This review relates to the belief that the Spirit inspired the canon and then led the church to recognize it. This subject, then, is directly related to the work of the Spirit and our understanding of his guidance.
In this article, Nicole asks the question of why God did not give us an explicit list of the canonical books, and then seeks to outline an answer. First, we cannot expect any answer about the ways of God to be comprehensive, since God is infinitely above us. Second, since the Bible was written over 1500 years, it would have been somewhat out of place for God to provide a list at most points during that time, since the list would involve books not yet in existence. Third, the study of canonics provides us with other means of determining the extent of the canon.
The first aspect of canonics is descriptive, exploring the historical process by which the canon was recognized. This will often lead us to marvel in retrospect at the guidance of God. The other aspect of canonics concerns our grounds for accepting the canon. He reviews seven criteria that have been used.
First, apostolicity. This arises from the fact that Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide the apostles into all truth (John 14:26, etc.), and implies that whatever is apostolic is canonical and vice versa. Documents written with the authorization of the apostles would also be included. This is a helpful criteria in conjunction with others, but has some negative aspects. For example, it makes our acceptance of a book dependent upon historical research. Further, if a new apostolic document were discovered today, this criteria would seem to demand its inclusion. Evangelicals are also sometimes guilty of circular reasoning. We accept the canon because of its apostolic authorization of the books, but when that is questioned we reason “this book is in the canon, so it must be apostolic.” So this criteria is important but insufficient.
Second, orthodoxy. This criteria helps discard unworthy material, but there is much that is orthodox but not inspired. So, again, it is not sufficient. Further, it seems circular, since doesn’t the canon define what is orthodox?
Third, Christocentricity. This is also helpful, but insufficient. Luther’s writings were Christocentric, but not canonical.
Fourth, inspiration. Obviously there is a correlation here. But this doesn’t solve the question, because the issue is how we know what is inspired.
Fifth, the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the individual Christian. The great benefit of this is that we are no longer grounding canonicity in human decision. But this is not how the canon was formed. Individually, we are presented with a whole book, not the individual documents one by one.
Sixth, the authority of the church. This is the Catholic view. It makes things easy, but reverses the authority structure. The church is under Scripture, not the determiner of Scripture.
Seventh, we have “the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people and made manifest by a nearly unanimous acceptance of the New Testament canon in Christian churches” (204). To know what the canon is, we ask any Christian body. This does not view the church’s role as an act of binding authority (contrary to six), but as a result of the special guidance of the Spirit. Is the near unanimity of the church (even of the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.), a mere coincidence? This criteria is able to explain this fact coherently. This framework is parallel to the recognition of the Old Testament canon. God entrusted it to the Jews (Romans 3:2), and they recognized it. God entrusted the New Testament canon to the church, and it recognized it. This criteria also encompasses all that is good in the prior criteria. There are some objections made to this view, but they can be overcome. Does this put us under the authority of the Catholic church? No more than our acceptance of the Old Testament puts us under the authority of the synagogue. “The consensus of churches on the New Testament is an index of the Spirit’s guidance” (206), not in itself an authoritative declaration. Could some make the same argument for the Koran? No, because the situations are not analogous. The entire Koran was produced in the seventh century and was the work of one man. The New Testament canon was produced over time by many and recognized over time.
Nicole thus concludes: “We receive as canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament all the books that have been transmitted to us, under that title, by the universal consent of the Jewish people, to whom the oracles of God were entrusted under the Lord’s guidance. And we receive equally as canonical Scriptures of the New Testament all the books that, under the guidance of the same Providence, have been transmitted to us as such by the universal consent of the churches of the Christian world.”
Nicole, Roger. “The Canon of the New Testament.” JETS 40/2 (June 1997): 199-206.