WHAT EVERY CHRISTIAN NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE

Introduction

Psalm 119:89 says: “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven.” (NASB)
II Timothy 3:16 says: “All Scripture is inspired by God…” (NASB)

At the beginning of this twenty-first century the cock-sure ignorance of modern man has touched the subject of the content of Scripture in a number of ways with the result that now the formerly settled identity of Scripture is itself under fire.

Always, in my ministry, we have made Bibles available to boys and girls as a reward for reciting the names of the Bible books in order from Genesis to Revelation. Forty-five years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I never dreamed that anyone would ever question whether or not these books themselves would come under question as belonging in the Bible and that to the exclusion of all others.

Alas, now a movement seems to be under way to subvert the confidence of Christian people as to what is truly the full Bible and what is not.

This subject necessarily involves a concept about which the Christian public seldom hears discussion or even gives attention. I refer to the word “canon.”

The word is “canon”, not “cannon” which would be the word if we were discussing an army field gun. Every Christian, in our day, needs to know the truth about the canon of Scripture, spelled c-a-n-o-n.

I. WHAT IS THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE?

To define the word “canon,” we turn to Galatians 6:14-16 where Paul is talking about the critical importance of the cross of Christ in the life of believers as more important than circumcision, that is, being a “new creation” in Christ. In verse 16 he says: “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule…” The word “rule” here is the Greek word “kanon.” In Greek it is pronounced “canOWN.”

The only other place where canon is used in the New Testament is in II Corinthians 10:13,15 and 16 where it translates roughly “measure,” as in the noun form.

The Greek Old Testament [LXX] uses kanon to translate the Hebrew word “koneh” which means “rule” or “rigid rule” (Micah 7:4).

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines canon as “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture.” This, being only one usage of canon described by Webster, doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. The canon is that set of books and only that set of books that has survived the scrutiny of God’s people as to what writings comprise Holy Scripture. That is, only these “measure up” to being Scripture, God’s Word in written form.

II. PRESENT DANGER TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE CANON

I, personally, am not as concerned with the Old Testament canon, at this point, so my focus here is with regard to the canon of the New Testament. The subject of the Old Testament canon involves Judaism as well as Christianity for which a formidable apologetic could be mounted involving history, the transmission of Scripture and other arguments that safeguard these Scriptures. What I see is a subtle and sinister disregard for the more recent history of the Christian church as regards the New Testament canon.

We must face the obvious fact that modern Americans are woefully ignorant as to the content of Scripture. They are even worse off when it comes to a proper understanding of those writings.

Just before the turn of the twentieth century and since then, modern thinking Christians have become concerned with the effectiveness of existing English translations of the Bible. Varying opinions among scholars as to the pertinence of the many existing Greek manuscripts and variations among them were making it apparent that the older English translations were not the best representatives of the New Testament. More recently, change within the English language, coupled with poor performance among school children and young people in learning to read and grasp older established forms of English are making it difficult to understand the Elizabethan English so ably and beautifully portrayed in the King James version of the Bible.

Enter Bible scholars with a burden to correct this disparity between the all-important message of Scripture and the people’s ability to read and comprehend it. Some of the newer attempts at translating the Bible into modern English were only modestly successful. Finally, in 1973 the New International Version, primarily a product of Christian Reformed scholars, was published. This translation is now best represented in the 1984 edition. Though it is only a translation from the original Greek, like all English versions of the Bible, yet it now outsells every other. This and other worthwhile modern English Bible versions have adequately addressed the question of the clarity of language and vocabulary to the modern English reader.

So, today, the danger to the canon of Scripture is not so much getting at the meaning as it is in knowing for certain the scope of writings which includes Scripture. A poor grasp of English and indifference to what God has given as Scripture are at least part of the problem of defending the canon of Scripture. These questions, though, are outside the parameters of this paper. We are limited, here, to a discussion of the defense of the biblical New Testament canon.

There is though, one other factor that bears upon this discussion. The fundamentalist Christian public is, at present, being utterly confused by a continuing barrage of propaganda from some preachers and a few scholars to the effect that any and every modern language translation is not to be used because they represent corruptions of the text. Virtually every form of argument is employed against the newer translations, holding out the three-hundred year old King James as the only acceptable version of the Bible for the modern reader.

While disdain for modern Bible translations is not directly related to the problem of the canon of Scripture, the overall weight of contention does, I think, serve to discourage those who would otherwise be attracted to Scripture. I view it as one more tool in Satan’s arsenal of weaponry to discourage a proper understanding of Scripture. And, finally, while our “King James only” friends would not differ with us as to the content of the New Testament canon, some of them do hold to a novel notion of what preservation of Scripture is, and this confuses the issue unnecessarily.

Therefore, on the one hand, we have those who do not read Scripture or who find it too difficult. These could, I think in many cases, find themselves substituting non-biblical writings for Scripture, thus diluting and distorting the Word of God. On the other hand we have those whose allegiance to Scripture is not in question. But, their narrow reasoning that only their translation is acceptable serves to give the impression that the whole argument is about antiquity that has no bearing upon or relevance to modern life or God’s dealings within it. Little wonder, therefore, that postmodernism is having a field day with young minds, teaching, as it does, that there are no absolutes over which to be concerned. Hence: “One old-fashion idea is as good as another.”

III. PRESENT EROSION OF THE FINALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON

The popular American mind hankers for change. The Bible makes clear that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s truth involves spiritual discernment. That discernment is available only to the person who surrenders to Christ and places himself or herself under the tutelage of God’s Holy Spirit.

Under this definition, therefore, many, if not most, will not appreciate nor accept the idea that “a book” as old as the Bible is absolute truth that ought not and must not be changed.

At Easter time this year (2006), “a great discovery” was announced. An ancient manuscript was found some years ago for which translation to English was recently completed. It is entitled The Gospel of Judas. Scholars have known of it for centuries but did not believe any copy of it existed. It is a work of second-century Gnosticism, a cultic movement that challenged orthodox Christianity. The only thing “new” about this manuscript is that, if authentic, we now have access to what was cited by the second-century church father, Irenaeus, as heresy in his important work Against All Heresies. Judas is portrayed in the book as a friend rather than a traitor of Christ.

Reaction to the appearance of this manuscript translation was swift. “Why didn’t this ‘gospel’ make the cut and be included in the Bible?” In response to this question one “scholar” remarked that it was because of one man’s pronouncement against it that it was rejected. No doubt, he was referring to Irenaeus. This is an outrageous misrepresentation of how the canon of Scripture came to be.

Hard on the heels of this “Gospel of Judas” has been the appearance of the movie based on the book The Da Vinci Code, a novel by Dan Brown. In the novel a supposed code transmitted through Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper leads to uncovering a hidden “truth” that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and sired a child with her. Christians of all persuasions have expressed outrage over its appearance. Some foreign governments are seeking a boycott of the movie. Some think the Roman Catholic Church may file a lawsuit over its portrayal of the church and Christ.

U.S. News and World Report for May 22, 2006 reported in its cover story: “The secrets and lies perpetuated by the church, according to The Da Vinci Code characters, were transmitted through the least reliable of sources: the New Testament. [Dan] Brown’s British historian, Leigh Teabing, asserts midway through the book that ‘more than 80 gospels were considered for the New Testament’, but Constantine selected only four.” The article continues with a rebuttal by Christian spokesmen that the canon of Scripture was still under discussion by Christian scholars as late as 400 A.D. well after the time of Constantine. Conclusion: Constantine had nothing to do with the establishment of the canon.

Will a gullible public conclude, though, that these “fine points” of scholarship are merely “church politics” and that Jesus was just a man like the rest of us and that the Bible is merely an old book without special relevance to modern man? I think that, in too many cases, that will happen.

IV. THE FOREVER-COMPLETED NEW TESTAMENT CANON

The real truth is that, with respect to the New Testament, it came directly given by God’s Holy Spirit through human writers and that the writings established themselves in the hearts of men as the very Word of God. However, the process that caused this is not a simple story.

For about twenty years following the Resurrection of Christ, the only Bible the Christian church possessed was the Old Testament. After the pattern of the synagogue, the services of the New Testament included Scripture readings. “Until I come give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (I Timothy 4:13, NASB). Paul, in writing this, was referring to the Old Testament. We have no record that the apostles realized their writings would be recognized as Scripture. B. B. Warfield, though, a much respected Christian scholar of the nineteenth century, believed there is ample evidence that the New Testament writers did, indeed, know that what they were writing was Scripture. In any case, they knew they had authority that God had given them.

It is not surprising that Paul expected that his letters would be circulated within the churches. In I Thessalonians 5:27 he says: “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.” Of the Colossian letter Paul wrote (Cl 4:16) “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans, and you, for your part, read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.”

It is clear that as the writings of the apostles made their way through the churches that their divine authority was coming to be recognized. Peter, in reference to Paul, concedes that Paul’s writings were, in some cases “hard to understand.” Then he says: “the untaught and the unstable distort [them] as they do also the rest of the Scriptures…” (II Pe 3:16).

As with Peter’s citation of Paul’s writings above, it seems Paul quoted Luke 10:7 in I Timothy 5:18 along with Deuteronomy 25:4, making no distinction between them but citing them both as “Scripture.”

The relative sparsity of support within the New Testament, arguing for its position as Scripture is actually a point in its favor. In other words, the New Testament writings do not defend themselves. They present themselves.

This is precisely what one would expect in light of the fact that the New Testament writers addressed their writings to various places within the biblical world. Peter wrote to “the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia,” etc. Paul wrote to “the church of the Thessalonians, the church in Corinth,” etc. John wrote to the “seven churches in the province of Asia.” That these writings would be collected, circulated other places, and copied would be the most natural thing we would expect and all the more as the Christians began to face persecution first as a cultic movement within Judaism and then as an upstart religious movement in its own right.

As these apostles died off or were killed the import of the writings they left behind would have been become readily apparent to the young church. It is believed that hundreds, even thousands of copies of the various letters were made. As evangelistic pursuits and persecution served to scatter the early disciples, precious hand-written copies of these manuscripts would go with them. It is also believed that the codex, what we would call “a hand-written book” may have been widely used among early Christians as a much simpler and less expensive means of conveying the New Testament writings.

By way of a time frame for the establishment of finality to the New Testament we should summarize here. Many heretical writings began to circulate along with what we now know to be the canonical writings. False views of Christ, His person and work, writings falsely attributed to the various Apostles and other spurious writings all threatened the orthodoxy of the young church. The need for permanent authoritative writings of the faith was becoming abundantly clear.

By the end of the first century all the books of the New Testament had been written and their authors were deceased. The writings of the earliest church fathers during this time contain many quotations that make it clear that they knew the truths we now know are in the New Testament books.

By 170 A.D. the church father Tatian had formed the Diatessaron, a harmony of the gospels with precisely the four gospels we now have. During the years 170-220 A.D. huge amounts of writing took place based upon the New Testament writings. About this period the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE) says: “In passing into it [this period of the church’s history] we come into the clear light of Christian history. There is no longer any question as to a NT canon; the only difference of judgment is as to its extent.”

The third and fourth centuries saw slow movement toward the adoption of a “canon ”
of Scripture as such, though the term was not then used. During this period the church was under heavy persecution and copies of the various books, when discovered, were consigned to the flames. Christians and their leaders were often hunted down, tortured and killed.

Five of the 27 canonical books found slow reception: James, Jude, II Peter, II John and the Revelation. It is thought that the smaller books had not seen especially wide circulation and were relatively unknown. The Revelation was scrutinized very carefully and parts of the church did not accept it until much later. However, by the last half of the fourth century the finality of the New Testament canon was firmly established.

It is greatly significant that no synod or church council ever passed upon the canon itself. The primary moving factor in it all came down to a few tests that Christian people applied for themselves in deciding what was Scripture and what was not: 1) Apostolicity- was the book written by an apostle or did it have such a relationship to an apostle? 2) Content- were the contents of such a spiritual character as to entitle them to the rank of canonicity? 3) Universality- was the book universally received in the church? 4) Inspiration- did the book give evidence of being divinely inspired. (These tests are enlarged upon in Theissen’s Introduction to the New Testament.)

Conclusion

The subject of the canon of the New Testament is vitally important in our day. It is imperative that Christians realize the import of the books of our Bible called, together, the New Testament. They have been given that title because believers for many centuries have realized with an unique spiritual perception that these are the words God gave to His church for belief and practice until Christ comes for His bride.

These 27 books and only these have survived for more than twenty centuries not because some council or group of power brokers deemed it so. They survive today and assert themselves because they are the Word of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” our Savior said, “but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).

Stand upon it, Christian brother. Apologize not for it, believing sister. The canon of Scripture was God’s idea. Let not man put it asunder. Amen!

BIB-28, Kenneth F. Pierpont, D.Min. May 2006