The cannon of the scriptures answers questions like: How did we get the Bible we have? Why do we only have 66 books in the Bible? Can we add more books if we wanted? Why did 1 Timothy make it in the Bible, but not the book of Thomas? How did the church discern which books were inspired by God and which were not? To understand The Canon of Scripture you need to know seven things. This is Canon of Scripture 101.
Canon of Scripture Defined
The canon of scripture refers to the list of books that belong in the Bible. There are three words that are important to know when talking about the canon of Scripture.
- Canon – The word canon refers to a measuring rod, rule, or standard. In ancient times it referred to a reed that was used to measure things, much as we would use a ruler today. In reference to the Bible, the canon refers to two things: the standard that a writing must meet before it is recognized by God’s people as Scripture and to the collection of books that meet this standard.
- Canonicity – When we speak of the canonicity of a writing we are referring to the writings right to be included in the canon of scriptures because God has determined it so and man has recognized it as inspired by God.
- Canonization – This refers to the process that tells us how the Bible received its acceptance as men recognized the authority of God’s inspired writings. It is the process by which God’s inspired word was recognized by men of God and then collected and preserved by the people of God.
This may be a new concept for you and as you study the process of how the 66 books of the Bible became the Bible you will find it amazing and full of drama. This article’s purpose is only to introduce you to the concept, but I do encourage you to study it more in depth as you have time.
The fact that so many Christians have never been introduced to the subject of canonicity means that some of the material in this article may be new to you. For instance, it may be news to you that there exist several different lists of books that are considered to be part of the Bible. You may also not be aware that there were many other so-called gospels, epistles, and other manuscripts written around the same time as the Bible that did not make it into the Scriptures, but some thought they should have been. And it may surprise you to know that some church leaders throughout history have questioned the authenticity of several New Testament books.
These things are part of the drama of canonicity, but here’s the bottom line: The same God who spoke His Word, inspired holy men to record every word exactly as He wanted it, and then preserved His Word through every attempt to destroy or deny it, also oversaw the process by which the 66 books of the Bible were assembled into the complete and authoritative collection of Scripture.
Canon of Scripture Importance
You may be thinking, “Jeff, is this really a big deal? The Bible has been the way it is for hundreds of years. It’s not going to change and no one has tried to change it, as far as I know.” Canonicity is not just some old thing that we talk about in theology or seminary classes. You actually here about it or talk about more often than you know, you just don’t know that is what you are talking about. For example, when you get into the discussions that involve the Apocrypha, The Mormon Bible, or hear about new letters found that belong to the apostle and should be added to Scripture you have just entered into a conversation about the canonicity of Scriptures. If you listen close enough to the networks and talk shows when they talk about the Bible you will not hear the word canon used, but they are talking about whether or not it’s God’s Word. Canonicity says it is and you can rely on it.
You can compare the canon of Scripture to gravity. You didn’t create the law of gravity, and you cannot control it. All you can do is recognize, use, and submit to this law that God created. You don’t have to like the law of gravity for it to be in effect. You may even announce that you are taking an anti-gravity view and you no longer consider yourself subject to it. You may even say that you are open to the possibility that a later discovery will amend or invalidate the law of gravity.
But gravity is a law, or a canon, of God’s world that says what goes up, must come down. This is the standard that has been established, and your decision to demonstrate your freedom from gravity by jumping off of a ten story building will not change anything except the way your body is arranged. The same is true of those who have tried to ignore, defy, and deny the truth that God superintended the process by which each of the sixty-six inspired books was admitted into the Bible’s canon. As J.I. Packer wrote, “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by his work of creation, and similarly he gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”[i] God gave us gravity and Sir Isaac Newton recognized it. God gave us the scriptures and the church recognized it.
We must not underestimate the importance of this issue. Canonicity addresses the questions, “Are we sure we have all the Scripture that God wanted us to have? Did we miss a letter, an epistle or book that should have been added? Are there any letters, epistles, or books that were added that should not have been?” The Bible deals with life, death, and eternal issues. We better be sure that what we have is what God would have us to have in order to properly know Him and how to live for Him. Canonicity allows us to reaffirm the statement by Moses regarding God’s Word, “These instructions are not empty words – they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River” (Deut. 32:47, NLT). Addressing the importance of canonicity Wayne Grudem wrote, “To add to or subtract from God’s words would be to prevent God’s people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded.”[ii] Again, we should follow Moses’ attitude toward the Scripture, “Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you” (Deut. 4:2, NLT).
Canon of Scripture Determined
The canon of scripture was determined by God. One question that needs to be answered concerning the Bible’s canonicity is how some writings were chosen to be included in the Scripture, while others were excluded. What the early church did was discern, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which books already carried the stamp of the Spirit’s inspiration, and which did not. God determined which documents were inspired and which were not then later He would guide the church through a process of being able to discern which ones should be included in the canon of Scripture and which ones should not.
This takes us to 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God” (NLT). It was God who decided what would be “Scripture” and what would not. It didn’t come from anyone’s “own understanding” or “initiative.” The Spirit of God “moved” upon someone and they would speak what God would have them to say. Those spoken words eventually made it to paper and what we call the Bible. It was God who determined what would be Scripture and what would not.
Canon of Scripture Discerned
The canon of scripture was discerned by the church. When the church gathered together to discern which books were divinely inspired and which were not, it does not mean that a group of church leaders sat down, read the Gospel of Matthew (for example), then came together, took a vote as to whether they thought it was inspired or not, with the majority vote winning. That is not what happened. They didn’t vote to inspire a book, they voted on whether they believed it was inspired or not.
Now that may sound confusing at first, because in fact the church did have to draw the line and either include or exclude particular books. But there is all the difference in the world between discerning what is already true, and deciding whether it’s true or not by human judgement and majority vote. The determining authority for the cannon of Scripture was God Himself, not any church body or individual leader. God decided the canon of Scripture; men simply recognized it.
Let me give you an everyday example of what I’m talking about.[iii] Suppose you sell something during your Saturday garage sale for one hundred dollars. On Monday, you go down to your bank to deposit the five crisp, new twenty-dollar bills the buyer gave you on Saturday – but the bank teller informs you to your horror that her electronic scanner shows all of the bills to be counterfeit. You can protest all you want, but it will not matter, because you are still going to be out a hundred dollars. The fact is that the standard for authentic U.S. bills has already been determined, and yours did not pass the standard.
Now transfer this example to the Bible. Let’s consider Matthew, which was written by one of the Jesus’ twelve apostles. There was also a text floating around in the early church that claimed to be a “gospel” written by the apostle Thomas, who was just as authentic an apostle as Matthew. And the Gospel of Thomas was just one of dozens of so-called gospels and epistles in existence that claimed divine authority. How did the early church know that the gospel of Matthew was part of God’s authentic revelation, while the gospel of Thomas was a fraud? And how can we be sure today that we are not missing something God wanted us to know, but that got left out of the Bible?
The answer is that the church ran both books under the “scanner” of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign guidance and direction, and the Gospel of Thomas didn’t cut it. Church leaders examined the books carefully internal evidence of inspiration, and checked out the eternal evidence for the their authenticity, following specific criteria by which a book claiming to be Scripture either authenticated or disqualified itself.
We must understand this fundamental principle that God the Holy Spirit, and not man, determined the canon of Scripture. If we do not believe and affirm that the God who guided human beings to write Scripture also guided other human beings to collect it into one book, then our entire doctrine of Scripture crumbles like a house of cards. Let me say it again. The church only recognized the canon that God established. That’s a very important distinction, because if a man determines what is Scripture, then man can add to it or take away from it.
Canon of Scripture Tested
The cannon of Scripture was tested by the church. This brings us to another important question, “What were the practical methods of discernment the church used to discover which documents were Scripture?”
Every college or university has certain standards that applicants must meet before being admitted. Schools differ in the details of their admission standards, but they usually include such basics as a high school diploma, a certain minimum score on standard achievement or admission tests, evidence of financial ability to pay for school, a medical exam to determine the applicant’s health, along with personal references and/or recommendations from the recognized authorities who can vouch for the fact that this person can handle the work and is worthy of being admitted to the school.[iv]
Let me give you the three attributes that all canonical books share.
You should have good reason to think books from God would contain within themselves evidence of their divine origin. If God is genuinely the one who stands behind these books, then you can expect these books to share God’s own qualities.
After all, we know that the created world is from God by seeing God’s own attributes revealed therein (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). Likewise, you could expect God’s special revelation, his written word, to do the same. Examples of such qualities in God’s word would be beauty and excellency (Psalm 19:8; 119:103), power and efficacy (Psalm 119:50; Heb. 4:12-13), and unity and harmony (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
Through these divine qualities, Christians recognize the voice of their Lord in the Scriptures. As Jesus himself declared, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27, NLT).
Of course, non-Christians will object to the idea of divine qualities in Scripture because they don’t personally see such qualities. But we must remember that humans are corrupted by the fall and darkened by sin. In order to see these qualities rightly, they need the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. For those in Christ, the Spirit opens your eyes to see the divine qualities in these books that are objectively present.
It is important to note that the work of the Spirit does not happen only on an individual level, but also on a corporate level. Thus, there are good reasons to think that God’s collective, covenantal people would eventually recognize the books that are from him. If so, then we can look to the consensus of God’s people (in both old and new covenant times) as a reliable guide to which books are from Him.
This does not mean that we should expect God’s people to have instantaneous and absolute unity over the canonical books. There will always be pockets of disagreement and dissension (just like there would be over any doctrine). But we can expect a predominant or general consensus through the ages – which is exactly what we find.
As Herman Ridderbos argued, “Christ will establish and build his church by causing the church to accept just this canon and, by means of the assistance and witness of the Holy Spirit, to recognize it as his.”[v]
A final attribute of canonical books is that they are written by God’s chosen agents, his inspired prophets and apostles. Put simply, not just anyone can speak for God; only those commissioned to be his mouthpiece. In the Old Testament this included the prophets and other inspired spokesmen (Romans 1:2; 2 Peter 3:2). In the New Testament it included the apostles, Christ’s authoritative witnesses (Mark 3:14-15; Matt. 10:20; Luke 10:16).
We have good historical evidence (which cannot be explored here) that the books in our Bible can be traced either directly to apostles/prophets or at least to a historical situation where that book could reasonably retain the teachings of an apostle/prophet. For example, we accept the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) as from God because we believe Moses was the author. Likewise, we accept the books like 1 and 2 Corinthians because the apostle Paul was the author. And we even accept anonymous books like Hebrews because we have good reasons to believe the author received his information directly from apostles (Heb. 2:3-4; 13:23).
Not only do we know a lot about the historical processes that brought those canons into existence, but God has given us ways to recognize the books that are from Him, namely those that have divine qualities, corporate reception, and authoritative authors.
Canon of Scripture’s Protection
The canon of scripture protects you from heresy. One of the great dangers of our day is the rise of people, including Christians, elevating certain writings, documents, and declarations to that of Scripture or close to it and then placing their faith and trust in the extra biblical material. Paul gives this warning to some believers when he wrote, “And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. 7 Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. 8 Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Colossians 2:6-8, NLT). You must be very careful how you read and accept extra biblical material. Never treat anything saying or writing outside of the 66 books of the Bible as divinely inspired.
One day Jesus was approached by some religious leaders they asked him some doctrinal questions about the resurrection from the dead and how it related to marriage. However, the wording of their question demonstrated they had a wrong view of the resurrection of believers and marriage. Jesus’ immediate response was, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Mark 12:24, NLT). The religious leaders of Jesus’ day would often place tradition and religious teachers teachings on the same level as the Scripture and when you start mixing all that you will develop false beliefs, false doctrines, and false attitudes based on those false assumptions. Knowing what is Scripture and what is not is crucial to protect yourself against heresy.
Canon of Scripture’s Pretenders
Before I move to the final section of this article I want to high-light some pretenders to the canon. These are books or writings which some people have sought to include in the Bible or have considered inspired by God in one way or another. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a good perspective of how prevalent canon pretenders are. None of the writings below should be considered equal with the Bible.
- Apocrypha. This refers to the additional books the Catholic include with the Old Testament. They include the Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, I and II Maccabees – plus sections of Esther and Daniel which are absent from the Protestant Old Testament.
- The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrines and Covenants. The Mormons accept these as inspired and canonical. Mormon Bibles often have these three actually bound in with the Old and New Testaments.
- Science and Health, with a Key to the Scriptures. This is from Christian Science and is written by Mary Baker Eddy. They claim it is inspired.
- Divine Principle. This is written by Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (the Moonies) considers it of equal inspiration to the Bible.
- The writings of Ellen G. White. The “prophetess” of Seventh-Day Adventism wrote many books. SDA denies they are as inspired as Scripture, but in other places quotes them as Scripture, appeals to them in the same way, and in many ways considers them to be true and inspired prophecies and infallible. Among her more important books: The Desire of Ages, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, Testimonies for the Church and Steps to Christ. All totaled, her writings are several times the length of the Bible.
- Papal Encyclicals and Ex Cathedra Pronouncements. The Roman Catholic church says that Tradition and the infallible pronouncements of the Pope are in some ways equally inspired as the Bible.
- The Decrees of the Church Councils. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church places a high value on these, virtually equal to Scripture.
- Pentecostal prophecies. These are sometimes accorded inspirational status. Most would deny this, saying they are rather like th unwritten prophecies of Elijah or the written but lost prophecies of Nathan and Samuel. In other cases, however, these prophecies have been transcribed, published, and used along with the Bible. Sometimes they are even referred to as “the 29th Chapter of Acts,” and the like.
- Mein Kampf. This was considered inspired by most hard-core Nazis, and many in the current pseudo-Christian Identity cult claim it as inspired by God as the Bible.
- Notes in certain study Bibles sometimes are unconsciously read as if they were inspired and part of the Bible itself.
Throughout history there have been numerous attempts by Satan to mislead and misdirect people, including God’s people, away from the canon of Scripture. He will not stop these attempts until the end of time. As believers, we must plant our feet on the solid rock of Scripture that God has given to us, no more and no less.
Canon of Scripture Trusted
The canon of scripture can be trusted. In summary, the canon of Scripture can be trusted for at least four three reasons.
The nature of God the Father
God is all powerful, completely sovereign, perfectly wise and absolutely truthful. His very nature would not and could not allow the world and His people to have His book with errors and false books included in it. Because of who God is, He certainly is able to preserve intact His Word for the benefit of mankind.
The testimony of God the Son
In regard to the Old Testament you have the testimony of Jesus to the existing books. He confirmed the accepted three-fold division of our canonical books. Jesus said, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, NLT).
As far as the New Testament is concerned, you have the promise of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “When the Father sends the Advocate as my representative – that is, the Holy Spirit – he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26, NLT). Though we do not have His guarantee after the fact, we have this promise that New Testament would be given. Thus, we have Jesus “pre-authenticating” the New Testament as given by the Holy Spirit.
The work of God the Spirit
The Holy Spirit was involved in the writing the scriptures through selected individuals, guided the process over time to the protect the scriptures, and directed the church to select the inspired writings from God. He will not let the devil distort, rewrite or replace God’s truth. The 66 books you call the Bible is exactly what the Spirit of God wanted you to have. You can trust it.
[i] Packer, J.I. God Speaks to Man, 81.
[ii] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 54.
[iii] Many of the practical illustrations regarding the canon of scripture came from Tony Evan’s excellent book, The Transforming Word: Discovering the Power and Provision of the Bible.
[iv] Illustration from The Transforming Word by Tony Evans.
[v] Ridderbos, H.N. Redemptive History and the New Testament Scripture, 37).