The Meaning and Origin of the Canon

The term “canon,” borrowed from the Greek kanon, is simply a way of saying a rule or a measuring rod. So if we were to extend this term to the Bible, the canon of Scripture deals with the body of literature that meets the standard for inclusion to function in the church as the measuring rod for believers. Since the fourth century, the term canon has been used to denote authoritative books belonging to the Old and New Testaments. Summarizing the London Baptist Confession of 1689, the declaration expressed the canon this way: The Holy Bible is the only certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience that constitutes salvation. What this means is the canon of Scripture is the rule for the church—because it is from God. Understanding the nature of the Bible will provide the believer with a solid foundation upon which to stand firm against a host of attacks regarding its sufficiency and inerrancy.

The classic text used to demonstrate these elements of Scripture is found in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. This passage is arguably the primary reference in the affirmation of the sufficiency of the Bible alone, and by logical extension, the inerrancy of Scripture as well. The apostle is here delivering one final exhortation. Of all the messages he could have chosen to communicate just prior to his imminent demise, Paul wrote these concluding words of exhortation:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:14–17).

Notice Paul’s teaching concerning the nature of the Bible. He reveals that sacred Scripture is theopneustos (a combination of theos, meaning “God,” and pneō, meaning “to breathe, blow”), which literally means “God-breathed” or “breathed out from God.” That is to say, the text of Scripture is the product of the divine, life-giving breath of the Almighty—breathed out through the secret operation of the Holy Spirit by which he produced the Word of God from the word of men. All human authors were powerfully guided and led to write his message by divine initiative yet without suppressing the individual personality of each writer. Consequently, the words penned by each author, while under inspiration from the Spirit, are not only free of fault and error but also relay a message of supreme value for humanity. After commenting extensively regarding the significance of the word theopneustos (used only once in Scripture), the late Princeton theologian Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921) summed up the term by indicating the Scriptures owe their origin to an activity of God the Spirit, and as such, are in the highest and truest sense his creation.

Now to say God creates by the “breath of his mouth” is not unique to the formation of the Bible. The manner in which the world was created was identical. Creation, the other “book” that testifies to the reality of God was, according to the psalmist, made by the breath of his mouth (Ps 33:6). Indeed, by the word of the Lord the heavens were made. So, too, were human beings given life. God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him so that he became a living being and soul. Similarly, God breathed his Word, the Scriptures, into existence through human instruments. They are just as much a part of his creation as the universe or humanity, and because of this certainty, are being preserved.

Moreover, the mere fact that the Bible represents God’s voice guarantees that it is profitable in the Christian life and for the work of the ministry for Christ’s bride, the church. When Paul delivers these final words of encouragement to Timothy, he is telling him that he is not alone. God has not left the church unattended but has provided for her the Word of God. Paul is stating that all which is theopneustos will prove profitable for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be fully equipped, complete for every good work. And all of this is derived, not from unwritten, vacillating human traditions but from the Bible alone.

All in all, that which is ultimately breathed out by God has no higher authority, because there can be nothing greater than the very words of God. Hence, it is sufficient because it is, as the apostle stated, the breath of God. It is well worth the effort here once again to point out that Paul said all Scripture is God-breathed and not merely portions of it—which would include all books that would eventually become inscripturated.

Peter likewise confirms the inauguration of Scripture as coming from God. He writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). With the beginning remarks, Peter demolishes any pretension that Scripture originated with mankind. Instead, prophecy comes from God. More specifically, the Holy Spirit employed men to compose the words of God while still preserving their individual talents, insights, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and characteristics, yet keeping them from fault or error. The power of the Spirit was upon each author as they spoke and wrote and even enabled them to declare the grandeur of their work. David testified to this reality when he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the LORD speaks to me; his word is on my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2).

To understand the ultimate origin of the Bible is to recognize that humans wrote the Bible as they were moved along by the Spirit, just as Peter affirmed. He guided their writings so that they conveyed the very message of God and not thoughts of their own. The words of the apostles and prophets are authoritative and binding on the conscience of the believers, because the source of revelation derived from God. And that revelation spanned nearly a millennium and a half, including more than forty authors from the time of Moses to the days of the apostle John with books written in the Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and Greek languages.

Despite the diversity of authorship and length of time it took to complete the canon, we have one continuous and harmonious book that is first among all others. The Holy Bible is the measuring rod by which all norms are to be judged, the means by which God revealed his will regarding salvation, and outlines the duties he requires of us. Put another way, the Bible is the medium by which God speaks to his creation, so it is on this foundation of divine origin, as B. B. Warfield rightly concluded, that all the high attributes of Scripture are built.

This section was extracted from Adam Murrell’s Essential Church History: And the Doctrinal Significance of the Past (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2010), 4-7.