During a seminary class on the doctrine of the Bible, one of my students asked what pastoral issues arise most often in the area of bibliology. The most often? “The canon,” I answered without hesitation or qualification. Out of all the inquiries I receive about Scripture, the question of what books belong in the Bible is the one I hear on a consistent basis.
That shouldn’t really surprise us. When Christians read the Bible, they want to know for sure that what they are reading is truly the word of God. Do we have all the word of God? Do we have some texts that are not the word of God? How can we know? We desire certainty here because we want to fully embrace what God has said and reject what he hasn’t. When we doubt, the stability and vibrancy of our faith is undermined.
Over the years biblical scholars have proposed various methodologies to help answer this vital question of canon. Some suggest that we should assume that canon formation is primarily a human activity. Those who take this approach delve deeply into the historical details and debates over the canon in the history of the church in order to sift through the evidence and chart a possible solution. Do you want to know what books belong in the canon? Ask the historical scholars. The Roman Catholic Church bypasses all this painstaking research by arguing that Christ appointed the Church to determine the canon. Do you want to know what books belong in Scripture? Ask the Catholic Church.
God’s Glory and the Question of Canon
By and large, however, the discussion of canon formation is rarely approached from the biblical perspective that God has an infinite interest in securing the canon. Even sincere Christians who are seeking answers to these important questions for the sake of their spiritual stability forget that canon formation is first and foremost God’s concern before it is ours.
God’s glory and his people’s salvation and spiritual growth are bound up with ensuring that the canon is clear and identifiable. We can expect, therefore, that God would provide his people with everything they need to rightly identify what books and letters are the word of God and therefore belong in the Bible. If we are not convinced that the canon is first God’s concern, we will not likely be helped by historical research.
It is precisely this reason why I believe some Christians seem to be perpetually tossed to and fro over this question, never seeming to find “cognitive rest”1 about what books belong in the Bible. The immediate impulse appears to be, when confronted with the question of canon, to turn directly to historical scholarship to resolve the problem. But recourse to historical research cannot finally settle the canon question because canon is first a theological issue and then (and only then) a historical issue. Long before canon was our concern, it was God’s intention and design that his people have immediate and certain access to his words so they could glorify him in faith and obedience.
The Canon in Israel
For example, as God establishes the nation of Israel, we find him formalizing his concern for his people to properly handle his Word. God assigns his chosen servant, Moses, to write down his words so that they might be preserved in perpetuity for the sake of Israel’s obedience (Exod 17:14; 24:4). God even writes his own word on tablets of stone for Israel’s instruction (Exod 31:18; 32:15). From this point on, the written word becomes the central component of Israel’s civil and religious life.
We also see that as God delivers his Word to his chosen nation through Moses, he warns his people to not add to or take away from the Word he has given through his servant: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut 4:2; cf. 12:32). The reason for these warnings soon becomes clear: in order for Israel to obey their God and glorify him, they must know what words he has spoken to them.
Keep [these commandments] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him’?Deuteronomy 4:6-7
Confusion at the point of locating God’s Word would cause an immediate fracture between God and his people because they wouldn’t be able to know for certain what God had and had not spoken. Such perplexity would hinder Israel’s international recognition as a wise and understanding people while subsequently undermining God’s reputation among the surrounding nations.
From the very beginning of Israel’s history, therefore, God himself is deeply invested with the integrity of the canon because he is deeply invested in his own glory and the good of his people. He did not want any words left out of his revelation, nor did he want any rogue words added. His glory and his people’s obedience depended upon a clear, knowable, and tamper-free canon.
Identifying True Words and False Words
This need to rightly identify God’s Word was also directly related to God’s warnings about false prophets. The very reason for such warnings was so that God’s people would be able to discern where his word was located (in the mouth of the true prophets) and where it wasn’t located (in the mouth of the false prophets). God gave Israel all the criteria they needed to steer clear of the pseudo-canons of the false prophets.
If a supposed teacher or preacher came along and was able to perform some miraculous sign but used those signs to lead Israel away from what they had already learned about the one true God, that teacher was to be ignored and put to death (Deut 13:1-5). If a prophet arose who claimed to speak for God and asserted to have knowledge of the future but failed to deliver on his alleged prophesies, the people were not to follow his instructions for he clearly did not speak for God (Deut 18:20-22). But these two sets of instructions on how Israel was expected to discern between false and true prophets only carry rational weight if God’s people were able to readily identify his words. The inescapable implication is that Israel could know, with certainty, what words belonged in the canon and which ones didn’t, and this was precisely God’s aim.
A pervasive concern for Israel to discern between God’s true Word and the false words of the prophets continues from the Pentateuch onward through the nation’s history. Jeremiah speaks often of Israel’s willingness to follow false visions and prophesies (Jer 5:30-31; 6:14; Lam 2:14): One text serves as representative: “And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’” (Jer 14:14).
But God is only able to speak with integrity about prophets spreading lies in his name and speaking presumptuously if and only if he has provided his people a way to readily locate his words so that they could identify the words that do not come from him. Without a discernible canon, it would not be possible to determine, spiritually speaking, what was false and what was true.
God even takes note of how the priest and prophet “ply their trade through the land” but apparently do not possess divine knowledge (Jer 14:18). They were preaching, but what they said didn’t qualify as knowledge. But again, the observation that these wayward priests and prophets do not possess divine knowledge can only be made on the assumption that there is such a thing as divine knowledge that people in the nation could identify and embrace.
When we come to the New Testament, the warnings match their Old Testament counterparts in both urgency and tone. God warns his people to avoid the false teachers and gives his people all the criteria they need to identify what God has said and what God hasn’t said.
For example, Jesus had a deep concern during his earthly ministry that his words would be learned and followed by his disciples (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 9:26; 21:33; John 15:7). It was just crucial for his disciples to be able to identify false prophets and those who taught contrary to Jesus’ words (Matt 7:15-20). Jesus’ disciples, therefore, would need to be able to identify which words were his and which words were not his. Concern over the canon is what prompts John to end Revelation with a warning similar to Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev 22:18-19).
Toward the end of his earthly ministry, just prior to the cross, Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for pseudo-Christs who would attempt to deceive them with plausible sounding claims (Matt 24:5). Implicit in this warning is the need to be able to locate Christ’s words and identify words that were not from Christ. Apart from the underlying assumption, Jesus’ warning here means nothing. Without an identifiable canon, there would be no way to discern when someone was contradicting Christ’s words and attempting to lead his disciples astray.
Paul makes an indirect reference to the concept of canon when he reminds the Galatians that anyone who attempted to undermine the apostolic gospel was under an anathema.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.Galatians 1:8-9
In order for this warning to the Galatians to have any teeth at all, a few underlying assumptions had to be true. First, there had to be an original gospel revealed and approved by Christ that Paul had delivered to the believers in Galatia. Second, the Christians in Galatia had the spiritual ability to identify this original gospel. Third, it was possible to discern deviations from this gospel so that, regardless of the messenger (even if it was Paul himself or another apostle!), a Galatian believer could make an accurate judgment on whether or not someone was remaining true to the word of Christ.
Indeed, any New Testament instruction to identify false teaching and false teachers is an implicit argument for canon. Without a divinely sanctioned body of truth and the spiritual capacity to recognize it, there can be no true discernment of that which contradicts it.
Spiritual Fruitfulness, Canon, and the Glory of God
Locating and absorbing Jesus’ words is essential for spiritual fruitfulness. Jesus told his disciples, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8). Notice in this sequence how God’s glory is ultimately attached to the canon. It is by abiding in Jesus’ words that a disciple bears fruit, and it is this fruitfulness that redounds to God’s glory. If, however, Christ’s words cannot dwell in the disciple, then the disciple will not be fruitful and God will not be glorified. Only when the disciple is able to locate those words can he abide in them. God’s concern over the canon, therefore, must be the same concern he has for his own glory. Happily, God has an infinite and unswerving passion for his own glory (Isa 42:8; 43:25; 48:11), which means he has an infinite and unswerving passion for the canon of Scripture.
But these observations take us back to our observation at the beginning of this article: God’s glory and his people’s spiritual good hinge upon their ability to accurately distinguish between God’s words and those words that have not come from God. It would seem, then, that a low view of the biblical canon stems not so much from historical complexity as it does from a lack of doxology. When God is seen rightly, in all his glory and holiness and love and power, and history is viewed as the unfolding of God’s immovable plan to glorify his Son; and when eternal spiritual realities of heaven and hell are seen in all their unimaginable wonder and horror, the notion that the canon is an uncertain, unstable, and otherwise unimportant historical conundrum is almost laughable. God has bound himself to the reliability of his Word, and securing that Word for his people is of paramount importance for his glory and his redemptive plan.
The Old Testament Books
The Old Testament canon was well established prior to Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. We see agreement among Jesus and his contemporaries that the OT canon consisted of the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets (or, the shortened version: The Law and the Prophets). Jesus affirmed the Law and the Prophets as God’s Word (Matt 5:17-20; 15:1-7; 19:3-9; Luke 24:24, 44; John 10:35). But Jesus didn’t view only the places in the OT where God spoke directly as God’s Word. Rather, the entirety of Old Testament Scripture was considered God’s Word. We see Christ’s comprehensive approach to the Old Testament particularly in Matthew’s gospel.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.Matthew 19:3-9
In this episode, Jesus responds to a question from the religious leaders about the lawfulness of divorce under the Old Covenant by turning their attention to an earlier text of Scripture in the Pentateuch. The point of Jesus’s reference to Genesis 2:24 in his interaction with the Pharisees was to make it clear that divorce was never part of God’s original intention for marriage. Salient to our discussion on canon is how Jesus cites the quote from Genesis. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made the male and female and said therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:4-5; emphasis added). Although it was Moses who had made the statement in the text of Genesis, Jesus actually attributes those words to God. In Jesus’ view, Old Testament Scripture came from God in such a way that even passages that did not include direct speech from God were still to be taken as his very Word. These are the thirty-nine books we have in our Bibles today.
The New Testament Books
But what about the New Testament? Well, we should expect God to deliver an authoritative set of inspired writings immediately after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. At multiple major points along the redemptive-historical timeline, God coupled his mighty acts with the provision of a new set of inspired texts.
We see the first major set delivered after the Exodus as Moses pens Israel’s covenant documents. These would be followed by documents written to describe Israel’s entrance into the promised land, then a book dedicated to describing the period of the judges followed by multiple historical books explaining the period of the kings. One of Israel’s great kings would pen several Psalms, while another one of Israel’s prominent kings would write a large collection of Proverbs plus two other OT books. As God leveled judgment upon his wayward people, material from the writing prophets began to flourish. As we come to the pinnacle of redemptive history—the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah—it should come as no surprise that this event would come with another set of divinely-inspired writings.
This leads us to a second point. Not only should we expect more authoritative writings to coincide with the death and resurrection of the Messiah, but Jesus himself promised that a new collection of authoritative writings was on its way. Shortly before his death, Jesus said to his apostles, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26; see also 16:12-15). Notice that the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the disciples would consist of (1) teaching them all things; and (2) bringing to their remembrance all that Jesus said to them. Such a ministry of the Holy Spirit would be necessary for the writing of new covenant documents.
We know that three of the disciples went on to write authoritative texts that were collected into the New Testament: Matthew, John, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation. Paul was commissioned by and received revelation directly from Jesus (Gal 1-2). Paul would write Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Philemon.
Mark likely wrote under Peter’s authority and used much material from Peter’s recollection of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospel of Luke and Acts was written by Luke who was an associate of Paul and who labored painstakingly to craft accurate documents based on eye-witness accounts (Luke 1:1-4). The author of Hebrews is unknown, but his handling of the Old Testament and his insight into the New Covenant indicate that he had close engagement with the apostles and likely had apostolic oversight of his letter (see Heb 13:18-19; 22-24). Jude was written by Jesus’ half brother under the apostolic oversight of his brother James (Jude 1).
So, why these sixty-six books? Nathan Busenitz, professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary, says it well: “We believe in the 39 books of the Old Testament, because the Lord Jesus Christ affirmed the Old Testament. And we believe in the 27 books of the New Testament, because the Lord Jesus Christ authorized His apostles to write the New Testament.”
While the historical details of canon formation seem to present us with a rather complex scenario, the truth is that the underlying process was very simple: God inspired these sixty-six books and his people recognized what he inspired. God has ensured that people can easily identify his Word so that they can believe it, obey it, and glorify him through it. May we enjoy renewed confidence in these sixty-six books and thank God for his Word.
1I take this phrase from John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1987), 152-62.