The Canon of Scripture:
We said last week that it is not good enough, in the public square of ideas, to simply assert that the Bible is the authority for life as the Word of God because it says that it is. So we have endeavored to answer three common charges against the Bible as a way of demonstrating evidence that the Bible is indeed a unique book.
- Claims that would question the Bible’s transmission (how it came from its original form to what it is today).
- Claims that would question the Bible’s canonicity (why the 66 Books as we have them were accepted and why others were rejected).
- Claims that point to the Bible’s difficulties (such as God as a moral monster, its historical and scientific issues, etc.)
Tonight we will discuss questions concerning the Bible’s canonicity, why were the 66 books included in the Bible regarded as God’s Word while others were not. Often the charge goes along the lines that there was a great conspiracy, usually told to be around the time of Constantine, to include certain books of the Bible as being from God, and others were excluded, as a means of establishing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Other books, namely the Gnostic gospels, which we will discuss later, present a very different picture of Jesus. Because of the alternate opinion, these books were banned from the Bible. The Gnostic writings are often called the “Lost Gospels.”
Another group of books appeared in the 1611 KJV and continue to appear in Catholic versions of the Bible. These books came between the Old and New Testaments and are known as the Apocryphal books. They are typical Jewish writings of the period that reveal to us the history of the Jews during the time between the Testaments. So why were they excluded?
Canon – when we speak of the Canon of Scripture we are speaking of the books that belong in the Bible. The word canon comes from the Greek word “kanon” which meant a “standard or a rule.” From a Christian perspective, Canonicity cannot be separated from the doctrine of inspiration. Are we sure we have God’s Words? Do we have all that God intended for His people to know and obey?
From a secular viewpoint the church “determined” the Canon of Scripture. However, the proper viewpoint from the church is not that the church “determined” the Canon but “discovered” it (Geisler, 211). The church tested the claims of inspiration of these books by certain rules.
This question of Canonicity is critical. In essence we are asking two questions:
- Can we trust the books we have as The Word of God?
- Are there books that are the Word of God that we do not have?
The Bible gives some examples of the importance of testing canonicity:
Deuteronomy 4:2 (ESV)
You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.
Revelation 22:18–19 (ESV)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The Old Testament Canon
We see God establishing the importance of keeping His Word recorded, revered, and preserved, early on with the Ten Commandments. The writings of the prophets were easily regarded as the Words of God as they clearly carry the mark of “Thus says the Lord.”
See Jeremiah 30:2
Below is a quick list of the rule or criteria for discovering the Canon:
- Was it something God said?
- Was it given by a proven prophet or an apostle?
- Does it contain the power of God?
- Was it accepted by the people of God (1 Thess. 2:13)?
- Did Jesus authenticate it as an inspired book? (Often NT books will quote one another showing that other apostles regarded them as authoritative).
When were the Canons recognized?
- The Old Testament was formally recognized at the Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90).
- The New Testament was recognized as early as the Council of Athenasius (A.D. 367)
Why not the apocrypha (Grudem, 59)?
- They do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings.
- They were not regarded as God’s Words by the Jewish people from whom they originated.
- They were not quoted or authenticated by Jesus as were the rest of the OT Scriptures.
- They contain teaching inconsistent with the Bible.
- They were only held as Canonical only by the Catholic Church in 1546. Historians agree their acceptance was largely as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation.
Why not the Gnostic Gospels?
- They were late (300 years after the NT writers).
- They were fake, pseudo-graphic writings.
- They are totally absent of God’s voice.
- They were refuted by the early church.
- They are openly heretical.
An example from a Gnostic Gospel (The Gospel of Thomas):
These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.
1. And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”
2. Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]”
3. Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
4. Jesus said, “The person old in days won’t hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.
For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one.”
5. Jesus said, “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. [And there is nothing buried that will not be raised.]”
6. His disciples asked him and said to him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”
Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.”
- Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
From the Secret Book of John
Now it happened one day when John the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee, was going up to the temple, a Pharisee named Arimanios approached him. And he said to him, “Where is your teacher, the one whom you used to follow?”
He said to him, “He returned to the place from which he came.” The Pharisee said to me, “This Nazorene deceived you (pl.) with error. [He filled [your (pl.) ears with lies], and he shut [your hearts]. He turned you (pl.) [from] the traditions of your fathers.” When I heard these things, I turned from the temple to the mountain which was a place of desert. And I grieved greatly in my heart, saying, “How was the Savior appointed? Why was he sent into the world by his father who sent him? Who is his father? And of what sort is that aeon to which we will go? He told us that the aeon is modeled on that indestructible aeon, but he did not teach us about what sort the latter is.”
3 Just then, while I was thinking these things, the heavens opened, and the whole creation below the heaven was illuminated with light [below] heaven. And the [whole] world [quak]ed.
I was afraid an[d I watch]ed. And behold a child [appeared to] me. Then [he changed himself] into the form of an old man [who had flight existing within him. [Although I was watch]ing him, I did not [understand this wonder, whether it is a [likeness] having numerous forms [in the flight—for its forms [appea]red through each oth[er—or] if it is one [likeness th]at has three aspects.
[He sa]id [to me], “John, wh[y] are you doubting and [fearful]? For you are not a stranger [to this like]ness. Do not be faint[hearted]! I am the one who dwells with [you (pl.) al]ways. I am the [Father.] I am the Mother. [I] am [the S] on. I am the one who exists for ever, undefil[ed and un]mixed.
There is another side to the story of canonization that is often not shared by the critics. It is a story that has more integrity to the process. Though it was not void of question and controversy from time to time, it was far less sinister and the conspiracy that the Bible’s critics allege. The 66 Books we have in the Bible have been tried, proven, and widely regarded as “thus saith the Lord.” Other writings, often portrayed as victims of the process differ greatly from the 66 books of the Canon, nor were they accepted by the early church.
For More Info:
This is a incredibly brief and simple sketch of Canonicity. For a more complete discussion see:
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Chapter 3, The Canon of Scripture).
- Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict
- Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible