The Canon of Scripture
The canon of Scripture refers to the authoritative list of books that comprise the Bible (canon is Greek for rule or standard). We believe that the 66 books in the Bible are precisely the writings that God intended to be in it. But how can we know for sure? After all, Moses carried down from Mount Sinai the two tables of the law, not a table of contents. On what grounds were some books included in the Bible and others excluded?
It is often thought that the church determined which writings to accept as Holy Scripture but it is more accurate to say that the church received the canon that God gave to it. The church has always recognized, more or less clearly, those books that are from God, though it was not until the fourth century that the church formally listed the 66 books of the canon of Scripture.
The Old Testament Canon
By the time of Jesus the 39 books of the canon of Jewish Scripture (the Christian Old Testament) had long been settled. The canon of Scripture accepted by the Jewish people was recognized by Jesus, the apostles, and the early church. Jesus and the New Testament writers often quoted the Jewish Scriptures without reservation and refer to those 39 books as Scripture (e.g. Mt. 5:17; 26:56; Lk. 4:21; 18:31; Acts 3:18; 13:27-33; Rom. 1:2; I Pet. 1:10-12).
The New Testament Canon
A formal list of the 27 New Testament books was given by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter Letter of 367 A.D. This list enumerated the New Testament books accepted by the churches in the eastern Mediterranean world. Thirty years later, in 397 A.D., the Council of Carthage articulated the canon recognized by the churches in the western Mediterranean world. It was identical to the eastern canon.
The fact that the canon was not formally stated until 367 A.D. does not mean that a consensus on the canon did not exist before that date. Rather, in 367 the church merely provided a formal statement of what it had generally recognized from the beginning. The majority of the canonical books were recognized as God-breathed Scripture as soon as they were written. This is evident in II Peter 3:15-16 where Peter classifies Paul’s letters as on par with Old Testament Scripture. Similarly, I Timothy 5:18 cites a passage from Luke alongside a verse from Deuteronomy and classifies both quotations as “Scripture”: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain’ [Dt. 25:4] and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’ [Lk. 10:7]”.
The Criterion of Canonicity
Did particular criteria have to be met for a writing to be included in the Bible? The church never has been able to establish a definitive list of traits that constitute canonicity though various criterion have been suggested such as apostolic authorship (but not all the books of the New Testament were written by the apostles), inspiration (but there seem to be inspired writings that were not included in the canon; see I Cor. 5:9 and Col. 4:16), Christ-centered content (but some Old Testament writings fail this test).
Every attempt to establish criteria of canonicity has failed. It’s better to say that the grounds of canonicity consist of an interplay of factors overruled by God’s providence.
Authorship by a prophet, an apostle, or someone in their circle (e.g. Luke, Mark) often is characteristic of the books of the Bible. The books of the Old Testament were written by men who were recognized, in the broad sense of the term, as prophets. Bible scholar John Wenham states: “Moses, David, Solomon, the succession of prophets, and finally Ezra and Nehemiah were recognized unmistakably as the teachers and instruments of the Lord. They were not all in the literal sense prophets – men whose primary mode of utterance was the divine oracle; but they were men singled out by God and authenticated to the nation by him, and so they were his spokesmen. Their writings, and other writings emanating from the Prophetic Era, spoke to the hearts of the faithful in Israel, and their teaching was recognized as the word of the Lord” (Christ and the Bible, 162).
It is not surprising that the majority of New Testament books were written by the Apostles for Jesus had promised the apostles that he would give them his words to understand and declare: “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; cf. 16:13).
Of those New Testament letters not written by apostles (Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews and Jude), their divine authority was self-authenticating. In time Christians recognized that these books bore the marks of divine-authorship. This should not be surprising, for Jesus told his disciples, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27).
In the early centuries of the church the canonicity of a handful New Testament books was disputed, but this was only for a season. Through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit God enabled the church, corporately, to recognize that these writings are the Word of God. The Spirit’s testimony concerning the authenticity of these books is confirmed by their self-attesting character (John 7:17), their God-honoring doctrine that harmonizes with other parts the Bible (Deuteronomy 13:1-3), and their spiritual fruitfulness in the life of the church.
What about the Apocrypha?
The Roman Catholic Old Testament includes books excluded by Protestants. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546-63) included twelve additional writings in their Old Testament. These books are known as the Apocrypha. In our day the Catholic Old Testament includes seven books excluded by Protestants (Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach, Baruch).
Protestants exclude the books of the Apocrypha from their Old Testament for a number of reasons. First, the books of the Apocrypha were written in Greek (except for one which survives only in Latin) while the rest of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Second, the Apocryphal books were never a part of the Hebrew Scriptures, they were never quoted by Jesus and the apostles, and they are not mentioned in the New Testament.
Third, the Apocryphal books were never included in the lists of canonical books by the early church. They were added to the Catholic canon of Scripture in response to the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation in order, it seems, to provide proof texts to support Catholic doctrines like justification by faith plus works, purgatory, and prayers for the dead. Even the most learned Roman Catholic scholars rejected their authority until the Council of Trent made their inclusion in the canon an article of faith.
Fourth, the Apocryphal writings contain numerous doctrinal and historical inaccuracies. E.J. Young, late professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary, wrote, “There are no marks in these books which would attest a divine origin…both Judith and Tobit contain historical, chronological and geographical errors. The books justify falsehood and deception and make salvation to depend upon works of merit… Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon inculcate a morality based upon expediency. Wisdom teaches the creation of the world out of pre-existent matter. Ecclesiasticus teaches that the giving of alms makes atonement for sin. In Baruch it is said that God hears the prayers of the dead, and in 1 Maccabees there are historical and geographical errors” (cited in Grudem, Systematic Theology, 59).
My mom told me that when you eat a baked potato you should eat the whole thing, skin and all. It’s all good for you. Take the same approach with the Bible. Study all of it. It’s all good for you, for every part of it is from God.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702