Dr. Grant C. Richison
It is important to understand the biblical standards to recognize an apostle. An apostle had the right to write Scripture. One of the standards for the right to write Scripture is that a person had to be an apostle and an apostle had to see Jesus personally. No one in our day can be an apostle in that sense today.
The Bible does use the word in the sense of a missionary today. The word “apostle” comes from two Greek words: to send and from. A missionary is sent from the local church with authority to represent the teaching of that church.
In order to understand the qualifications of an apostle who has the right to lay the foundation of the church and write Scripture we need to see those biblical standards. It is critical that we do not use our personal experience to do so.
In Acts 1:12-26 Peter set forth the standards for choosing a new apostle and setting the qualifications. Not everyone could be considered for an apostleship. Candidates needed to have been with Jesus during his life among them. That is, he needed to be an eyewitness of Jesus.
Jesus personally appeared to Paul personally. This encounter with the resurrected Lord revolutionized his life. Jesus said that He had chosen Saul “as My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15; cf. 22:14–15). Following his conversion, Paul spent time in Arabia where he was personally taught by Christ (Galatians 1:12–17). The other apostles recognized that Jesus Himself had appointed their former enemy to be one of them. As Saul went into Gentile territories Jesus, who gave Paul his apostleship, authorized him to write over half of the books of the New Testament.
Paul identifies the office of apostle to serve His churches (1 Corinthians 12:27–30; Ephesians 4:11). Clearly, the work of apostleship was to lay the foundation of the Church in a sense secondary only to that of Christ Himself (Ephesians 2:19–20), thus requiring eyewitness authority behind their preaching. After the apostles laid the foundation, the Church could be built.
The New Testament recognized that Jesus appointed Paul as His special apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:1; Acts 26:16–18). There are others in the early church referred to as “apostles” (Acts 14:4, 14; Romans 16:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:6), but only in the sense that they were sent by churches on special missions. These individuals bore the title “apostle” in a limited sense and did not possess all the qualifications of apostleship that the original twelve and Paul did.
No biblical evidence exists to indicate that the apostles were replaced when they died (Acts 12:1–2). Jesus appointed the apostles to do the founding work of the Church, and foundations only need to be laid once. After the apostles’ deaths, other offices besides apostleship, not requiring an eyewitness relationship with Jesus, would carry on the work.
For a further understanding of this issue, note this study by Geisler and Nix:
A General Introduction to the Bible
Norm Geisler and William Nix
The Authors Were Apostles or Prophets
The same principle applies to the New Testament: propheticity determines canonicity. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Apostles, by their very office, were accredited spokesmen for God. It was they whom Jesus promised:” The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you “(John 14:26) and the Spirit of truth … will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It was the “apostles’ teaching” in which the early church continued (Acts 2:42) and it was the apostles who were given special signs (miracles) to confirm their message (Heb. 2:3–4). Those confirmatory signs were given to other apostles than the twelve, such as the apostle Paul, who had “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). There was also the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10). Some “prophets,” such as Agabus, even gave messages from God to apostles (Acts 11:27–28). John the apostle considered himself one of “the prophets” (Rev. 22:9). So, in the New Testament as well as the Old, the determining factor in whether a book was canonical was its propheticity.
Every New Testament book was written by an apostle or prophet. Thus each book has either apostolic authorship or apostolic teaching. And in either case it possesses apostolic authority. Matthew was an apostle. Mark is considered by many to be “Peter’s gospel,” because Mark was closely associated with the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:13). That relationship notwithstanding, Mark had his own God-given ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Tim. 4:11). The author of Luke was an associate of the apostle Paul (Col. 4:14; Philem. 24). Luke also wrote Acts (1:1). John was an apostle. He wrote John, three epistles bearing his name, and Revelation (Rev. 1:4, 9). Paul wrote at least the thirteen epistles that bear his name (Romans-Philemon). The author of Hebrews is not known for sure. But whoever its author was, he received revelation from God (Heb. 1:1), the truth of which was confirmed by the twelve apostles (Heb. 2:3–4). James was a half brother of Jesus (James 1:1; Gal. 1:19) and a leader in the apostolic church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; Gal. 2:9). The apostle Peter authored two epistles (see 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 2:1), although he used Silvanus as a scribe to pen the first one (1 Pet. 5:12). This leaves only Jude, who was also a half brother of Jesus (Jude 1:1; cf. Matt. 13:55), and he too spoke with prophetic authority (vs. 3, 5, 20ff.).
There is good evidence that all twenty-seven books of the New Testament come from the apostles and their associates. Indeed, even some liberal scholars are now insisting on a very early apostolic date for the New Testament books. Bishop John A. T. Robinson, father of the so-called “Death of God” movement, has more recently concluded that “all the various types of the early church’s literature … were coming into being more or less concurrently in the period between 40 and 70.”21 The renowned archaeologist William F. Albright came to the same conclusion, declaring that “every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75).”22 Jesus died in A.D. 33,23 so the New Testament was written during the lifetime of the apostles and eyewitnesses (see Luke 1:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:6).
Ample evidence confirms that all the books of the New Testament are apostolic or prophetic. The question that remains is whether all the apostolic books are in the New Testament. Two books in particular have been called into question: the so-called Epistle of the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16) and a Corinthian epistle some believe was written before 1 Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 5:9). These books pose a problem concerning canonicity because they were both prophetic and yet are allegedly not in the canon. If propheticity is the key to canonicity, how is it that some prophetic (or apostolic) books are not in the canon? There are two basic responses to this question.
First, it is possible that these books were not prophetic, for in addition to their divinely authoritative writings, the prophets and apostles had private or personal correspondence. They may even have had grocery lists, travel itineraries, or the like. Such items were not inspired. Shemaiah the prophet and Iddo the seer had some “records” (2 Chron. 12:15) that were probably not inspired. There seem to be two keys as to whether or not a writing by a person (who was a prophet) was prophetic. First, it had to be a public, not strictly a private writing. That is, it had to be offered to the people of God and not merely a private record. For example, of Solomon’s 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs only those publicly presented by Solomon were immediately recognized as authoritative (see chap. 13 discussion). Second, it had to be teaching something to the people of God. In short, it had to be a word from God for the people of God. Even Paul’s so-called private epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) fit these criteria, as do 2 and 3 John, which many believe were written to individuals. All of these books contain instructions written to leaders of churches, and the books were obviously circulated and collected by the churches. Otherwise they would not have been part of the Bible through the centuries. The Bible does not guarantee that everything a prophet says or writes is from God but only that what he teaches as a truth from God is really from God. In short, a prophet is not infallible in his private utterance but only in his prophetic utterances. Hence it is possible that the prophets wrote other things which were not prophetic.
Second, it is possible that a book could be prophetic but still not canonic. For although all canonic writings are prophetic, it is possible that not all prophetic writings are canonic. That is, perhaps God did not intend that all prophetic books would be preserved for posterity but only those select few He deemed necessary for the believer’s faith and practice. If that be so, then propheticity is only a necessary condition of canonicity but not a sufficient condition. In that case there would be another condition for canonicity. The most likely candidate for such a further condition would be acceptance by the people of God of the books they deemed of value to the broader Christian community. But this view would mean that there are (or could be) books that are inspired words of God but not part of the Inspired Word of God. This is not only highly unlikely but is also unnecessary.
There is another more plausible possibility: all prophetic books may be in the canon. That is, it is possible that no prophetic book has been left out of the canon. There are plausible explanations for the only known books that are apparent exceptions to this principle, as the following discussion indicates.
- “The Letter … from Elijah” (2 Chron. 21:12–15). This is a public prophetic exhortation. Hence, it had divine authority and thereby qualified for the canon. But as a matter of fact, the letter is in the canon. The letter is included as part of the text in 2 Chronicles 21:12–15. Because it is in the canon, it poses no difficulty.
- “The records of Shemaiah the prophet” (2 Chron. 12:15). This book was definitely written by a prophet, and it seems certain that it is not identical to any of the existing books in the Old Testament. However, it is possible that the book, though written by a prophet, was not prophetic. It is called a “record.” Perhaps it was a mere geneological enrollment without any implied or stated religious instruction or exhortation. In that respect it is unlike the canonical books of Chronicles, in even which the geneological sections contain religious instructions and redemptive material, such as the messianic lineage (see 1 Chron. 5:25; 9:1, 22).
- “The Chronicles of Samuel … Nathan the prophet … and Gad the seer” (1 Chron. 29:29). These books correspond to 1 and 2 Samuel in their content and coverage. Hence, it is possible that if their contents were prophetic they are contained within the confines of the canonical books of 1 and 2 Samuel. On the other hand, they may have been mere uninspired records kept by these public servants and used later as a factual basis for the inspired books of Samuel.
- “The vision of Isaiah the prophet” (2 Chron. 32:32). This is an inspired writing, but it is probably the same as the canonical book of Isaiah, which was collected within a larger corpus called “the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel” (v. 32; see also 2 Chron. 33:18).24
- The “many” accounts referred to by Luke. Luke said, “Many have undertaken to compile an account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1). There are two possible explanations for this comment. First, if Matthew and Mark (and even John) wrote before Luke, they could be the “many” others to whom Luke refers. The Greek word “many” (polloi) can mean as few as two or three. On the other hand, even if other gospel accounts are in view, those other records may not have been prophetic. That is, it is possible that they were not offered by an accredited prophet as a message from God for His people. Thus, being non-prophetic by nature, they would not be candidates to be included in the canon of Scripture.
- The so-called “real” Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9). This book poses a much more serious threat to the theory that all truly prophetic writings are in the present canon of Scripture. For it was definitely written by an accredited apostle (Paul), and it did contain religious instruction and exhortation (1 Cor. 5:9–13). Hence, either this so-called “real” First Corinthians must be contained within one of the existing books of the Bible or else the theory fails. There are two possibilities for identifying the book to which Paul refers with an existing book of the Bible. First, he may be referring to part of the present 2 Corinthians (e.g., chapters 10–13), which was put together with another part of his Corinthian correspondence at a later time. Second Corinthians chapters 1–9 is definitely different in tone from the rest of the present book (chapters 10–13), which could indicate that it was originally written on a different occasion.
Second, there is also the possibility that Paul is referring to the present Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5:9, that is, to the very book he was then writing. It is true that he uses an aorist tense here, which could be translated “I wrote,” thus identifying some previous letter. But the aorist tense could refer to the book at hand. Such a device is called an “epistolary aorist,” because it refers to the very epistle in which it is being used. Although the aorist tense could be translated “I wrote,” the aorist tense in Greek is not a past tense as such. The Greek aorist tense has primary reference to the kind of action, not the time of action it portrays. It identifies a completed action that may even require a long time to be accomplished (cf. John 2:20). Hence, Paul could be saying something like this: “I am now decisively writing to you.” That would certainly fit the urgency of his message in the context. Further, the same epistolary use of the aorist is found elsewhere in this very letter (1 Cor. 9:15). Moreover, there is no indication from the early history of the church that any such letter (other than the existing 1 Corinthians) ever existed. The reference to Paul’s enemies in 2 Corinthians 10:10 need not be taken to mean that he actually wrote many other letters to them. It may mean no more than “what Paul writes is weighty.” The “now” (KJV) of 1 Corinthians 5:11 need not indicate a later letter. It can be translated “rather” (RSV) or “actually” (NASB). In short, it is not necessary to take 1 Corinthians 5:9 as a reference to any other epistle than the present 1 Corinthians, which is in the canon.
- The epistle of the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). This epistle is another authoritative book. It is clear from the facts within it that it was written by an apostle who enjoined both its reading and circulation among the churches (Col. 4:16). Hence, if this Laodicean book were not one of the present twenty-seven books of the New Testament, then a truly apostolic book would have been excluded in the canon. And if that be so, then one would have to reject the view that all prophetic books are in the canon. However, such a conclusion is not required. It is entirely possible that this letter is really the book of Ephesians. The following evidence may be offered in support of that thesis: (1) The text does not call it the epistle of the Laodiceans. Rather, it is called the “letter that is coming from Laodicea,” whatever it may have been named. (2) It is known that Paul wrote Ephesians at the same time he wrote Colossians and sent it to another church in the same general area. (3) There is some evidence that Ephesians did not originally bear that title but was a kind of cyclical letter intended for the churches of Asia Minor in general. As a matter of fact, some early manuscripts do not have the expression “in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1) in them. It is certainly strange that Paul, who spent three years ministering to the Ephesians (Acts 20:31), has no personal greetings in the book, if it were intended only for them. Paul had numerous personal greetings in Romans (chap. 16), and he never ministered there prior to writing that epistle. In view of all those factors, it makes sense to conclude that the so-called Laodicean letter is probably the canonical book of Ephesians. Add to that the fact that no “epistle of the Laodiceans” is referred to in early church writings, and one has a convincing case that no such apostolic book is missing from the New Testament canon. If so, then it is possible that not only all the canonic books are prophetic, but that all prophetic books are in the canon.
The Canon Is Closed
This statement raises an interesting question: What if a truly prophetic or apostolic book were found today: would it belong in the canon? Of course, the question is only hypothetical, and so the answer is only hypothetical, too. But it is an interesting question, and it does focus an important issue not yet stressed: the providence of God. It seems highly unlikely that God would have inspired a book He did not preserve. Why should He give a revelation for the church but not provide for the preservation of it? It is understandable that God might give special guidance to certain individuals, which He did not deem necessary to do for the broader body of believers. But to provide instruction in the Christian faith by way of a revelation He did not preserve for others is another matter altogether. Perhaps the question could be rephrased this way: Is the biblical canon closed? To this one should respond that the canon is closed theologically and historically, and is open only hypothetically.
Theologically the canon is closed. God has inspired only so many books and they were all completed by the end of the apostolic period (first century A.D.). God used to speak through the prophets of the Old Testament, but in the “last days” he spoke through Christ (Heb. 1:1) and the apostles whom He empowered with special signs “(miracles). But because the apostolic age ended with the death of the apostles (Acts 1:22), and because no one since apostolic times has had the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12) whereby they can raise the dead (Acts 20:10–12) and perform other unique supernatural events (Acts 3:1–10; 28:8–9), it may be concluded that God’s “last day” revelation is complete (see Acts 2:16–18). This does not mean that God’s visitations are over, because there are many other things yet to be fulfilled (see Acts 2:19–20). Nor does it mean that there will be no new understanding of God’s truth after the first century. It simply means that there is no new revelation for the church. Indeed, this does not necessarily imply that there have been no miracles since the first century. Supernatural acts will be possible as long as there is a Supernatural Being (God). It is not the fact of miracles that ceased with the apostles but the special gift of miracles possessed by a prophet or apostle who could claim, like Moses, Elijah, Peter, or Paul, to have a new revelation from God. Such a prophet or apostle could back up his claim by dividing a sea, bringing down fire from heaven, or raising the dead. These were special gifts bestowed on prophets (apostles), and they are not possessed by those who are not the recipients of new revelation (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4).
Historically the canon is closed. For there is no evidence that any such special gift of miracles has existed since the death of the apostles. The immediate successors of the apostles did not claim new revelation, nor did they claim these special confirmatory gifts. In fact, they looked on the apostolic revelation as full and final (see chaps. 6, 16, and 17). When new cults have arisen since the time of the apostles, their leaders have claimed to be apostles in order that their books could gain recognition. Historically, the canon is closed with the twenty-seven books written in the apostolic period. They alone are and have been the books of the canon through all the intervening centuries. No other non-apostolic books have been accepted since the earliest centuries, and no new books written by the apostles have come to light. In His providence, God has guided the church in the preservation of all the canonical books.
The canonical books are those necessary for faith and practice of believers of all generations. It seems highly unlikely that God would inspire a book in the first century that is necessary for faith and practice and then allow it to be lost for nearly two thousand years. From a providential and historical stand-point the canon has been closed for nearly two thousand years.
Hypothetically the canon could be open. It is theoretically possible that some book written by an accredited apostle or prophet from the first century will yet be found. And what if such a prophetic book were found? The answer to this question will depend on whether or not all prophetic books are canonic. If they are, as has been argued, then this newly discovered prophetic book should be added to the canon. But that is unlikely for two reasons. First, it is historically unlikely that such a new book intended for the faith and practice of all believers, but unknown to them for two thousand years, will suddenly come to light. Second, it is providentially improbable that God would have inspired but left unpreserved for two millennia what is necessary for the instruction of believers of all generations.
Summary and Conclusion
The history of the word canon indicates a development from a literal rod or ruler to the concept of a standard for something. Subsequently the word was applied to the rule of faith, that is, the normative writings or authoritative Scriptures, which were the standard of faith and practice. Just how that standard or canon was determined is the subject of some misunderstanding. With that in view, the present chapter has discussed that which determined canonicity. Several insufficient views have been suggested, for example, (1) age decided the issue; (2) Hebrew language determined it; (3) agreement with the Torah did; (4) religious value determined whether or not a book was canonical; or (5) the religious community determines canonicity. However, all those views share one common weakness: they fail to distinguish between the determination of canonicity (a work of God) and the recognition of canonicity (a work of men). The biblical view is that inspiration determines canonicity; a book is valuable because it is inspired, and not inspired because men found it to be valuable.
So canonicity is determined by God, not by the people of God. The simple answer to the question “Why are there only these books in the Bible?” is that God inspired only these and no more. If God had given more books through more prophets, then there would be a larger canon. But, because propheticity determines canonicity, only the prophetic books can be canonical. Furthermore, it is probable that in God’s providence He has preserved all the prophetic books. If so, then not only all canonical books are prophetic, but all prophetic books are canonical.
21 John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, p. 352. Also see Appendix 2.
22 William F. Albright, “Toward a More Conservative View,” p. 3 (359).
23 See Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, p. 114.
24 See Kiel and Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, The Books of the Chronicles, 7.28–38.
KJV King James Version
RSV Revised Standard Version