Ever Wonder How the Bible & Canon of Scripture Came to be?

canon-of-scripture

William Klein et al. demonstrate, “The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek kanōn, meaning ‘list,’ ‘rule,’ or ‘standard [and] the canon of Scripture refers to the collection of biblical books that Christians accept as uniquely authoritative.”[1] It is important to note, the canon, as it exists today, developed over time as God divinely inspired authors through a historical process. Early Christians relied heavily on the Old Testament and the early church fathers recognized the necessity to define exactly which texts should be considered as being divinely inspired and authoritative. Leo Percer illustrates, “The process of canonization was lengthy, asking questions such as: Was the book tied to an apostle? Did it come from Paul or Peter? Did the church generally accept it? Was it orthodox in its teaching about Jesus? And was it divinely inspired?”[2] All of these factors led to the early church adopting the twenty-seven books, which exist in the New Testament today by around AD 300. Klein et al. explain, “Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter festal letter of AD 367, is the earliest-known Christian writer to endorse without hesitation the twenty seven books that now comprise the New Testament.”[3] Of the factors that determined which texts made it into the canon, it is this writer’s opinion the most important factor would be whether the text affirmed God’s nature and pointed to Jesus being the fulfillment of humanity’s redemption. The least important factor would be definitively assigning authorship and while this is one of the first factors in determining the legitimacy of a text, there are many examples in the Bible of texts that are either anonymous, later added to, or edited.

Lee Fields, when addressing the issue of no known autographs/original manuscripts of the Old Testament existing today, makes the statement, “The preservation of God’s Word involves two processes: inspiration and providence.”[4] While conservatives hold that the autographs are inerrant and infallible, due diligence is still needed when making this broad declaration, and one must also ask themselves, “Does this mean Scriptures only in their original manuscript form are inerrant and infallible, and if so, does what scholars possess today meet this standard?” Within Field’s two process approach, inspiration points to God miraculously inspiring and directing the authors to write exactly what He wanted them to; while providence assumes that God works in and through His chosen and faithful people, despite any flaws they may have. Fields then asserts, “God is absolutely perfect and, though infinitely beyond humankind in His being, is perfectly able to communicate to us.”[5] An often-quoted Scripture from the apostle Paul is cited when dealing with the infallibility and inerrancy of the canon. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”[6]  However, Philip Towner reveals how:

All Scripture is God-breathed, (TNIV); or All scripture is inspired by God, (NRSV), have received a great deal of attention as a fundamental doctrinal statement (or theologoumenon) about the inspiration of Scripture. But this approach to the text has sometimes been only minimally alert to its function within the discourse and has perhaps returned certain results that exceeded the purpose of the argument. From the standpoint of methodology, the present discourse should determine the limits of Paul’s intention in making the statement. Paul’s insertion of the adjective at this point is intended to underline the authority of the OT, text by text, on the basis of its derivation from God.[7]

Given this information, Fields poses the question, “How can conservatives claim to have God’s very words?” In today’s skeptical world, tangible proof is required, and even then, when it relates or points to God, resistance still abounds. Christians maintain God’s Word cannot contradict itself, so to aid in establishing exactly what passages of text are truly God’s very words, Fields cites two declarations that aid in textual criticism and divine inspiration. First, Fields demonstrates, “The reliability of the Old Testament is very high, [and that] only ten percent is disputed at all. And of that ten percent, the vast majority of variations are matters such as spelling that have no significant affect on the meaning of the text.”[8] Fields second claim illustrates, “Though the study of textual criticism may affect the meaning of an individual passage, no major doctrine of Scripture rests solely on any disputed text.”[9]

One of the major issues the early church faced was false or uninspired writings being circulated, which led to Irenaeus stating, “False teachers were perverting Scriptures.” Among the most prevalent were the heretic Marcion, who believe Jesus and the God of the Old Testament were opposites and the rise of Gnostic teachings and writings, which alluded to secret revelations from Jesus.[10] Using Field’s model in figure 4.5[11] on textual criticism and inspiration, he shows the progression of exactly what text was divinely inspired and how it has been passed down through the generations. This is a dangerous area, because as most people know, there are many books that did not make it into the canon, based on the wisdom of the early church fathers, so Field’s model begins by showing the authors had to have perfect morals,[12] perfect works,[13] and perfect words.[14] From this platform, Fields illustrates the inspiration originated from Yahweh, through the Holy Spirit and was miraculous, therefore, whoever and whatever was inspired is inerrant and infallible. The Word was then given to the authors[15] for the faithful people[16] to know their God and obey the Law. Then God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to reveal Himself through creation and His Word, so immense care was given in producing the autographs, copies, and the various translations available today. God’s providence thus assures that while people are flawed and fallen, He still chooses to work through them in the metanarrative’s plan of redemption.

These assertions lead to a translation as close to the original text as possible, but considering written Hebrew did not exist until the time of Moses and that most of its contents were passed down by oral tradition, proving its accuracy is no small task. Over the course of time, textual variants began to surface. Some of the variants were common intentional changes, which Field explains, “Had to do with correcting spelling and adding vowels around 1000 BC and these changes were not meant to deceive, but to clarify the text.”[17] Fields warns, “It is the unintentional text that should cause concern as these errors may result in omission of text, addition of text, substitution of text, or wrong word division.”[18] While scribes were professionally trained, they were also not beyond making errors. To aid the scholars in choosing the correct text, Fields suggests four principles: (1) Manuscripts must be weighed and not counted; (2) the best reading is the one that explains all the others; (3) the shorter reading is to be preferred; and (4) the most difficult reading is to be preferred.[19] Ultimately, this meant the longer the translation was, the smoother it read, and the more details that were added pointed to a translation, which was farther removed from the original text.

In today’s world, there will always be people who refute the Word of God, but one day, “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”[20] Currently, there exists a veil that shrouds the truth claims of God, but just as the veil was torn, in the temple, following the crucifixion of Christ, so too will the veil be lifted from the eyes of skeptics and unbelievers. Disbelievers doubt the Word of God, demonstrating a lack faith, but followers of Christ understand, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.”[21] One final hurdle is the debate whether the canon is closed, meaning whether or not new books can be added. Klein et al. illustrate, “While it is true that one cannot prove either Christian or Jewish canons ever to have been conclusively closed as to preclude all further discussion, it is abundantly clear that no later sectarian literature could ever pass the early Church’s criteria for canonicity.”[22] Klein et al. make a valid point, but the question whether the canon is definitively closed is still a grey area. For the Mormon Church, the canon is still considered as being open, as new formative documents are still being added. However, Bruce Metzger seems to offer the best explanation of the canon being closed:

We must say that the canon theoretically remains open – if some additional document        could meet all the criteria for canonicity. But practically, the canon is closed, since a     work that had not been used for nearly twenty centuries could not meet the criterion of     catholicity and would almost certainly not command the acclaim of more than a minority of Christians today.[23]


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 103.

[2] Leo Percer, “The Canon and Translations,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 14:43. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931619_1 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[3] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 112.

[4] Lee M. Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 43.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] II Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

[7] Philip H. Towner, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Letters to Timothy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 589.

[8] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 111.

[11] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44.

[12] Psalms 18:25; 92:15; & Mark 10:18

[13] Deuteronomy 32:4

[14] Numbers 23:29 & Titus 1:2

[15] II Peter 1:20-21 & II Timothy 3:16

[16] Psalms 25:4-5; 8-9 & Ephesians 4:13-15

[17] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 41.

[18] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 42.

[19] Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 44-43.

[20] Romans 14:10 & Philippians 2:10-12

[21] Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

[22] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 113.

[23] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.), 271-275.