Determining the Canon

It is oftentimes alleged the church determined the extent of the canon through the process of infallible councils, and without the church there would be no canon of Scripture. Such reasoning, however, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the Bible. This point, though mentioned earlier, bears repeating and cannot be overstated. Holy Scripture is an artifact of revelation that came into existence as the by-product of God’s inspiration. So when we are discussing the canon of Scripture, what we are really expressing is the extent or limitation of what God has chosen to reveal.

The canon is merely mankind’s knowledge of what God has chosen to divulge. Remember, canon is determined by God and exists whether anyone knows it or not. So, for instance, if an individual writes ten books, those books exist whether or not anyone recognizes all ten as being written or not. If, however, the author chooses to reveal his books, then he might do so for a specific purpose, giving insight regarding which books he has authored.

Likewise, once we understand that canon is a special gift given by God for a specific purpose, it becomes all the more clear that God had a purpose in giving us his inspired word. Believing this will help us to trust that what has been revealed, first through the people of Israel and then through the New Testament church, is truly authoritative and serves a function in his church. God intended to inspire for a specific purpose, so it stands to reason that he did so in order that we might know something about him. In so doing, it does not depend upon any one person or organization, but solely on God who makes himself known.

Understanding canon is from God, in the ultimate sense, is neither a denial that he works through human effort, nor does it contradict the reality that the Spirit leads his people to recognize that which is truly theopneustos, God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). In the Old Testament times, he spoke through prophets; in the New, he used apostles to carry his message. Because of this, the early church was able to discern what was truly an artifact of revelation and what was merely useful or even that of dubious origin by the guiding work of the Spirit.

For the early church, the single deciding factor in determining if a book was truly authoritative rested with the conviction that the apostles were legitimately authorized to speak for Christ. An apostle, therefore, or someone directly related or commissioned by one was required. We see examples of this regarding Luke’s association with Paul and Mark’s relationship with Peter. The development of the canon rested on the knowledge that the Lord commissioned his apostles to speak on his behalf. Both during Jesus’ earthly ministry and afterwards, the apostolic message from each of the Twelve remained in concert with the teachings of their Master. Whether in spoken form or written—both of which constituted the same message—the words of the apostles reflected the message and teaching of Christ.

Looking back after the lives of the apostles, the second- and third-century Christians viewed the apostolic writings as being on equal footing with the Old Testament. Spurious writings inevitably surfaced, with many letters purportedly attributing authorship to an apostle or to some important or influential figure. To mitigate the inadvertent approval of these texts and to counter the so-called apostolic documents, another factor was utilized in determining veracity.

Historically, the process included acceptance and approval in all the churches and not merely usage in isolated communities. The mere acceptance of some writings in remote geographic locations was not sufficient for concluding they were of divine origin. All churches throughout Christendom had to embrace the writings and teach from them. Additionally, epistles claiming apostolic origin had to comport with known orthodoxy. If a book or gospel’s message conflicted with accepted teachings in any manner it was rejected (which is why the gospel of Mary and scores of other works were declared spurious soon after they began to circulate). The entirety of a book’s message had to bear witness to established truths.

We must also not be quick to forget that the Holy Spirit initially moved upon the authors to write. In so doing, the canon came into existence. Before anyone had the intellectual knowledge of the canon, the canon existed. God foreknew the content and extent—since he was its divine author. As time progressed, the Spirit enlightened believers (the church) of his revelation, leading them in recognizing that which is God-breathed.

Those who still insist Christians are indebted to a particular church organization for recognition of the canon do not fully understand the thrust of the argument, nor do they seem to comprehend the reality that the same Holy Spirit who led men in writing properly guided believers to recognize God’s Word. While some find it subjectively comforting to believe they have infallible knowledge of the canon because an infallible magisterium told them so, evangelicals can rightly rejoice with the utmost confidence in knowing the canon of Scripture rests solely on the sovereignty of God and his desire for us to know such things. God is the author of canon, and he has made his Word known to us so that it may instruct us and train us in righteousness so that we may be competent and equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16). Just as the believer living fifty years prior to the life of Jesus Christ knew what the Scriptures were and understood them clearly enough to gain salvation apart from any infallible interpreter, the same holds true for the believer today. The crucial point here to understand is the Spirit was working with his chosen people in the Old Testament in helping them to recognize his Word. And the same is true for the New Testament believers. God worked with his elect under the New Covenant in allowing them to discern that which is ultimately God-breathed.

This section was extracted from Adam Murrell’s Essential Church History: And the Doctrinal Significance of the Past (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2010), 21-24.