The Word of God: The Canon of the NT

Is the entire Bible the Word of God? Is our Bible God’s complete written revelation? These questions relate to the subject of the canon (from a word meaning “rule, standard”). Canonization refers to how certain books came to be regarded as “meeting the standard,” and thus recognized as Scripture. Bear in mind that the church did not make the canon – God did, when the Holy Spirit authored the books in the first place.

God Determines What is Scripture

The Lord Jesus affirmed the Old Testament canon as He referenced its entirety (cf. Matt 23:35, covering Genesis to Chronicles, the first and last books of the Hebrew Old Testament) and quoted it as God’s authoritative word (John 10:34-35). Through His apostles, He displays the same authority over the New Testament. It is simply incorrect to say that church councils determined the canon of Scripture. The church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20, KJV). It is their teaching (which is itself the Lord’s teaching) which upholds the Church, not the other way around. As J. I. Packer has helpfully stated, “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity.” The Scriptures themselves, and the indwelling Holy Spirit, have guided the Church, not to determine, but to recognize which documents form the New Testament.

The Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit

In contrast to natural men (1Cor 2:14), those indwelt by the Spirit do receive and respond to Spirit-given words. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27, KJV), and the Church has heard it in the canon of Scripture. While there were disputes, there was also remarkable unity in the early centuries of the Church in assessing what is Scripture. That should not surprise us. The Church is a “habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph 2:22, KJV) and the canon is His testimony to the Church. How did the Holy Spirit generate confidence in genuine Scripture among His people?

Unique Characteristics of God-Breathed Writings

Early Christians produced and copied voluminous amounts of literature, but even the way they compiled their literature reflects an understanding that Scripture was above other writings. Amid the massive number of NT manuscripts, there is no instance of a non-canonical “gospel” (so called) being joined to the gospels of Scripture in a single manuscript.[1] The church observed that Scripture bore inherent characteristics which separated it from other writings. “The Word of God is living and effective, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12, HCSB). It is not that powerbrokers suppressed other factions within the Church to decide what was included; it is that the living Word imposed itself upon the Church.

The Books Required Apostolic Attestation

The Lord established the unique authority of the apostolic office in relation to the New Testament canon, telling the apostles, “When the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13, KJV). Thus, the Scriptures themselves tell us canon required apostolic authority and this Spirit-given canon would be completed while the apostles were still alive.[2] New Testament books written by men we don’t consider to be apostles were still composed within the apostolic era, allowing apostolic attestation. Early Christians knew that Mark and Luke, for example, weren’t apostles. Yet they spoke of their books as apostolic writings, observing that their words reflected the apostolic tradition and apostolic authority. This indicates the Church was aided in recognizing Scripture by understanding the Lord “established the apostolic office to be the guardian, preserver, and transmitter”[3] of that revelation.

Broad Reception of the Scriptures by the Church

If the canon is going to rule the believers, then believers must be in possession of the Scriptures that make up the canon.[4] If it is Scripture, Paul’s epistle to the Philippians could not remain exclusively the property of the church at Philippi. God must ensure other local churches ultimately have access to it as well. If all Scripture is profitable and intended to make us complete (2Tim 3:15-16), then the church must have all Scripture; that is God’s commitment to His church. The New Testament bears witness to this. Peter refers to all of Paul’s epistles, and how people twist them “as they do also the other Scriptures” (2Peter 3:15-16, KJV). Peter’s words show that there was a collection of Paul’s letters, already considered Scripture, circulating among the churches. If an archeologist were to unearth a seemingly genuine letter of Paul to the church in Lystra, should it be considered Scripture? No. It has not been available to the Church for the greater part of the age. It cannot be part of the canon which is to govern the Church if it has not been provided to the Church.

The Providential Hand of God

Implicit in this scant survey is God’s overruling of history, which gradually produced certainty as to what was Scripture. A core New Testament of the four gospels and the epistles of Paul is clearly observable among writers early in the second century. Admittedly, there was some diversity of opinion in the second and third centuries as to which literature was from God. But, that the Church ultimately did reach such unity reveals that God did not leave the issue of canon to the will of man. One may refer to a “lost” letter of Paul to the Corinthians. But the very fact it has not remained with us leads us to believe God did not see fit to include it in our canon. In fact, it is outrageous to imagine God would go to the extent He did to redeem man, and then risk the propagation of His revelation to the chance decisions of men.

God has preserved His Word, and it is in this canon of Scripture which the sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice. We can be sure that the 27 books of the NT, and the 39 books of the OT, are God’s complete written revelation to man.

[1]  Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012), 242. The approach of this article owes much to this book.

[2] The historical record shows the church understood this. Eg, the Muratorian Fragment, dated about 180, lists the core of the New Testament but rejects the popular Shepherd of Hermas because it was written “recently.” It was not considered on the same level as apostolic writings, “for it is after their time.”

[3] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 174

[4] Ibid, 104