How is the canon of Scripture determined? Ahh, such a fun question…
Well, the traditional view of the development of the canon of Scripture, is that the canonicity of the books of the Bible was established, or recognized, by such criteria as: Prophetic (or apostolic) authorship; doctrinal consistency with previous revelation; evidence of inspiration; universal acceptance; and others, depending on the list you consult.
However, there’s something called the “single-test” view, which would argue that authorship was the sole necessary test of canonicity (suggested by Deut. 18:21-22). That is, “was the writing produced by a divinely inspired, and supernaturally authenticated, spokesman of God (i.e. a prophet or apostle)?”
The first view allows for the canon to be established/recognized retrospectively, long after the actual writing of the books, though supporters of this view are careful to observe that the canon was discovered, or recognized, not determined or authorized.
The single-test view of canonicity however, allows for, or perhaps even necessitates, a progressively developed canon. The first view suggests a process of canonization. The latter view rejects the view of a process of canonization, and instead suggests that each apostle’s (or prophet’s) writing was accepted as divinely inspired and with the authority of the canon of Scripture as the writings were being produced.
The first view, the traditional view, is based on the view that Ezra the prophet collected the Old Testament canon perhaps for the first time, and that Eusebius collected books in the early fourth century AD and recognized the canon we have today, and that by the late fourth century, the canon had been firmly confirmed with the help of men such as Jerome, Athanasius, and Augustine.
The latter view can be argued from Scriptures such as 2 Peter 3:2, where Peter places the writings of the apostles on the same level as the Old Testament prophets, 2 Pet. 3:16, where Peter specifically calls Paul’s writings Scripture, 1 Tim. 5:18, where Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel referring to it as Scripture, Prov. 25:1, where the scribes copy Solomon’s proverbs, and Deuteronomy 31:26 and 1 Samuel 10:25 where the writings of Moses and Samuel are taken and placed by the Ark of the Covenant. The main test of canonicity according to this view would be authorship, but the author had to be vindicated, or validated, by miracles.
This progressive view eliminates the subjective nature of the traditional idea of the formation, or recognition, of the canon. This is one of the main reasons I would lean toward this view. The traditional view involves many retrospective subjective elements, most notably, the idea of “evidence of inspiration.” Usually this refers to things such as, how the book treats Christ uniquely and as the center focus of the book, etc. But the single-test view eliminates subjective testing ground, and stands solidly on the foundation of the original recipients of the writing receiving and accepting the message as authentic from a verified prophet or apostle.
So, I think that I would, tentatively, hold to a sort of mixed view. That is, I would strongly affirm that the acceptance of the canon was developed as the books were being written and compiled (as evidenced by 2 Pet. 3:16; 2 Peter 3:2; 1 Tim. 5:18; Prov. 25:1; etc). However, I am not sure if I accept that authorship, even vindicated by miracles, can be viewed as the sole standard of acceptance (Deut. 13:1-5; Gal. 1:7-8).
2 Peter 1:16-19, as well as 2 Corinthians 12:1-7a, seem to say that one’s experience of the supernatural cannot trump what is already written in Scripture. While this is dealing with a slightly different issue, I do think it speaks to the issue, in that it seems that there is a call in Scripture to weigh a new revelation against what is already established in order to establish it’s authenticity/authority (strongly shown in Deut. 13:1-5). Gal. 1:7-8 seems especially strong to me as evidence of the importance of weighing the doctrinal consistency of revelation, even if from a prophet or apostle (and even if validated by miracle).
So, I’m not sure if I would refer to my view still as a single-test view, or perhaps a dual-test view – that main test being authorship; but instead of the author only being authenticated by miracle, I would say the writing also must be authenticated by doctrinal consistency with prior revelation.
However, another interesting view I read recently was from B.B. Warfield. Warfield posits that the standard for acceptance was an apostolic imposition of a writing as law. That is, an apostle could write other things (such as Paul’s other letters not in the Bible), without those writings being canonical (having the same inspiration and authority as Scripture). But when an apostle sent a letter and imposed it as to be added to the code of conduct or law for that church, then it was recognized as Scripture.
I am just beginning to scratch the surface of my study in this area, but I think it’s very interesting, and I certainly look forward to studying it further. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts as well…