ECA: The Canon Debate

This post is part of the ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

courtroom-gavelUse of the term “canon” has long been subject to debate among those studying the formation of the New Testament. The word itself comes from the Greek kanonikos, the basic meaning of which is “of one rule.” So a canon is something that other things are ruled by, the “standard” by which all other things are measured. Determining precisely what this “rule” has meant, however, has not been nearly so clear, leading to a series of conversations dubbed the “Canon Debate.”

Within this conversation, there have been three primary perspectives surrounding the meaning of “canon” as it applies to the formation of the New Testament collection. First is the perspective that many of the writings now included in the New Testament were regarded very early on as sacred writings and authoritative, and thus can be understood as a functional canon from the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.1 Scholars who adhere to this perspective suggest that an early New Testament canon can be argued for based on the authoritative inferences from the writings of Paul and words of Jesus in manuscripts such as First Clement, indicating the use of a practical canon as early as the end of first century of the Common Era.

Adolf von Harnack
Adolf von Harnack

A second perspective concerning the formation of the New Testament canon follows Adolph von Harnack, who took a more fluid view of canonical development. Arguing that while the texts included in the current canon were written early on by followers of Jesus, they were not regarded as authoritative writings until several decades or even centuries later.2 A variation of this second perspective is offered by James A. Sanders, who suggests that while the writings now included in the New Testament were long recognized as authoritative, they took on a different level of authority once they were formally canonized.3

A third perspective relies heavily upon a rigid definition of the term “canon.” For example, A. C. Sundburg maintained that the term refers only to an authoritative list of books viewed as holy and authoritative.4 David L. Dungan writes that, “A canon results when someone seeks to impose a strict boundary around a smaller subset of writings or teachings within the larger, slowly evolving ‘cloud of sacred texts.’”5 Thus for this perspective, the term canon cannot be used until the fourth century, when various church leaders sanctioned by the Roman Empire created rigid boundaries around lists of approved texts, distinguishing them from the larger conglomeration of texts.6

Muratorian Canon
Muratorian Canon

However, despite all of the ink spent on this discussion, rather little was actually said. This is especially true, as John Barton points out, concerning the heart of the “canon debate”, namely, when Christians began to use and view Christian writings as authoritative sources for understanding and living their faith in Christ.7 While Metzger correctly pointed out that there is an important “difference between a collection of authoritative books and an authoritative collection of books”, considerations of canon must look beyond semantics and determine what was considered authoritative scripture, instead of solely focusing on when the New Testament canon was formulated as a complete set of books.8 At this point, we must introduction an important semantic distinction, that between “functional” and “formal” canons.

Functional Canon: Writings possessing authority, though not enumerated on a list.
Formal Canon: Writings included in a list as possessing authority

Using these definitions, a functional canon encompasses Zahn’s claim that Christian writings were used very early on by the Church, though these writings were not “listed” as authoritative for many years. On this issue Lee McDonald writes that, “When [Christian] writings were placed alongside the Scriptures of [Judaism] and appealed to authoritatively in the life and worship of the early church, they functioned as Scripture in the church even if they were not yet called Scripture.”9 This is a “functional canon.”

BibleConversely, the “formal canon” relies on Sundberg and Metzger’s distinctions, indicating an authoritative list of authoritative books. These distinct terms are especially helpful when investigating different aspects of Christianity. For example, consideration of the “functional canon” proves helpful when one is interested in determining when various writings began to possess authority for the lives of Christian communities.10 On the other hand, the “formal canon” may help differentiate the final stages of a centuries long process, how certain writings — such as the Shepherd of Hermas or Apocalypse of John (Revelation) — were debated and left in (or out) of the Christian New Testament after their years of use by the Church.


1 Such is the position of Theodor Zahn (Geschichte des neutestementlichen Kanons. Leipzig, 1888-1892.), who undertook this perspective based on his readings of the Church Fathers and their methods of citation from the writings of the New Testament.
2 Adolf von Harnack. The Origin of the New Testament and the Most Important Consequences of the New Creation. London, 1925.
3 James A. Sanders. From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. 3-4.
4 John Barton. Holy Writing, Sacred Text. 9.
5 David L. Dungan. Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007. 3.
6 Ibid., 3. This definition of “canon” comes even though for this perspective the writings now included in the Christian New Testament could be referred fairly early on as “scripture.”
7 Barton, 9.
8 Bruce M. Metzter. The Canon of the New Testament, 282.
9 Lee M. McDonald. The Biblical Canon, 271.
10 Michael Kruger has noted that the form of functional authority exhibited by Clement and Ignatius is tantamount to a functional canon (Michael J. Kruger. “The Definition of the Term ‘Canon’: Exclusive of Multi-Dimensional?” In Tyndale Bulletin, 1-20. Volume 63.1, 2012. 1-17).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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