The Canon Of The Gospels -- By: Merrill C. Tenney

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 10:1 (Winter 1967)
Article: The Canon Of The Gospels
Author: Merrill C. Tenney

The Canon Of The Gospels

Merrill C. Tenney, Ph.D.

The modern cult of Formgeschichte has brought again into sharp relief the entire question of the canon. In its more recent interpretations Formgeschichte advocates the view that the Gospels were not the products of individuals who enunciated an authoritative apostolic message concerning the life and works of Jesus, but that they are rather the composite records of traditions slowly accumulated by the Church, and set in a theological framework of the Church’s manufacture.

Bultmann, perhaps the most radical advocate of this position, says after analyzing the story of the footwashing in John 13:14ff.:

This means, in my view, that we can firmly conclude that the formation of the material in the tradition took place in the Palestinian Church—and that holds for those with unitary conceptions as well as for other passages. 1

The principle enunciated by Bultmann in this excerpt is followed consistently through his entire work, and represent a basic assumption of the entire Formgeschichte School. Its consequences are obvious. If the Gospels are only the random collection of sayings of Jesus, often inexactly reproduced, or even fabricated and placed in settings which were invented by the primitive church to illustrate or to substantiate its reactions to contemporary problems, the accuracy and authority of the Gospels are dissolved in a fluid tradition. Bultmann assumes that this process could have taken place in the life of the Church between A.D. 30 and 170 without having left any consciousness of its procedure in the memory of the patristic writers—for they seem naively unaware of it. They were, according to his hypothesis, the unconscious creators of Christian truth, not the perpetuators of the message already given.

If this view be correct, there can be no fixed standard of Christian faith. Either it must shift with the changing events of science and philosophy, or else be dependent on a subjective mystical consciousness created by some “encounter” with an indefinable external power. Such a consciousness would vary with each individual unless the eternal power “encountered” each individual in such a way as to produce an identical consciousness in all believers. Such a situation is unlikely at best, and would be almost as miraculous as propositional revelation preserved in written words.


The purpose of this paper is to investigate the history of Gospel

tradition and its acceptance in the early Christian church. ...

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