What is a canon?

A canon is a standard or principle or criterion by which something is judged.


How is the term used in theology?

It is used to refer to those books which are considered to be Scripture.  The canon of Scripture is the list of books understood to be inspired by God.


What is the canon of Scripture?

You can see the list of books here.


How did the church decide which books to include in the canon and which to leave out?

The canon of the Old Testament was simply received from the Jews.  The canon of the New Testament was decided on after a long process.  Farrar writes:

If it be asked, then, on what authority we accept as canonical the sixty-six books of our Scriptures, many will reply, ‘on the authority of the Church.’ But this answer simply means, by the general consensus of Christians; for it can hardly be said that the whole Church, as such, has pronounced any opinion on the Canon. As regards the Old Testament the Christian Church accepted the conclusions of the Jewish Synod of Jamnia, and that synod simply reflected the critical and spiritual ability of Rabbis who were far from being unanimous, were bound in an impossible system, and were by no means free from error. The churchmen assembled at Laodicea2 and Carthage exercised no independent judgment on their books, nor was their critical knowledge other than elementary. No œcumenical council has formally considered the question of the Canon, but only two provincial synods. Even had they been œcumenical we know from history, and are expressly warned by our own Church, that general councils, ‘forasmuch as they be an assembly of men whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God, may err and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.’ St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the most learned, profound, and eloquent of the Fathers, who himself presided at the second œcumenical council, was so far from regarding councils as infallible that he had the lowest opinion of their deliberations and said that he had never seen a good result from any synod. Luther said, ‘The Church cannot give any more authority or power than it has of itself. A council cannot make that to be of Scripture which is not by nature of Scripture.’1 It follows then that the decision as to what books are or are not to be regarded as true Scripture, though we believe it to be wise and right, depends on no infallible decision. It must satisfy the scientific and critical as well as the spiritual requirements of each age. When the Council of Trent, a small assembly in which there were very few men of high linguistic or critical attainments, declared on the authority of Pope Eugenius IV. that six books of the Apocrypha were to be ‘received and venerated’ with the same feeling of devotion and reverence as all the books of the Old and New Testaments, the Reformed Churches rightly ignored their authority, and laid it down as a principle that ‘any man may reject books claiming to be Holy Scripture if he do not feel the evidence of their contents.’ The anathemas of the Council of Trent are as complete a matter of indifference to the free conscience as those of the Synod of Jamnia.


What happened at the council of Jamnia?

First, it is not certain that there ever was an actual council at Jamnia.  Harrison writes:

It has also been suggested that pronouncements that defined the limits of the Old Testament canon were made by a formal council of Jewish authorities held towards the end of the first century after Christ at Jamnia or Jabneh. Desirable though such an event might have been, it is far from certain that there ever was a Council or Synod of Jamnia in the strictest sense. To speak of such a body as though it was responsible for closing the Old Testament canon by fixing its limits as they had been arrived at by 90ad is to beg the entire question, as Moore has pointed out. As far as the facts of the situation are concerned, very little is known about the supposed Synod of Jamnia. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the forces of Titus in 70ad, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai obtained permission from the Romans to settle in Jamnia, where he proposed to carry on his literary activities. The location soon became an established center of Scriptural study, and from time to time certain discussions took place relating to the canonicity of specific Old Testament books including Ezekiel, Esther, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. There can be little doubt that such conversations took place both before and after this period, and it seems probable that nothing of a formal or binding nature was decided in these discussions, even though, as Rowley had indicated, the various debates helped to crystallize and establish the Jewish tradition in this regard more firmly than had been the case previously. Introduction to the OT, 277–278.  cf Ryle, chapter 22 in Rowley, Davidson and here.

Smith writes:  …this Synod [of Jamnia] appears to have provided merely a few puerile reasons for confirming the canonicity of certain Books which had already for nearly two centuries enjoyed the reverence of the people. In contrast to this tardy and partial influence of a Council, it is very probable that what secured to the Prophets and the Hagiographa their canonical rank was their inherent worth and vitality as tested by popular use.  Cosin wrote in 1683:

And to know exactly what the true number and names of those books are which belong to them both [i.e. both testaments] there is no faster course to be taken then herein to follow the public voice and the universal testimony of the same Church which from hand to hand receiving those books into the Divine and authentic canon of Scripture hath brought them down from the times of Moses and the prophets to the time of Christ and His Apostles and so from their time to ours successively in all Ages.


What does the Roman Catholic church teach with regards to this point?

They teach that the church identified which books were canonical and assigned this status to them.  Thus, the canon of Scripture relies for its authority on the church by which they mean the Roman Catholic church.


What is the canon according to the Roman Catholic church?

The council of Trent gave this list:

They [the canonical books] are as set down here below: of the Old Testament: the five books of Moses, to wit, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon [Chronicles], the first book of Esdras, and the second which is entitled Nehemias; Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Davidical Psalter, consisting of a hundred and fifty psalms; the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles [Song of Solomon], Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, with Baruch; Ezekiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, to wit, Osee [Hosea], Joel, Amos, Abdias [Obadiah], Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Sophonias [Zephaniah], Aggaeus [Haggai], Zachariah, Malachi; two books of the Machabees, the first and the second.  Of the New Testament: the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke the Evangelist; fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, (one) to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, (one) to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, (one) to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two of Peter the apostle, three of John the apostle, one of the apostle James, one of Jude the apostle, and the Apocalypse [Revelation] of John the apostle.


Do the Protestant churches accept this list?

They accept the list of New Testament books but not the list of the Old Testament books.  All Protestant churches reject the books they call apocryphal.


What are these apocryphal books?

1&2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah (also known as Baruch 6), Additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), Additions to Esther, 1,2,3 Maccabees.  The Belgic Confession teaches:

Article 6:  We distinguish between these holy books and the apocryphal ones, which are…  The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books, but they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion.  Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.


Why do Roman Catholics hold these books to be Canonical?

Because all Roman Catholics must submit to the decision of their teaching magisterium.  The magisterium has declared these books to be canonical, and this decision is to be received with as much respect as the very word of Scripture itself.


Why do Protestants reject these books as Canonical?

Protestants do not submit to the teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic church; and therefore, are not bound by its decisions.  Protestants have chosen to accept the Old Testament canon as the Jews have given it to us.


Do the Jews not accept the apocryphal books either?

They do not; source.


Earlier, you said that the Roman Catholic church identified which books were canonical and assigned this status to them.  Thus, the canon of Scripture relies for its authority on the Roman Catholic church.  How do Roman Catholics defend this idea?

Cardinal Wiseman writes:

The investigation whereby he [any protestant] can reach the conclusion that the sacred volume put into his hand is really the Word of God is of a twofold character. In the first place, before any Protestant can even commence the examination of that rule which his religion proposes to him, he must have satisfied himself that all the books or writings collected together in that volume are really the genuine works of those whose names they bear and that no such genuine work has been excluded, so that the rule be perfect and entire. Then in the second place, he must satisfy himself by his own individual examination that this book is inspired by God.

The cardinal then goes on to argue that Protestants have no possible way of knowing with any kind of certainty which books of the Bible are canonical and which aren’t.  Roman Catholics, however, do have certainty because they rely on the infallible teaching magisterium of their church to identify which books are inspired and which aren’t.


Above you said that the canonical books were recognized to be such by the church at large.  Why are the Roman Catholics not satisfied with this?

Wiseman goes on:

The authority then of history or of ecclesiastical tradition [to tell us which books are canonical], independently of the divine force allowed it by the Catholic, can prove no more than the genuineness or truth of the Scripture narrative but to be available as a proof of inspiration, it must carry us directly to the attestation of the only witnesses capable of certifying the circumstance. It may be true that the Church or body of Christians in succeeding times believed the books of the New Testament to be inspired; but if that Church and its traditions be not infallible, that belief goes no farther than a mere human or historical testimony; it can verify therefore no more than such testimony ever can that is outward and visible facts such as the publication and consequently the legitimacy of a work. The only way in which it can attest the interior acts which accompanied its compilation is by preserving the assurances of those who besides God could alone be witnesses to them. Now ecclesiastical history has not preserved to us this important testimony for nowhere have we it recorded of any of these writers that he asserted his own inspiration. And thus by rejecting tradition as an infallible authority is the only basis for the inspiration of Scripture cut away.

The Catholic Encyclopedia writes this:

Going further, the Catholic controversialists showed their opponents [Protestants] that of this very Bible, to which alone they wished to refer, they could not have the authentic canon nor even a sufficient guarantee without an authority other than that of the Bible. …  There is not, in fact, any sufficient guarantee for the canon of the Scriptures, for the total inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible, save in a Divine testimony which, not being contained in the Holy Books with sufficient clearness and amplitude, nor being sufficiently recognizable to the scrutiny of a scholar who is only a scholar, does not reach us with the necessary warrant it would bear if brought by a Divinely assisted authority, as is, according to Catholics, the authority of the living magisterium of the Church. Such is the way in which Catholics demonstrate to Protestants that there should be and that there are in fact Divine traditions not contained in Holy Writ.


How do we know that the Bible really is what we claim for it?  The Bible itself certainly makes no claim for the current 66 books.

True enough; the early church recognized which books were inspired and which weren’t, and we accept their testimony.


How did they figure this out?

The early church began this process by recognizing in Paul’s words the fundamental criterion;

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19-20)

This became the fundamental question, was this book written by a prophet or an apostle?  Thus, in most cases this criterion was simply, who wrote the book?  Other criteria were whether the doctrine contained in the book was apostolic; i.e. did it contradict what was already known of the apostolic tradition?  Finally, the early church asked the question, was and is this book generally accepted by the church of God?  (Geisler, Intro to Bible, 223)


Why was the early church so concerned with having a fixed canon of Scripture?

Many times in the early churches, disputes arose as to what was truly apostolic and what wasn’t.  It became necessary to have some fixed point of reference for determining this.  Thus, the New Testament was organized into one book as we have it today.  This provided a fixed point of reference by which all disputes could be resolved.


Why did the early church care what was apostolic and what wasn’t?

Because, the apostles were the real authorities in the Christian church. If someone could prove that Paul or Peter taught such and such a doctrine, then this doctrine was considered to be true to Jesus Himself.  After the apostles died, however, how was the early church supposed to know what was really apostolic or not?  Many different people claimed that the apostles agreed with their doctrine. How could the early church know for sure? By fixing an authoritative and authentic collection of apostolic writings and this became our NT. Congar writes;

But the further the Church moved forward from the apostolic age, the more necessary it became in discussion with the heretics to be supported by a “tradition” the authenticity of which was guaranteed by reference to a document which came incontestably from the apostles themselves, and hence by reference to apostolic writings. (Congar, Tradition and Traditions, 34)


It appears then, that by rejecting Roman Catholic tradition, we also reject our current canon of the Bible?

No, we are indebted to tradition for our current canon of Scripture, but this has nothing to do with Roman Catholic tradition.  The Roman Catholic church did not exist at this time.  The mistake here is to identify the catholic Christian church of the first century with the present day Roman Catholic church.


One more thing; if the church gave us the Bible then isn’t the church superior to Scripture and standing in judgment on it?

The early church did not decide which books were going to be canonical.  Rather, they recognized these books and called them what they already were.  Imagine that someone might pick a diamond out of a pile of common stones.  The person didn’t give the diamond its beauty; she simply recognized it as such.  The church is not above Scripture but is the servant of Scripture.  It is misleading to say that the Bible grew out of the ekklesia [church], not the ekklesia out of the Bible.”  Congar writes:

It would then be wrong to see in the fixing of a Scriptural canon an event which would suppose, which would confirm, a superiority of the Church over Scripture. The Church did no more than recognize certain writings as apostolic and by the same token recognize them as regulating her faith and life. It was for her a matter of assuring and affirming her apostolic reference. (Tradition and Traditions 39.)


But if the church existed long before we had a Bible then how can the Bible regulate the church?  What regulated the church before there was a Bible?

It is true that the church existed long before the Bible was organized into a canon of sixty-six books as we have it today.  Nevertheless, we must distinguish between the apostolic tradition; i.e. the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and our current Bible, made up of the sixty-six books. The contents of the Bible (i.e. the apostolic tradition) existed long before there was an actual written book called The Bible. The contents of our written Bible were floating around in people’s memories and in individual books for many years, and it was these teachings that gave birth to the church. The New Testament is simply the apostolic tradition written down. The Bible, as a written book with sixty-six books is not necessary to regulate the church.


Is there any other objection to this idea that we must accept Roman Catholic tradition if we are to accept our Bibles?

Yes, it is called the popish circle.


What do you mean by popish circle?

I mean to assert that sometimes Roman Catholic apologists argue in a circle.



By using Scripture to support the idea that their teaching magisterium is infallible and then using the infallibility of the magisterium to identify the canon of Scripture.  For instance, Roman Catholics will use texts like the following to prove that the Roman Catholic teaching magisterium is infallible:

  1. Matthew 28:19-20 (where Christ instructed the Church to preach everything He taught)
  2. John 16:13 (where Jesus promised the teaching and leading of the Holy Spirit)
  3. 1 Timothy 3:15 (the church is the pillar and ground of the truth).
  4. Luke 22:32 (Jesus’ prayer for Peter’s faith),
  5. John 21:15-17 (Feed my sheep…)
  6. Matthew 16:18 (You are Peter…)

When he is asked how he knows that the Bible is a divine revelation and which books make up the Bible, he points to the infallible teaching magisterium.  William Cunningham (p154):

[Roman Catholics] commonly allege that it is only from the testimony of the Church that we can certainly know what is the Word of God, and what is its meaning; and thus they are inextricably involved in the sophism of reasoning in a circle; that is, they profess to prove the infallibility of the Church by the authority of Scripture; while, at the same time, they establish the authority of Scripture, and ascertain its meaning, by the testimony of the Church, which cannot err.

Francis Patton (p134):

The doctrine of the infallibility of the Church is a very convenient belief I grant and not absurd either. The only question is whether there is evidence in support of it. Convenient, of course, for consider. The Protestant asks in regard to a mooted doctrine, What do the Scriptures teach? The Anglican asks the same question, but he also asks What do the Church Fathers say? What has been the faith of the Church from the beginning? It was not strange then that a certain clergyman who left the Anglican Church and went over to Rome said to his quondam [previous] brethren Your religion is salvation by scholarship alone. The Roman Catholic, however, cannot get away from the Bible as the ultimate authority so long as he appeals to the Bible in support of the infallibility of the Church. Suppose then that a young man is seeking light on this subject and wishes first of all to know where the true Church is to be found. To what disinterested authority can he appeal? No other than the Bible. How shall he interpret the Bible? Shall he ask a Protestant minister? No, he says for he would be biased. Shall he ask a Roman Catholic priest? No, for I know what his answer would be. I must read the Bible for myself in the light of my own reason. That is to say, in order to determine whether he should become a Protestant or become a Roman Catholic, he must act on the principle that the Bible is the only rule of faith; and in the exercise of the right of private judgment, which amounts to saying that a man has to be a Protestant in order to become a Catholic.

John Owen (p507):

[Roman Catholics] say the Scripture hath its authority from the church, I ask, How shall I know that there is a church? For if I be one that own no such thing as the Scripture (which the church is persuading me to believe), withal I own no such society as the church; and how will they prove there is such an one, but by the Scripture? For I, who am supposed to acknowledge no church, do acknowledge no authority it hath, and shall not take its own word. And yet if I grant there be a church, how shall I know that such a company of men as pretend to be the church are really so? I shall not take their own testimony; I am not satisfied in their being witnesses to themselves. And if they will prove themselves to be the church by the Scripture, then either the Scripture must have authority, as to me, before the church, or else they prove one obscure thing by another. If they say there be certain signs and marks of the church inherent in it, by which it may be known, — alas! I know not those marks but by the Scripture, which describes the church. If they say the Spirit witnesseth by those marks that this is the church, why may not I say the same of the Scripture; and so, that be known without the testimony of the church to be the word of God, as well as the church to be the church of God? And yet, after all this, granting this society of men to be the church, how shall I know that this church is infallible? And if I know it not to be so, I am not so mad as to build my faith upon its authority. If they say, “Because it is governed by the Holy Spirit,” how shall I know that? for it is not obvious to me that it is. If they say, “Because Christ hath promised that it should,” I ask, Where? where can it be but in the Scripture? Sure, then, the Scripture must be owned, and have its authority, as to me, or their proof is invalid, and they do but trifle instead of arguing.

See also Wylie (p246) and lecture III in Salmon.


How do Roman Catholics defend the inspiration of the Bible without arguing in a circle?

One Roman Catholic tract attempts this (the tract’s statements are indented).

The Catholic method of finding the Bible to be inspired is this. The Bible is first approached as any other ancient work. It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.

This is true.

Next we take a look at what the Bible, considered merely as a history, tells us, particularly the NT, and particularly the Gospels. We examine the account of Jesus’ life and death and his reported resurrection.

This also is true. This is an apologetic argument that both Protestants and Roman Catholics use to prove the inspired nature of Scripture. The argument is that if Jesus did miracles, then His claim to be a bearer of divine revelation is true.  So far all are in agreement.  The second premise is;

One thing he said He would do was found a Church, and from both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not at this point in the argument as an inspired one) and other ancient works, we see that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of all we see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, teaching authority, and, as a consequence of the last, infallibility. Christ’s Church, to do what he said it would do, had to have the note of infallibility.

Here the road divides. Very few biblical scholars would defend the idea that Jesus founded the church as defined above.  The New Testament simply does not support this idea.

We have thus taken purely historical material and concluded that there exists a Church, which is the Catholic Church, divinely protected against teaching error. … That Church now tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church’s word for it precisely because it is infallible. Only after having been told by a properly constituted authority (that is, one set up by God to assure us of the truth of matters of faith, such as the status of the Bible) that the Bible is inspired do we begin to use it as an inspired book.

Here we can at least grant the Roman Catholics that this is not a circular argument.  Obviously, there are very few scholars, even Roman Catholic scholars, who would defend the second premise.  However, this argument is, in logical terms, valid.  This argument does not base the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. The tract goes on to say;

On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible as history. From that we conclude an infallible Church was founded. And then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. It all reduces to the proposition that, without the existence of the Church, we could not tell if the Bible were inspired.


If we simply accept the consensus of the early church as to which books belong in the canon of Scripture, can we ever by infallibly certain that the books we are reading are inspired?  Isn’t it possible that the early church erred and included an uninspired book or left out a book which really was inspired?

In this matter, we rest confident that God has provided us with exactly those books which He wanted us to have.  We take our stand on the promise that Jesus gave us when He said that He would send the Spirit and that this Spirit would guide us into the truth.

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.  “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.  “All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you. (John 16:13-15)


So we cannot be infallibly certain that our canon is correct?

True, we cannot.


Why do you believe that there is no error in Scripture when you are not even really sure if a given book or part of a book is inspired?

Because infallible certainty is not required in this matter.  If we needed infallible certainty, we wouldn’t end up believing much of anything.  What we can be infallibly certain of is that God will lead us into the truth and will protect us from error.


What was the opinion of the church fathers on this issue?

In the first centuries, the church called all of the apostolic teaching tradition regardless of whether it was written or unwritten.  Tschackert writes;

Primitive Christians received the apostolic message by word of mouth as well as by pen and passed it on orally from generation to generation by public preaching and catechetical instruction. Naturally, therefore, they considered and called the entire and complete message “tradition” (traditio from tradere, “to hand on”) regardless of the form in which it was delivered or preserved.


How did these churches resolve the question regarding the regulation of Scripture interpretation?

First, it must be remembered that there was no New Testament, as we know it, at this time. The church gradually came to accept a collection of books they regarded as apostolic and this collection was later finalized and became what we now call the New Testament.

Second, the early church still had to deal with heretics who claimed to be apostolic. Thus, the crying need of the early church leaders was to know authoritatively what was and what wasn’t truly and really apostolic; i.e. a teaching derived from the apostles themselves. Obviously, many heretics, even gnostics, claimed to be apostolic. In response to this, the early church developed a three pronged point of reference for knowing what was truly apostolic;

  1. apostolic creed,
  2. apostolic Scripture, and
  3. apostolic succession. (p101)


What was the apostle’s creed?

This was also known as the rule of faith (regula fidei). This document is still read in many churches and for the early church, as well as contemporary churches, it functioned as a brief and easy summary of apostolic teaching. Knowing and reciting this creed was a prerequisite for being baptized. Despite its name, the creed was not written by the apostles.


What was the apostolic Scripture?

This is what we know today as the New Testament.  By about the middle of the second century, the early church was certain that it had a collection of writings that had come from the hands of the apostles themselves. These were collected and after some debate, they came to be regarded as canon.


What do you mean by “canon”?

An established rule or guide that carries absolute authority. This collection of apostolic writings was so regarded.

John Cosin, A Scholastical History of the Canon of the Holy Scripture
Archibald Alexander, The Canon of the Old and New Testaments Ascertained
William Taylor, A Manual on the Canon of Holy Scripture
Samuel Davidson, The Canon of the Bible
Louis Gaussen, The Canon of the Holy Scriptures
Thomas Horne, An introduction to the critical study and knowledge of the Holy Scripture
Christopher Wordsworth, On the Canon of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament
Edwards Reuss, History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Church



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