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How Do We Know They Got It Right? The Epistemology of the Canon

by Steven B. Cowan and Vic Minish –

Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s words to Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), but the more immediate question is of course: which are all the Scriptures? We often take for granted that there are sixty-six books in the Bible – right until someone asks us why these sixty six books in the Bible and not some other collection? It is not, after all, a leather binding and gold gilded edges that make the Bible what it is. Nor is it the mere claim to be God’s word that makes a book a part of the Bible. For example, the Mormon books (The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants) claim to be God’s Word and come in a very nice leather binding, with choice of leather color, and gold gild and indexed pages, but all Christians, and learned non-Christians for that matter, reject them as pure fraud. So we ask, how does a book qualify to be included in the Bible? And equally important, how would one know if the books they have are the right books? These are not just questions that “ivory tower” academics ask. As anyone who has ever led a novice-level Bible study will agree, new and old Christians ask these questions.

The previous authors in this journal issue have explained the development of the canon of Scripture in both the Old and New Testament s. But still the question looms large: how do we know they got it right? How do we – people removed from the canonicity process by more than a thousand years – know the sixty-six books found in the Bible are in fact the word of God? We are asking here an epistemological question; a question about how human beings can know something – in this case how we can know if the process of canonization that the early church went through yielded (or was able to yield) the correct result.

There are two ways to approach this question, philosophically and theologically. In this article, we will discuss the question of the epistemology of the canon from both perspectives.

A  PHILOSOPHICAL CASE FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE CANON

If one were to ask a Roman Catholic how he knows that the canon of Scripture that he accepts is authentic, he has a ready answer. He knows (or thinks he knows) that the canon he has is the right canon because the Roman Catholic Church says so. The Roman Catholic believes in the infallibility of the church. The leaders of the early church, meeting at the Council of Carthage, and later at the Council of Trent, infallibly pronounced the scope and limits of the canon. This provides a very simple answer to the question of biblical canonicity. It also provides, if it provides anything at all, an absolutely certain answer to the question of canonicity. The Roman Catholic can supposedly have certainty about the canon because the canonization process is just as divinely inspired and authoritative as the books the process resulted in collecting.

Of course, Protestants do not accept the infallibility of the church, let alone the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church. How then can Protestants have any certainty about the authenticity of the canon? Some Protestants in recent times have found the answer to this question so difficult, and their desire for certainty so strong, that they have converted to Roman Catholicism.1 Is there a way for Protestants to have confidence in their canon without looking for the alleged certainty provided by the dogma of
Catholicism?

We believe that Protestants can indeed have confidence in the canon of Scripture. Let us warn you, however. We do not believe that we can have the absolute certainty supposedly provided by Rome. This is not a defect in Protestantism over against Roman Catholicism, though, because Rome cannot really provide absolute certainty either despite her pretensions to do so.2 The fact of the matter is that absolute certainty is very hard to come by in almost every area of life. Except within the limited scope of fields like mathematics and geometry, no one can ever have the kind of certainty that never admits of any possibility of doubt.

The Misguided Quest for Certainty
However, our inability to achieve certainty is not a serious defect. In fact, it is the quest for certainty it self that is defective. Ever since the advent of the 17th-century Enlightenment and the philosophical theories of Rene Descartes, people have come to regard the quest for knowledge as equivalent to the quest for certainty. Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers believed that if a person truly knows X (whatever X might be), then he has to be able to specify with certainty precisely why and how he knows X. In other words, if X admits of any possibility of doubt, the one cannot claim to know X. It was on this basis that Descartes dismissed the reliability of sense perception and believed that reason and logic were the only legitimate sources of knowledge. Similarly, and more radically, David Hume used the razor of certainty to argue that we cannot know anything at all beyond the relationships of the ideas in our minds.

The quest for certainty inspired by the Enlightenment has severe consequences far beyond the issue of the biblical canon. If we must have certainty in order to know anything at all, then we cannot claim to know that there is a mind-independent external world. For all we know, we may be trapped in a Matrix-like illusion. If we must have certainty in order to know, then I cannot know if there are other minds besides my own. If we have to be certain, then I cannot know that I had toast for breakfast this morning or that there is an oak tree outside my office window or that courage is a virtue and torturing children is wrong.

But, here is the problem for the quest for certainty. I surely do know all of the items mentioned in the last paragraph and a whole lot more. At least I have no good reason to think that I don’t know these things. The mere possibility that I might be trapped in the Matrix or that what I take to be other people are just cleverly constructed robots gives me no reason to think that I am in the Matrix or that they are robots. In short, these common sense beliefs that I have are innocent until proven guilty and I know of no good reason to think them false.

The bottom line is that knowledge does not require certainty. I can and do know some things even without being able to specify with certainty how I know them. What’s more, when it comes to justifying other beliefs that may require some type of evidence, I still don’t need certainty. All I need (and all you need) are varying degrees of probability. In the field of epistemology, philosophers distinguish different levels of probability/ certainty and our associated epistemic obligations. Consider the following chart (In the chart P stands for some proposition or statement and S stand for a person who might believe or disbelieve P):

Level of Certainty                                 Epistemic Responsibility
P is absolutely certain                              S must believe P on pain of irrationality
P is beyond a reasonable doubt               S is obligated to believe P

P is more probable than not                     S is obligated to believe P
P is as probable as not                             S is obligated to suspend P (all other things being equal)

At the top of the scale is absolute certainty, what philosophers call a probability of 1. As we have seen, very few beliefs reach this level of certainty. Of course, anything that is this certain should be believed. It would be irrational and morally irresponsible not to believe P if one knows it to have a probability of 1.

However, if proposition P fails to reach absolute certainty, one does not necessarily escape responsibility for believing it. Notice that the second level of certainty places P “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the criterion used in the criminal court system. If the evidence that a particular person committed a crime is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then the jury has the obligation to find him guilty. Why? Because at this level of certainty, even though some doubt may be possible, those doubts would be unreasonable! This, in part, is why we think we can say with high confidence that there is a mind-independent external world and that there are other minds. I can doubt these things as Descartes and Hume did, but those doubts are not reasonable.

Thirdly, the evidence for P can fall short of being beyond a reasonable doubt, but still require one to believe P. Suppose that P is the proposition my wife loves me. If I know that the evidence for P makes that proposition “more probable than not,” then I ought to believe that my wife loves me – even if I have some evidence to the contrary.

Lastly, it is possible for the evidence both for and against P to be equally weighted. That is, there are cases in which there is evidence for a statement and equally strong evidence against it. In these cases, our epistemic obligation would seem to be to suspend judgment; to neither believe nor disbelieve P as long as all other things are equal.3

The Probability of an Authentic Canon
Now what has all of this got to do with canonicity? Simply put, though we may not have absolute certainty regarding the canonization process, we can have all the certainty that we need. You and I can look back at what the early church did in recognizing particular books as canonical and rejecting others as spurious, and we can make a reasonable judgment that the canon recognized by Protestants throughout the years is the right one. We can see, that is, that the authenticity of the canon as we have it is at least more probable than not, and perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt. In either case, we have enough evidence to obligate our believing that the early church got it right.

To see that this is so, let us look briefly at the canonization process. We will start with the New Testament. During the times of the apostles there were tests of a kind that could be applied to judge the authenticity of a document. As F.F. Bruce notes, when Paul suspected that there were letters circulating in his name that were not his at all, he began writing the letters himself or signing them when the secretary finished (cf. 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thes. 3:17; Phlm. 19).4 This is no longer a useful criteria for us since we do not have either the original document or any way to judge the handwriting. But following the era of the apostles, the early church used the following criteria:

  1. Apostolicity – The apostles were commissioned by Christ as his special spokesmen and as the doctrinal foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). Thus, if a document was written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle, it was clearly inspired by God and should be included in the canon. Thus, all four canonical gospels and Paul’s epistles were accepted very early in the canonization process and were never in dispute by any branch of the universal church.
  2. Antiquity – Though a book might not have been written by an apostle or one of his associates, if it was nevertheless known to have originated in the church in the age of the apostles, then it was more likely than not (other things being equal – see below) to be divinely inspired. Some books, like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, though containing useful and edifying content, were rejected because they were known to be written too recently to be apostolic.
  3. Orthodoxy – The term “orthodoxy” refers to the faith set forth by the apostles. The “rule of faith” (a standard of sound doctrine derived from those books known to be canonical such as the four gospels and Paul’s epistles) was employed when there might be some doubt about a book’s pedigree. So, if a book’s doctrinal teaching was consistent with the rule of faith, it could be considered canonical. If it was inconsistent with the rule of faith, then it was rightly rejected. Thus, an appeal to Scripture in deciding canonicity was basic. This is one reason why the Gnostic gospels (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene) never made it to the table at the church councils – their doctrinal content contradicted the clear teaching of Christ’s apostles.
  4. Catholicity – To be authentically canonical, a book must be received by the greater part of the universal church. A book only known to some small portion of the Christian community was considered suspicious. This is why even some books that were eventually recognized as canonical were initially treated as doubtful. The book of Hebrews, for example, was widely known in the Eastern church prior to A.D. 397, but virtually unknown in the West. Hebrews was accepted only after its doctrinal content was seen as consistent with the rule of faith and its authorship was associated with the Apostle Paul.5

In this short article, we cannot survey each of the books that the early church considered in the canonization process. Suffice it to say here that all the books that made it into the New Testament canon passed these tests. And you and I today can look back on the process and, given what we know about the origin and content of these books, we can see that they got it right with a high degree of confidence. What’s more, we can look at all the books that were rejected and know that they were rejected for good reasons.

Regarding the Old Testament, things are a bit more simple. The early church recognized without dispute the 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament canon. The reason is that this is the canon the church inherited from Judaism and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Essentially, the Old Testament canon comes to us on the testimony of Jesus. He, like all of his Jewish contemporaries, would have seen these books as divinely inspired. What’s more, Jesus quoted authoritatively from almost every one of them. Hence, we may know that these books are tees that the world will not be left authentically canonical.

The type of procedure we have followed here does not give us absolute certainty, but it does not have to. As theologian R.C. Sproul has put it, “the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books.”6 What he means by this is that we must admit, as a matter of mere logical possibility, that the early church could have made a mistake – they were not infallible, but fallible. But it does not follow from this (as Sproul himself would no doubt agree) that we can have no confidence in the authenticity of the canon. It is logically possible that you are in the Matrix right now, that your body is really in a vat of chemical preservatives and your whole life experience is an illusion created by a deceptive computer. But, it does not follow that you are in the Matrix or that you should doubt for one minute that your experience is not an illusion. Likewise, the fallibility of the canon does not imply the errancy of the canon or any reason to be suspicious of it s authenticity.

Recognizing these facts helps us deal with the question of the Apocrypha, those books composed during the inter-testamental period and which are part of the Roman Catholic canon. Did not the early church councils accept the Apocrypha as canonical? Yes, they did. But, we have admitted that the church is not infallible. Therefore, there is no problem with saying that with regard to the Apocrypha the church made a mistake. The Jews never recognized these books as canonical, and Jesus never quoted from them. Moreover, as Paul Wegner shows elsewhere in this journal,7there are many other problems with accepting the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture.

So, our philosophical case for the canon does not provide us with an unachievable certainty, but it does give us strong confidence in the traditional Protest ant canon. We will look know at a few theological considerations that can strengthen our confidence even more.

A THEOLOGICAL CASE FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE CANON
There are three theological points that are clearly relevant to the issue of biblical canonicity.

  1. Gods promise to preserve his Word. Isaiah the prophet said that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever (Isa. 40:8). This and other biblical texts (e.g., Psa. 119:89; Matt. 5:17-18) indicate that God will protect and preserve his Word. The church may be fallible, but God is not and he guarantees that the world will not be left without a witness to the truth that is in Christ Jesus. If we trust God to keep his promises, then (despite the fallibility of the church) we can rest assured that Gods word will be preserved for his people in all ages.
  2. Gods providential guidance of the church. Not only does God promise the preservation of his word, Jesus Christ also tells his church “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He also says that “where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). The church, though not infallible, has the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide her and direct her. God works providentially behind the scenes to direct the course of her history to his desired ends. Knowing this ought to give us much confidence that the centuries-long process of canonization was indeed overseen by God. Those who collected the books of the Bible into the canon were not divinely inspired as the biblical authors were, but we should not believe that God was absent from the process. No, God was with them, helping them, guiding them, and (in the long-run) correcting them.
  3. The internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, we must recognize that the believers who read and study the 66 books of the canon testify to hearing the voice of God in their pages. This we believe is what theologians call the ‘internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” It’s what Paul talks about in Romans 8, when he wrote, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16). It is what John wrote about in his first epistle, when he said,

It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. (1 John 5:6b-10)

The fact that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts when we read these books indicates to us that our canon is authentic.

We have admitted that the historical arguments of the last section do not provide us with absolute certainty. And we argued that this is not a serious defect in our knowledge of the canon. Nevertheless, what we know about God and his promises, and about the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, ought to bolster our confidence all the more. As Herman Ridderbos wrote, “No historical argument, no recognition of the authority of the church, no appeal to the consensus of history can replace even to a small extent, the element of faith necessary in the recognition of the canon.”8 We may not have philosophical certainty, but we can have a confident faith.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the discussion, the Bible is what it is, a collection of 66 books that is the source of authority for anyone desiring to call themselves Christian. From an evidential stand point there is sufficient reason to trust the Scriptures as they stand. The larger issue is in whom shall I trust? Mathematical certainty cannot be achieved in determining the parameters of the biblical canon, but neither should it be desired. One thing that is of prime importance is that the whole of the canon be both recognized and preserved. It is the only source of objective authority that is available to us in our contemporary world. The Scripture is both our first and final standard. If we fail to leave it out of our apologetic encounter or shuffle it to a position somewhere at the end of our argument we will inevitably find ourselves in a sea of relativity without any fixed point of reference to either find our bearing or point the way to others.

Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and the editor of Areopagus Journal. Vic Minish is an ordained minister in the Episcopal Missionary Church and heads ARCs office in Anniston, Alabama.

NOTES
1 See, e.g., Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home (Ignatius Press, 1993).

2 There are many good reasons not to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church and the authroity of its magisterium.  For an introductory critique, see “Harodl O.J. Brown, “That They May Be One? A Response to the Claims of the Papacy,” Areopagus Journal 4:3 (May-June 2004): 28-30.  In any case, the attempt to find certainty in Catholicism is seriously misguided.  For one thing, it is well-known that the official statements of the popes and church councils are not always clear.  They have to be interpreted.  And various Roman Catholic groups often differ on how to interpret the statements of church authorities.  How does one have certainty, then, on the right interpretation?  If we must have an infallible church authority to establish the canon, then it would seem that we must also have an infallible interpreter of the infallible interpreter, and so on ad infinitum—which means that the Catholic will never find the certainty he is looking for.

3 It is important that we add the qualifying phrase that “all other things are equal” because when the evidential reasons for a proposition P are equally weighted, one might still have factors that can (and possible should) sway one to either accept or reject P.  For example, one might have a pragmatic reason to accept P such as the fact, say, that believing P brings one psychological comfort or is part of one’s community tradition and membership in that community requires affirming P.

4 F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 256.

5 Of course, most scholars today believe that it is very doubtful that Paul wrote Hebrews.  But, the argument for Hebrews’ canonicity could rest simply on its known antiquity and orthodoxy, as well as the author’s clear familiarity with the teachings of Paul.

6 R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992), 22.

7 Paul D. Wegner, “The Cannon of Scripture in Jesus Day,”8.

8 Herman Riderbos ,Authority of the New Testament Scriptures, (Grand Rapids:Baker, 1963),39.

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