I’m glad you ask these questions; they are very important when we consider how much we can trust that the canon we now have really is God’s word.
The word Canon is from the English word ‘cane’ or ‘reed’. The reed was used as a measuring rod and the word means ‘standard’. When applied to scripture it means “an officially accepted list of books”.
The New Testament Canon
I’ll start with the New Testament due to the fact that there was a lot more debate about this. For a book to be included in the canon it would need to pass certain considerations:
· Apostolic origin – was it written by the first Apostles or someone closely associated with them
· Was it authoritative – e.g. “thus saith the Lord”
· Was it prophetic – written by a ‘man of God’
· Was it dynamic – clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit in that it changed lives
· Was it received, collected, read and used
· Did it have universal acceptance by the Church body at large (Eastern and Western traditions)
· Was its message and doctrine consistent with the other books (not contradictory)
The early church did not create the canon, it simply recognised the books that were inspired from their inception. They were inspired by God when written.
“When at last a church council – The synod of Hippo in AD 393 listed the 27 books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity” (FF Bruce)
There were 3 main reasons why a New Testament Canon was established:
1. A leading heretic by the name of Marcion (AD140) had his own ideas and the church needed to determine what the true canon was in order to counteract his teaching.
2. The Eastern churches especially were including unrecognised (dodgy) books.
3. The Edict of the Roman emperor Diocletian (AD 303) ordered all books to be burned. The early Christian Martyrs would not be prepared to die to protect nothing more than just a religious book.
The New Testament has 4 main divisions:
- Gospels – Matthew to John
- History – Acts
- Epistles (letters) – Romans to Jude
- Prophetic – Revelation
These gospels and letters were either written or authorised by the Apostles.
Even though the events were not necessarily written down at the time, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would inspire and remind the Apostles of what needed to be written.
“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (John 16:13-14)
The Apostles were also aware that they and others were writing scripture:
“He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3: 16)
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.””(1 Timothy 5:17-18)
The quote about not muzzling the ox is from Deuteronomy 25:4 in the Old Testament; the quote that follows it about the worker deserving his wages is from Luke 10:7. Both are referred to as scripture.
The Old Testament Canon
Compared to the New Testament, there was very little controversy over the canon of the Old Testament. Hebrew believers recognised God’s messengers and accepted their writings as inspired of God. The Jewish Old Testament Canon is the same as ours but just set out in a different way. The Jews didn’t split their books (e.g. 1 & 2 Kings) and they counted the minor prophets as one book.
The Law (Torah)
The Prophets (Nebhiim)
The Writings (Kethubhim)
|Genesis||a. Former prophets||a. Poetical books|
|Deuteronomy||Kings||b. Five Rolls (Megilloth)|
|b. Latter prophets||Song of Songs|
|c. Historical books|
Jesus himself in the New Testament fully accepted the canon of the Old Testament. And In the following passage he even acknowledges the 3 sub-divisions:
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” “(Luke 24:44)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
There are many quotes from the Old Testament in the New Testament.
There can now be no more possibility of any further books being added to the bible. The final chapter in the last book of the New Testament, written by one of the last Apostles, says:
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
We can be sure that we now have the full canon of scripture, the words of God, based on His faithfulness. It is entirely within God’s nature as a loving Father to give us exactly what we need; He would not hold anything back from us:
“They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:47)
“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)