A Question on the Canon of Scripture
A question was asked recently from a member of the church: “How do we prove or rightfully argue that there are only 66 books in the Bible and not the additional books such as those added by the Roman Catholic Church?”
The question of canon (taken from the Greek word, kanōn, which means “rule, principle, standard”) has been one that has challenged Christians since the beginning of the church. The argument has pretty much centered around how, or by what criteria, has the church decided upon these 66 books and no other to be “the Bible?”
As with most issues within the early church, the development of the canon of Scripture came as a response to others who sought to promote their own false teaching. The earliest example of a NT canon comes from the heretic Marcion who promoted a radical philosophical and theological dualism. He was heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought, so he rejected the OT and even the more “Jewish” sounding NT books such as Matthew and Hebrews. In order to support his version of Christianity, Marcion came up with a canon that included a truncated version of Luke and the Pauline letters. That’s it. In response, orthodox Christianity went about to establish the canonical books of the NT.
One may ask, what about the OT? Throughout the history of the church, there has been near universal acceptance of the 39 books of the OT (Genesis - Malachi, as our English canonical order presents them) as being the “Breathed out” word of God. The development of the NT canon (our 27 books of the NT) took place over the course of the first three centuries of the post-apostolic age. For most of that period, there has been no dispute over 21 of the 27 books. From nearly the beginning the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, the 13 letters of Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 John were widely accepted in the church as canonical. The remaining six books (James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation) were slower to be received mainly due to issues surrounding authorship (or in the case of James, its apparent conflict with Paul).
In addition to these 66 books, there have been other writings that some have tried to introduce into the canonical writings of the Bible. For example, the Apocrypha, a group of 14 inter-testamental writings, has been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the canon of Scripture. There are also a slew of NT apocryphal writings that were written by the Gnostics during the 2nd and 3rd century AD that were rejected by the church because they conflicted with what was commonly accepted as canonical (e.g., The Gospel of Thomas).
Now we can sit here and come up with a list of criteria to justify why we believe these 66 books and no others belong in the Bible. In fact, some have done just that in an attempt to answer the skeptics. Typically there are four such criteria:
- The book had to have been written by an Apostle, or a close associate
- The book had to have wide, near universal acceptance in the church
- The book had to have been used in the worship of the church
- The book had to agree with other canonical books
While these criteria are good, I believe it looks at the problem from the wrong perspective. It almost seems to put the church in the position of deciding what is and what is not the word of God. In fact, that is precisely the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Now they would argue it’s the Holy Spirit working through the church leaders and councils, etc., but the inevitable conclusion is that the Church determines the canon. Without the Church (Big “C”) you would not have the Bible.
The Reformed have generally believed that the church receives the word of God. If the church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is the Head of His church and her Shepherd, then the sheep will hear His voice. In John’s Gospel, we read the following: “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). The church of Jesus Christ hears His voice in His word. Furthermore, we “do not know the voice of strangers.”
In the RCUS, we subscribe to the Belgic Confession of Faith, and in articles 5 & 6, it gives a clear confessional stance on the difference between the canonical books & the apocryphal books.
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves the as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled (BC article 5)
Article 6 goes on to say that we can read the apocryphal books profitably and even “take instruction” from them in so far as they agree with the canonical books, “but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion.”
These two articles from the Belgic Confession confirm what I said earlier, namely the sheep hear the voice of their Shepherd. The Holy Spirit speaks to those who are regenerated through the Word of God contained in the 66 canonical books of our Bible.