Last time in our study of Scripture’s authority, we examined biblical inspiration and the challenge of how God communicated His message through the text. In this article, we turn to biblical canonization and the problem of recognition. Do you ever wonder who selected the sixty-six books of Scripture? Why are those books in there, and not some others?
The canon refers to the list of books in the Bible, while canonization refers to the process of creating that list. Canon derives from the Greek word kanon (and the Hebrew qaneh before that) and originally referred to a straight rod or reed used for measuring. The common meaning of the word can be seen from the few times it appears in the New Testament, where kanon is typically translated “rule,” “measure,” or “limit” (2 Corinthians 10:13-16; Galatians 6:16; Philippians 3:16).
So the canon represents the books recognized as measuring up to the standard as God’s Word. Let’s begin with the Old Testament.
The selection of books in the Law and the Prophets is of an ancient tradition, a collection a thousand years in the making. Jewish scribes knew even the middle letter of the Torah (the five books of Moses) — a difficult feat if the books were uncertain. The rabbis who gathered at Jamnia the generation after Jerusalem’s destruction (ad 70) critically evaluated each book of the Tanakh (Christian Old Testament). Some were questioned, like Song of Solomon, due to its theme; Esther, because it didn’t mention God; and Ecclesiastes, because it seemed secular.
Yet after the rabbis’ lengthy deliberation, the long recognized traditional collection, and the same we have today, was formally ratified.
In the middle
The Apocrypha fared differently. In reaction to Reformers, this collection of fourteen books from the period between the Old and New Testaments had been regarded by Catholics as Scripture since the Council of Trent (1540), but not by Jews or most Protestants. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls marked a difference. When apocryphal books quote Scripture, they say, “It is written.”
Purgatory isn’t taught in the Bible, but is supported by 2 Maccabees. And there are other doctrinal problems in the Apocrypha: praying for the dead, salvation by works, the use of magic, sinless lives of Old Testament personalities, geographical errors, and factual contradictions with Scripture.
Unlike the Old Testament, the books of the New Testament emerged quickly while circulating independently of each other for a long time. A tradition was established around the recognition of those that were truly inspired by God. Eventually, in the fourth century, that tradition was formally described.
The basic criteria by which books were recognized and elected into our canon of Scripture include, at least, the following rules. Each book must . . .
It should be written by an apostle or a close associate (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; Hebrews 1:1, 2). Jude teaches us that “the faith . . . was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). “Once for all” means no more is coming! This is confirmed when Revelation takes us right out to eternity and ends by telling us that no one has anything more to add to it.
Each book must agree with the teachings of the church. By church, we do not mean a corporate denomination but the body of believers founded by Christ, beginning with the apostles and prophets and seen in the criterion of Scripture agreeing with Scripture among believers from the start.
Have the character of Scripture.
A mature believer knows whether the Word rings true as the Word of God. The Bible warns novices not to be swayed by every wind of doctrine but to heed mature believers. If God has been working in you for many years, you know the truth when you hear it. The sheep know their Master’s voice (John 10:27, 28).
Be widely used throughout the church.
Each book should demonstrate that believers recognized it as inspired by God while it was circulated among them. Sometimes the question concerned how wide that circulation was or how immediately it was recognized in the earliest days. On some occasions when a scroll was read for the first time, the whole audience would break down and cry. Imagine the thrill of having Scripture delivered to them when they had very little.
Be a clear and consistent testimony to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
With each book focused on our resurrected Savior and Lord, we can be confident that as the Holy Spirit inspired the very words of Scripture, so He inspired their recognition and collection.The God who inspired the words and writing of the Bible is the same God who inspired the collection and transmission of them. - Gordon Feil Click To Tweet
Test of time
The God who inspired the words and writing of the Bible is the same God who inspired the collection and transmission of them. Two thousand years later, these sixty-six books are loved and trusted by billions of Christians as God’s Word to us and the sole rule of faith and practice.
Read the rest of the series:
- Part 1: Biblical Authority
- Part 2: Biblical Revelation
- Part 3: Biblical Inspiration
- Part 4: Biblical Canonization
- Part 5: Biblical Preservation
- Part 6: Biblical Application