Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What in the World is the Canon?

Notice the word is canon, not cannon. As one of my professors pointed out to be in my apologetics class, cannon with two consecutive "n's" is the kind that goes boom. However canon spelled with just one "n" in the middle is something else entirely. I've listened to a lot of debates by James White, who is by far my favorite Christian apologist. I've listened to him debate atheist, Romans Catholics, liberal scholars from the Jesus Seminar, and LDS. In many of those debates, in some way shape or form, the issue of the canon comes up.

For those who are not aware of the theological term, let me explain what is meant by a theologian when they say canon. The word "canon" literally means "standard." And when the church discusses issues related to the canon of Scripture they mean which books they consider to be authoritative Scripture. For instance the Protestant's hold that the canonical book of Scripture equal only 66 books in the Old and New Testaments. Roman Catholics add 7 to that list because they include books like 1&2 Macabees, Tobit and other's as part of Scripture. Then you have groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) who take the protestant canon, but then claim the book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are also Scripture.

So when you hear the word canon used in theological circles, understand that it refers to the books which are to be considered Scripture. As I mentioned before the word canon means standard. And a big question of the argument for what books are to be included in the list of Scripture is "by what standard does a writing become Scripture?"

I agree with James White in the way he explains what makes a writing part of the canon. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we read the following:

"16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

Our focal point for this discussion should center around "All Scripture is breathed out by God." Some translations of course read "All Scripture is inspired by God" but the "God breathed" would be a more literal and accurate translation of the Greek word "Theopneustos." So ultimately the answer to the question by what standard should books be judged to know if they are Scripture is "are they God breathed?" Did God "inspire" the books or not? That is the ultimate standard for the canon of Scripture.

What does this mean? Well obviously, for one, it means that the next logical question is "How do we know if a writing is God breathed?" Which is a great question. But also it means that there is indeed an infallible canon of Scripture. Not just any book can be included in the canon, only those that are God breathed have a place there. There is no room in the canon for any work, no matter how good it might be, even if it is historically accurate, theologically correct, and so on, if it is not God breathed. This is to say, a writing does not belong in the cannon merely because it is true, or merely because it is well liked and or received, but only if indeed God is the divine author.

There is only one true canon of Scripture and God infallibly knows that canon because He is the author. God (of course) knows what He did and did not "breathe out" or "inspire."

But then there is the canon that man has come up with, and obviously as I have already pointed out, different groups have serious disagreements about what belongs in the canon.

All of this to say that there is indeed a right answer, there are indeed books that belong in Scripture and there are those that do not. So who is right? Are the protestants right who claim only 66 books? Are the Roman Catholics right who add 7 more to that list? What about the LDS? Could all of us be wrong? Who first decided on this list of books or that? What does church history say about all of this? How did we get the Old Testament Canon? Was the New Testament canon formed in the same way? Do we have all the books that are God breathed?

The List of questions could go on for miles I'm sure. Hopefully this gets your wheel's turning. I hope to get a chance to start a study on this very issue sometime soon. After I finish the series on God's Sovereignty in Salvation I hope to make this our next adventure. We'll see what happens when I start school in August at Criswell, hopefully I'll find the time to continue to post regularly.

Eventually I'll begin to learn Greek, Hebrew and Latin, wont that add some fun to our talks here! Anyway, we know what the canon is, it is whatever that is God breathed, but how do we know that? I look forward to the study and I encourage you to go to and download some of James Whites debates and lectures on things like Sola Scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture. That will clue you in on how I will largely approach this topic.

In Him -Jacob

1 comment:

Barry said...


That should be a good and in depth study. I know much effort and prayer went into the selection of the books and letters that eventually became our protestant bible. I find there are many things that we just need to take on faith when it comes to our sovereign God. Faith that the Holy Spirit directed those who would use their hands to and feet to put the canon together.
I look forward to your posts when you begin your study.