The New Testament Canon: Its Basis for Authority -- By: Frank Thielman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 45:2 (Fall 1983)
Article: The New Testament Canon: Its Basis for Authority
Author: Frank Thielman

The New Testament Canon:
Its Basis for Authority

Frank Thielman

It has been customary for evangelical scholars who treat the subject of the NT canon to rejoice that both “liberals” and “conservatives” are united on which books should be included in it. This unanimity has sometimes been used as evidence of God’s providential care over the canon and as reassurance that even in the face of liberal higher criticism, at least the books with which Christianity has to do are clearly defined. Thus John Wenham can say that “unanimity has remained sufficiently complete to the present day to make any revision of the canon appear most improbable.”1 But disturbing voices have been raised in recent years over the nature of the NT canon and the extent to which its twenty-seven books should be regarded as canonical in the traditional sense. These voices have been so numerous and their arguments so clearly expressed that Wenham’s statement, at least as it relates to the functional canon, can no longer be considered valid.

E. Käsemann, of course, forms the center of the debate with his doctrine of a “canon” of justification by faith within the traditional canon.2 While he would not argue for a physically modified traditional canon, he does not hesitate to exclude from the functional canon such writings as John and James. These may be left in the traditional canon merely to contrast the “canon within the canon” and are not authoritative Scripture for the church.3 Käsemann’s followers have taken his views to their logical extreme. D. Dungan, for example, in a 1975 article where he surveyed the state of scholarship on the canon, predicted that Gos. Thom. would soon be bound with copies of the NT,4 and Kurt

Aland could say, “The formal canon cannot be taken as actually existing.”5 Therefore, although Käsemann would not argue for rebinding copies of the NT, and although Dungan’s bold prediction has not been fulfilled, a vast revision of the canon is taking place in scholarly circles—one which leaves the traditional canon intact but refuses to acknowledge the totality of its canonicity for the modern church.

Another development, equally challenging to the traditional view of the canon but formulated in response to Käsemann’s scheme, has also appeared in recent years. It proposes that the canon as it stands is authoritative, but contains mutually contradictory theologies which justify a “rich” variety of ...

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