What’s in your Canon?

This post was originally published on February 5, 2010.

There has been a lot of activity in the blogosphere regarding the canon of Scripture in the last few days. Two recent posts here and here from the Parchment and Pen blog and another here from the iMonk. In fact the first post from P&P has been going since Jan. 24th and still has an ongoing discussion in the comment section. This is an area of interest for me and so I have been trying to follow all 3 posts.

The discussion is interesting because the primary source (called special revelation) of information about God that we have today is the Scriptures. It is here that we learn Who He is, what He promises, and what His redemptive plan is. Certainly the Scriptures must be understood for what they are – God’s way of preserving revealed truth that gives us the wisdom necessary for salvation (2 Tim 3:15). Jesus, Himself reminds us that they point to Him who is the source of eternal life.

You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39)

The Scriptures are also useful for equipping believers for good works (1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 3:16-17). The question then becomes what writings constitute the Scriptures? There are many different views on the canon and many different questions arise as to how the church identified the books that are inspired and passed that information to us today.

The main questions seem to be:

  • which books are inspired and belong in the canon?
  • which version of the text was inspired and belongs in the canon?
  • is the canon closed?
  • are the answers to the first three questions fallible (capable of being wrong) or infallible (incapable of being wrong)?
  • who has the authority to determine/answer the first three questions?

As the topics raised by these questions are investigated we find many assumptions and a priori theological commitments rise to the surface. The area with the most tension usually revolves around who has the authority to answer our questions and to what level of certainty.

The Roman Catholic position asserts that we can have an infallible canon because the Church has apostolic authority that has been passed on to the Magisterium. This authority includes the ability to teach and interpret infallibly. Since the Church has this ability and has given us the canon of the OT and NT at the Council of Trent then we know for sure which books are Scripture with infallible certainty.

The Protestant position relies on the sufficiency of Scripture. It acknowledges the authority of leaders in the church but does not accept the doctrine that leaders have the ability to teach and interpret infallibly. However the predominant view regarding the canon of Scriptures (that I am aware of) is that the Holy Spirit working in the early church helped guide the body of Christ in choosing the books of Scripture with infallible certainty.

I have not been able to do much research regarding the Eastern Orthodox canon and how it is established. I have not found any council post the Great Schism that might have codified the Scriptures or whether the canon is considered fallible or infallible. Feel free to suggest good books or links that might help me understand this better.

All three major Christian branches have shared history in the early church debates over the Scriptures that occurred from first through fourth centuries. The debates, at least for the NT are largely settled in the local synods/councils in Hippo and Carthage where the 27 books of the NT were affirmed and where there is agreement between all. The major differences between the major branches appear in the OT canon. These differences include the books that are included as well as whether the Hebrew Masoretic Text or the Greek text of the Septuagint is to be used.

What's in Your Bible? Find out at BibleStudyMagazine.com

As a Protestant (who grew up Catholic) I accept what is probably a minority view – that the canon of Scripture is a “fallible list of infallible books”. This is based on the following two observations. The first is that the transmission of the books of Scripture can be demonstrated to have been fallible. There were debates in the early church over whether a small number of books should be included in our NT (2/3 John, 2 Peter, James, Jude, Revelation) and some of them were not (1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabus, Didache). These debates showed that various churches had different books in their canon for the first 400 years of the existence of the church.

The second is we don’t have a manuscript that would be considered inspired (and therefore infallible) that lists the books of Scripture and I don’t accept the infallible authority of the church (Magisterium). Therefore the list of books in the canon are a product of the early church that can be studied and affirmed (another post on that later) but is a fallible product produced by fallible man.

I do accept that the Holy Spirit through the church played a role in the preservation of both the text and books that were inspired. However (focusing on the NT) if the Holy Spirit did illuminate the church infallibly regarding the compilation of the NT canon then did He do this only in regards to the NT books? All the early lists that contain the NT (27 books) – Athanasius 39th Festal letter, Council Hippo/Carthage also contain the OT with the Apocrypha. It would seem that we (Protestants) would have to accept that set of books too based on this fact. Or we must be very selective in determining how the Holy Spirit illuminated the early church regarding the selection of one canon (NT) and not the other (OT).

Then we have to ask: how do we know that the 27 book list is the right list? Maybe the Holy Spirit was right in guiding the church in producing one of the other (and earlier lists) like the Muratorian Fragment which does not include several books in the NT that we do today.

I accept the canon we have today is correct based on history and thank the Holy Spirit for preserving God’s Word for us, while acknowledging that the process contained the possibility of error. It is encouraging for me to know that the early church was careful to test the books before accepting them and that gives me confidence that these were the words God wrote through His apostles to let us know He loves us and offers us forgiveness in Jesus.

3 thoughts on “What’s in your Canon?

  1. Clarification: When I say the Holy Spirit was involved, yet the “process contained the possibility of error”, I am not suggesting that the Spirit is capable of error. Rather that we (people) are capable of error. So if the Spirit was guiding the church to a particular set of books, it is hard to know which list that might have been, given the differences that existed in the early church.

  2. To me it seems that the Roman-Catholic canon is the correct one, if one of them is correct, since that one was accepted by the early church fathers, if I’m not mistaken. But how do we know if there is one? To me it seems like our only certainty is Jesus Christ… I hope to hear from you πŸ™‚

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