What do the words Scripture and Canon mean? In modern times, some people have defined the word Scripture to mean books inspired by God, while defining Canon as a list of scripture which can not change. With these definitions, the scriptures existed early in the church, but the canon took a long time to form. Did the early church have a canon? Was the canon formed in the fourth or fifth century, as some people claim? The Catholic Church didn’t formalize their canon until 1546, at the Council of Trent. Does this mean there wasn’t a canon until then? Even today there’s debate about what books should be in the canon (I found Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic canons, among others), so does a canon exist at all? This method of understanding the canon is called the exclusive definition.
Another way of understanding the canon is to say it’s determined by the function of a book. If the book instructs Christians regarding God’s revelation and interaction with people, then it’s part of the canon. This argument suggests a scriptural book could exist but perhaps not be recognized by the church as scripture, and therefore not be in the canon. This understanding is too broad, because there are many books (such as devotionals) which Christians use to learn about God, but aren’t scripture and don’t belong in the canon. This method of understanding the canon is called the functional definition.
The early church (about A.D. 33-400) probably didn’t distinguish the words this way. The word canon wasn’t in use yet, but it’s doubtful they would have had different meanings for scripture and a group of authoritative books. Some of the Apostles were alive during this time (John likely died in the A.D. 90’s), so some Christians had direct access to them. In the early years, there would have been enough people around who had been personally taught by the Apostles that there was no question about what was scripture and should be read in public verses what wasn’t scripture. They seemed to believe all scripture is the canon; scripture and canon are synonymous. This method of understanding the canon is called the ontological (the study of the nature of being) definition.
It was after the eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry, crucifixion and resurrection died out, and their students began to die out, that the question of canon started to become important to the church. Some people, particularly heretics, started to question the scriptures, but was that really the start of the canon? The ontological, functional and exclusive definitions actually complement each other when understanding how we got the canon.
Ontology is the study of being. The books God wanted in the canon were by their very nature scriptural and part of the canon as soon as they were written. There was no delay of years or centuries, as some skeptics claim, before people voted on whether it should be part of the canon. The ontological stage of the canon existed while the Apostles and their companions were still writing and teaching the Word of God.
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. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:37-38 ESV)
If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and it was believed that they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself. Such writings would not have to wait until second-, third-or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to be viewed as authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the early church’s view of the function of the apostles.1
The functional stage of the canon started when the churches and individuals the books and letters were written to started applying those teaching to their lives. Although the books and letters may have been read in the churches as soon as they were received, some time may have passed before the people started following what was being taught. Some parts of the Bible are critical of what some people and churches were doing and may not have been well received, delaying their acceptance.
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)
The Fathers believed the Word of God is ‘living and active’ (Heb. 4:12)2 and consequently ought to have a transforming force for edification (2 Tim. 3:17)3 and evangelization (1 Pet. 1:23)4. If the message of a book did not effect its stated goal, if it did not have the power to change a life, then God was apparently not behind its message.5
In the exclusive stage of the canon formation, groups of churches confirmed which books had been passed to them scripture. Prior to this stage, individual churches may have had only a few of the books which became the New Testament, and some churches were using books which actually taught heresy. Collectively, the church needed to determine how to recognize the books which were scripture (What are the Criteria for a Book to be Canonical?), and to exclude the books which didn’t meet those requirements (Why Create a Written Canon? Part 1).
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (2 Peter 2:1 ESV)
The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.6
The early church fathers referred to scriptural books many times in their own writings, by some estimates about 36,000 times7. Using their writings, we can see which books they considered canonical, and how those lists grew from one generation to another as the books were copied and became known and available to wider groups of churches. Since there were debates about a few of the books, it wasn’t until the year A.D. 367 that a list exactly matching the 27 books of the Protestant New Testament was written, by bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.
Once these three definitions are allowed to interface with one another, it also becomes evident that they, in some sense, imply one another. If a canonical book is a book given by God to his church (ontological definition) then we might naturally expect his church to recognise it as such and use it as an authoritative norm (functional definition). And if a canonical book is a book used as an authoritative norm (functional definition), we might naturally expect that the church would eventually reach a consensus on the boundaries around such books (exclusive definition). And if the church has reached a consensus on the boundaries around certain books (exclusive definition), then it is reasonable to think these are the books that have already been used as an authoritative form (functional definition), and also the books that God intended his church to have (ontological definition). The manner in which these definitions reinforce one another suggests that they are not contradictory as so many suppose, but instead are to be seen as complementary.8
- Kruger, Michael J. The Canonization of the New Testament (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2013, Podcast) (iTunes) (Monergism) Accessed 16-Jul-2019.
- Kruger, Michael J. The Definition of the Term ‘Canon’ (Tyndale House, 2012, PDF) (Tyndale House) Accessed 27-Jul-2019.
- Kruger, Michael J. The Origins of the New Testament Canon (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2014, Podcast) (iTunes) (The Gospel Coalition)
- Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2013) 70. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 27. (Amazon)
- For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)
- …that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:17 ESV)
- …since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…. (1 Peter 1:23 ESV)
- Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible, revised and expanded edition (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986) 228. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 27. (Amazon)
- Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Sixth Edition (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 1981; Kindle) Location 511 (Amazon).
- Witness of the Early Church Fathers (Dating the New Testament) (Accessed 08-Aug-2019)
- Kruger, Michael J. The Definition of the Term ‘Canon’ (Tyndale House, 2012, PDF) 18. (Tyndale House) Accessed 27-Jul-2019.