Given that the holy Scriptures are the word of God, where are they to be found? What is, and what is not, Scripture? This is the question of canon. The Greek, kanōn, means rule or standard (Gal. 3:16; Phil. 3:16) and can refer to a sphere of action (2 Cor. 10:13, 15f).
The Hebrew Old Testament canon was settled and identical to ours but the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, contains a number of apocryphal books and is the Old Testament text of the Orthodox churches. The Old Testament canon of the Roman Catholic Church also includes apocryphal literature. However, evidence suggests that the New Testament church followed the Hebrew canon.
Athanasius, in his Paschal Letter of 367, lists a New Testament canon identical to ours, although lists of authoritative books were compiled in the second century, following Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament, and the appearance of spurious ‘gospels’ from various gnostic groups. The Muratorian fragment of 170 has a list substantially, although not completely, identical to ours.
What constitutes canonicity?
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) states that Scripture is ‘given by inspiration of God’ (WCF 1:2). The later phrase, ‘immediately inspired’ (WCF 1:8), denotes that the Father breathed Scripture out by the Spirit in the origination of the original manuscripts. However, in its eventual production, human means were used. The Bible was composed by human hands, human thought and often historical research but its ultimate origin was from God. The Holy Spirit and the human authors were compatible and worked concursively; God created humanity in his image for this purpose, exemplified supremely by the incarnation.
Protestant lists exclude all other books, notably the Apocrypha. Since canonical books are inspired by God, the reason why the Westminster Confession does not consider the Apocrypha canonical is that its books are not inspired by God but are purely human compositions and so they ‘are of no authority in the church of God.’ While there are occasional allusions in the New Testament to apocryphal works, the Westminster Assembly’s statement is based, among other things, on the absence in the New Testament of direct citations from the Apocrypha, in contrast to a plethora from the Old Testament, as well as the opinions of a range of Fathers and ancient Councils.
However, inspiration of itself cannot be Scripture’s defining or distinguishing characteristic since other statements were inspired by God and yet were not Scripture – the letter of Paul to Laodicea, the whole body of apostolic preaching and teaching, and a wide range of prophetic utterances. That there is a connection between inspiration and canonicity is clear. Yet, inspiration, while a necessary condition of canonicity, is not of itself sufficient.
Still less is canonicity based on the decision of the church, as Rome maintains. The church recognized the canon; it did not confer it. Long before official lists were compiled or conciliar decisions made the existence of a New Testament canon was recognized. The four Gospels and the writings of Paul were acknowledged early, other books like Hebrews and Revelation took longer to receive universal acceptance. Paul probably refers to the Gospel of Luke as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18) as does Peter of the writings of Paul (2 Pet. 3:16). Underlying this was the commission Jesus gave to the apostles, conferring his own authority on them in their teaching (John 16:12-15).
In turn, apostolic authorship does not of itself guarantee canonicity either, nor does its absence preclude it. We have mentioned Paul’s lost letter; there must have been others from his hand. These are not in the canon; neither are apostolic oral communications. Some New Testament books were not written by apostles; if apostolic authorship were required it would rule out Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James and Jude.
Nor does doctrinal content constitute canonicity, although, like inspiration, it is a necessary element. Apostolic writings outside the canon conformed doctrinally with the rest of Scripture; this does not make them canonical.
The canon is self-attesting
Some of these putative criteria – inspiration and doctrinal conformity – are necessary components of what makes the canonical books canonical. Nonetheless, by themselves they are insufficient. None of these categories are watertight explanations. Indeed, if there was a criterion to determine canonicity that criterion would take precedence over the canonical books and be a tool in the hands of the church to stamp its own authority over the Bible. It would function as a checklist. Effectively, it would place power in the hands of the church over the Word of God.
Ultimately, the canon imposed itself on the church. The church recognised it, although it took longer for some books to receive acceptance than others. Behind this is the principle that only God can adequately attest the works of God and so the canon, notwithstanding the many external evidences in support, is self-attesting. It is here that the Holy Spirit speaks to us as he testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son and grants us access to the Father.
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