The Canon of Scripture

  1. The Canon of Scripture
    1. The Meaning of Canon
      1. A simple definition: a rule of faith and practice.

        The word “canon” is of Christian origin, from the Greek word kanon, which in turn is probably borrowed from the Hebrew word, qaneh, meaning a reed or measuring rod, hence, norm or rule. Later it came to mean a rule of faith, and eventually a catalog or list. In present usage it signifies a collection of religious writings Divinely inspired and hence, authoritative, normative, sacred and binding. The term occurs in Gal 6:16; 2Cor 10:13-16; but it is first employed of the books of Scripture in the technical sense of a standard collection or body of sacred writings, by the church Fathers of the 4th century; e. g. in the 59th canon of the Council of Laodicea (363 AD); in the Festal Epistle of Athanasius (365 AD); and by Amphilochius, archbishop of Iconium (395 AD). ISBE

      2. Why is the canon and its extent important?

        If the canon of Scripture is “the list of all the books that belong in the Bible”, and if the Bible is our rule of faith and practice, then it is essential we have a correct and complete canon in order to rightly believe and behave. We must know all of what God has revealed to his people and we must regard only what he has revealed as authoritatively binding on our consciences.

    2. The Fundamental Test of Canonicity (Matt. 22:34-40; Luke 24:44; Eph. 2:19-22; 2 Tim. 3:14-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; 3:1-2)
      1. What does it say about itself?
        1. Is that a circular argument?

          The final answer to the question – what is the test of inspiration and therefore of canonicity – must come from the Bible itself. And this is not necessarily circular reasoning. The major portions of the New Testament can be accepted, for the sake of the argument, as historical records, excellently attested, giving us testimony as to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. So we reject the claim that the argument is circular. It is not that our view of inspiration of the Bible rests on the Bible’s teaching about itself. The basis of our view on inspiration and therefore canonicity is the authority of Christ. We have abundant admitted historical testimony to the person and authority of Christ in the major Pauline Epistles, to name only this one source. Believing in this supernatural Christ, we receive the assurance of salvation given by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. This inward testimony of the Holy Spirit to our salvation assures us of the adequacy of our full belief in Christ. On this basis, we trust Christ’s word in further areas – his commands, his promises, and his certification to the words of the Old Testament prophets and his chosen apostles. Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity, p.233

        2. Does it claim to be the word of God?
        3. Is it treated as the word of God in other parts of Scripture?
        4. Is it treated as the word of God by the Son of God?
    3. Tests the People of God Have Used to Recognize Canonicity
      1. Old Testament
        1. Was the writing recognized by its contemporaries as having been written by someone authorized to speak for God? Did it carry the weight of authority immediately from the time of writing?
        2. What was the view of the Jewish church concerning the writing?
        3. Similarly, what was the view of Jesus and his disciples (the apostles, incl. Paul) concerning the writing?
        4. Probably of the least weight, what volumes were seen as belonging to the canon by secular writers – Josephus, Philo, Qumran fragments, etc.
      2. New Testament
        1. Was the writing recognized by its contemporaries as having been written by someone authorized to speak for God? Did it carry the weight of authority immediately from the time of writing?
        2. Similarly, what was the view of the apostles concerning the writing? (e.g., Jude 17-18 & 2 Pet. 3:2-3; 2 Pet. 3:14-16; 1 Tim. 5:18 & Luke 10:7)
        3. What was the view of the early church concerning the writing? Church fathers such as: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.
    4. Formal Recognition of the Canon
      1. Septuagint – Greek translation dating from ca. 250 B.C.
      2. Melito (quoted in Eusebius) from ca. 170 A.D. – lists all the present OT except Esther
      3. Muratorian Canon – NT list compiled by Muratori prior to 170 A.D.; the manuscript (and thus perhaps the list) is incomplete, lacking Hebrews, James, 2 Peter and 1 John. Also refuting pseudepigraphical books as belonging to the canon – e.g. Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas
      4. Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius, 367 A.D. – same OT list as Melito, NT list of the 27 books accepted as canonical by the church of the eastern Mediterranean

      5. Council of Carthage, 397 A.D. – the same list, agreed to by the church of the western Mediterranean

    5. Why Not Other Books? That is, why not the apocryphal-deuterocanonical-pseudepigraphical books?

      Apocryphal – Greek word, things which are hidden; unknown why applied to extra-biblical texts

      Deuterocanonical – Roman Catholic term, second canon or rule, added later to the canon; declared to be part of the canon at Council of Trent, 1546 as part of Counter Reformation and a necessary support for certain R.C. Doctrine (prayers for the dead, purgatory, justification by faith plus works)

      Pseudepigraphical – false authorship; the real author attributed the writing to a prior figure of significant stature (e.g., Gospels of Barnabas, Peter, Thomas, Judas; Book of Enoch; Psalms of Solomon)

      1. They do not claim the same authority for themselves
      2. They were not regarded as of divine origin by the Jewish people
      3. They were not considered Scripture by Jesus or cited as such in the New Testament
      4. They contain teaching which contradicts that found in the books accepted as canonical
      5. They contain explicit statements denying canonical status
    6. The Usefulness of Extra-Biblical Literature
      1. historical records
      2. language research
      3. cultural information

        Most come from the period 200 BC to 200 AD, a time from which there is not much else by way of Jewish writing known to be in existence. A vassal state much of the time, records are particularly scarce from the second half of the period. This is not surprising considering the fall of Jerusalem to Titus in 70 AD followed by the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD.

    7. A Key Question: Is the Canon Closed? (Heb. 1:1-2a; Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:7-8)
      1. God’s final word of revelation to us was given through the Living Word and recorded in the Written Word by those witnesses who spoke with God-given authority.
      2. The times of the gospel are the last times, the gospel revelation is the last we are to expect from God. There was first the natural revelation; then the patriarchal, by dreams, visions, and voices; then the Mosaic, in the law given forth and written down; then the prophetic, in explaining the law, and giving clearer discoveries of Christ: but now we must expect no new revelation, but only more of the Spirit of Christ to help us better to understand what is already revealed. Matthew Henry on Heb. 1:2
      3. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that His will unto his Church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth, and for the more sure Establishment, and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World, to commit the same wholly unto (d) writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of Gods revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. LBCF, I.1

      4. The whole Counsel of God concerning all things (i) necessary for his own Glory, Mans Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new Revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. LBCF, I.6

Let it be observed that the proof of the authority of the Scriptures does not rest on a previous proof of their inspiration. Even an uninspired law is law. But when inspiration has once been shown to be fact, it comes mightily to the reinforcement of their authority. God speaks to us now, in Scripture, not only mediately through his representatives, but directly through the Scriptures themselves as his inspired word. The Scriptures thus become the crystallization of God’s authoritative will. We will not say that Christianity might not have been founded and propagated and preserved without inspired writings or even without any written embodiment of the authoritative apostolic teaching. Wherever Christ is known through whatever means, there is Christianity, and men may hear and believe and be saved. But God has caused his grace to abound to us in that he not only published redemption through Christ in the world, but gave this preachment authoritative expression through the apostles, and fixed it with infallible trustworthiness in his inspired word. Thus in every age God speaks directly to every Christian heart, and gives us abounding safety to our feet and divine security to our souls. And thus, instead of a mere record of a revelation given in the past, we have the ever-living word of God; instead of a mere tradition however guarded, we have what we have all learned to call in a unique sense “the Scriptures.” Warfield, Authority and Inspiration of Scripture

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