“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8).

What do religious groups, for example, mean by canon? Although the term canon can apply to a variety of groups, not at all limited to religion, this post will focus on Christianity.

From the Greek kanōn, meaning “list,” “rule,” or “standard,” the word “canon,” in relationship to Scripture, is defined as the collection of biblical books that Christians accept as uniquely authoritative.[1] Although alternate sources, such the Apocrypha,[2] other texts such as Enoch, or perhaps historical documents, may offer important cultural contexts and historical background, the canon represents what is considered to be inspired by God and authoritative. Therefore, the assumptions one brings to their interpretation and understanding must be judged against the cannon and not the other way around. 

The NT grew out of Jewish ideas of sacred writing. Two major drivers leading to an explicit discussion of a Christian canon was in response to such factors as the growing popularity of heretical beliefs espoused by a man named Marcion, as well as the growing Gnostic movement, but perhaps, the greatest impetus was Christian persecution by Rome.[3] It makes sense that early believers who defied orders to burn all their holy books, for example, would want to know which ones needed to be preserved no matter the cost. During the second, third, and fourth centuries, a series of lists were compiled, and in the latter part of the fourth century, the books that now comprise the NT were ratified after the Council of Hippo (AD 393), and the Council of Carthage (AD 397).3

Apostolicity (connection to the apostles), orthodoxy (shared beliefs pointing to Jesus), and catholicity (universality), are criteria of canonicity used by the early church.4 Although all three standards represent an invaluable, interrelated balance, in my opinion, the most important element is orthodoxy. Not all books connected to one of the apostles, such as the Gospel of Thomas, made it into the cannon, and despite whatever other literary or historical criticisms that led to its exclusion, the book would have had to correspond to the theology and ethics expressed by the NT books as a whole. As William Klein puts it, “The canon came after the preaching of the gospel and the instruction of the faithful and accepted only what cohered with that inaugural tradition.”5 Apostolicity then is the least important among the criteria, because being connected to an apostle, in of itself, is not enough, if the correct orthodoxy is absent from the text. Similarly, the degree to which a text is accepted, or its catholicity, is inherently a product of its shared beliefs pointing to Jesus. 

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8, ESV).[4] Although the Christian canon theoretically remains open, because early church fathers are not the final word, practically speaking, the canon is closed. Such a document would be hard pressed to meet all three standards, in particular, catholicity, considering that two thousand years have passed.

[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2017), 165.

[2] The books that comprise the Apocrypha are considered canon in some Christian traditions, such as Roman Catholicism.

[3] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, 174.

3 Ibid., 175.

4 Leo Perser, “The Canon and Translations” (video lecture in NBST 610 at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, 2019).

5 Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, 179.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

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