Back to the Basics: The Canon of Scripture

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Back to BasicsMany times when a Christian encounters push back concerning the Faith, it comes in the form of questions and questioning about the Bible. In some of these cases it is a matter of how the Bible came to be recognized, compiled or created. In order to lay some ground work for a better understanding of this subject I would like us to look to the New Testament as an example of how the Bible came to be. The format for this post will be a bit unorthodox as it is presented as a series of questions and answers followed by some recommendations for further study, all for the purpose of taking us Back to the Basics.

Can you define the word “canon” and then describe the basic criteria and time-line of the formation of the New Testament canon.

The word ‘canon’ comes to us in English from the Greek word kanōn. 1 In its simplest form it makes reference to a ‘rule’ or ‘standard’ which over time came to be synonymous with the collection of writings known today as the Christian Scriptures or the Bible. 2

During the time of recognition of the New Testament canon, the twenty-seven books currently found in the protestant Bible, the Christian community came to recognize a system of criteria for calling any extant writing Scripture.3 It is now understood that this system contained four specific criteria:

1) apostolicity – or the direct or indirect connection of an individual work with an apostle of Jesus Christ

2) orthodoxy – that is that any recognized work must conform to the overall theme of known Scripture without contradiction

3) antiquity – this is not merely that the book/writing is old, but rather that it dates to the 1st Century A.D. which is the apostolic era of the church (see # 1 preceding)

4) ecclesiastical usage – or in other words, was the writing accepted by and used by the church in worship and teaching4 4

The recognition of the New Testament canon came very early in the history of the Church. By the end of the Second Century most of what we know to be the New Testament today had come to be recognized by the early church.5 This is evident in the practice of the early church fathers as they quoted liberally from New Testament writings in their own correspondence to local churches.6Likewise, the church is in possession of a list of writings which are referenced as being ‘held sacred’ dating from the latter half of the Second Century A.D. known as the Muratorian Canon, named for the man who discovered the list as the actual author is unknown. BibleOnPulpitThis ancient list includes twenty-two of the twenty-seven books currently recognized as the New Testament.7

Why is it that early Christians felt a need to establish an authoritative list of Scripture?

It has been offered that there are a number of stimuli which prompted the early church to recognize and even collect certain writings into a canon of Scripture. These stimuli or prompts include such things as the perceived value of the writings themselves, the need for authoritative writings which communicated the apostolic teaching, the ability of the church to refute error, as a source for teaching new converts the faith, and the persecution of the early church.8

Are any of the elements of the criteria more important than others?

This is a question which is difficult for me to answer as I believe the first three elements in the list of criteria are inherently related to the point of being inseparable. I say this because it seems that the individual apostles and their close companions ought to naturally be considered the best source for communicating the teachings of Jesus. This is most especially true considering that the majority of them were eyewitnesses to His ministry. Likewise, if the writings were to come from the apostles (and close associates) then they must necessarily have been composed during the course of their individual lives. And finally, the criteria of orthodoxy must be met as how can the God of Creation, the God of order contradict Himself.

And so as to not omit ecclesiastical usage; it is interesting to note the church at large did not all conclude at the same time that every book now in the New Testament should be in the canon. Rather, as the writings were circulated the process of recognition became unified as is evidenced in the festal letter of Athanasius in A.D. 367 which contains the very same list of writings found in our New Testament today.9

What is the traditional evangelical position regarding the canon?

I believe that F.F. Bruce has probably best explained this position in his work The Canon of Scripture from which I offer this quote in response;

“While the ‘canon’ of Scripture means the list of books accepted as holy scripture, the Canon of Scriptureother sense of ‘canon’ – rule or standard – has rubbed off on this one, so that the ‘canon’ of scripture is understood to be the list of books which are acknowledged to be, in a unique sense, the rule of belief and practice.”10

In other words, the traditional position is one of understanding that there exists a list of books which explain and present the rule of faith for the Christian. This list is considered closed, that is Scripture is not still being written by inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and there is no expectation of the discovery of so-called lost books. Further, should such an occasion arise the criteria utilized by the early church in the canonization recognition process would need be applied to such works to establish the authenticity of the same. And as one of the criteria is ecclesiastical usage it would appear that no work not known today could meet all four of the required criteria.11

What about people who claim the canon of the Bible should still be open?

I believe that if they were not open to the many arguments available in Scripture, I would refer them to the very same set of criteria utilized by the early church for the purpose of recognizing what they presumed to be a closed canon.

Finally, if you would like to investigate this issue further the following resources are possible starting points:

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Enns, Paul P. The Moody Handbook of Theology. 25th ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009.

Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011.

  1. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 12.
  2. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009), 3.
  3. Ibid., 8.
  4. Ibid., 9-10.
  5. Ibid., 5.
  6. Ibid., 6.
  7. Ibid., 7.
  8. Ibid., 8.
  9. Ibid., 10.
  10. Bruce, 18.
  11. Köstenberger, et al, 10.
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