Is the New Testament canon authoritative or authoritarian?

This article is from Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
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Recently the Bible has come under attack by liberal scholars who claim that the New Testament canon was determined by the winners of a supposed struggle for dominance in the early centuries of Christianity. As the following evidence reveals, however, the canon is not arbitrary or authoritarian, but divinely authoritative.

First, the entire New Testament canon was recorded early and thus was not subject to legendary contamination. Had any part of the canon been composed after AD 70 it would most certainly have mentioned the destruction of the very temple that had given the ancient Jews their theological and sociological identity. Additionally, because Matthew and Luke likely used Mark as a source and Luke composed his gospel prior to the writing of Acts, which was completed prior to Paul’s martyrdom in the mid–60s, Mark may have been composed as early as the AD 40s, just a few years after the events recorded. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reiterates a Christian creed that can be traced to within three to eight years of Christ’s crucifixion. By contrast, the Gnostic gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, are dated long after the close of the first century.

Furthermore, the authority of the New Testament is confirmed through the eyewitness credentials of its authors. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). Likewise, Peter reminded his readers that the disciples “did not follow cleverly invented stories” but “were eyewitnesses of [Jesus’] majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Moreover, the New Testament contains embarrassing details that no authoritarian association bent on dogmatic dominance would have adopted. For instance, the Gospels present the founding members of the movement as dissident disciples who not only doubted but denied their Master. The canon was not determined by men but discovered by the community of early believers based on principles of canonicity.

Finally, extra–biblical evidence confirms the New Testament canon and knows nothing of early competing canons. Secular historians—including Josephus (before AD 100), the Roman Tacitus (around AD 120), the Roman Suetonius (AD 110), and the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (AD 110)—confirm the many events, people, places, and customs chronicled in the New Testament. Early church leaders such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, and Clement of Rome—all writing before AD 250—also shed light on New Testament historical accuracy. From such sources, we can piece together the highlights of the life of Christ independent of the New Testament canon. Moreover, Eusebius of Caesarea acknowledged the centrality of the canonical Gospels and recorded their widespread use in important Christian centers including Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. As such, the canon was not determined by men but discovered by the community of early believers based on principles of canonicity.

For further study, see Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004).


“Many have undertaken to draw up an account
of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as
they were handed down to us by those who from
the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”

Luke 1:1–2

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