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Asbury Bible Commentary – Canon of Scripture
Canon of Scripture

Canon of Scripture

The term “canon” comes from a Greek word that meant “straight rod” or “ruler.” It developed a metaphorical connotation used by the church Fathers to refer to the norm of church doctrine—the “rule of faith” or “rule of truth.” Initially, the term referred to a collection of holy Scriptures near the end of the fourth century. It continued in common usage from that time in Christian terminology to describe a list of books, and gradually came to designate a normative collection of writings.Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 49f. Thus, through a complex process of development, the list of Scriptures that the church considers inspired came to be called “the canon.” This is the collection of writings that the church regards as authoritative for the Christian faith and life.William Sanford LaSor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 18.

Which writings should be considered canonical and how did the church come to that position? Historically, the church since the fourth century has accepted the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments as the authoritative canonical books. The books known as the Apocrypha were added by Jerome and others to the Latin Bible to be used for purposes of devotion and edification. Though not originally intended for consideration on a par with the canonical OT books, popular usage in the Middle Ages didn't distinguish between the canonical and extra-canonical books of devotion.F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 98f.; see also, R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 131f.

The process of determining which writings to include in the canonical collection proved to be an enormous task. Both the Jewish and Christian canons developed over many centuries as a result of specific historical situations. In Israel, the principle of canonical authority was established with the giving of the law through Moses (Ex 24). Other authoritative utterances, documents, and collections developed as Israel journeyed through enslavement and liberation in the exilic and post-exilic periods. The saving actions and revelations of God were interpreted, recorded, and collected. The testimonies of faith and the prophetic critiques and values became a collection of written documents that eventually attained a threefold division into Law, Prophets, and Writings. The process of formal canonical collection seems to have begun in seventh-century Judah during the reign of Josiah (622-609 b.c.). The rediscovery of the book of law led Josiah to acknowledge the written law of Yahweh as the highest authority over Israel.Robert Gnuse, The Authority of the Bible (New York: Paulist, 1985), 105; LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 18ff. The development of the OT canon is discussed thoroughly in the above works by Childs, Hubbard, LaSor, and Bush. Also, see G. W. Anderson, “Canonical and Non-Canonical,” The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, eds. P. R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980).

Development and definition of the OT canon accelerated during the Babylonian Exile (586-539 b.c.). As Israel's religious system dissociated from the temple in Jerusalem, her theologicans worked to reshape its identity to fit their faith to new surroundings. They became a people of the book, for the canon was indestructible, flexible, and portable. After the Exile, the word of God became increasingly identified with the written Scriptures. The concept of inspiration began to be understood not only as a gift bestowed upon the living prophets, but as an attribute of the sacred writings as well. Following the Exile, prophetic activity decreased and dynamic element of inspiration became more closely associated with the books that mediated God's word to his people.Gnuse, The Authority of the Bible, 106f.

Several hundred years later, two major developments forced Jewish theologians back, firmly, into being a people of the book. Christianity was on the increase, with its new interpretations of the Jewish scripture, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in a.d. 70 left them few alternatives. The Jews focused again on the Scriptures for their identity, unity, and security. Their religious leaders emigrated to the coastal city of Jamnia and worked to define ways the Jewish faith could survive with the loss of its religious institutions. By a.d. 90, they had reached a consensus on the content of the thirty-nine books of the OT canon, which is nearly identical with what Jesus and the apostles had accepted as “the Scriptures.”Lee Martin McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988), 60ff.; LaSor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey, 22.

The NT canon is the result of a long process in which the books that the church came to regard as authoritative and inspired were selected from a large number of writings circulating among the churches. Through this process the “authoritative tradition was collected, ordered, and transmitted in such a way as to enable it to function as sacred Scripture for a community of faith and practice.”Childs, The New Testament As Canon, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 25.

This selection process involved the comparison of Christian writings with the accepted norm of apostolic teaching, the “rule of faith.” The motivation in the church to collect the most useful of these writings for study and teaching was strong. It was fueled further by a need to clarify the authority and extent of the writings to protect them from misuse by the heretics. Most notable among these early heretics was Marcion (ca. a.d. 140), who wished to limit authority to an edited version of Luke and ten of Paul's epistles.

The process of identifying the canon of Scripture began with an informal identification of those writings that were most edifying to the church. Gradually, more specific criteria were applied, and by a.d. 200 twenty-one of the NT books found acceptance in the canon by general consensus of the church. Evaluation of inspiration and authority involved grouping the books into three categories: (1) homologoumena, or universally accepted works; (2) antilegomena, or books accepted by some and disputed by others; and (3) notha, or documents that were clearly not of canonical status. During the fourth century, Jerome and Augustine acknowledged the twenty-seven books of the canon, and their opinions were validated by decisions rendered at the Councils of Hippo (a.d. 393) and Carthage (a.d. 397).Glenn Barker, William Lane, and Ramsey Michaels, The New Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 28. They used several criteria to discern which books were authoritative and inspired. F. F. Bruce lists the following as tests of canonicity and authority:

(1) Apostolic authority that reflects either apostolic authorship or influence;

(2) Antiquity and orthodoxy that indicate content based on an apostolic foundation;

(3) Catholicity, or universal recognition and use in the church. Some early church leaders saw inspiration by the Holy Spirit also as a test of canonicity.F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 255-69.

While not all the books that now make up the NT can be ascribed to an author who was an apostle, the church did insist on establishing apostolic authority or validation for the writings that were accepted as canonical. Apostolic influence upon such writers as Mark and Luke gave weight to their authenticity and acceptance. The relationship of James and Jude to the holy family may have given their writings a preferred place. Also, if a certain writing was the work of an apostle or associate, then it would likely be viewed as belonging to the apostolic age. Thus, antiquity became a corollary criterion for canonical inclusion. At this time, it was established that the doctrine in any writing that was considered orthodox must be consistent with the teachings of the apostles, as summed up in the rule of faith. This insistence on antiquity was to prevent Gnostic or other heresies from finding expression in writings endorsed by the church for devotional and doctrinal use. Furthermore, works used among many churches received greater respect than those used only in local areas. This catholicity of usage enhanced the church's conviction that a work should be included in the canon.Ibid., 260-62.

In this process, clearly the church did not commission or authorize the writing of a book of Scripture. It recognized and acknowledged the inspired character of those writings that were in conformity with the above characteristics. As these writings continued to be used by the Holy Spirit to edify and enrich the life of the church, the church recognized them as canonical and inspired.Barker, Lane, and Michaels, The New Testament Speaks, 30-31. Indeed, one group of evangelical scholars sees an inseparable connection between inspiration and canonicity; they cannot be separated. The ultimate basis for canonicity is simply this: if the writing is inspired (God-breathed) it is canonical. If it is not inspired, it is not canonical.LaSor, Hubbard, Bush, Old Testament Survey, 25.

Others see canonicity as involving the form and function of the writings in the life of the church. Canon is thus not just a list, but the shape of the way the sacred writings work in the life of the church. James Sanders and Brevard Childs have interpreted the concept of canon on two major bases: They are interested not only in the processes of collecting the Scriptures, but also the shape and form of the interpretation and use of the Scriptures in the church. Canon thus becomes a hermeneutical concept that interprets Scripture both in its historical context and as it continues to function in the community of faith.James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972); Childs, The New Testament As Canon; also, see Frank A. Spina, “Canonical Criticism: Childs Versus Sanders,” Interpreting God's Word for Today, vol. 2, Wesleyan Theological Perspectives, eds. Wayne McCown and James E. Massey (Anderson, Ind.: Warner, 1982), 165-94.

Thus, the NT canon is a list of twenty-seven books that the church came to view as expressing its definitive and normative testimony of the Christian faith and life. These books were the expression of the apostolic witness of God's redemptive revelation as it culminated in Jesus Christ and was universally taught throughout the Christian church. They were discerned by the church to embody the fullest expression of the Christian faith as interpreted by the writers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.