“That Book in Your Hand”
In my sermon series on Bibliology, the nature of the Bible (“That Book in Your Hand”), I did not preach on the canon of Scripture, but I’ve gone into a lot more depth on Bibliology on this blog than I did in my sermons. No study of Bibliology is really complete without looking at the canon, so I’d like to take a post for this topic.
Sermons on the nature of the Bible:
- The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
- The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
- The inerrancy of God’s Word (its complete reliability).
- The preservation of God’s Word.
- The illumination of the Scriptures, the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand spiritual truths.
- The perspicuity of Scripture — the Scriptures can be understood and rightly interpreted.
What Do We Mean by “Canon”?
The word “canon” comes from the Greek kanon, which refers to a ruler or straight edge. It came to be applied to the body of writings accepted as Scripture — the books of Scripture are the “straight edge” by which our faith is measured.
It’s all very well to say that Scripture is our sole authority, but does Scripture tell us which books ARE Scripture? What is the true canon of Scripture?
The Old Testament Canon — Scriptural Evidence
There has never been any doubt about the canon of the Old Testament. The Hebrew canon had three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus referred to these as Scripture.
And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
He obviously considered them authoritative and Scriptural. Jesus and the apostles quoted almost every Old Testament book, often identifying them as Scripture with the expression, “It is written.”
The Hebrew canon originally included 22 books, due to combining some of our books. For instance, in the Hebrew canon, the twelve minor prophets are only one book, I & II Samuel are only one book, etc. Later, this came to be 24 books, with Ruth separate from Judges and Lamentations separate from Jeremiah. Whether 22 or 24, the contents of the Hebrew canon are identical to the 39 books of our Old Testament.
Christ and the apostles never questioned the Hebrew canon. The New Testament Scriptures fully support our Old Testament canon.
The “Biblical” Apocrypha — No Scriptural Evidence
These are 14-15 books (depending on how you count), written in the time between the Old and New Testament, some of which are claimed by the Roman Catholic church to be inspired Scripture.
They were never accepted by the Jews as Scripture. Jesus and the apostles never questioned the Jewish canon, or ever quoted the apocrypha with the words, “It is written.” In fact, they don’t appear to have quoted these books at all. They never identify the writers of apocryphal books as prophets.
Side note: Both Jude and another old book called “The Book of Enoch” report a saying of Enoch preserved by Jewish tradition, and to which Moses appears to have referred in Deuteronomy 33:2. The Book of Enoch was certainly not written by Enoch, and few ever considered it to be inspired Scripture. Some have suggested it was written after Jude, though this appears doubtful.
Early Church Councils
Some apocryphal books were accepted as Scripture by some early church councils — but the councils didn’t all agree. Either books are and always were Scripture, or they are not — so some councils were wrong, one way or another. The Scriptures never give church councils any authority, and they were not agreed on which books were Scripture, so logically councils could not be trusted to be true. Things that are true do not disagree with each other.
There is no reason to accept “Biblical” apocrypha as Scripture unless one believes in church council authority. There is no Scriptural evidence for accepting these books as Scripture.
The Standard of the New Testament Canon
Difficulties with recognising the New Testament canon:
Christ obviously would not cite books written after His time on earth.
Because New Testament books were being written at the same time they were being written :), there was no recognised New Testament canon to cite. With the Old Testament canon, everyone knew what “Law” or “Prophets” meant, so any New Testament citation of “Law” or “Prophets” covered the lot of them. That wasn’t possible with the New Testament — you couldn’t say, “The New Testament is all Scripture,” when it was still under construction.
Because they were written in a relatively short time, we would not expect them to cite each other as Scripture much, the way the Old Testament is cited in the New.
Thus, we might anticipate difficulty in identifying the New Testament canon. But the Scriptures are sufficient, and give much more help than one might expect. II Peter 3:1-2:
1 This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance:
2 That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour:
Here, the commandments of the apostles are equal in authority to the “words which were spoken before by the holy prophets.” The end of chapter one deals with those prophetic words, the “prophecy of Scripture.” Chapter two pauses to warn that there were false prophets of old and there will be false prophets in the church. In chapter three, Peter returns to build on what he wrote about the “sure word of prophecy” given in Scripture (1:19-21), and includes “the commandment of us the apostles,” claiming equal authority with Old Testament Scripture — apostolic commandment is New Testament Scripture.
Thus, the qualification for New Testament Scripture is given by II Peter 3:1-2 — apostolic authority. The characteristic of all Scripture (including the New Testament) is given by II Timothy 3:16 — theopneustos / inspired by God, possessing the very breath of God, living and life-giving.
The canon was not “given” by the church. Believers simply recognised that which God had given, from the earliest days, by this qualification and this characteristic — New Testament Scriptures have apostolic authority and are divine in nature.
New Testament Books Recognised by the New Testament
Matthew, John, Romans through Philemon, I & II Peter, I-III John, and Revelation are clearly identified as Scripture by II Peter 3:1-2, due to their apostolic authors and authoritative nature. Paul’s epistles have additional confirmation in II Peter 3:15-16:
15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;
16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
Thus, Peter defined the canon in II Peter 3:1-2, and specifically recognised Paul’s writings as part of it in verses 15-16.
Apostolic authority extended to writings authorised by an apostle. Paul, in I Timothy 5:18, endorsed Luke’s writings as Scripture, in the last half of the verse quoting Luke 10:7:
For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.
It appears Paul authorised his close companion to write the accounts of Luke and Acts. In any event, he explicitly endorsed Luke as Scripture. Peter said (II Peter 1:15) he was authorising a Gospel account of the things he had seen of Christ’s earthly ministry, almost certainly a reference to the Gospel of Mark (side note: the “always” is an implicit acknowledgment of Scriptural preservation):
Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance.
Any first-century Christian would have recognised the direct apostolic claims or authorisation of 24 of our 27 New Testament books, leaving only Hebrews, James, and Jude. Hebrews, lacking identification of its human author, was yet always recognised as Scripture. It is clearly theopneustos / inspired, written with great authority in apostolic times, when only an apostle would have claimed such authority. Based on the ending, the author was either Paul or known to Paul and authorised by him. The recipients, and other first-century Christians, knew the author and accepted Hebrews as Scripture.
As Acts 14:14 indicates, apostleship was not limited to the Twelve, and James would have been recognised as such. He was the half-brother of Christ (son of Joseph and Mary), and was pastor / chief-elder in a Jerusalem church that included some of the Twelve. Jude was written by another half-brother of Christ, and recognised as apostolic in authority from earliest days.
I said above that believers recognised Scripture by its qualification (apostolic authority, from II Peter 3:1-2) and its characteristic (divine, inspired by God, from II Timothy 3:16). Some might ask, “How would believers know a book or letter is inspired?” The answer is in the attesting work of the Holy Spirit.
I discussed this matter previously, in my first When Copies Differ post dealing with the preservation of Scripture, so I’ll briefly summarise. Jesus said His sheep would know His voice (John 10:27), and other Scriptures reveal this as the work of the Holy Spirit in all believers. I John 2 specifically rejects anyone exercising dominion over God’s people in this attesting work of the Holy Spirit — thus, church councils have no authority. Church councils could, at their very best (and they weren’t always at their best), only reflect what God’s people already knew — these twenty-seven books, Matthew through Revelation, were given by God through the apostles and are His inspired Word.
This Spirit-attesting work in confirming the canon of books which are Scripture is comparable to God’s Spirit-attesting work in preserving His Word. It is hardly logical to rely on Spirit-attestation for canonicity and discount it in studying how God has preserved His Word. Thus, there is a close parallel between the two.
Yet, for the canon God gave us not only Spirit-attestation, but also clear written evidence, in the New Testament itself, for almost every single New Testament book, as noted above. As strong as is the evidence for the preservation of Scripture, the evidence for which books belong in the New Testament canon is even stronger.
Follow-up post: YOUR Canon of Scripture
Next main article: The Unity of Scripture