The Canon of Scripture

“The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblos, which means ‘book.’” The Bible is actually “a collection of sixty-six individual books.” The question dealt with in this chapter is, “how do we know that the right books have been included in this collection… of books? That question falls under the issue of canonicity.”

                We get the word canon from a Greek word, which mean “measuring rod” or “norm.” The sixty-six books of the Bible “together function as the supreme measuring rod or authority for the church.” The Bible “is judged by no other standard.”


                [The sixty-six books of the Bible were authoritative and received as God’s Word the moment they were written; but the process of gathering those books into a “canon” (authoritative list) took place over a period of time.]

                “The issue that provoked the establishment of the canon was the appearance of a heretic named Marcion, who issued his own canon.” He believed the God portrayed in the Old Testament is mean-spirited and therefore not the ultimate God of the universe, and that Christ came to reveal the true God. Thus, Marcion got rid of “everything in the New Testament that could link Christ in a positive way to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament…. This heresy spurred the church to give an authoritative, formal list of actual biblical books [finalized in the fourth century].


                The church applied a threefold test to determine which books should be included in the canon. First, the book had to have been written by an Apostle or under the direct approval of an Apostle. Second, the book had to have been widely circulated, received and quoted as authoritative from early on. “In the Bible itself, the Apostle Peter makes mention of Paul’s letters as being included among the category of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).” Third, the book had to be compatible with the books which were already accepted without any controversy.


                A dispute arose in the 16th century between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants over the Apocrypha, a group of books produced during the inter-testament period. “The Roman Catholic Church embraced the Apocrypha; the Protestants did not. The dispute centered on what the first-century church and Jesus Himself had accepted as canonical.” All the evidence indicates that “the Jewish Palestinian canon did not include the Apocrypha;” and that “even the Jewish Alexandrian canon recognized the Apocrypha only at a secondary level, not at the full level of biblical authority.”

                “We believe that the church was providentially guided by the mercy of God in the process of determining the canon and thereby made the right decisions, so that every book that should be in the Bible is in the Bible…. By contrast, the Roman Catholic formula says that the we have the correct books because the church is infallible and anything the church decides is an infallible decision. In the Roman Catholic understanding, the formation of the canon rests on the authority of the church, whereas in the Protestant understanding, it rests upon the providence of God.”

[Adapted from chapter 7 of Everyone’s a Theologian by R.C. Sproul]