How was the Biblical Canon Found?

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series What is the Canon?

I’ve referred to the conclusion in this article quite a few times in previous articles1, but I think it’s important to show how I arrived at the conclusion. There have been different approaches used in developing the canon, and two of them are based on human desires, while the third one is based on revelation by the Holy Spirit. Of course, there is overlap in all three, since none of us perfectly knows God’s will. People didn’t decide what books should be in the canon, rather, they recognized which books God put in the canon.

People Make the Canon

One approach is people decide which books are in the canon. This is often the method used by people who reject traditional Christianity, and they may make changes to the Scriptures to fit their beliefs. This approach may be by a single person, or a small group of people who are like-minded. Cults may claim to use the same Bible Christians use, but make unusual or inconsistent choices in their Bible translations to support non-traditional beliefs. Cults may also include additional writings in their canon which contradict historical Biblical teachings. This method allows the canon to change over time as people believe new ideas.

One extreme example is the Jefferson Bible (officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth), by Thomas Jefferson, which he started work on while he was President of the United States. Jefferson was not a Christian, but liked the moral teachings of Jesus. He created a harmony of the four Gospels, but removed all of Jesus’s miracles, anything supernatural and any reference to Jesus being divine. The Jefferson Bible ends with Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus: “…and placed it [Jesus’s body] in his [Joseph of Arimathea’s] own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.” (Matthew 27:60 NIV). The entire resurrection is missing from Jefferson’s cut-and-glue project. These changes clearly mutilate the teachings of the Bible, and the salvation offered to us.

Among the many objections which may be brought against this position, one is most pointed and primary. It ignores man’s fallen-ness. More precisely, it ignores or denies the noetic or intellectual effects of human depravity. The fact is that the religious, moral, and intellectual abilities which this position appeals to are not themselves infallible. Rather they are fallen in sin. The appeal to man to authenticate the canon can never be successful. A canon is by definition an infallible standard. A fallible man can never give us an infallible standard. Even worse, a fallen mind will never be satisfied to accept God’s Word. The intellectual impulses of such a mind will always and forever twist God’s standard if we allow it to stand in judgment of the Canon.2

Church Makes the Canon

Another approach is based on the claims of some churches to have the sole authority to make infallible pronouncements. A human claim of infallibility is an attempt to put the claimant in a position of authority over the Bible, but this is a denial of the absolute authority of scripture. This position is sometimes called the Ecclesiastical Appeal, but there is little practical difference from the first approach. In the first approach, a single person (i.e. a self-proclaimed leader) may make the decision, while in the second approach there’s usually a formal group of leaders who make the decision. Ultimately, both are based on what people decide should be in the canon.

The Roman Catholic Church has used the Apocrypha, or Deuterocanonical books, books for over 1,500 years, but they weren’t formally added to the Catholic Canon until 1546, at the Council of Trent, which is an example of the Ecclesiastical Appeal. The Apocrypha, meaning “hidden”, contains books written during the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, about 450 B.C. to A.D. 50. These books are included in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), made about 200-100 B.C. However, these books are not considered scripture by most Jews3. The Jews believed prophecy had stopped around the time Alexander the Great conquered the area in 323 B.C., so the books in the Apocrypha were not inspired and shouldn’t be considered scripture. Since the Old Testament was written to the Israelites, the books in the minimal canon follow the Jewish Bible (although the order has changed).

It is important to note at this point that the whole effort to discover some standard external to or outside of the Bible to prove it to be God’s Word is misguided. This is the case for two reasons. First, Since God has spoken, and the Bible is itself the living Word of God the highest possible authentication is the Bible’s own witness to itself. Second, if we think that a divine revelation following the original giving of the Bible is necessary in order to confirm it as God’s Word, there is no place to stop. This second revelation would require a third revelation to confirm it as God’s Word and so on without end. If the Bible as God’s voice or word from heaven does not attest itself, no amount of choices or words from heaven will ever be sufficient to arrest it.4

Holy Spirit Guides the Canon

The third approach believes the scriptures are self-authenticating in their authority, and revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Romans 1:20 (ESV)5 says the general revelation of God in nature is clearly perceived, and people are without excuse when they fail to believe in God. If the general revelation is clear that God exists, then the special revelation of the Bible can leave no doubt of the authority and personal nature of God. A prerequisite for understanding the inspiration of the scriptures is to be seeking God; those who turn away from God won’t understand the revelation of the scriptures by the Holy Spirit. “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.” (1 Peter 1:12 ESV)

Canonicity is determined by God. A book is not inspired because men made it canonical; it is canonical because God inspired it. It is not the antiquity, authenticity, or religious community that makes a book canonical or authoritative…. Inspiration determines canonization, and confusion at this point not only dulls the edge of authority but it mistakes the effect (a canonical book) for the cause (inspiration of God).6

Divine inspiration is an attribute of each canonical book, and the Church Fathers (about A.D. 33-400) believed the Holy Spirit would divinely reveal which books were canonical and which weren’t. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the spiritual blindness in our hearts caused by sin is removed. Christians will have clearer minds and eyes to recognize the word of God in the inspired books. Basing the canon on revelation removes the possibility of human error.

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 ESV)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my [Jesus] words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35 ESV)7

It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. (Luke 16:17 NIV)

In the last verse, the Law to which Jesus is referring is the Law of Moses, or Torah (What is the Torah?), but I think this can generally be applied to all the scripture which would be written. God’s word will never pass away, regardless of whether it’s in the old covenant (Old Testament) or the new covenant (New Testament). Christians from the Early Church Fathers to modern times knew they would be able to identify the books God wanted in the canon if they relied on him.


New Testament professor and author Michael J. Kruger compares the different approaches of the canon with a thermostat and a thermometer. When in the same room, a thermostat and a thermometer should show the same temperature. The difference, however, is the thermostat changes the temperature of the room, while a thermometer shows the temperature of the room. The People and Church approaches to the canon is like the thermostat, deciding which books should be in the canon. The Holy Spirit approach is like the thermometer, discovering which books the Holy Spirit put in the canon.

As Christians, we should be eager to follow God’s word, but be cautious about accepting new teachings. The entire canon applies to everyone. Some people who claim to be religious use the Bible and holy books from other religions like a buffet: Pick a little bit of Jesus’s moral teachings from the Bible (but not to much! Don’t cramp my lifestyle!), add the non-violence from Hinduism, a dash of god-is-in-everything from Pantheism, and top it off with the Unitarian Universalism belief everyone goes to heaven. The Christian Bible doesn’t give that option. The inspired Word of God is an absolute standard for everyone. It’s not a menu we can pick-and-choose from. It applies to all people, in all places, at all times.

…the objective authority of the Apostles’ words both spoken and written refutes the idea that the Canon is only a standard when it speaks to me. This idea, advocated by Neo-orthodoxy, is false and contradicts the plainest teaching of the New Testament about itself.8

Christians must use the Holy Spirit to not only recognize the scriptures, but to also live according to what the scriptures teach. When people try to pick-and-choose, we’re not living in God’s will.

God’s Word will never pass away, but looking back to the Old Testament and since the time of Christ, with tears we must say that because of a lack of fortitude and faithfulness on the part of God’s people, God’s Word has many times been allowed to be bent, to conform to the surrounding, passing, changing culture of that moment rather than to stand as the inerrant Word of God judging the form of the world spirit and the surrounding culture of that moment. In the name of The Lord Jesus Christ, may our children and grandchildren not say that such can be said about us.9



Series Navigation<< Did Emperor Constantine Create the Canon?What is the Jesus Seminar’s Version of the Lord’s Prayer? >>


  1. This article is out of order. I started writing this months ago, when I was just starting my research on the canon. I had originally thought this would be the second article in my series, but as I did more research it didn’t seem to fit well with the other articles I was writing. Perhaps I should have posted it after the article What are the Stages of Revelation of the Canon?, since this article is about the Exclusive Stage of the revelation of the canon. However, my next article is closely related to this one, and I wanted to post that one near the end of my series on the canon.
  2. Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 246. (Monergism)
  3. The Septuagint was translated by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, but the Apocrypha was never recognized by the Sanhedrin (religious ruling council) in Jerusalem.
  4. Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 298.(Monergism)
  5. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20 ESV)
  6. Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible, revised and expanded edition (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986) 220-221. Quoted in Geisler, Norman and Nelson, Shawn. Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon (Matthews, NC: Bastion Books, 2015) 305. (Amazon)
  7. Parallel passages: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mark 13:31 ESV); Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:33 ESV)
  8. Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 1143. (Monergism)
  9. Schaeffer, Francis A. The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1988) (Amazon) (Logos)

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  1. […] last post, How was the Biblical Canon Found?, described the different ways the canon could be formed. I now want to show the tragic results when […]

  2. Regina says:

    While there are many more valuable take-always from this piece, I loved “cut and glue.” I assume that was a deliberate play on words!

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