such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), and Anna (Luke 2:36), among others. All of these people, given the title as “prophet” or “prophetess” in the Bible were no doubt-inspired by God, but their material was not given to us by God as canon. Rather, they were carried by the Holy Spirit to deliver a specific message which God deemed unnecessary to preserve for later generations.

Canon is actually a special kind of inspiration that was determined by the prayerful consideration and the strict criteria we have already mentioned. Given the circumstances, can we confidently say that the canon is closed? Could we ever add to it? In a word: No. Although there is no absolute point in time that the canon was officially “closed,” practically it would be impossible to find a book which would meet the criterion Catholicity. (3) For instance, what if we happened to discover Paul’s long-lost “severe letter” that he speaks about in 2 Corinthians? What if we see that it is indeed from the apostle Paul, and that it is orthodox to the Christian faith and it does not contradict the other books of the Bible? Could we add it to our New Testament canon? No, because for at least 1500 years the letter was never proven useful across the church at large. It it were, we never would have lost it!

What about the curious case of 1 Enoch? This book is an “apocalyptic collection of narratives and visions ascribed to Enoch (Gen 5:18–24), through which Enoch receives wisdom from God.” (4) What’s interesting about this particular book is that Jude quotes from it in Jude 14-15, even calling it prophecy. The book was widely known and used in the time before Christ, but there are no Jewish or Christian traditions that accept it as scripture other than the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Why? The simple answer is that during the prayerful process of declaring books canon, the early church never felt that they “received” Enoch as scripture like they did for the other books. (Not to mention that 1 Enoch has authorial discrepancies and a severe number of contradictions against the rest of the Bible and challenges a lot of established doctrine, a subject beyond the scope of this article). That alone should be enough reason to reject Enoch as sacred scripture. The Holy Spirit did not lead the early church to receive it. Enoch has failed the criterion of Catholicity, and this criterion grows stronger against it as the years continue to tick by. Even if someone were to argue against Catholicity as a valid criterion, what would that do for the 27 books of our New Testament which were established through it?! Could we throw out the books of our choosing? I typically do not argue from adverse consequences, but there is a very real problem, even among protestants, who fail to value the work of God in our history of tradition. In the words of Charles Spurgeon: (5)

“Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

Those who propose for 1 Enoch (or any book) to be added into our canon do so against the sheer weight of 2000 years of church history.

So if Enoch does not belong to our canon, why does Jude quote from Enoch and call it prophecy to strengthen his argument? First, even if we consider the entire work to be authentic prophecy from God (a claim we cannot make from Jude), the best we can do is add Enoch to our piling list of prophets and prophetesses mentioned in the Bible whose materials are also not part of canon. Secondly, Jude understood as a communicator that his audience respected the writings of Enoch, so he strategically quoted from them in order to make his point. Jude used Enoch because he knew that this prophetic utterance actually happened to be true, even though it didn’t belong to scripture. Similarly, Paul quoted from the poet Aratus when he addressed the people of Athens in Acts 17. We call this contextualization, not canonization.

Many of those who argue for 1 Enoch to be added as canon tend to be fascinated with conspiracies, hidden secrets, and new revelations. Let us handle these things with extreme caution, in holy fear of our God who judges teachers more strictly (James 3:1). As Paul wisely spoke to Timothy:

“…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” -1 Timothy 1:3-7

(1) See Blomberg, Hubbard, and Klein in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, p. 110

(2) BHK, pp. 112-116.

(3) Some point to Revelation 22:18-19 as an argument for a closed canon. I avoid doing this, along with most reputable scholars, because it violates a fundamental hermeneutical principle of Biblical interpretation: Meaning comes from what the author intended to communicate. When John wrote those words, he would have been referring specifically to his words in Revelation. The complete canon did not exist until many years later.

(4) Hiehle, J. A., & Whitcomb, K. A. (2016). Enoch, First Book of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

(5) Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries, Lecture 1.

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