The canon of Scripture refers to the books that are considered authoritative and divinely inspired Scripture in Christianity. Throughout church history, Christians have recognized certain ancient texts as having been inspired by God and therefore belonging in the Bible. The word “canon” comes from a Greek word meaning “rule” or “standard.” The canon of Scripture is the standard collection of books that are divinely inspired and therefore rightfully belong in the Bible.
There are a few key things to understand about the canon of Scripture:
- The canon refers to the entire collection of biblical books that are divinely inspired. It does not refer just to one book or part of the Bible.
- The canon was not determined by church councils or church leaders. Rather, the early church recognized the canon – they did not create or choose it. The books that are canonical are self-authenticating through their divine inspiration.
- The canon is closed. No more books can be added to Scripture or removed. The last books were accepted into the canon by the end of the 4th century.
- All major Christian traditions – Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants – agree on the same 27 books of the New Testament canon. There are some minor differences in the Old Testament canon accepted by Catholics/Orthodox vs. Protestants.
Overall, Christians believe God inspired the books of the Bible and has protected His people throughout history to recognize His divinely inspired Word. The Holy Spirit testifies to believers which books are from God, and this has led to widespread agreement on the canon of Scripture we have today.
Old Testament Canon
The Old Testament canon refers to the 39 books accepted as divinely inspired Scripture by Protestants and the wider Christian church. This includes the same books accepted in the Jewish Tanakh, though ordered differently. Here is the full Old Testament Protestant canon:
- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1 Kings
- 2 Kings
- 1 Chronicles
- 2 Chronicles
- Song of Solomon
Catholics and Orthodox Christians accept a few more books called the Apocrypha as part of their Old Testament canon. Most Protestants and Jews do not accept the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture, though they were included in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament).
The principles, themes and prophecies across the 39 books accepted by Protestants show a unity and consistency that testify to their inspired nature. Though written over centuries by different authors, they tell one cohesive story of God’s redemption.
Principles for Old Testament Canon
So how did the early church recognize this particular collection of 39 books as inspired and authoritative Scripture? Here are some of the principles surrounding the emergence of the Old Testament canon:
- Antiquity – These books were known to be very ancient, most written well before 400 BC. Their age gave them credibility.
- Authorship – Books like Moses’ writings, prophets, etc. were accepted based on authorship by a known prophet or leader in Israel’s history.
- Use in Jewish worship – Books like Psalms that were used in worship in the temple gave them further authority.
- Consistency – The themes, prophecies and principles in these books aligned with each other well.
- Recognition by Jews – The widespread acceptance of these books by ancient Jews as Scripture reinforced their canonicity.
- Confirmation by Jesus – Jesus and the NT writers quote from or allude to most of these books, confirming their authority.
By these principles, this particular collection of books stood out as divinely inspired. Other writings may have had some authority, but not the recognized inspiration of books like Isaiah and Deuteronomy. This led Jews and later Christians to accept these books as the complete inspired Old Testament canon.
When Was the Old Testament Canon Recognized?
The Old Testament canon was essentially settled well before the time of Jesus, though there were some later debates. Here is an overview:
- The Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) was accepted very early as inspired Scripture, likely by the 5th century BC.
- The Prophets were accepted as Scripture by 200 BC. This included Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets.
- The Writings took longer to be accepted by all Jews, but were likely recognized by 150 BC. This included books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, etc.
- A few books like Esther and Ecclesiastes were debated longer, but ultimately included in the canon.
- The Septuagint translated the Hebrew canon into Greek c. 200 BC, indicating widespread acceptance.
- Debates about the Apocrypha continued, but the 39 books were set among Jews.
- By the time of Jesus and the apostles, the Old Testament canon was effectively fixed.
- The church inherited this canon and recognized its authority.
So while the Old Testament canon took a few centuries to be fully recognized and closed, the entire collection of 39 books was seen as authoritative Scripture by Jesus’ day and affirmed by the early church.
New Testament Canon
The New Testament canon refers to the 27 books considered inspired and authoritative Scripture recording the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the early church.
Here are the 27 books of the accepted New Testament canon, in the most common order:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
These books tell the story of Jesus and how the gospel spread in the early church. They were written between approximately 45-95 AD. There is complete agreement on these 27 books among all major Christian traditions.
Principles for New Testament Canon
So how were these particular 27 books recognized as divinely inspired Scripture? Here are some of the key principles for the emerging New Testament canon:
- Apostolic connection – Books tied closely to an apostle like Matthew or John were accepted early.
- Use in worship – Books like the Gospels that were read in church services were recognized.
- Consistency of doctrine – Books considered orthodox in their teaching about Jesus were included.
- Widespread use – Books widely used and circulated among churches were recognized.
- Confirmation by early church – Writings cited by early church leaders were accepted.
Other criteria included antiquity, Christ-centeredness, inspiration and holiness. Through these principles, the authority of this particular collection of books became clear in the early centuries of Christianity.
When Was the New Testament Canon Finalized?
The New Testament canon emerged in the early centuries of the church:
- The four gospels were recognized very early on, by 125-150 AD or earlier.
- Paul’s letters were also circulating early and cited by church fathers by late 1st/early 2nd century.
- By 200 AD, 20 of the 27 NT books were recognized by church leaders.
- Questions lingered about books like Hebrews and Revelation, though they were accepted by many.
- The heretic Marcion published his limited canon in 140 AD, which pushed church leaders to establish the true canon.
- Lists from the late 300s (Athanasius, Jerome) show the 27 book NT canon.
- This 27 book NT canon was re-affirmed at councils in the late 300s.
- By the late 4th century, the NT canon was essentially agreed upon as closed.
So within 300 years of Christ, the authority of the 27 writings that make up the New Testament was clear. They have been affirmed as inspired Scripture ever since.
Closing of the Biblical Canon
With the Old and New Testament established, this closed the canon of Scripture. No more books could be added. Here are a few final points about closing the canon:
- No one person or council closed the canon. The church recognized the inspiration of these books over centuries.
- Closing the canon indicated these books have unique, absolute authority as God’s revelation.
- The Holy Spirit’s confirmation of these books was clear enough that no more needed to be added.
- The first complete listing of the entire 66 book Protestant canon was in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367 AD.
- The canon being closed does not contradict the Holy Spirit still speaking to individuals today for guidance, conviction, etc. But Scripture alone is infallible divine revelation.
- Though details were debated, overall there was widespread agreement on the Protestant canon very early.
- No major branch of Christianity seriously questions the core canon of 66 books today.
In summary, Christians believe God gave His complete revelation for doctrine and salvation in these 66 books. No other writings can add to this divine revelation, though we still listen to guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Preservation of the Canon
Christians believe that God has also providentially preserved the canon of Scripture throughout history. Here are a few aspects of this preservation:
- The incredible consistency between thousands of manuscript copies shows careful preservation.
- Scripture has been translated into hundreds of languages, spreading its availability.
- Persecution of believers has not successfully destroyed the Bible despite attempts.
- Heresies and false teachings have not overcome orthodox Scripture.
- Archeological discoveries continue to confirm details in Scripture.
- The Holy Spirit continues to open eyes to understand Scripture.
Despite attacks from critics and efforts to distort or destroy the Bible, it has been protected and preserved. Christians have ready access to the reliable canon of divine revelation. This reflects God’s ongoing provision and protection over His Word.
Scripture Alone as Our Authority
The completion of the canon establishes Scripture alone as the ultimate written authority for Christians in issues of doctrine, morals and practice. Here are a few implications of this principle, known as sola scriptura:
- Scripture alone, not tradition, is infallible divine revelation.
- Nothing can be required of Christians for belief or conduct beyond what Scripture teaches.
- All teachings must be tested against Scripture as the standard.
- Interpretation and application require discernment, but the truth of God’s Word remains.
- Holy Spirit illumination helps us rightly understand and apply Scripture.
- No new revelation, visions, experiences or teachings can contradict God’s Word or add to it.
The books of the Old and New Testaments are God’s completed divine revelation and our sole infallible authority for faith and life as Christians. All claims of truth must be compared to the standard of Scripture. God’s Word alone stands above all human writings and ideas.
The canon of Scripture sets the Bible apart as God’s inspired, authoritative and sufficient Word for His people. We can have confidence in His revealed truth and rely on the Bible to equip us for salvation and godly living.