The Canon of Scripture

The word canon means “measuring rod” or “norm.” The 66 books of the Bible function together as the supreme measuring rod or authority for the church. The Bible is the norm or the standard of all standards, and is to be judged by no other standard.

How do we know that the right books have been included in the Bible?

The Canon Established

The 66 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 OT canon was established about 300 years before Christ was born. The issue that provoked the establishment of the NT canon was the appearance of a heretic named Marcion, who issued his own canon. Marcion got rid of everything in the NT that could link Christ in a positive way to Yahweh, the God of the OT. This heresy spurred the church to give an authoritative, formal list of actual biblical books.

The Marks of Canonicity

The church applied a threefold test to determine which books should be included in the canon: (1) the book had to have been written either by an Apostle or under the direct approval of an Apostle; (2) 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); (3) the book had to be compatible with the books which were already accepted without any controversy.

The Scope and Extent of the Canon

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. 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 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.”

Scripture and Authority

The Reformers taught that Scripture alone is the ultimate, authoritative revelation of God; the church does not have authority on an equal footing with Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church holds to a “dual-source theory,” that there are two sources of special revelation: Scripture and the tradition of the church. Truth is found in both places. This has the effect of placing the church on an equal footing with the Bible.

For example, the Roman Catholic Church teaches the immaculate conception of Mary, that Mary was born of a virgin. Although no such doctrine is found anywhere in the Scriptures, Roman Catholics establish the doctrine on the basis of tradition.

The Roman Catholic Church defends its position by appealing to the process whereby the canon of Scripture was established. It was by the church’s decision that certain books were formally included in the canon; therefore, according to Rome, the authority of the Bible is subject to the authority of the church.

Protestants reject Rome’s position for biblical, theological and historical reasons. In the process of finalizing the canon of Scripture, the church used a Latin term, recipemus, which means “we receive.” This indicates that the church was not so arrogant as to claim that it was creating the canon or that the canon received its authority from the church. Rather, the church recognized that the books of the canon have binding authority over all. When John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the Messiah, he was not making him the Messiah or making Him authoritative. He was simply recognizing the authority that was already there and bowing before it. That is exactly what the church did during the early centuries when it was involved in the process of formally recognizing the canon of Scripture.

Therefore, as we confess in the Belgic Confession, article 5, we approve of these 66 books “not so much because the church receives and approves them, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God.” The Scriptures do not need the church’s approval to make them authoritative. The Spirit causes the church to recognize the divine authority that is already there!

“This does not mean that the church has no authority. State government and parents have authority, but those authorities have been delegated by God. They do not have the absolute authority that goes with God’s own Word. So any authority held by the church is subordinate to the authority of Scripture.”


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