All historic Christians confess the Nicene Creed, which posits that we believe "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." However, one of the crucial differences between the Protestant tradition and the Roman and Orthodox varieties is how we reckon what it means to be "apostolic." These different views frequently center on understanding how the canon of Scripture was formulated and consequently what relationship the Church has to Scripture. The Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura is often denounced as a sixteenth century innovation by Roman and Orthodox apologists, but the Reformers themselves insisted that their doctrine of Scripture was the ancient, catholic, and truly apostolic teaching. They insisted rather, that it was the Orthodox and Roman communions that had departed from the apostolic doctrine of Scripture in so far as they set non-scriptural traditions, church councils, or particular church authorities on an equal footing as Scripture or even as an authority above it.
This essay sets out to sketch an answer to the question: What role did the apostles themselves play in the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures, and what clarity does our answer to that question shed on the apostolic understanding of the relationship between Scripture, the Church, and Tradition? This essay hardly scratches the surface of the vast conversation on this topic, but I hope its thesis is at least thoughtful enough to suggest further study.
Let's begin with a sample Roman Catholic description of these matters:
The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council (The Catholic Encyclopedia)
And here's a short representative summary of the Orthodox position:
It is from the Church that Holy Scripture ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church, which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority (Father Demetrios Serfes)
While there are no doubt differences in how the Roman and Orthodox traditions speak of the formation of the canon and the Church's relationship to Scripture (I doubt the Orthodox recognize Trent as the completion of the canon), there is enough similarity to speak of their doctrine of Scripture (in this regard) as largely the same, which I summarize as: The complete canon of Scripture was not determined until centuries after the apostles, and the Church (led by the Holy Spirit) determined what the canon of Scripture was. Therefore, the Scriptures derive their authority from the Church. And I take it as given if the Church determined the canon and Scripture derives its authority from the Church, then there is no reason why the Church might not also grant a similar authority to other "apostolic" or ecclesiastical traditions.
The problem with this understanding is that there are strong historical indications that this was not the understanding of the apostles themselves or the first Christians who made up the early church (despite the Catholic Encyclopedia's claims to the contrary).
In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the apostles and first Christians knew what books would form the New Testament canon very early on. The reason they knew was because the task of writing the New Testament Scriptures was one of the central purposes of the office of apostles. A popular caricature of the process of canonization (a somewhat problematic phrase in its own right) is that tons of early Christians wrote tons of stuff and that it was only after the deaths of the first generation of Christians (or so) when the subsequent generations of Christians suddenly woke up and began scrambling to collect as many meaningful looking scraps as they could find, like grabbing flecks of confetti blowing around in the wind. And the Holy Spirit led the Church to find all the right pieces and paste them all together just right. The wind blows where it wishes, and so does the Spirit, and so on. While I certainly grant that it could have happened that way, all the indicators are quite the opposite.
The center of the evidence for a largely completed canon by the death of the apostles is grounded in understanding the office of apostle itself. All three synoptic gospels make a big deal about who the original twelve apostles were (Mt. 10:2-5, Mk. 3:14, Lk. 6:13-16), and the apostles themselves indicate that they understood that this was a big deal when they replaced Judas Iscariot with Mathias (Acts 1:13, 21-26). Luke says that after Jesus rose from the dead He spent most of His time teaching "the apostles whom he had chosen" (Acts 1:2). While all of the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit to be poured out, Jesus gave this command directly to the apostles because they were to be a unique body of testimony, witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). All Christians are witnesses, all Christians are sent out in some sense, but the twelve apostles were the first witnesses, the authorized witnesses, the authoritative witnesses. This is why the ordinary requirement of an apostle was that he be a witness of the entire ministry of Jesus from His baptism to His ascension (Acts 1:22).
St. Paul indicates this unique role of apostle when he says that the Church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Likewise, when John sees the New Jerusalem, the Christian Church, coming down out of heaven adorned as a bride, he sees that its foundation is inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14). Of course many of the first Christians had been disciples of Jesus and they had witnessed His miracles and death and resurrection, but when the early church met together to fellowship, break bread, and pray, they gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). Mary was there and surely her testimony played a significant role in informing the teaching of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:14), but nevertheless the church gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles." This is very significant because as the early church grew and spread (which it did very rapidly), this "teaching of the apostles" would continue to be an essential element of Christian worship and life. And in order for that to continue and be preserved, there had to be some way of verifying and regulating what that "apostolic teaching" actually was.
In fact, this is precisely where the New Testament came from. This is hardly a controversial point, but what is contested is how conscious and intentional the apostles and first Christians were of this goal. Here, I argue that the apostles were quite conscious of this goal. Jesus had entrusted to them the "testimony" not merely for a small band of Jews in Jerusalem, but they were to be witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. How would that testimony reach the ends of the earth intact without devolving into an elaborate telephone game? The apostles and their assistants almost immediately began writing. This is because the apostles knew that their office was responsible for preserving and passing down the authoritative testimony of the gospel of Jesus. This is why every New Testament book was written or sponsored by an apostle.
This unique office of apostle is underlined by Paul's unusual apostleship, which he himself noted repeatedly throughout his writings (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9). He saw himself as the "least of all the apostles" -- the apostle "untimely born." It's highly instructive and somewhat amusing that such a large portion of the New Testament was written by an "apostle" who was not part of the original twelve. His name is not on any of the lists. But far from negating everything we've just said, it's actually the sort of exception that helps to prove the rule. Everywhere Paul went he ran into controversy and accusations, and one of the most frequent objections was the fact that he wasn't a real apostle. He's constantly defending the authenticity of his apostolic calling (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12, 1 Cor. 9:1-5). Not only was Paul not among the original twelve, but clearly he had an inordinate influence in the early church. He "worked harder than any of them" (1 Cor. 15:10). And the real clincher in this is how Paul walked the very fine line between acknowledging the other apostles and simultaneously not needing their approval (Gal. 2:5-6). Paul did not need to get permission from the other apostles to preach Jesus to the Gentiles. He respected their apostleship and sought to labor alongside of them, but Paul insisted that he had been directly commission by Jesus Himself no less than any of the other apostles (Gal. 1:11-12).
This exception helps to prove the rule because Paul insists on a similar criteria for being an apostle (chosen by Jesus and a witness of His resurrection, e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9) and clearly insists on the exact same authority -- His words are to be received as the very words of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). And here is where we dive right back into our apostolic case for Sola Scriptura. Paul says that what he received from the Lord (specifically here, the Lord's Supper), he delivered to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23). First off, note that even though Paul wasn't at the Last Supper, he says he received the authority to pass the Lord's Supper on to the Corinthians from Jesus. This is startling, and yet ministers frequently read these words of institution at the Table of the Lord without reeling from the glorious irony of that claim. Particularly in Protestant contexts, this really is glorious. It's a standing apostolic claim that Jesus is free to work outside some kind of strict apostolic succession. Secondly, Paul insists that Jesus sent him specifically to the Gentiles to deliver that "tradition" by spoken and written word (2 Thess. 2:15, Gal. 2:7). Now the Roman and Orthodox like to make a big deal about this oral tradition that Paul refers to, but unfortunately, in my experience, few of them read Paul very carefully on this point. Of course the Thessalonians could remember specific oral instructions that Paul had spoken, but in the course of things, they were also receiving reports from others about other oral traditions from Paul (or other apostles or pseudo-apostles). Apparently, they had received prophecies purporting to contradict what Paul had said and even letters claiming to be from Paul or the other apostles. (2 Thess. 2:2). It's in that context that Paul insists that they must adhere only to the true apostolic traditions. But this begs the question: How do they know which ones are the "true" ones? Paul tells them: "If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14, emphasis mine). And not only that, knowing that there were other written letters purporting to be from him, Paul closes the letter very deliberately: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17). In other words, Paul insists that his written words trump all other reports, and his written words can and should be verified by the mark of his signature (cf. Gal. 6:11, Col. 4:18). Paul insists that his written words are the gold standard by which all other received traditions must be tested. This is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
This phenomenon would have hardly been unique to Paul, and therefore, anything anybody heard about the "teaching of the apostles" would have needed to be verified and tested. And the apostolic standard or "canon" by which all traditions were tested was what they wrote. Given the messiness of the first century church, this is why there's good reason to believe that the New Testament canon was largely settled by the death of the apostles.
Another piece of the evidence comes indirectly from Randolph Richards' helpful historical study Paul and First Century Letter Writing. As the title indicates, Richards carefully explains the nature of letter writing in the first century, and among many gems, Richards notes that every letter of any significance would have been carbon copied for the author to keep for his records. Given distances and time, the opportunity for forgeries and corruption was high, and so precautions were taken to prevent it. Authors ordinarily kept copies of every significant communication so that all claims might be verified. When Paul begs Timothy to bring the parchments with him when he comes, there's a high degree of likelihood that these would have included his personal copies of his letters that would make up his corpus of the New Testament (2 Tim. 4:13). Given the fact that Peter ended up in Rome at around the same time as Paul, and Luke is there already with Paul, and Mark is on his way (2 Tim. 4:11), we have all the indications that one of the first apostolic New Testament canon committees was holding session there in Rome in the mid 60s A.D. And if all that weren't enough, don't forget the fact that Peter refers to Paul's letters as Scripture right around the same time (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In other words, the apostles knew what they were doing. Think about it. Luke apparently has access to the other gospels (Lk. 1:1), has written his own, and has just finished up the book of Acts, add in Peter's own letters, Mark's presence, Paul's personal copies of his letters, and we've got most of the New Testament accounted for. Peter or Paul might have easily had copies of James and Jude from their time in Jerusalem. Add in John's gospel, letters, and apocalypse, and we're there.
Two other pieces of evidence give this thesis even more credibility. First, an argument from Jewish tradition. Many of the first Christians were Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Jesus Himself was a Jewish rabbi who valued the written Scriptures as evidenced by the numerous times He began sentences with the statement, "It is written..." Jesus and his first disciples had a deep understanding of the significance of a written standard for truth. This went all the way back to the law given at Sinai, the Torah, the Testimony. If the pages of the Old Testament were full of the promises of Messiah, there's no doubt that the first believers understood that a New Testament had to be written as an official record that this had in fact come to pass. Nothing less than a written record and standard would suffice. Anything less would fail to match the high claims of the gospel.
And finally, the extra biblical historical evidence for this thesis is considerable. Despite some argument and variation in the early church on the exact table of contents in the New Testament, the astonishing thing is actually how unified and likeminded the early Christians were immediately following the death of the last apostles. The earliest post-apostolic indication that the canon of Scripture was well known and accepted very early on is seen in the rejection of the heretic Marcion who lived around 110 A.D. He rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only a highly edited version of the gospel of Luke and a collection of ten letters considered Pauline. But faithful Christians objected to Marcion's deracination of the New Testament. It would have made no sense at all for Tertullian and others to object to Marcion's canon if the Church was still trying to decide what it was.
Irenaeus insists on the authority of all four gospels by around 160 A.D., and the Muratorian fragment is typically dated to around 170 A.D. based on the internal references to Hermas and Pius 1, the bishop of Rome. While the fragment omits Hebrews and 3 John, the rest of the canon is accounted for. Thus, by 170 A.D., we have record of a nearly complete list of the New Testament books. If the table of contents was so up for grabs, so disputed, so unknown, the historical record should indicate far more variation, but instead we have enormous agreement on most of the canon of the New Testament with a couple of exceptions, which, as in the example of Paul's apostleship, actually help to prove the rule.
The primary argument will be over verifying the authenticity of those exceptions. Can they be proven to have been written by or sponsored by one of the apostles? And when they were, they were received as Scripture. But this indicates not that the Church determined the canon centuries after the apostles, but rather it was the authority of the apostles that conferred scriptural status on particular writings and not others. Of course the apostles were the foundation of the Church, and in that limited sense, the Church determined the canon. But this is hardly what is usually meant by that claim. It is more accurate to say that the apostles are the foundation of the Church through their permanently inscribed testimony in Scripture. In other words, Scripture is the apostolic foundation of the Church. The Church derives its authority from Scripture, and not the other way around.
Far from the New Testament canon being something that needed to be figured out over many centuries, all the indicators are that Jesus appointed twelve men to be His official witnesses, and it was their job to pass down an authoritative testimony of the essential gospel of Jesus. All other traditions and rumors, however helpful or contradictory stand or fall at the written words of the apostles. This is the apostolic faith, and this is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Those churches that yield true and humble submission to those words and instructions are the faithful adherents to the apostles.
Toby Sumpter serves as pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho where he lives with his wife and their four children. He's the author of A Son for Glory: Job Through New Eyes and Blood-Bought World: Jesus, Idols, and the Bible