Q131 : The Canon and the Church Fathers

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Q131 : The Canon and the Church Fathers

The question I have is about church fathers who directly succeeded the apostles—the “second generation church fathers,” such as St. Polycarp. My question is why are the writings of the second generation church fathers not considered part of the Biblical canon? Were their doctrines so different?

A131 : by Tony Garland

Even if the writings of the second-generation Church fathers were in perfect agreement with the doctrinal content of the Bible they would not have been accepted as part of the canon of Scripture.

The subject of how the Church recognized the writings which came to be accepted as authoritative is complex and involves numerous factors. Geisler and Nix list several: (1) Was the book written by a prophet of God? (2) Was the writer confirmed by Acts of God? (3) Did the message tell the truth about God? (4) Is the writing edifying—does it come with the power of God? (5) Was the book accepted by the people of God? (Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Biblea Rev. and expanded., (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), p. 222.)

The most important aspect is whether the various attributes, in combination, indicate that the writing was God-breathed: that the writer was uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit in what he recorded (Mark 12:36; John 14:26; Acts 1:16; 2Ti. 3:16; 2Pe. 1:21). It isn’t sufficient for a writer to produce something which is Biblical or edifying on its own: the writer himself must have had direct attestation by God—either by confirmed prophetic witness or by close association with a confirmed prophet (e.g., the Apostles with Jesus) where his writing has been recognized, either by the Scriptures or by the Church, as having the hallmarks of inspiration (e.g., 2Pe. 3:16).

The second generation Church fathers did not meet these requirements. Thus, the Church, over time, did not recognize their writings as part of the canon.

This also reflects what we find in the last book of the canon—the book of Revelation. Although the prohibition on adding to the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:18) applies primarily to the book itself, the fact that the Revelation was given relatively late and to the elderly Apostle John implies that no additional revelation was to be expected.

One additional point that also should be kept in mind: the Church did not produce the canon, but simply recognized and codified the authority which the documents already possessed:

There were certain tests applied to [recognize canonical books]. (1) Apostolicity - Was the author an apostle or did he have a connection with an apostle? (2) Acceptance - Was the book accepted by the church at large? (3) Content - Did the book reflect consistency of doctrine with what had been accepted as orthodox teaching? The spurious ‘gospel of Peter’ was rejected as a result of this principle. (4) Inspiration - Did the book reflect the quality of inspiration? The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were rejected as a result of not meeting this test.
— Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theologyb (IL: Moody Press, 1989), p. 172.

There is a difference between the canonicity of a book and the authority of a book. A book's canonicity depends on its authority. When Paul, for example, writes to the Corinthians, his letter is to be acknowledged as possessing divine authority (1 Cor 14:37). This letter had the authority from the moment he wrote it, yet it could not be referred to as canonical until it was received in a list of accepted writings formed sometime later. At a later time it was accepted as canonical because of its inherent authority. A book first has divine authority based on its inspiration, and then attains canonicity due to its general acceptance as a divine product. No church council by its decrees can make the books of the Bible authoritative. The books of the Bible possess their own authority and, indeed, had this authority long before there were any councils of the church.
— Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Biblec, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), p. 153.

One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she recognized their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.
— F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?d, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981, c1943), p. 22.

As I mentioned above, the subject of the canon of Scripture is quite complex, both in principle and in historical progress. Some additional resources which may prove fruitful for further study include:

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