Canonicity


We have so far considered the Bible’s nature as the Word of God written; its authority; its inerrancy; and the reasons why we believe it to be the Word of God. To that point we were considering the Bible in respect to the virtually universal convictions of believing Christendom. All believers, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox of all shades, would say that the Bible was the Word of God written, an absolute authority for the church, and without error in all it affirms. That has been the church’s view of the Bible from the beginning. Last week we began to consider aspects of the doctrine of Holy Scripture about which there is not such a consensus. We began with the Bible’s unity: that from Genesis to Revelation we have a single book with a single message; the living voice of a single mind and heart. That has not always been so clearly confessed or understood. Too many Christians make far too much, for example, of that white page between Malachi and Matthew, as if in moving from the OT to the NT we are moving somehow into a different spiritual world. Tonight we move on to another of these aspects of the doctrine of Holy Scripture about which there have been and are today significant differences of opinion among Christians and parts of the Church. We have two more of these features of our doctrine of Holy Scripture to cover in succeeding weeks: first the text of Holy Scripture and, finally, its interpretation.

But first, tonight, the question of canonicity. As we have already noted, the Bible is a library, a collection of some sixty-six different books. How do know that those books and no others belong to the Bible? In particular, how do we know that when other Christians have Bibles that include other books, books that are not include in ours? To be sure, all of our sixty-six books are in the Bible that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians use, and the New Testament is the same for all three branches of Christendom. But the Hebrew OT contains 39 books while the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, executed some 200 years before Jesus Christ, contained 14 or 15 additional books which were eventually added to the Latin Bible and the Greek Bible of the Orthodox Church. Should we have those books in our Bible? And if not, why? They were removed by the Reformers and are not part of the Protestant Bible? Should they be? This is the question of canonicity. Which books are part of the canon, the rule of faith? How did the books that are presently in the Bible get there? How were they recognized to be the Word of God? We know that the Bible itself says that the Scripture is God-breathed. But how do we know which writings are Scripture?

We said that the testimony of the Holy Spirit is what convinces a man or woman that the Bible is the very Word of God. Jesus himself said, “My sheep hear my voice (John 10:27). But this does not mean, it was never taken to mean, that if you handed both the Ecclesiastes and 1 Maccabees to a brand new Christian, he or she would infallibly recognize Ecclesiastes as canonical and Maccabees as not and the same would be true if we handed such a new Christian the Letter of Jude and one of the early 2nd century epistles of Ignatius.

There is an interesting passage in Grace Abounding, John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, in which he recounts how once relatively early on in his Christian life and after some weeks of spiritual discouragement

“…a sentence fell with weight upon my spirit, ‘Look at the generations of old and see; did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded?’ [That sentence means has anyone every trusted in the Lord and been disappointed for having done so.] At which I was greatly lightened and encouraged in my soul… I presently went to my Bible to see if I could find that saying, not doubting but to find it presently; for it was so fresh, and with strength and comfort on my spirit, that I was as if it talked with me.” After more than a year of fruitless searching, he says, ‘At last, casting my eye into the Apocrypha books, I found it in Ecclesiasticus 2:10. [Ecclesiasticus is one of the books of the Apocrypha. It’s other name is The Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach.] This, at the first, did somewhat daunt me; [Ecclesiasticus comes from perhaps the third century before Christ, part of the Apocrypha as I said.] but…when I considered, that though it was not in those texts that we call holy and canonical, yet forasmuch as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it; and I bless God for that Word, for it was of God to me: that word doth still, at times, shine before my face.’”

In other words, a new believer found a text in the Apocrypha, books we do not regard as belonging to the Bible – though Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians do – and found great spiritual encouragement from it. It spoke to him in such a way that he thought it must be a text from the Bible but it proved not to be. But does that mean that we should have Ecclesiasticus in our Bible?

How did the Jews know that Esther was inspired, a book that does not so much as once mention God’s name? Probably all that can be said from this distance is that in God’s providence the book came into the hands of God’s people by such a hand and in such a way that they recognized it immediately to be the Word of God. In any case, long before Jesus’ day, the Jews knew absolutely which books made up Scripture and which books did not. Even when, as happened from time to time, questions were raised about one book or another (notably Ecclesiastes and Esther) the discussion appears to have been largely academic. It never produced – so far as the evidence goes and there is quite a bit of evidence, it never produced so much as a wisp of an actual effort to change the content of Holy Scripture, certainly it never produced a serious proposal actually to eliminate a book from the accepted canon. Much later, as you may remember, Luther said some critical things about the NT book of James – because James seemingly doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned about Luther’s favorite doctrine of justification by faith – but, fact is, Luther omitted those remarks in subsequent editions of the book in which he made them, and never proposed seriously that James be removed from the Bible.

Remember, there were other books being written; other books that cover the same ground, that teach the same faith, or that trade in the same kind of religious teaching. There were even other good and valuable books. Some of them are mentioned in the Bible itself, such as the Book of Jasher, or the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. There are some fifteen or so other books mentioned in the Bible, but no one ever confused those books with Holy Writ.

We expect that it happened, in general, in this way, as it did with the Law of Moses that the great man wrote down what God told him – for example, the law as it was delivered to him – or, as we read in Numbers 33:2:

“At the Lord’s command Moses recorded the stages in [Israel’s] journey…”

And then follows Moses’ lengthy account of the course taken through the wilderness, stop by stop. Or consider this from near the end of Deuteronomy [31:24-26]:

“After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: ‘Take this book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God.”

This writing of Moses, here the book of Deuteronomy, but, by extension presumably most of the Pentateuch, came, as it were, white hot from the mouth of the Lord himself, through a man everyone recognized to be Yahweh’s spokesman, and so his writing was recognized immediately and incontestably as the Word of God from the very moment he put ink to scroll. This was the foundation of the Word of God: God speaking to Moses and Moses writing down what God said. In the same way eventually the OT prophets claimed to speak for the Lord directly in the same way that Moses had and what they spoke is what is written in their books. All of them saw themselves as disciples of Moses and having been given a similar authority. But, we have to admit that we don’t know who wrote Judges, Samuel, and Kings and can’t be specific as to how they were recognized as the Word of God. Perhaps the simplest answer is that they were written by prophets who had the office and the authority of God and that that office and that authority were self authenticating. Presumably – this is what the Jews themselves thought – the books of the Bible were entrusted to the prophetic office and they came to the church from and through the prophetic office and this is not only how the histories that are unidentified by author came to be received as the Word of God but also how material came later to be inserted in earlier books of the Bible. For example the book of Genesis contains an insertion of a list of the Edomite kings in chapter 36. So long as the true prophets of the Lord were present to superintend the text of Holy Scripture, new books could be added and even additions made to existing books. When the prophetic office came to an end with Malachi, the canon was fixed and remained thereafter unchanged. It was a commonplace of Jewish understanding in the first century, in Jesus’ day, that there had been no prophet since Malachi. It would be the appearance of new prophets, men who again had the gift of prophecy and the authority to speak on God’s behalf that would open the canon to enlargement again; once again there were in the world men authorized to speak and write the word and will of God; possessed of a self-authenticating authority, including, at least in many cases, the power to work miracles.

The canonical books of the OT were divinely inspired and their authors were men who were carried along by the Holy Spirit, Peter tells us this. In his providence God ensured that this would be known to his people and for that reason they received these books as Holy Scripture. How he planted this conviction in their heart in every case we cannot say for sure in the present state of the evidence. That they knew these first 39 books to be the Word of God is indisputable. And, more important still, Jesus himself knew them to be the Word of God.

Jesus unquestionably viewed the Old Testament as we know it, those 39 books, as Holy Scripture and the very Word of God. That fact alone, for most Christians, is decisive. If Jesus thought the Old Testament to be the Word of God, then it is and no one can say it is not. He was always citing Scripture – that is to say, various texts and statements of the Old Testament – citing them as the very Word of God. He shared with his religious contemporaries a commitment to a precisely defined body of writings that made up the Word of God. He refers again and again to “the Scriptures,” [e.g. Matt. 21:42; 22:29] as teaching this or that, he says the Scripture cannot be broken; he refers to “the Law” [John 15:25], to “the prophets” [John 6:45], and, on one occasion to “Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” [Luke 24:44] as distinct divisions of the Scripture. You have the same kind of three-fold division of the biblical books in other Jewish writers of the period. [G.D. Young, “The Apocrypha,” Revelation and the Bible, 180-181] The Law contained the first five books, the books of Moses; the prophets would have included the histories as well as the books of Isaiah through Malachi, the prophets per se; and then the third division, the writings, sometimes just for short the Psalms, included the Psalms, the wisdom books, Ruth, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. [It seems, though no one can say for sure, it seems that these books constitute a separate section because they were not written by men who held the formal office of prophet. Whether there were other factors we cannot say.] We know that this three-fold division of the contents of Holy Scripture is old, we have a reference to it in the 2nd century B.C., but we do not know precisely how it came to be or why certain books belong to each section. Why are Daniel and Chronicles in the Writings but Samuel and Kings in the prophets, for example? We do not know. But that they belonged to the canon, that they were regarded as Holy Scripture in Jesus’ time and were recognized as canonical both by him and by the Jews generally no one disputes.

It is interesting and important that there was no controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees about the authority of the Scripture. It is highly interesting as well that, though the books that the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic church add to those that make up our Bible were well known in Jesus’ day, that everybody knew those books, that everybody indeed valued those books, they are never quoted or referred to by the Lord Jesus or any other New Testament writer. The books of the OT, however, are referred to repeatedly. The Jewish church, in other words, knew then as it knows now, what books make up that part of the Scripture that we today call the Old Testament.

One thing is very clear and important to remember when we come to the consideration of the NT canon: there is no evidence anywhere of any ecclesiastical council rendering some judgment that settled the question of which books belonged to Holy Writ, which books belonged to what we call the OT. Very clearly the Jews understood their 22 books, which are the same as our 39 books, just grouped differently; they understood those books to be canon because they understood them to have been given to them directly by God. The Roman Catholic Church, as you know, argues that the authority of the Bible rests upon the authority of the church and that it was the church that determined which books belong to the Bible. But, as a matter of historical fact, that is true neither of the OT nor of the NT. The church decided nothing about the canon of the Hebrew Bible, long before fixed, determined and recognized, and, in fact, didn’t decide the canonicity of the books of the NT either, which, in most cases were already known to be Holy Scripture before any church or council acknowledged that they were.

Now the question of the canon of the New Testament is usually discussed at far greater length. You can find some little books and articles on the canon of the OT; you can find however great big multi-volume treatises on the canon of the NT. That is largely because there is so much more data to consider. We know that most of the 27 books that make up our New Testament were regarded as the Word of God immediately and were never questioned by anyone. This is due largely to the role of the apostles – eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry and resurrection and appointed by Jesus Christ himself to convey the truth about him to the world; I say, the immediate recognition of most NT books was due to the role of those men with that office and that calling and that authority – in the production of the books of the NT. For them, for those men to write about Christ and the meaning of faith in him was, by Christ’s own teaching, virtually for him to write those books himself. He promised that he would give them the Holy Spirit so they could remember all he taught them. They are, as the New Testament both teaches and illustrates, the foundation of the new epoch of the life of the church (Eph. 2:20). The Apostles handed down from Christ himself the truth upon which the church is built forever. In this way the New Testament books, like the Old Testament books, did not have authority added to them later, but had a once-for-all authority inherent in them from the beginning. The apostles were the foundation of the church not only because they first took the gospel to the world and established the first churches outside of Judea, but because they were commissioned by Christ to make a full and authoritative revelation of his religion. In this respect, for example, the Gospel of Mark, as the testimony of Peter – as it was immediately understood in the church to be – or a letter of Paul, is just like the law of Moses. It was known immediately to be the written witness of someone who was the personal representative of Jesus himself.

It is entirely typical for Paul, for example, to say to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thess. 4:2): “…you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus,” and, of course, the books of the NT are simply those same instructions written down. When Paul says to them, “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers, “[1 Thess. 5:27] he is as much as saying that the letter he wrote is a message to them from the Lord Jesus himself.

And for this reason it is clear, already in the NT itself, that the writings of the apostles were understood to be Scripture on the same level as that of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Peter, in 2 Peter 3:16, famously refers to Paul’s letters as, in some respects hard to understand, which makes them easy to distort as some do, as they do the other Scriptures. In other words, Peter said that Paul’s letters belonged with the writings of Moses, Isaiah, and the Psalms as the Word of God. In a very interesting statement in 1 Timothy 5:18 we have both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 cited as “the Scripture.” And what we find in the materials of early Christianity, the earliest written record of the thought of the Christian church after the NT, confirms this picture.

Near the end of the first century (A.D. 96 or 97), Clement, a Christian minister in Rome, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, commonly called First Clement, [there is a second Clement that nobody nowadays thinks was actually written by this same Clement, but it once was and so this is called First Clement]in which he refers to a number of Pauline epistles, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Book of Acts, Hebrews, and 1 Peter along the way of making his argument. He speaks of such writings as having been written “under the Holy Spirit’s guidance” [47]. This letter was written soon after the writing of the NT and it is possible that it was written before the writing of the last book of the NT if that last book was in fact the Book of Revelation – and already Clement is confessing the divine authority of the books that make up the NT.

In the mid-2nd century, perhaps as early as A.D. 140, a Gnostic work, a heretical work, the Gospel of Truth, shows close acquaintance with most of the books of the New Testament – the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and perhaps some of the smaller works. As one scholar puts it, not an evangelical by the way, “Before the books [of the NT] could be used in the way they are used in the Gospel of Truth, they must already have enjoyed authority for a considerable period of time.” [W.C. van Unnik in J. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 159] The author of the Gospel of Truth, however mixed up he was, was not mixed up about this: he knew what books belonged to Holy Scripture and he refers to a number of the books of our NT.

Even better evidence that a collection of new books, new writings, at least most of what we know as the New Testament, was already authoritative Scripture for the church by early in the second century is the furious response of the church to Marcion, the heretic, who rejected the Old Testament and its religion and rejected most of the NT as well, apart from the Pauline letters, which he amended, and a shortened form of Luke’s Gospel. There were things he wanted out of the Scripture and he just took them out. Marcion was rejected in large part because of his meddling with what the church understood to be Holy Scripture and the teaching that it contained. The church already knew what the Word of God was and already knew what it taught. So, for someone to come along and start excising portions of that Word was heresy indeed.

But it has now to be admitted that the situation is more complicated than I have so far explained it to be. It is complicated by the fact that we know that a few books of the NT were not universally recognized immediately and everywhere in the church as canonical, that is, as belonging to Holy Scripture and as having divine authority.

Early in the third century, the early 200’s, Origen recognized as canonical the four Gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, First Peter, First John, Acts, and Revelation. He mentions as disputed books Hebrews, Second Peter, both of which he regarded as Scripture, Second and Third John, of which he himself had some real doubt as to their genuineness, and Jude, which he accepted though he admitted that others did not. So, by the end of the second century, and no doubt long before, the great bulk of our NT was already recognized as Scripture and was viewed as on a par with the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible as the very Word of God [By the way, it was not until later in the 2nd century that Christians began regularly to refer to the former and latter parts of the Bible as the Old Testament and the New Testament. Whether it was wise to do that, which is not a Biblical way of speaking of these books, is a question for another day. But it was a relatively late innovation that the church began to speak of the Bible as containing an OT and a NT.] But some of our NT books were not so recognized, at least not by everyone. What is more, there were in some Christian circles at the same time some other books that were revered, if not as Holy Scripture, at least nearly as Holy Scripture such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, both Christian writings from the early 2nd century, so quite near the apostolic age. There are even some 4th century Bibles that have survived that include some of these books that are not now part of the New Testament. Whether a great many people in those early days thought of them as canonical – that is, as having the same authority as Scripture – is hard to say, but obviously it was not entirely clear in the early third century whether Second and Third John belonged to the Bible or whether the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas did not belong to the Bible.

A century after Origen, in the early 4th century, the early 300’s, Eusebius still lists as disputed books James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude and possibly Revelation (which he also lists among the acknowledged books). The first list we have, there certainly may have been earlier ones that did not survive, of the 27 books of our NT and only those 27 and almost in the same order in which they are listed in our Bibles, was the Festal Letter (39) of Athanasius dated in A.D. 367. In any case, we have in the case of the NT some uncertainty about a few of the books that lasted for some considerable time before the 27 books of what we know to be the NT were universally accepted and none others. How are we to explain this: both the uncertainty in the first case and the final settlement in the second?

We can put the question very practically? How do we know that there is not a document, either known or unknown, written in the first century or even later that ought to be in the New Testament? And, in the same way, how do we know that there is not a document in our present New Testament that ought not to be there?

We don’t have the Lord Jesus’ own testimony to settle the matter as we do in the case of the books of the OT. Nor do we have the corroborative testimony of Judaism that there are 39 books and only 39 that belong to the Old Testament. Why did the Shepherd of Hermas, despite what seems to have been initial support, finally go by the board while 2 Peter, at first subject to much uncertainty, finally make it in? [Gaffin, “The New Testament as Canon,” Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, 168]

It has been thought by some that there were objective criteria that, once established, settled the matter once and for all. For example, some have suggested apostolicity as the criterion for canonicity. If a book were by an apostle, then it was Scripture. All the church had to establish was whether a book had been written by an apostle. It has long been thought that this was the problem suffered by Hebrews. It could not be known for sure that it was written by an apostle. It may even be the case that it was accepted in some quarters of the church only when it was concluded that it had been written by the Apostle Paul, a conclusion almost certainly incorrect! But there are problems with viewing apostolicity as the criterion of canonicity. We might get round the fact that Mark and Luke are not apostles by pointing to their close association with Peter and Paul. Mark is Peter’s Gospel and Luke and Acts at least enjoy the imprimatur of the Apostle Paul. But, the fact is, we know nothing about the measure of influence that Paul exerted on the production of Luke and Acts and, still more, as I said, we don’t know who wrote Hebrews and neither Jude nor James were apostles in the strict sense. What is more, it is highly unlikely that the writings of the NT are the only literary works of the apostles. Paul speaks of a letter he wrote to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16) and of another letter he wrote to the church in Corinth that we do not now have. They were apostolic writings but they are not in the New Testament.

Others have suggested that the canonical documents were recognized as such because of their teaching. That is, the books that conformed to the teaching of the apostles were accepted and those that did not were rejected. It has been supposed, for example, that Revelation struggled in some quarters of the Eastern Church to find acceptance because it was tainted with the scandal of chiliasm, what we know today as pre-millennialism, the idea of a one thousand year reign of Christ after his return to the world. But that again fails to account for the books that apostles wrote that are not in the New Testament. They certainly contained the same teaching as the books that are found in the Bible.

We begin to fashion an answer to the question of canonicity – which books belong to the New Testament and how were they originally recognized as belonging – when we remember that the Scripture is the Word of God. He, in an entirely mysterious way, used the thinking and the experience and the writing of men to communicate his will to the world and especially to his people. Those men as they wrote were carried along by the Holy Spirit. There is no evidence that they knew that they were being carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote, but what they wrote is what the Holy Spirit intended to be written and so to be preserved for his church forever. We don’t know how he did that precisely. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Holy Scripture. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit was influential but exactly what that means is not explained. Well, in the same way, as God superintended the writing of Scripture, so he superintended the collection of those writings into a single book. We don’t know precisely how he did that either. But we are, after all, talking about the Word that he created. It was obviously his doing that they existed at all and so it was his doing that they were recognized for what they were. It was God’s involvement, of course, that made the apostles so important to the creation of the NT; Jesus Christ appointed them, he empowered them, he granted them his authority, he made them his representatives. It was because of his action regarding them that their ministry was so powerful and so important.

But as the apostles eventually died, the first and foremost eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry and resurrection and the men most directly appointed by the Lord to disclose his will and message, and so it became necessary to preserve their witness and their teaching and that was done by their writings. This was necessary also because, as men, the apostles, even when they were alive, could not be everywhere. But documents could be copied and distributed throughout the church. This was done, in God’s providence, by means of the writings being recognized as Holy Scripture and sent throughout the church. Whether the apostles or other biblical writers knew in every case at the time that they were contributing a book to Holy Scripture we cannot say, but they were in fact doing just that. John seems to indicate that he knew he was writing Scripture in his closing remarks about his book in Rev. 22:18-19 and perhaps in what he says at the end of his Gospel, but whether John knew the same thing when he was writing Second or Third John is harder to say.

Calvin says simply, “These [books] which the Lord judged to be necessary for his church have been selected by this providence for everlasting remembrance.” [Cited in Gaffin, 181] We would, of course, like to know more about why 2 Peter was doubted for a time in some circles and how those doubts were overcome, or why The Epistle of Barnabas was eventually excluded. But we really can’t explain that in the present state of the evidence.

But remember the circumstances under which the New Testament originated. Books were written in one place and often for a very specific audience, a congregation or group of congregations. There was no email in those days; there wasn’t even mail in our sense of the word. It would be some time, months even years, before a letter Paul wrote to Corinth, for example, would be copied and make its way to other centers of the Christian faith. The copies would be copied and carried about but people knew then as we do now how easily mistakes can creep into copies and how stories can change in the retelling. It would not have been an easy thing to know in every case which books were authentic and which were not. False teachers had their writings too. The Christians would have been concerned to be sure that a book was not considered Holy Scripture until they were sure it deserved to be. They would have been more concerned about that than almost anything else. That is what makes even more remarkable the fact that for most of the NT, the great majority of its books, there was never any doubt; from the very beginning these books were recognized as the Word of God. The fact that a few books were not universally recognized for some time should not obscure the fact that most of them were recognized from the beginning and were known to be Holy Scripture everywhere by the end of the first century. What is more, we have no record of actual differences in the contents of the canon, as if churches or theologians were going toe to toe over whether this book or that belonged in the Bible. There is a striking calmness that pervades the many statements we have about doubts that some had about particular books. They wanted to be sure; eventually they were.

In conclusion we can say that the books of the New Testament are the books that were recognized, in most cases very early on if not immediately, as belonging to the foundation of the church and as having authority equal to that of the ancient Scriptures. It is also clear that the church never had any other foundation than these that came to her with apostolic authority, however that authority was conveyed in the case of a few books that took time to gain a place in the canon recognized universally by the church.

This is no argument, I accept, but is it not the fact that every book of the NT contributes its part and that the loss of any of them would be a diminishment? And isn’t it rightly inconceivable that the Lord God would have provided another writing for inclusion in the New Testament but then not see fit to be sure it was included in his Word? And isn’t it impossible to believe that the God who brought Scripture into being by his Holy Spirit would allow his Word to include what was not brought into being by his Spirit?

We have the Bible we are supposed to have. And it serves us as perfectly as it is supposed to serve us.

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.