Monday, September 28, 2015

The Canon of Scripture: A Brief Introduction

* The notes I used for a brief lesson on the canon of Scripture.

The Canon of Scripture

1.     Definition of “canon” of scripture

a.     “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.”[1]

b.     Canon refers to the body of writing that God has given to rule the church.”[2]

2.     Two different ideas of canon

a.     “When applied to the New Testament, two similar, though different, answers are given to the question [of the canon]: either the New Testament is ‘a collection of authoritative books or an authoritative collection of books.’  That is, either the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were discovered to be authoritative because of their intrinsic worth, ‘ring of truth,’ and obvious authority (thus, a collection of authoritative books), or those were determined to be authoritative by some other authority (thus, an authoritative collection).”[3]

b.     “Fundamentally, the Roman Catholic approach ends up confusing the instrument God uses to produce the Bible (human beings who are part of the community of faith) with the ultimate cause of the Bible (namely God himself).  Thus, it is misleading to say that the church ‘caused’ the Bible.  Sure, they were the means God used, but it is ultimately God who is producing the Bible through human authors.”[4]

3.     Old Testament Canon

a.     TaNaK = Torah (Law), Nebi’im (Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings)[5]

Law (Torah)

Prophets (Nebi’im)
Writings (Kethubim)
The Former Prophets

The Latter Prophets
   The Book of the Twelve
        (Minor Prophets)
Poetic Books

Five Scrolls (Megilloth)
   Song of Solomon

Historical Books

b.     “This three-fold division of the Old Testament can be traced as far back as the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus dated to about 132 B.C.  When addressing his disciples, Jesus used similar terminology for the Old Testament: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44).  The designation ‘Psalms’ here most likely refers to the entire third section of the Old Testament since it is the first and largest book of that part.”[6]

c.      Canon of the Roman Catholic Church includes the 39 Old Testament books as well as the following additions known as the Apocrypha

                                               i.     1 and 2 Esdras
                                              ii.     Tobit
                                            iii.     Judith
                                            iv.     Additions to Esther
                                              v.     Wisdom of Solomon
                                            vi.     Ecclesiasticus [Sirach]
                                           vii.     Baruch (including the Epistle of Jeremiah)
                                         viii.     Song of the Three Children
                                            ix.     Susanna
                                              x.     Bel and the Dragon
                                            xi.     Prayer of Manasseh
                                           xii.     1 and 2 Maccabees

d.     Roman Catholic: Council of Trent in 1546 officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of canon of Scripture

                                               i.     “It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone.”[7]

e.     Why do Protestants reject the Apocrypha?  Wayne Grudem summarizes the case:

“Thus the writings of the Apocrypha should not be regarded as part of Scripture: (1) they do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings; (2) they were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated; (3) they were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and (4) they contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.”[8]

4.     New Testament Canon

a.     “The development of the New Testament canon begins with the writings of the apostles.  It should be remembered that the writing of Scripture primarily occurs in connection with God’s great acts in redemptive history.”[9]

b.     Jesus promised empowering work of the Spirit to apostles: John 14.26; 16.13-14

c.      In the New Testament some of the writings are already being recognized and placed on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures

                                               i.     2 Peter 3.16: writings of Paul and “the rest of the Scriptures”

                                              ii.     1 Timothy 5.17-18: “the Scripture says” and then quotes from Deuteronomy 25.4 and Luke 10.7

5.     Historical Matters           

a.     Early church did not have a New Testament canon

                                               i.     Gospel message was preached verbally

                                              ii.     Paul’s letters were seen as authoritative

                                            iii.     Difficult to make into a book form.  The Codex (earliest book-like technology) comes into bloom in 2nd century

b.     First canon list we have is from heretic Marcion around A.D. 140

                                               i.     Denied Old Testament Scripture and was anti-Semitic

                                              ii.     Docetist—Jesus only appeared to be human

                                            iii.     Canon : Edited Gospel of Luke, 10 letters of Paul

                                            iv.     Responding to Marcion gave the early church impetus to publish more appropriate lists of the Scripture

c.      Muratorian Canon (later part of 2nd century)

                                               i.     List includes: Four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, Revelation, 1 John and either 2 or 3 John (or both):  21/22 out of our current 27

                                              ii.     Author of Muratorian Canon also mentions the categories: disputed books, edifying but not authoritative books, and books to be rejected as heretical

                                            iii.     “What is really remarkable … is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries among the very diverse and scattered congregations not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.”[10]

d.     Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340)

                                               i.     “At this point it seems reasonable to summarize the writings of the New Testament which have been quoted.  In the first place should be put the holy tetrad of the Gospels.  To them follows the writing of the Acts of the Apostles.  After this should be reckoned the Epistles of Paul.  Following them the Epistle of John called the first, and in the same way should be recognized the Epistle of Peter.  In addition to these should be put, if it seems desirable, the Revelation of John, the arguments concerning which we will expound at the proper time.  These belong to the Recognized Books .  Of the Disputed Books which area nevertheless known to most are the Epistle called of James, that of Jude, the second Epistle of Peter, and the so-called second and third Epistles of John which may be the work of the evangelist or of some other with the same name.”[11]

                                              ii.     “By the early fourth century, then, all twenty-seven books of the New Testament were tentatively considered canonical, with twenty-two of them definitely so.”[12]

e.     Athanasius’ Thirty-ninth Festal Letter in 367 pronounced all 27 books as canonical.

6.     Criteria the Early Church Used to Assess Canonicity

a.     Apostolicity: Was a book written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle?

b.     Orthodoxy: Did it conform to the teachings of other books known to be by apostles?

c.      Catholicity: Was it accepted early and by a majority of churches?

7.     What About Other “Gospels?”

a.     Their dates are too late to be considered as coming from an apostle

“It is also noteworthy that not a single document written after about A.D. 120 was considered for inclusion, not least because such documents couldn’t claim to be in direct contact with the apostolic tradition.  This may explain in part why none of the Gnostic documents came up for debate.  In all likelihood they are from a later date (the possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas).

“The Gnostic documents weren’t deleted from the canon, rather they were never serious contenders for inclusion in it.”[13]

b.     They portray a faulty theology of Christ à docetistic or Gnostic

8.     Summary

a.     The Protestant view of the canon is that it is discovered not determined by the church.

b.     Jesus endorsed the 39 books of the Old Testament.

c.      There are historical and theological reasons to reject the Roman Catholic claims for the inclusion of the Apocrypha.

d.     The New Testament demonstrates a continuing of written Scripture by the apostles and those associated with them.

e.     The full recognition of the New Testament canon took time but very early the vast majority of the books were recognized as Scripture.

f.      Other “Gospels” fail to fulfill the basic tests of apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity.

9.     Resources:

a.     J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2006), 121-166.

b.     Michael Kruger’s website Canon Fodder:

                                               i.     “Ten Basic Facts About the NT Canon That Every Christian Should Memorize”

                                              ii.     “Ten Misconceptions About the NT Canon”

c.      Simon Gathercole’s lectures on Youtube: “Did We Get Jesus Right?”  (Deals with the Four Gospels in contrast to other “Gospels”

     [1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 54.
     [2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 133.
     [3] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2006), 123-124—bold-face added.
     [4] Michael Kruger in “Rethinking the Canon of Scripture: An Interview with Michael Kruger—by Matthew Barrett” Credo Magazine (February 2015), 15-16.  Available online at:
     [5] Chart is taken from Paul D. Wegner, “How Did We Get the Old Testament?” Credo Magazine (February 2015), 20.  Available online at:
     [6] Wegner, “How Did We Get the Old Testament?,” 20.
     [7] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 59.
     [8] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 59.
     [9] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 60.
     [10] Bruce Metzger as quoted in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 128.
     [11] Eusebius Church History 3.25 as quoted in Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 129.
     [12] Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 130.
     [13] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 126.