The Theological Nature of the New Testament Canon

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

from Five Views on the New Testament Canon
by Stanley E. Porter & Benjamin P. Laird

Excerpt taken from “A Progressive Evangelical Perspective on the New Testament Canon” by David R. Nienhuis

While the term itself has a wider application in the Christian tradition, the subject matter of this chapter calls us to speak of “the canon” as a gathering of texts. Of course, one cannot speak meaningfully of a “canon” of gathered texts without elaborating on the sort of literature gathered therein, the particular community that composed that literature and participated in its gathering, and the intended ends to which such texts were gathered in the first place. Thus, what we mean by “the New Testament canon” depends largely on what we mean by a series of other words—words like “holy” and “Scripture” and “church”—because the Bible is the Christian church’s canon of Holy Scripture.

And of course, if we are to speak meaningfully of all these other words, we must be far more precise about what we mean by the word that demands central place among them all—that is, the word “God.” For the Christian, God is Triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; creator, savior, and sanctifier; one God in three persons. This God’s very being is relational and self-giving: the Father pours himself into the Son, the eternal Word; the Son gives himself entirely to the Father in perfect obedience; and the Spirit is the fire of self-giving love that perfects the bond they share. This mutual self-giving is a mutual self-communication of Persons—an eternal, perfect communion, the depth of which knows no bounds.

All the actions of this God are characterized by this essential self-giving. As the two “arms” of God operative in the economy of salvation (so Irenaeus), the Word and the Spirit communicate God’s being to the creation that is itself brought into being through that Word and Spirit. The Word is God’s revelatory self-presentation, the communication of God’s loving and sovereign presence in creation, in the words of the prophets and apostles, and most preeminently in the person and work of Jesus, the Word made flesh to whom prophets and apostles give witness. The Spirit is the means by which that communication is delivered and received; the Spirit is the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son to reveal and convict and awaken and hallow God’s creation, drawing it fully into the Triune communion, so that the life and work of creation, in all its diversity, may be ordered toward its divinely intended end.

We call this communication “revelation,” and this drawing in “sanctification.” John Webster aligns the two terms in a helpful manner by defining sanctification as “the act of God the Holy Spirit in hallowing creaturely processes, employing them in the service of the taking form of revelation within the history of the creation.”[1] The self-giving God takes hold of the things God has made and purifies them for divine self-communicative use. When we identify the texts of the Bible as “Holy Scripture,” then, we are identifying them as creaturely productions—human writings, scriptura—that are “made holy,” set apart for God’s self-revealing and sanctifying purposes. In this way we can posit a distinction between the Bible, which is merely a collection of books—ta biblia—and Holy Scripture, which is a transformative place of meeting. Anyone may read the Bible, given sufficient interest in doing so; those who read the Bible as Scripture do so seeking an encounter with God.

Such a Trinitarian understanding of Scripture avoids the typical dualisms that plague Western theology, which rightly distinguishes between creator and creature but struggles to relate the two in terms of their respective agency in history. Such is the case also in histories of canonization, which give priority to either natural (Historie) or supernatural (Geschichte) accounts of the process but fail to meaningfully relate the two within the economy of salvation. Or in conceptions of Scripture which locate the divine center of gravity either in the created object (the Bible as the inerrant Word, the revelation itself) or in the experience of the subject (elevating either the author as uniquely inspired composer, or the reader as uniquely inspired hearer). Trinitarian thinking enables us to keep our focus on God as the active agent of revelation and sanctification, who works through created things—author and text and reader alike—by means of the revealing Word and sanctifying Spirit. Thus, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Revelation is from God, and the means of revelation are creaturely. Similarly, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Sanctification comes about by God’s act of inspiring and gathering human written compositions in order to make them “profitable” for God’s sanctifying purpose. Debates over whether to give interpretive priority to the author, the text, or the reader miss the point (clearly, all three play their appointed role), as do sharply drawn distinctions between intrinsic versus communal understandings of canonical authority. All of these tendencies misplace the authoritative center in a creaturely reality and not in the persons and work of the Triune God.

Much more could be said, but we can sum up this unavoidably brief portrait of a Trinitarian understanding of Scripture’s nature and function by attempting to answer the question raised by the editors of this volume under the “theology” heading: Should the New Testament writings be regarded as more authoritative than other early Christian writings? If so, what serves as the basis for this authority? Given what I have suggested thus far, the answer to the first question has to be yes, the New Testament writings form a distinctive class of authoritative ancient Christian literature identified as Holy Scripture, texts that were set apart from other early Christian writings in order to function as a particular instantiation of God’s self-communication for the purpose of Christian sanctification. The basis of this authority is of course God alone, whose blessing of these human compositions is made manifest through God’s inspiration and use of Holy Scripture in the history of God’s people. The history of Scripture’s formation is called “canonization,” which we are now ready to consider.

[1] Webster, Holy Scripture, 17–18 (emphasis mine).

This post is adapted from Five Views on the New Testament Canon by Stanley E. Porter & Benjamin P. Laird. This title was released on October 18, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

What historical, political, and ecclesial realities drove the canonization of the New Testament?

How are the doctrines of Early Christianity related to the formation of the New Testament?

Should the New Testament differ in authority from other early Christian texts?

As these questions demonstrate, the enduring influence of the New Testament does not lessen the dispute over the events and factors leading to its adoption. Five Views on the New Testament Canon presents five distinct ways of understanding how the New Testament came to be:

  • A Conservative Evangelical Perspective — Darian R. Lockett
  • A Progressive Evangelical Perspective — David R. Nienhuis
  • A Liberal Protestant Perspective — Jason David BeDuhn
  • A Roman Catholic Perspective — Ian Boxall
  • An Orthodox Perspective — George L. Parsenios

Each contributor addresses historical, theological, and hermeneutical questions related to the New Testament canon, such as what factors precipitated the establishment and recognition of the New Testament canon; the basis of any authority the New Testament has; and what the canon means for reading and interpreting the New Testament. Contributors also include a chapter each responding to the other views presented in the volume. The result is a lively exchange suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students seeking to grasp the best canon scholarship in biblical studies.


About Author

Stanley E. Porter (PhD, University of Sheffield) is president, dean, professor of New Testament, and Roy A. Hope Chair in Christian Worldview at McMaster Divinity College. Porter is the editor of more than eighty volumes and author of twenty-eight books on various topics in New Testament and related subjects, including How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation and The Gospel of John in Modern Interpretation. Porter has published more than three hundred articles, chapters, and related writings, and he speaks regularly at major conferences and other venues globally. Visit his blog at // Benjamin P. Laird (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity, Liberty University. He is the author of the volume Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy and the Authority of the New Testament.

Like this post? Want to see more excerpts? Let us know below!