CANONICITY OF THE BIBLE
How did the Bible we have come about? Why do we accept the 39 books of the Old
Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament as the Word of God? This is
what the study of Canonicity of the Bible is all about.
The word canon comes from the Greek word kanôn,
which basically means “reed” or “cane.” Later it took on the meaning: “rule” or
“standard,” since a stiff reed was used for the purpose of measuring. This was
the meaning of the word when Paul says in Galatians 6:16, “And as many as walk
according to this rule [i.e., canon], peace be on them, and mercy.” The canon
here would refer to rules of faith that Paul has laid down—namely,
justification by faith alone. And again in Philippians 3:16, “let us walk by
the same rule [canon], let us mind the same thing.”
Historically, the word canon is used to refer to a list of
books, which arerecognised by believers to be inspired of God.
Notice the subtle difference between this definition and the erroneous one: “it
is a list of books officiallydeclared to be inspired of God.” The
Church did not declare the inspiration of any book. She simply recognised the
inspiration of it. The Bible is a collection of authoritative books, rather
than an authoritative collection of books. In AD 364, the Council of Laodicea
ordained that none but canonical books should be read in the Church—namely, the
books in the Old and the New Testaments. The council did not stamp an imprimateur on
any of the books to say: “the church hereby declare that the book is inspired.”
The inspiration was recognised and the books deemed to be canonical. The
word canon is therefore used by the Church to denote the
divinely authorised standard, to which everything is subjected and by which
everything must be tested.
But the question before us is, what were the criteria that the Church used to
determine whether a writing is canonical. In other words, how and why did the
Church recognise each of the 66 books in our Bible as canonical and so affirm
that the Bible is the Word of God? This, I submit to you, is a most important
Importance of the Subject
For firstly, the Bible contains all the truth on divine subjects
accessible to man. The Bible contains the will of God; it speaks about the fall
of man, and the way of salvation, the responsibilities of man and the eternal
destiny of man. If we are unsure of the Canon, how can we be sure of any of
these important subjects? How can we even be sure of our faith?
Secondly, understanding the canonicity of the Bible is important because
there are those who would add to the Scripture, and so require doctrines and
practices that are foreign. I refer particularly to the apostate Church of Rome
which in AD 1546, in the Council of Trent, in reaction to the Reformation,
declares that the 14 extraneous books of the Apocrypha be canonical. We have no
doubt that that violated Revelation 22:18, which we believe applies to the
divinely inspired Canon: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words
of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall
add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.” But how do we know
that the Canon that we have is correct?
Thirdly, there are those who claim to be Protestants, who add to the
revealed Word of God. I refer to the Charismatics in particular, who would take
extra-biblical revelation as having the same authority as the Scripture. Now if
we do not know why we accept the Bible we have as the Canon, how do we respond
to such who hold to extra-revelation?
Fourthly, there are those today who would deny the inspiration of
numerous books in the New Testament, and so overthrow the confidence of the
Church in the Word of God. These are not only liberal scholars, but some
actually claim to be evangelical scholars. How can our faith remain firm in the
face of such godless scholarship, unless we know why we believe what we
There is much that can be said of the subject, and it can be very technical
but, for our purpose, I propose that we approach the subject very simply by
answering two questions: (1) Why do we accept the OT Canon? (2) Why do we
accept the NT Canon?
Why Do We Accept the
Old Testament Canon?
The reason why the Church accepts the Old Testament Canon
is a very simple one: the Lord Jesus Christ accepted it. And since our Lord
accepted it, there is no reason whatsoever for us to question any further why
it is accepted. But how do we know that the Lord accepted the Old Testament
Consider first of all His words to the disciples in the upper room after His
These are the words which I spake
unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which
were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms,
concerning me (Lk 24:44).
What was the Lord referring to by the designation “the Law of Moses,… prophets
and… the psalms”?
Well, we must realise that the Hebrew Canon was already in place before Christ
walked in Israel. Many believe that it was Ezra who led the council in about
300 BC to affirm the canonicity of the OT books. By the time the Lord was born,
the Hebrew Bible was already in place.
It was however organised in a manner that is quite different from the OT we
know. It has three divisions: (1) Torah (Law—Pentateuch);
(2) Nebi’im (Prophets—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and all
the prophetic books, except Lamentations and Daniel); and (3) Kethubhim (writings—the
rest of the books, including the poetic books and Chronicles, which is the last
book in the Hebrew Canon).
Now, if we look at Luke 24:44 again, we see that Jesus was in fact referring to
the Hebrew Canon. The Law of Moses, of course, refers to the Torah;
the Prophets refers to the Nebi’im; and the Psalms refers to
the Kethubhim because it is the largest book in that division.
It is thus very clear that the Lord Jesus accepted the canonicity of the OT
But just in case anyone is still in doubt, let us look at another text:
That the blood of all the prophets,
which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation;
From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the
altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this
generation (Lk 11:50–51).
What did the Lord mean? Was He referring to all the prophets who were martyred?
Well, Abel, who was killed by Cain, was indeed the first martyr (see Genesis
4:9). But Zacharias was certainly not the last prophet to be martyred. He was
killed during the reign of Joash (see 2 Chronicles 24:20–21). The last prophet
to be martyred, according to Old Testament chronology, was Urijah who was
killed during the reign of Jehoiakim, some 200 years later (see Jeremiah
Did the Lord Jesus make a mistake? Obviously not. Remember that 2 Chronicles
was the last book in the arrangement of the Hebrew Canon. The Lord Jesus was,
obviously, referring to the order according to the Hebrew Canon when He spoke
of “the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias.”
Thus we have no shadow of doubt at all that our Lord accepted the canonicity of
the OT Canon. Although the order of the books in the Hebrew Canon may be
different from the order in the English Bible, the actual books and contents
are the same. And if the Lord Jesus Christ accepts these books, we who bears
His Name must also accept them wholeheartedly.
Why Do We Accept the
New Testament Canon?
The NT Canon, as we know it today, was firm by the Third Council of Carthage in
AD 397. This Council, we must be reminded, did not pronounce any of the books
to be inspired. Rather, it simply recognised that the books, which were already
in use in the local churches, were inspired. It also confirmed that the Canon
But how did the Council, or the Church in the first place, determine that a
particular book was inspired? This is a question that has been debated over the
ages since documentation is scant. Scholars, such as B.B. Warfield, argue that
the Church accepted the inspiration and authority of the books because they
were either written or authorised by the Apostles and prophets who were deemed
as having divine authority. Others, such as R. Laird Harris, simplify the
proposition to the sole question of whether the individual book was written by
I would tend to agree with Warfield, while at the same time placing a greater
emphasis on the self-authenticating nature of Scripture and the testimony of
the Spirit of Christ bearing witness with our souls to give us a full
persuasion and assurance that what we have is the very Word of God (cf. WCF 1.5).
In any case, I think it would be helpful for us to see some evidence, which
indicates the authenticity of the New Testament Canon, so that our faith may be
bolstered should there be occasions of doubts, and so that we may be able to
give further reasons to what we believe when we are asked. For this purpose, I
would propose five criteria according to the following heads: (1) Authorship;
(2) Authority; (3) Agreement; (4) Applicability; and (5) Acceptance.
Note that, by themselves, none of the points can give us infallible assurance
that all 27 books in the New Testament Canon are inspired, but all five
criteria together bounded by the testimony of the Spirit leaves us no doubt
that what we have is indeed the very Word of God: complete (in so far as the NT
is concerned), sufficient and authoritative. By and large, the Church comprises
fallible men who do make mistakes in judgements.
The question is, whether a particular book is written by an
Apostle, or an apostolic man approved by the Apostles? We derive this test from
the words of the Apostle Peter, who urges us to “be mindful of the words which
were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the
apostles of the Lord and Saviour” (2 Pet 3:2). We have seen that the words of
the writing prophets in the Old Testament were taken as inspired by our Lord,
here we see Peter declaring that the words of the Apostles stood on par with
the words of the prophets.
The books in the NT are generally known to be written by the Apostles except
for Mark, Luke, Acts, James, Jude, and possibly Hebrews.
Mark was not an Apostle, but the early Church Father Papias indicates that Mark
was the interpreter of Peter, so that the Gospel of Mark was most likely
Peter’s account of the sayings and works of the Lord (cf. 1 Pet 5:13; 2 Pet
Luke was a close associate of Paul. So it is sometimes said that Luke was not
an Apostle but apostolic. Sometimes it is even said that the Gospel of Luke is
really the Gospel of Paul (but see also next point).
Many believe James was the son of Alphæus (Lk 6:15; not James the son of
Zebedee, who was executed by King Herod Agrippa I, Acts 12:2), and Jude was
Judas not Iscariot (Lk 6:16; cf. Jn 14:22). That would solve the issue of
apostolic authorship. But it must be admitted that most scholars today believe
that James and Jude were the brothers of the Lord in His human family. This
status, coupled with their proven ministry in the early church, carried with
them apostolic sanction. In fact, the Lord Himself appeared to James after His
resurrection (1 Cor 15:7), and the Apostle Paul seems to include James among
the Apostles (Gal 1:19; see also 1 Corinthians 9:4).
The authorship of Hebrews is uncertain. Many believe that it is Paul, but in
any case, the recipients were certainly familiar with him, and the letter
definitely carries a content of apostolic stature. Were it not authentically
inspired, it would definitely have been rejected by the first century
Christians not only because of its polemic stance, but because the special gift
of discerning between spirits (1 Cor 12:10) was still available then.
This criterion is closely related to the first, but adds a
dimension of auto- and cross-claims of being the authoritative Word of God.
Some books of the NT testify to their own authority. For examples, (1) The
Apostle John informs us that when he wrote Revelation, he was writing based on
what was revealed to him by the Lord Jesus Christ, who said to him: “Write the
things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which
shall be hereafter” (Rev 1:19). (2) The Apostle Paul claims that his writings
are the commandments of the Lord: “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or
spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the
commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37; see also 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15).
Other books in the New Testament bear testimony to the inspiration of their
contemporaries. For examples, (1) Peter confirms that Paul’s writings are on
par with the Scripture: “As also in all his epistles, speaking
in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which
they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other
scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16; italics emphasis mine).
(2) Paul confirms the Gospel of Luke to be Scripture on par with the Torah when
he threads a verse from Deuteronomy together with a verse from Luke into one
statement: “For the Scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth
out the corn [Deut 25:4]. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward [Luke
10:7]” (1 Tim 5:18).
Here the question is, whether the content of each book
agrees internally and externally with the other inspired books whose
inspiration is without doubt based on other criteria. By this criterion, books
that are clearly contrary to the Christian faith, which may be derived from the
already accepted books, are rejected because they could not have been inspired
by God, seeing that God cannot contradict Himself.
Were there not some doubts pertaining to the book of James, because it
contradicts “salvation by grace through faith”? Yes, but these were easily
resolved. James was writing about evidence for faith, Paul was writing about
condition for salvation. Works is necessary upon salvation, but it is not a
criterion for salvation. There is no contradiction.
What about the objection that, because of this criterion, it must be said that
it is the Church which created the consistency of the Bible? Well, those who
level this objection have probably not read the Bible, for the Bible is not
only consistent but also demonstrates progression and beauty. Consider, for
example, how the book of Revelation beautifully closes the Canon begun at
Genesis. Genesis speaks of the entrance of sin and death, Revelation speaks of
the destruction of sin and death. Genesis speaks of the paradise lost, and the
Tree of Life forbidden, Revelation speaks of paradise regained and the Tree of
Life made available.
The Apostle Paul tells us: “All scripture is given by
inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for
correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be
perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16–17). This
indicates that through the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, any of the
inspired books, when read or heard with meekness, should transform lives (Jas
1:21). Therefore, knowing that historically a book has proven to have had the
ability to inspire, convict, edify both individuals and the local congregation,
should give us assurance that it is inspired of God.
This is, of course, a posteriori argument; but the child of
God reading the inspired Word of God would respond with gratitude and
obedience, and know that this cannot be but the very words of God. The Lord
Jesus Christ anticipated this experience when He says, “My sheep hear my voice,
and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27; cf. 1 Jn 2:26–27).
The Old Testament was committed to the Jews and was, in their
early history, kept in the temple. I submit to you that in the case of the New
Testament, it was the same. The Apostles and apostolic men, after writing the
Scripture and knowing them to be inspired, would have committed their writings
to the believers in the early church. And there is no doubt that the early
church held their writings in very high regards.
The fact that they were widely used and circulated in the early church proves
this. In those days there were no printing machines and they had to hand copy.
What would they copy so dedicatedly but what they considered to be
authoritative and inspired. The large number of lectionaries—copies of Bible
texts for public reading—testify to this fact.
The Bible is an extraordinarily unique Book of books. Not only are the
individual books but the entire collection of books is kept pure in all ages by
God’s singular care and providence, so that there is no book comparable to the
Bible in its scope, beauty, consistency, progression and majesty. Only the
Living and True God could use over forty different human scribes to write His
Word, over a period of more than two thousand years, and still keep it
consistent. A diligent student of the Bible, illumined in his heart and mind by
the Holy Spirit, will not fail to see that the Canon is in fact an organic
whole, and so there is ultimately only one Divine Author. It is for this reason
that there are no contradictions at all in the Word of God. It is for this
reason too that we can find one central theme in the Word of God, and that is
the Redemptive Work of Christ. Indeed, it is for the same reason that
theologians are able to write rigorously argued and logical systematic
theologies based on the facts and doctrines revealed in the Bible.
Let all who name the Name of Christ therefore spend much time to read the Bible
reverently; to meditate on it expectantly; to memorise it lovingly, to teach it
humbly; to live by it obediently; and to defend it fervently—for we have in our
hands the very Word of God.