The Bible, Introduction / Canon

bibleschrisgardnerap1I recently received a question that I hadn’t tackled in a while, “How do we know the Bible is true?” This came from a student who had been challenged by classmates. What a fantastic question! Over the next few posts, I want to give a primer on the Bible.

Nearly all the systematic theology books, that I am aware of, begin with a “Doctrine of the Word of God.” The reason for this is that any Christian belief should be based on what God has to say. Thus, it makes sense to start with the Bible–which is God’s words to humanity.

Wayne Grudem gives 4 ways by which we receive the “Word of God” [1].

  1. God’s Decrees: a word of God that causes something to happen (Genesis 1:3, 24; Psalm 33:6).
  2. God’s Words of Personal Address: God speaks directly to a person in an audible way (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:16-19; Exodus 20:1-3; Matthew 3:17).
  3. God’s Words as Speech Through Human Lips: God raises up prophets through whom He speaks (Deuteronomy 18:18-20; Jeremiah 1:7-9; Exodus 4:12; Numbers 22:38; 1 Samuel 15:3, 18, 23; 1 Kings 20:36; 2 Chronicles 20:20; 25:15-16; Isaiah 30:12-14; Jeremiah 6:10-12; 36:29-31; et al.). Anyone who said they were speaking for God, but who was actually lying about it was punished (Ezekiel 13:1-7; Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
  4. God’s Word in Written Form (the Bible): The written account of the other word’s of God. This began with God Himself writing on the tablets at Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18; 32:16; 34:1, 28). Then God commanded people to write down the things that He had said and done (Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 24-26; Joshua 24:26; Isaiah 30: 8, et al.).

Today we only have the last form for our investigation. God speaks to us through His word.

This leads us to ask the question, “What should be included in the Bible, and what should be excluded from the Bible?” This is a question of the canon of scripture. Canon is simply the list of books that belong in the Bible. The term canon is derived from a Greek word kanōn, which means “straight rod, straight edge, or ruler.” As applied to the Bible, canon has come to mean those writings which conform to the rule or standard of divine inspiration and authority [2].

The Old Testament Canon

The 39 books of the Christian Old Testament (OT) were put together by the Jewish community. The canon of the OT used by Protestants today is made of the same works that form the Jewish canon of Scripture (known as the Hebrew Bible) [3]. These books were affirmed and accepted by the early church as true and authoritative. These books were chosen and ‘canonized’ long before the time of Jesus on the earth.

The Hebrew OT follows a topical arrangement: Law, Prophets, and Writings.

  1. Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  2. Prophets: Former Prophets—Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings; the Latter Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; the Scroll of the Twelve—Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
  3. Writings: Poetry—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job;  Five Rolls— Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes; Historical—Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles

There is a very long process by which the Jews formed their canon of Scripture (too long for this post). Suffice it to say that it was formed through the history of the Jewish community. By the first century, Jewish writers testify to the existence of a functional Jewish canon. Josephus (ca. A.D. 37–100) documents that a practical canon was established before his time. [3] Thus, the OT was gifted to us by the Jews.

The New Testament Canon

The 27 books of the Christian New Testament (NT) had a different genesis. These books were universally accepted by the Church as inspired by God and authoritative. They were written by Jesus’ apostles or their associates, are orthodox in their teaching, and were fit for widespread use within the Church.

The NT  books are as follows:

  1. Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
  2. History: Acts of the Apostles.
  3. Letters of Paul: Romans 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
  4. “Catholic” Letters [4]: Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude.
  5. Apocalypse: Revelation.

Nearly all Christian Churches recognize these books as the authoritative canon. They also believe that these are the only books in the canon–there are none to be added or taken away. As mentioned already there are 3 rules for the canonization of the text: (1) Authorship, (2) Conformity to the gospel, and (3) Widespread acceptance and use within the Church. Thus, if there are other books out there that were to be considered, they did not meet the criteria. A book/letter written near the time (say by an early church father, or other sources) could prove beneficial for understanding the world in which the NT authors lived. However, that book/letter would not be authoritative or considered scripture [5].

The early church fathers began to form what would become the NT Canon. Paul encouraged the Church to circulate his letters to the other churches (Colossians 4:16). Several heresies that began to form in the early church sped up the process. They wanted to make sure that they had authoritative writings to point to in order to combat the false teaching. Even so, the acceptance of the books we have today was not done arbitrarily. There are many canon lists including the Muratorian and Diatessaron canon. Individual church leaders also created lists: Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea. [3]

Interestingly, not all the lists agreed on all the texts. Thus, the need for more debate was necessary. There was considerable discussion over books like James, Hebrews, and Revelation. The church began to hold “Councils” to collaborate on how to deal with the heresies and to discuss the canon. By the end of the fourth century, the NT canon was solidified as what we know it as today.





[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 47-50.

[2] Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 75.

[3] Sylvie T. Raquel, “Canon, Old Testament,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[4] ‘Catholic’ here means “general” or “universal.” It is not in reference to the denomination known as Roman Catholic.

[5] For Protestants, this would include the books commonly known as the Apocrypha.


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