The Biblical “canon” refers to the books inspired by God which are inerrant and which are received as such by the church. The church received the inerrant canonical Scriptures, she did not determine them.
Canon originally referred to a measuring rod and the word became a technical term for the books of the Bible that are God’s Words. The biblical canon, the Word of God, is the norma normans, the norming norm of everything else.
In the providence of God, he inspired and inscripturated the words. Here is some of that historical process in which God uses humans to accomplish his purposes.
- Jews (BC): TaNaK – Torah (law/teaching), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings)
- Jesus (1st century): Law, Prophets, the Psalms (Lk. 24:25-27, 24:44)
- Melito of Sardis (AD 170): Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament
- Peter (1st century): Paul’s letters (2 Pet. 3:16)
- Muratorian Canon (2nd-4th centuries): Canonical list that distinguishes between books that ought to be read in the church and in personal/private
- Justin Martyr (2nd century): Four Gospels
- Athanasius (4th century, Thirty-ninth Letter on the Paschal Festival ): lists the 27 books of the New Testament
- Council of Carthage (397): Only canonical writings ought to be read in the church
In reference to the Old Testament Scriptures, J. R. McRay writes “They were brought together evidently as an act of God’s providence, historically prompted by the emergence of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature in the intertestamental period and the increasing need to know what the limits of divine revelation were.” Something similar could be said for the New Testament.
The Canon of the Scriptures has often been an issue of question and contention. The Jewish canon consists of 39 books (the Old Testament). The Protestant canon consists of 66 books (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament). The Roman Catholic canon consists of 80 books (66 books of the Old and New Testaments, and also 14 books of the Apocrypha). The Orthodox canon is similar to the Roman Catholic canon (though the former follows the Septuagint [LXX], the latter the Masoretic text [MT]).
The issue of the canon of Scripture has been raised afresh with the publication of various Gnostic gospel texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Although these gospels are 2nd century texts, some claim they are as early and ought to be considered as authoritative as the original four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Although God providentially directed this, there was a means of recognition/acknowledgement of the texts God inspired compiled in the canon, the norming norm for all truth of God and his ways. What was that criteria?
Main Criteria for Canonicity
- The Authority of Jesus
- Conformity to the Rule of Faith
- Apostolicity (and thus antiquity)
- Acceptance and Usage by the Church (churches)
Another summary of canonicity in the early church was written by Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). This became known as the Vincentian Canon: “that which that which has been believed everywhere [ubique], always [semper], and by all [ab omnibus]” (cf. Chapter 4 of The Commonitory (or The Commitorium), AD 434).
In sum, the church did not create the New Testament canon (contrary to the RCC), but rather acknowledged the documents that God had inspired as authoritative for the faith and practice of Christians, that which was orthodox. It was the gospel in these Texts that God used to birth the church.
The canon of the Scriptures is one of the important contemporary issues Graham Cole will address at our Theology Conference: “The Theology of Canonicity: Why a Book, Why this Book, Why this Sequence of Books within the Book.”