The Miracle of the Canon

Date: September 15, 2013
Study: Scripture: Unchanging Truth in a Changing World
Teacher: Lawson Hembree

Every Christmas and Easter, there is a recurring theme on TV. If you ever watch the History Channel or a broadcast news station during one of these major Christian holidays, you will probably see a new documentary or hear about someone trying to criticize the authority of Scripture. The criticism isn’t limited to TV of course; many books and speeches have the same aim. Why do you think these critics go after the Word of God in an effort to undermine Christianity? 

The primary reason they attack Scripture is because they realize it is the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. It is the special revelation of God to man. It is the container of the Big Story that tells us of God’s holiness, our sinful condition, the only way back to God through repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ, the implications of faith on daily life, and the promised inheritance for all believers.

One of the most common areas in which this occurs is the canonization process of the Bible. The church has faced similar problems for centuries, yet the wisdom that God gave to the early Church Fathers and the faithfulness He demonstrated during the canonization process should instruct and encourage us today.

The Development of the Canon

So how did we get the Bible as we have it today? Why 66 books? What about the Gnostic Gospels or the Apocrypha?

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon meaning “measuring rod” or “standard.” When we refer to the issue of canon as Protestants*, we mean the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments found in the Bible that are recognized as authoritative. Therefore, the process of canonization is the process of the church recognizing which books are canonical (aka “within measure” and authoritative sources of Christian doctrine) and which are not.

Scripture itself internally establishes the OT canon (Joshua 1:8-9; Luke 24:13-49, spec. 27 and 44). Jesus, Paul, Peter, the writer of Hebrews, and the other NT writers all use the OT extensively as inspired and authoritative documents. Though the NT doesn’t list the exact books of the OT canon, Jewish tradition recognized the 39 books in the Septuagint as authoritative.

The development of the NT canon went through a much different process. To begin, NT authors explicitly verify the inspiration of much of the NT (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 2 Peter 3:15-16). Secondly, Paul’s letters and copies of the gospel circulated throughout the early church and were read aloud for instructive purposes. Additionally, the early Church Fathers, like Polycarp, referred to much of Scripture as authoritative in their own writings. By AD 100, the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, and some of the general epistles were recognized as authoritative (approx. 85% of the final NT).

Marcion developed the first written list of the Christian canon in AD 150 (included 10 Pauline epistles and a version of Luke), but rejected the OT and was later condemned as a heretic. Despite his heresy, he set in motion the development of an official Christian canon. The Muratorian Fragment written around AD 200 includes a list of books very similar to the one we have today as well as the logic behind the canonization process. According to the Fragment, the four criteria used by the early church for recognizing a canonical work were:

  1. Apostolic Origin– attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions)
  2. Universal Acceptance– acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament)
  3. Liturgical Use– read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord’s Supper (their weekly worship services)
  4. Consistent Message– containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings

The Christian canon was finalized in AD 397 at the Synod of Carthage affirming the OT list developed by Melito and the NT list developed by Athanasius, declaring a “closed canon.” The concept of a closed canon means that books cannot be added or removed from the authoritative Scriptural Canon, reflecting the belief that the time of special revelation has ended. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms the 66-book canon, “all which are given by inspiration of God, to be the Rule of faith and life.”

The Miracle of the Canon

The development of the canon is an amazing testimony to the sovereignty of God in using men to accomplish His will. Think about what a miracle the Bible is: it’s God’s Word revealed by the Holy Spirit to over 40 different authors from all walks of life, written over the span of 1,500 years in three different languages, canonized by discerning believers, translated into over 2,000 languages, and accurately preserved so that we might have knowledge that leads to salvation, a filter for discerning God’s will, and an instrument for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness!

Resources: “Why We Trust the Bible” by Stephen J. Nichols

*Catholics have several extra books, called the Apocrypha, in their Bible and believe the Church establishes the canon as opposed to the Protestant view of the Church recognizing the canon. The difference between the two is significant.


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