How Do We Know the New Testament Canon? Part 4- Providential Exposure

[Note: This is part 4 of a series exploring how we know these 27 books belong in the New Testament canon, drawing freely on two books by Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited and The Question of Canon. View parts 1 and 2 and 3. ]


In my last post, I began unpacking my definition of what Michael Kruger calls the “self-authenticating model” (hereafter SAM) of the New Testament (NT) canon. I defined the SAM like this: God has created an environment in which the church can recognize inspired books when she sees them.  I began with the word recognize . The remainder of the posts in this series will examine the environment part.


What’s Included in the Environment ?

Kruger lists three major environmental factors in the SAM, one of which has three subpoints. So let me lay out the entire outline, and then start at the beginning. The three major factors in this canon-recognizing environment are:

I. Providential Exposure

II. Attributes of Canonicity

  1. divine qualities
  2. apostolic origins
  3. corporate reception

III. The Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s start with number one: providential exposure.


Providential Exposure and Colossians

This phrase simply means that in order for the church to recognize a book as inspired and canonical, she first had to be exposed to it. It would be awfully hard for the church to recognize a book that she’d never read or heard of. Remember, I said that God has enabled the church to recognize inspired books when she sees themFor a book to be recognized by the church as coming from God and functioning as canon, it must first gain a broad exposure in the church. “Broad” as in not just one corner of the church, but the whole church catholic.

And the reason we call it “providential” exposure is because God in his providence arranged for these 27 books to receive a broad exposure in the early church. This is an area where the Scripture itself provides guidance in interpreting outside evidence.

Take Paul’s letter to the Colossians as an example. Originally, Paul wrote this letter to a specific church—the church in Colosse. But eventually, in God’s providence, the letter to the Colossians received a much broader exposure. It began to be read churches other than the church in Colosse, until eventually it was being read in churches throughout the Roman Empire. That’s one of the reasons why it was preserved.

How did this happen? Well, it turns out that Colossians actually provides a clue for how this providential exposure began. In Colossians 4:16, Paul says this:

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)

First of all, notice that Paul tells the Colossians to have this letter read in a church besides theirs—the church of the Laodiceans—which almost certainly means that they would have made a copy of the letter and sent it to Laodicea. This explains how Colossians began to get exposure beyond its original recipients. We can rationally assume that this is what happened with Paul’s other letters, as well.  In any case, letters like Romans and Ephesians and 1 Corinthians eventually were read by churches other than Rome, Ephesus, and Corinth. As we’ll see in future posts, Peter explicitly says this in 2 Peter 3:15-16.


What About This Letter from Laodicea?

But then notice how Paul refers here to a second letter — one that he calls “the letter from Laodicea”—a letter that we no longer have! Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul wrote letters besides the ones in our NT. I mean what are the odds that these 13 letters were all he ever penned?  Still, the mention of this lost Pauline letter raises a couple of questions.

First, was the letter from Laodicea inspired?  I’m not certain, but my answer would be probably. After all, it was written by an apostle, and he commanded them to read it publicly. In this sense, we can make a distinction between inspired and canonical.  All canonical books are inspired, but not all inspired books are canonical (just as not all inspired words were written down). The Old Testament often speaks of books written by prophets that have long been lost.

Which leads to the second question, did God intend for the letter from Laodicea to be part of the NT canon? Answer: apparently not, because in God’s providence, it was lost, and lost very, very early. As far as we can tell, Paul’s letter from Laodicea was never even a contender for the NT canon. Why? Because it lacked providential exposure. The church as a whole simply never had access to it.

The same would be true of Paul’s so called “tearful letter” to the Corinthians (that he mentions in 1 Cor. 5:9) and all the other letters that common sense tells us the other apostles surely must have written during their lifetimes. They were all lost, and lost very quickly. Apparently, God intended those letters to serve specific local churches for a brief time, but not the universal church for all time.  In the words of C. Stephen Evans,  “The fact that certain books are lost provides reason to think that God did not desire those writings to be included in the authorized revelation.”



I realize this may sound like a circular argument. But remember, if God is the one behind the canon (as all Christians believe he is), and if he intended these books to function as a rule for his church until Jesus returned (which all Christians agree that he did), then it makes sense that he would ensure these books were not lost, but were instead providentially exposed to churches throughout the world so that they could be recognized as canon. And when you look at the historical evidence, that’s exactly what happened. Not neatly and cleanly, and not all at once, but eventually and actually. 

God has created an environment in which the church can recognize inspired books when she sees them. The first part of that environment is providential exposure. Providential exposure makes sure that we have the right books at our disposal. At the same, in God’s providence we have lots of ancient books at our disposal. So how do we discern which of these are inspired, authoritative, and canonical? That leads us to the second part of the environment God has created for recognizing canonical books, attributes of canonicity. But since that one has three subpoints, it’ll take more than one post to unpack it. So stay tuned.

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