Clarifying the Canon
The Bible is the Word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and preserved by divine providence. Though written millennia ago, it remains relevant and important for the 21st century. As such, it should not surprise us that Scripture has repeatedly been the object of satanic attack. For centuries, the enemies of the truth of Scripture have done their best to suppress it. Since the 18th century the emphasis of their opposition has shifted: no longer is it the object to suppress Scripture, but to discredit it. Scripture first came under attack from higher critics in the universities. Under their assault Scripture endured. The attackers have exhausted themselves but the truth of God has remained impervious.
In recent years the attack has shifted again. What genuine scholarship has been unable to achieve is now being attempted by the uninformed but imaginative efforts of novelists and filmmakers. They have suggested that Scripture is the result, not of divine inspiration and preservation, but of a grubby but successful conspiracy by powerful and power-hungry elements within the Catholic Church. Their allegations are fiction, impure and simple, but they possess an extraordinary power to convince the man and woman on the street. And in no area is this imagined conspiracy more powerful than in relation to the canon of Scripture.
The word “canon” comes from the Greek term for a measuring line or rod. In the context of Scripture, we use the term to refer to the list of books that we recognize as the Bible, the authoritative Word of God. It is easy, perhaps, to take the 66 books of our Bible for granted, but we must remember that each of these books originally circulated on its own and that it was only after the time of the apostles that the Bible, as we know it, appeared.
The Old Testament canon was not a difficult question – Christianity inherited these books that the Jews had recognized for centuries and revered as the oracles of God (Rom 3:2). A handful of books found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Old Testament, were accepted by some, but were generally recognized as lying outside the canon. But the question was more complicated in relation to the New Testament canon. In addition to the books of the New Testament, there were other books purporting to tell the story of the life of Christ, and other letters alleging to come from the apostles. It is important to recognize that decisions did have to be taken as to which books had the authority of God’s Word and which did not. The process of making these decisions took some time and often it was driven by the need to reply to the attempts of heretics to impose their own ideas about the content of the canon on the church.
The fact that such decisions had to be made and had to be made by men, has been highlighted recently in popular culture and in the media. The suggestion seems to be that the canon of Scripture was cooked up by a powerful cartel of clergy who got together and eliminated from the canon the books that did not agree with their preconceived ideology.
But this is far from the reality of the situation. The church councils that settled the issue of the canon were not creating the Bible from scratch, starting with a blank sheet and literally making it up as they went along. Rather, they were ratifying, or giving their seal of approval, to books that Christians had long recognized as Scripture. It is for this reason that, in spite of suggestions that the canon as it now exists was simply the option endorsed by the group that shouted loudest, there was a consensus on most of the canon, and real debate about only a handful of books.
Thus, one of the earliest lists of the New Testament books, from Tertullian in 150 A.D., contains most of the books that make up our New Testament today. A later list, called the “Muratorian Fragment,” and dating from between 170 and 210 accepts most of the books in our Bible but rejects Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. The first surviving list containing just the 27 books found in our New Testament was written by Athanasius of Alexandria (c 293-373) around 367. That list of 27 books was recognized by the church as a whole in the Council of Carthage in 397, and that recognition largely silenced the debate about the canon. Again, it was not the decision of this Council that made these books Scripture. Rather, the Council of Carthage codified the list of books that the majority of Christians everywhere had recognized as Scripture all along.
We need therefore to have no doubt about the authority of any of the books that we find between the covers of our Bible. They take their place there, not because of a conspiracy, but because they have had, for believers of all ages, the authority and power unique to the Word of God. Equally, when the covers of our magazines and the pages of our newspapers trumpet the discovery of a “new gospel” whose contents challenge the truth of Scripture, we need not be alarmed or shaken. There is nothing new about this. The apostle Paul found it necessary to warn the Thessalonians “that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2Thes 2:2). The gnostic heresy that was the object of Paul’s most direct and forceful rebuttal produced spurious gospels and epistles then, and these documents and their teachings have enjoyed a new popularity in our day. We are assailed by many efforts to insert false and heretical books into the canon of Scripture. In the face of this onslaught, we, like the Thessalonians, have no need to be troubled; we can rely with certainty on our Bibles knowing that there, and there alone, we find the unique and authoritative Word of God.