How Do We Know the New Testament Canon? Part 3- Intro to the Self-Authenticating Model

[In Parts 1 and 2, we began a series asking how we know these 27 books belong in the New Testament canon. In this series I’ll be drawing freely on two books by Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited and The Question of Canon. ]


Having considered and rejected the Roman Catholic model for this question, let us now consider what Michael Kruger calls “the self-authenticating model.”


The Self-Authenticating Model: What It’s Not and What It Is

I’ll warn you up front that the self-authenticating model isn’t as simple as the Roman Catholic model. But then again, what good is a simple theory if it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny? The best answer isn’t always the simplest one. Rather, it’s the one that accounts for the most evidence with the fewest problems left over. And I do believe that the self-authenticating model of NT canon does that.

Now when we speak of the canon as self-authenticating, here’s what we don’t mean:

  • we don’t mean that the Holy Spirit has no role to play (he does)
  • we don’t mean that the church has no role to play (she does)
  • we don’t mean that evidence from church history has no role to play (it does)
  • we don’t mean that we know these books are inspired simply because they say they are (though Scripture’s own testimony is certainly part of it)

Rather, when we speak of the canon of Scripture as self-authenticating, what we mean is that Scripture provides evidence within its own pages that it is the Word of God, and that Scripture itself provides guidelines for us to interpret outside evidence. My rough definition of the self-authenticating model can be summed up like this: God has created an environment in which the church can recognize inspired books when she sees them. 

I’ll try to unpack this definition in the next few posts. In the remainder of this post, I want to discuss the significance of that word “recognize.”


Recognizing Canonical Books 

The church recognizes the authority of inspired books–she doesn’t confer authority upon them. To say that the church decided or created the canon would seem to imply that the church somehow conferred an authority upon the Scriptures  that they didn’t previously have. But to say that the church recognized which books were canonical simply means that they identified the Scriptures for what they already were.

Think about it like this: when I see Tilly Dillehay, I recognize her as my wife. But the fact that I recognize her as my wife isn’t what makes her my wife. It’s the exact opposite. The reason that I recognize her as my wife is because she is in fact already my wife. Now some other woman might put on a Tilly-mask and try to deceive me, and she might succeed for a time (admittedly it would have to be one of those Mission Impossible masks, but bear with me for the sake of the illustration). She might deceive me for a time, but eventually I would start to pick up clues that something was off: her voice doesn’t sound like Tilly’s. She says things that Tilly wouldn’t say. She fails to remember certain people and events that Tilly would know. And these clues would eventually cause me to question her identity, and while she wasn’t paying attention I would feel of her face, pull off the mask, and say “Aha! I knew it!”

Recognizing Tilly as my wife doesn’t make her my wife. She’s my wife already, by an act of God himself. But since she is my wife, it makes sense that I would recognize her as such, assuming that my senses are working properly.

In this same vein, think about Jesus’s statement in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice.” Jesus’ sheep hear his voice. But is that what makes it Jesus’ voice – the fact that they hear it? Of course not. Even if they didn’t hear it, it would still be his voice. So if Jesus speaks in the forest and no one hears him, does his voice still make a sound? Answer: yes. Hearing is a receptive act, not a creative act. If I were deaf, that wouldn’t mean that everyone else in the world was mute; it would just mean that I couldn’t hear them. My hearing doesn’t create your voice, it receives it.

Knowing a wife, hearing a voice, recognizing inspired books—these are all receptive actions. They don’t create the wife or the voice or the canon. They simply receive and recognize what is already there. As Michael Kruger put it,

Jesus’s statement that ‘My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me’ (John 10:27) is not evidence for the authority of the sheep’s decision to follow, but evidence for the authority and efficacy of the Shepherd’s voice to call…In this way, the role of the church is like a thermometer, not a thermostat. Both instruments provide information about the temperature in the room—but one determines it and one reflects it.


Why We Should Expect the Canon to be Recognizable

Christians can be tempted to look at the question of canon in a naturalistic way – as though God either didn’t exist or were somehow unable to make his word recognizable. When we think this way, it can begin to seem like special pleading to claim that inspired books actually contain divine qualities that are recognizable to God’s people. But if we’re going to think this way, then we might as well give up the faith entirely. It’s a bit like claiming to believe in God but then doubting the possibility of the resurrection. As Paul remarked to his skeptical Jewish friends in Acts 26:8, “Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?”

Why indeed? And why should it be thought incredible by anyone who believes in the biblical God that he should be able to make his word recognizable? Is clear communication somehow above his pay grade?

Indeed, when we consider why God inspired the canonical books to begin with, it only makes sense that he would ensure their recognition. God didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book. So I’ll write it, publish it, and put it out there, and maybe people will read it. But even if they don’t, I’ve just got to get these ideas in print.” No, friends. God  inspired the canonical books so that he could rule his people through them and feed his people with them. And in order for God’s people to be ruled and fed by the Scriptures, we have to be able to recognize them.

This is God’s purpose, and God is able to make his purposes stand.  Jesus was right; his sheep hear his voice. Not because their ears are so sharp, but because his voice is so powerful.


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