Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
The Canon of Scripture
(Watch the Video)
It’s important to know what God has revealed, and where we can find an accurate and reliable record of it. One of the great cries of the Reformation was “Sola Scriptura” — “Scripture alone”. The Bible is the only final standard by which all matters of faith and practice should be examined.
The direct means of Special Revelation have ceased. Ever since the God’s written word was completed, the Bible is the only way to know what God specially revealed. That’s in distinction from his general revelation in creation, providence, and in the human conscience.
Paul uses this word in 2 Corinthians 10:13-16 [this is my own translation]: “but we will not boast as to unmeasurable things, but according to the thing measurable by the canon which God apportioned to us as a measure.”
Canon is from the Greek word “κανων” which means “a measure”, “a rule for judgment”, “an authoritative standard.” The word “canon” is taken from the athletic contests at Corinth. The running lanes were marked out by lines. They kept each runner in his assigned lane. The line was called a “kanon” (κανων). God marks out such a lane to keep our beliefs and practices within the boundaries of truth.
Paul was led by God in all his writings. The false teachers that opposed him didn’t speak for God. They were not divinely called. They were self-appointed. Instead of remaining within clearly defined boundaries they wandered without clear boundaries or standards. They were like runners who wandered outside the lines into wrong paths.
Paul also used this word in Galatians 6:15-16; “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule (κανων), peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”
Canon is an authoritative rule by which things must be measured or tested. For us, this standard that identifies the boundaries of truth and morality is the collection of biblical books we call the inspired Scriptures, or more simply “the Bible”.
and intended by Him to make up our Bible.
The true Church has always recognized the present 66 books of our Bibles as Canon, the written word of God.
So then, how was the biblical canon established? Which Books belong there? If our confidence is based on our confidence in a church council, then that council becomes our ultimate standard for determining truth!
The Bible must be received because God gave it to be our standard, and guide to truth. Each book, from the time it was written, was received as Canon. The Holy Spirit guided the early church to know which books were given with full divine authority.
God appointed Prophets and Apostles. God supernaturally spoke to them, and confirmed what was revealed with supernatual signs, miracles. He guarded those books from error as the chosen writers wrote down what God revealed to them.
Councils only met to answer those who doubted God’s word, but they didn’t decide what belongs in the Bible. They merely stated what believers had always known and accepted. Legends came along claiming that official councils met to determine canonicity (for example the Council at Jamnia). There are no records that any such authorized council did that. The only records we have confirm they did not determine canonicity.
The commonly received books from Genesis through Malachi are included in that collection. But the order of the books was not inspired. They were originally written on individual scrolls so there was no unique fixed sequential order. Eventually Scrolls were made with several biblical books on each, arranged by themes or by their use in worship. They included as many books as would fit together without making the scroll too large to handle. Scrolls were often grouped in labled containers, but were not all bound together. When they were later assembled into book form they were arranged in logical order in groups. The book order in the Hebrew Bible is not the same as in our modern English versions.
The same 39 Old Testament books have always been received as canon. Before the time of Jesus, the Rabbis and Jewish people agreed about which books were God’s standard. Only spurious groups which broke off argued about which books belonged in the canon.
Talmud tractate Baba-Bathra (2nd to 5th century AD) defends the accepted Hebrew Canon. Those Rabbis who wrote those articles accepted the same books we have today. They were always received by the Hebrew people. They were grouped in three basic divisions:
1. Moses books of LAW were called the Torah (תּוֹרָה). They were later called the Pentateuch (the five).
2. The books of the PROPHETS were called the Navi’im (נְבִיאִים).
3. The books of the WRITINGS were the Cetuvim (כְּתוּבִים) later called the Hagiographa (holy writings)
This Jewish Canon include the same writings the Christian church calls the Old Testament.
Jewish historian Josephus in Contra-Apion (66 AD) shows these same three divisions (Moses, Prophets, Songs of praises and counsel). He calls them “books justly believed to be divine.” He confirms the same books belonging in each group. Philo (prior to 40 AD) shows the same divisions and groupings. It’s also confirmed by the Qumran finds (Dead Sea Scrolls). Other writings have always been read and used by God’s people, but only these listed were considered canonical.
Jesus and the New Testament writers consistently refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as fully authoritative. They were the only ones cited as a God-given test for truth. In those books they found the prophesies of Messiah which they quoted as being fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6 as authoritative Scripture that can’t be broken (John 10:31-36). The New Testament treats these Old Testament books as a unified body of truth, as the authoritative canon. It views the Bible, as an inspired whole (2 Timothy 3:14-17, 2 Peter 1:19-21). Our study on “Inspiration” will look at that in more detail to help us better understand Canonicity
Other books, written after the Hebrew Scriptures, were sometimes included in copies of the Bible. They are: Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, I & II Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, additions to Esther & Daniel. They contain some good material which is historically helpful and consistent with revealed truth. Some also contain fanciful and questionable material in open conflict with the canonical books.
The Apocryphal books are included in the Latin Vulgate Bible which was translated by Jerome. That version also added I & II Esdras, and the Prayer of Menassah. Jerome translated the Vulgate around the year 400 AD, Yet he speaks of a Canon identical with ours. He personally rejected the Apocryphal books as authoritative. He translated Tobit and Judith in one day (not much time invested), then refused to help with the rest. Other apocryphal books were added to the Vulgate at a later time by other translators.
There are also some completely discredited books. An example is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas about the childhood life of Jesus. They are obvious forgeries written at a much later time.
Early copies of the Bible and the Greek Septuagint version often included apocryphal books. They regarded the Apocryphal books as good writings of value for reading (like Bible notes or appendices), but not as infallible, inspired writings. St. Augustin (393 – 397 AD) listed the apocrypha among other books he felt were acceptable for Christians to read. But he never said that he accepted them as “inspired”.
The valuable Leningrad Manuscript of the Hebrew Scriptures (a 9th century copy reportedly based on ancient copies) contains the same books as our Old Testament canon. Historic testimony shows the apocryphal books were never regarded as part of the Christian canon by the church. There is universal testimony to the reception of our present Old Testament canon. It comes to us without serious question. (These are the book recognized in the Westminster Confession I:3)
consistently received by the Church as authoritative Canon.
The New Testament builds its foundation upon the Old Testament Canon. The Old Testament was always the canon by which the truth and teachings of Jesus and his followers were tested. The early church understood itself to be an expression of the new form of the covenant in fulfillment of what God promised in the Old Testament.
NOTE: Perhaps the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” aren’t the best choices. These titles are not applied anywhere in the Bible. The books before the birth of Jesus were in Hebrew with some portions in Aramaic. The books after Jesus’ birth are in Koine Greek (the common Greek spoken by the average person then).
The Hebrew word for “covenant” is “berit” (בּרית). The Greek word is “diathaekae” (διαθήκη). They have been commonly translated by the English word “testament.” The idea of a last will and testament was assumed to be implied by the translaters hundreds of years after the Bible was completed. But that meaning did not come from the use of those words in Scripture. It was one use of the term diathaekae in later years.
Recent archaeological and linguistic studies confirm what biblically faithful scholars had long understood. Berit means “covenant”, not “testament.” Diathaekae was used by the Jews in the First Century to represent the word Berit. God’s people in biblical times didn’t have in mind a “last will and testament”.
The ancient “Beritim” (בּרית) were Covenant Treaties (בּרית): treaties offered to conquered people. A conquering king sovereignly imposed his mercy and protection upon subjugated people demanding in exchange their loyalty and obedience. The treaty was sealed with the shedding of the blood of animals representing the penalty for covenant breakers. The rituals confirming the covenants were like the one used by God in his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. O. Palmer Robertson in his book, “The Christ of the Covenants” summarized the biblical meaning of covenant as “a bond in blood, sovereignly administered.”
There is one redemptive covenant of God through all the ages since the fall of Adam. What was “new” was that Christ fulfilled the symbols of the old administration of the covenant. That brought about the reality of that which was formerly only promised. So, the writers of the New Testament used the word diathaekae to translate the Hebrew word berit. The Jews commonly used diathaekae to represent “berit” (בּרית), God’s covenant with His people. Those not familiar with this use in Scripture make the error of reading “testament” into the idea of diathaekae.
Alternatives for naming the two major divisions have been suggested by some. They refer to these divisions as the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, The Old and New Covenants, or the Pre-Messianic and Post-Messianic Scriptures. None have much of a chance to overthrow the entrenched historic terms. To eliminate unnecessary confusion, we continue to use the terms Old and New Testament (abbreviated OT/ NT).
The New Testament rests its authority upon that of Jesus Christ. He clearly recognized and quoted from the same books the Jews accepted as Canon. The teachings of the Apostles were based on Christ’s authority. Jesus chose his Apostles, supernaturally enabled them, appointed them, and taught them. It’s that Christ-given apostolic authority that guided the early church to know which new writings were authoritative.
Paul was aware of the divine authority of his own inspired writings, and of the other New Testament books. He wrote, “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” (1 Thessalonians 5:27), and, “And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14)
1 Timothy 5:18 is a very helpful passage. “for the Scripture says, ‘you shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages’ ” The two quotations are both identified as “the Scripture.” The first quote is from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4. The second quote is from the New, Luke 10:7. Both are equally and clearly referred to as authoritative, and called “the Scripture”.
Peter sets the writings of Paul on an equal authoritative plane with the “rest of the Scriptures.” He wrote in 2 Peter 3:15-16, “…our brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
The authoritative tone of all the New Testament books is that their truths were from God Himself. There is an awareness on the part of all the New Testament writers that they wrote with divine authority.
To this we can add the testimony of the early church. The non-biblical book of 1st Clement (95 A.D. written from Rome to Corinth) speaks of 1st Corinthians saying, “with true inspiration he (Paul) charged you concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos…” Clement shows the same high regard for all the New Testament books. Ignatius of Antioch (120 A.D.) said the New Testament is inherently authoritative on its own.
Other ancient church scholars such as Papias, Justin Martyr and others accept the entire body of Scripture as canon. They show that God had moved his church to recognize the New Testament books as God’s revealed truth.
We do not accept the Bible because of human scholarship or church councils. They are fallible and changeable. If these were the ground of our confidence, we could not be certain of God’s word.
The Roman Catholic view is that the church authorized the Canon. The church is the final authority in all matters. It elevates the tradition of the church to equal standing along side the Bible. But since they see the church as the authority by which we know which books are canon, that church really sets itself above the Scriptures!
If the Bible is God’s Word, then it must alone be authoritative. By the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit at work in regenerate believers, there is full assurance that the received Books of the Bible are the authoritative Word of God. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
Those redeemed in Christ are driven to the Bible the way a thirsty man is driven to water, not questioning its ability to help us, not waiting for the word of scholars to assure us, not wondering if it is what it appears to be. But grasping at it, clinging to it with all assurance, knowing that we are clinging to the revealed truth of God.
History shows that the acceptance of the canon is built upon what God said in Scripture about itself. Given the biblical promise along with the guidance and testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, we can understand why the Bible has been received in the true church as the Canon of God.
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)