What Does “Canon” Mean Regarding the Bible?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Quite obviously, the biblical canon has nothing to do with an artillery piece (i.e., a cannon); it refers to a body of literature—specifically, the collection of books comprising the Bible. These books were written by various human authors over a period of about 1,500 years. Over time those writings were recognized as God’s Word and collected by God’s people. Other Jewish and Christian religious writings were also written over that span of time, of course, but these were not deemed to be Scripture.

This is where the term “canon” comes in. It derives from the Hebrew word qaneh and the Greek word kanoˉn, both referring to a measuring rod. We might say, then, that these books alone “measure up” to what it takes to be included in Scripture, thereby making them the standard by which we should “measure” our lives. And this is true because these particular writings alone are inspired by God (in the sense described above). The biblical canon, then, is the collection of all writings that are divinely inspired. For Protestant Christians, the canon consists solely of the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New.

The biblical canon raises several important questions. First, who determined whether a particular writing was canonical? Clearly, God’s people have played an important role in this process, since they are the ones who collected, preserved, and used these writings as Scripture. But some traditions (e.g., Roman Catholicism) have stressed the role that the church has played in the collection of the canonical books. They think of the canon as an authoritative list of books, for the collection was authorized by the church. But since the books were inspired by God, they are inherently authoritative—regardless of whether the church authorized them or not. It is better, then, to think of the canon as a list of authoritative books. God chose which books He would inspire and thereby authorize. Over time God’s people (through the leading of the Holy Spirit) simply recognized the inspiration of those canonical books and collected them.

But that raises another question. How did God’s people recognize which books were inspired Scripture? What factors did they take into consideration? Several could be mentioned. First, in regard to human authorship, the book was written by a prophet or an apostle (or a close associate). After all, these men were accredited spokesmen for God (Deut. 13:1–3; 18:18–22; 1 Cor. 14:37–38). Second, the book does not affirm error, because any book that is God’s Word cannot err (cf. Deut. 18:22; Prov. 30:5–6). Third, the book must be consistent with truth that God has already revealed, since God does not contradict Himself (Deut. 13:1–5; Gal. 1:8–9; cf. Acts 17:11). Fourth, in many cases a book’s status as Scripture is affirmed by other prophets and apostles and by Jesus Himself. For example, Jesus and the apostles treated the Hebrew canon of their day (the 39 books of our Old Testament) as Scripture, God’s authoritative Word. In addition, Peter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), and in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quotes from Luke 10:7 as Scripture.

Fifth, the book has come to be widely accepted as inspired Scripture by God’s people. God has declared that His Word will endure (Ps. 119:89, 160; Isa. 40:8; Matt. 5:18; 24:35), and since He is sovereign over everything, it makes sense that He would providentially work in history to preserve His inspired Word. He did this for His people so that later generations of believers could have access to the Word of God long after it was first written down (Deut. 31:9–13; 1 Cor. 10:11; Matt. 22:31). But He also preserves Scripture through His people. Because the Spirit is at work actively in the hearts of believers to receive and understand His inspired Word (1 Cor. 2:11–16), that Word will work powerfully in their lives whenever they read and hear it (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:15–17). That being the case, God’s people will recognize an inspired writing for what it is. The providential preservation of God’s Word—and the powerful working of the Holy Spirit with His Word—mean that in time God’s people will come to universally recognize those writings He inspired. The 66 books of our Old Testament and New Testament today are the only books to receive universal acceptance among all orthodox Christians.

The canon of Scripture raises one final question. Is the canon closed, or are there other writings not yet recognized that He has or will inspire? Any budding archaeologist hoping to find a missing biblical book should expect to be disappointed. The canon is closed; we already have all the books God inspired. This may be implied in Revelation 22:18–19, where John warns about adding to the book of Revelation. But this warning could have implications for the closing of the canon as a whole. After all, Revelation is the last book in the Bible, it tells us how the whole story ends, and it was the last canonical book to be written. It is a fitting closing to our Bible, suggesting that the canon is closed.

But there is a more important reason why the canon is closed. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God (Heb. 1:1–3), the one to whom the whole Old Testament testifies (John 5:39). Jesus promised the apostles that the Spirit would help them to remember and preserve His words and works (John 14:25–26). They are chosen by Christ as His Spirit-empowered eyewitnesses, authorized to found His church (Eph. 2:20). The New Testament writings, written by the apostles and their close associates, preserve and interpret the ultimate revelation of God in Christ. What more do we need?

For Further Reading:

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