What are the Criteria for a Book to be Canonical?


In my first article on the Biblical Canon, What is the Biblical Canon?, I listed three criteria the early church used to recognize if a book should be considered part of the New Testament canon. The books had to be:

  • Authentic – Based on the experiences of those who knew Jesus
  • Authoritative – Accurately teaching God’s will
  • Inspired – Written by people with guidance of the Holy Sprit

Since then, I’ve come across a few more criteria the early church may have used for recognizing the books of the Bible (and one particularly clear article; see the Resources section), so I thought I’d do a more complete (although not comprehensive) article on the criteria needed for a book to be canonical.1

Authority of the Apostles

The New Testament books needed to have the authority of the Apostles. These are the people whom Jesus personally sent out to preach the Good News.

Then Jesus came to them [Apostles] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 20:18-20 ESV)

Most of the books in the New Testament were written by Apostles, but a few of them weren’t2. The books which weren’t written by Apostles were written by known associates of the Apostles, under the authority of the Apostles. This automatically excludes any book from the canon written after the Apostles died.

If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I [Paul] am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:37 ESV)

However, there were associates of the Apostles who wrote books which are not in the canon, because they were written after the Apostles died, so they did not have Apostolic approval. This makes it clear that simply being an associate of the Apostles was not sufficient to make a book canonical. 

The principle of expanded apostolicity was not applied uniformly by the Church since otherwise Clement‘s [of Rome]3 (Phil 4:34), Barnabas5 and Polycarp‘s6 epistles should have been included (as some of them were temporarily) and should have retained their place in the canon to this day (as none of them did). The case of Polycarp is especially embarrassing since the author expressly denies having apostolic authority7.8

Christian Teachings

It’s no surprise a requirement that for a book to be in the canon, the book must have orthodox Christian teachings; the book must accurately teach God’s revelation to us. Not all books in the New Testament easily passed this qualification. There was vigorous debate about some of the books, because they seemed to teach something which was unorthodox, but the teachings in all the Biblical books are consistent with what Jesus taught, even if some of them are difficult to understand or put into practice.

And he [Jesus] said to him [a lawyer], “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

Jesus Christ Died for Our Sins

Every book in the Bible refers to God’s faithfulness to us, even when we’re not faithful to him. Each one describes the grace God has offered to us, and ultimately points to Jesus’s death on the cross as the payment for our sins.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)

…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 ESV)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)

Inspired by God

Although people wrote the books of the Bible, every author was inspired by God to ensure correct teaching.

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 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21 ESV)

The Testimony Of The Holy Spirit To The Individual Christian

When we become friends with someone, we share more of our lives, thoughts and feelings with that person. We become accustomed to the person being around and can recognize them easily. As we focus more on God, it will become easier to understand what God is teaching us. 

My [Jesus] sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27 ESV)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…. (Romans 8:16 ESV)

 

The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God.9

 

I imagine most readers have had the experience of receiving a phone call where the caller’s opening words are simply, “Hey, it’s me!” Even though those words could be said by anyone, I’d wager that nearly every time you’ve receive an “It’s me!” call, you knew immediately and certainly who the caller was. But how did you know, since the speaker didn’t give a name? It’s simple: you recognized the person’s voice. You didn’t engage in some process of deduction from various “evidences” that you identified in their speech. You directly perceived the identity of the caller. Something analogous takes place when the Spirit bears witness to Scripture. The Bible bears all the objective marks of a divine revelation, but we nevertheless need “eyes and ears” to recognize it as such. That spiritual apprehension is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we read or hear the words of the Bible, the indwelling Spirit brings about in our hearts and minds a conviction that these aren’t merely human writings. In short, the Spirit of God enables us to hear the voice of God speaking in the Word of God.10

The Authority Of The Church

The early church fathers wrote about the scriptures they had received. Although there were several generations of church fathers before the canon was first recognized in the form we know it, each generation received parts of it from an earlier generation, all the way back to the Apostles. The church didn’t decide what books should be in the canon, rather, they authenticated which books of scripture had been passed on to them as canonical.

One of the marks or necessary conditions of canonicity must be the recognition of a writing by the covenant community to whom it was originally given. The idea of writings only gradually gaining canonical status centuries after their writing is foreign and alien to Christianity. If any writing only gained such authority centuries after its being written, this would clearly prove that it was not canonical…. It is true that no book could be considered canonical which was not historically recognized as such by the covenant community. This means that Old Testament books must have been accepted as canonical by the Jews, and New Testament books must have been accepted as canonical by the church.11

A Nearly Unanimous Acceptance

In the first few centuries after the resurrection, there were probably many letters which claimed to be scripture, but not all of them were written with Apostolic authority. When the leaders of the church in various locations got together, they discussed which letters and books met the criteria of canonicity. The books which make up the New Testament wasn’t decided on by a church council, but was recognized by the councils as belonging to the canon. The canon the Protestants use is called the minimal canon because most of the books of the New Testament had near-unanimous approval, while a few books had some dissenters. All of the books in the Protestant New Testament are included in the other major canons12, some of the church councils and documents13 and by some of the leading church fathers14 and some manuscripts15.16171819 Other traditions have included books which have had more disagreement. 

This formulation takes account of the stunning near-unanimity of Christian churches on the scope of the NT canon: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Quaker, Disciples, Adventist, and even Universalist-Unitarian, Mormon, Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witness churches all acknowledge precisely the same 27 books of the NT, even though some of these would ease greatly their own task by eliminating some of the books, as the Ebionites and gnostics of old had done.20

Summary

The church fathers needed some criteria to help recognize which books should be considered scripture and used in churches. There was no formula the churches could use in the process, so they had to use the wisdom God gave them.

The path from basic faith in Christ to full faith in all the Scriptures may be illustrated in several ways. The testimony of the Spirit gives us eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. He gives us eyes to see the difference between truth and error. Gradually (if we ever had any doubt) we will be able see that light shining in all the pages of Scripture. Also, an intellectual necessity will compel us on in this journey from faith in Christ to full faith in the Scriptures. Even the most undefined and basic faith in Christ assumes and accepts that in Scripture we have an authentic and true testimony about Him. Faith in Christ fundamentally requires the idea that God would not allow the truth about Christ to be lost or hopelessly clouded. Rather, any faith in Christ must believe that God will preserve the truth about Christ so that people may be saved. Any faith in Christ carries in its heart the assurance which is stated in Matt. 16:1821 that Christ would build His church on the truth about Himself. Thus, the most basic faith in Christ will find itself opposed to skepticism and cynicism about the canon. It will find itself inclined to accept the received canon of Scripture.22

Resources

  • Nicole, Roger. The Canon of the New Testament (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 40.2, June 1997) 199-206. (Accessed 07-Aug-2019) (Evangelical Theological Society)

Footnotes

  1. I’ve changed some of the titles to be more consistent with some of the additional resources I’ve found.
  2. The books Mark, Luke and Acts were written by known associates of the Apostles. Some of the early church fathers attributed Hebrews to Paul, and other attribute it to one of his coworkers, such as Luke. It is unknown if the books of James and Jude were written by Apostles. There were Apostles named James and Jude (Thaddaeus), but Jesus also had half-brothers with those names, and there are other people in the New Testament with those names.
  3. Pope Clement I (lived about A.D. 35-99) wrote 1 Clement.
  4. Yes, I [Paul] ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 ESV)
  5. Possibly Barnabas from Acts 4:36-37 (ESV). Epistle of Barnabas
  6. Polycarp (lived about A.D. 69-155) was a student of the Apostle John. Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
  7. These things, brethren, I [Polycarp] write to you [the Church in Philippi] concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because ye have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. (Polycarp. Chapter III, Expressions of personal unworthiness (CCEL.org))
  8. Nicole, Roger. The Canon of the New Testament (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 40.2, June 1997) 201. (Evangelical Theological Society)
  9. Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 4. (TheWestminsterStandard.org)
  10. Anderson, James N. The Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit: How Do You Know That the Bible Is God’s Word? (Equip.org, Nov 12, 2017) Accessed 29-Jul-2019.
  11. Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 767. (Monergism)
  12. Anglican, Assyrian Church of the East, Lutheran, Orthodox and Roman Catholic.
  13. Belgic Confession, Confession of La Rochelle, Council of Carthage, Council of Trent, London Baptist Confession, Savoy Declaration, Synod of Jerusalem, Thirty-Nine Articles, Waldensian Confession and Westminster Confession.
  14. Athanasius, Augustine, Eusebius and Jerome.
  15. Codex Sinaiticus, Syriac Bible, Vulgate and Wycliffe’s Bible.
  16. These lists are not exhaustive.
  17. Cross Reference Table: Writings and Authorities (NTCanon.org) (Accessed 07-Aug-2019)
  18. Evans, Eli. Canon Comparison, Logos Bible Software (Faithlife, 2014)
  19. Geisler, Norman and Shawn Nelson. Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2015; Kindle ebook) Locations 515, 522. (Amazon)
  20. Nicole, Roger. The Canon of the New Testament (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 40.2, June 1997) 204. (Evangelical Theological Society)
  21. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18 ESV)
  22. Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture Location 565. (Monergism)

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