November 3, 2011

The Question of Canonicity

by Nathan Busenitz

In my seminary classes this week, we have been covering the topic of canonicity. In today’s post I include just a brief portion of our class discussion.

Why do we consider the 66 books that make up our Bibles to be the inspired and authoritative Word of God?

While we could easily write many pages in response to this question, I believe the answer is ultimately a simple one. As Christians, we submit to the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament because Jesus Christ affirmed it as God’s Word. And, we submit to the inspiration and authority of the New Testament because Jesus Christ authorized His apostles to reveal His truth to His church.

The short answer to the canonicity question, then, is Jesus Christ. He determined the canon for us when He affirmed the Old Testament and authorized the New.

What follows is an introductory framework that fleshes this out in a little more detail:

1. By definition, the written Word of God consists of that which God has revealed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

2 Peter 1:20–21 – “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation [creation or origination], for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Norm Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 211: Inspiration determines canonicity. If a book was authoritative, it was so because God breathed it and made it so. How a book received authority, then, is determined by God. How men recognize that authority is another matter altogether. As J. I. Packer notes, “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”

2. In the Old Testament, God’s Word was revealed through His prophets. In the New Testament, God’s Word was revealed through His Son (Jesus Christ).

Hebrews 1:1–2 – “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.”

3. The Scriptures are the written Word of God. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God.

John 1:1, 18 – “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  . . .  No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”

4. Jesus Christ (as the Incarnate Word of God) affirmed the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. (The Jewish canon of Jesus’ day consisted of the same OT books that are found in Protestant Bibles today.) The New Testament never cites the apocryphal books, nor did the Jews of Jesus’ day consider them to be part of the Scriptures. This is confirmed by Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud, the Council of Jamnia, Philo of Alexandria, and a number of early church fathers.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament in its entirety (Matthew 5:17–18)—including its historical reliability (cf. Matthew 10:15; 19:3–5; 12:40; 24:38–39), prophetic accuracy (Matthew 26:54), sufficiency (Luke 16:31), unity (Luke 24:27, 44), inerrancy (Matthew 22:29; John 17:17), infallibility (John 10:35), and authority (Matthew 21:13, 16, 42).

Jesus clearly saw the Old Testament as the Word of God (Matt. 15:16; Mark 7:13; Luke 3:2; 5:1; etc.). This, of course, is in keeping with what the OT claimed for itself (cf. Psalm 12:5; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 2:2); and is how the NT epistles view it (cf. Romans 3:2).

(As an aside, the apocryphal books [found in Roman Catholic Bibles] were not officially “canonized” by the Roman Catholic Church until the 16th-century at the Council of Trent.)

5. Jesus Christ also promised that He would give additional revelation to His church through His authorized representatives (the apostles).

A) He promised to give them a supernatural ability to remember His own teachings (through the Holy Spirit). Christ’s life and teachings are therefore accurately recorded in the NT gospels.

John 14:23–26 —  “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

B) Our Lord also authorized His apostles to deliver additional revelation from Him to the church. That revelation was written down in the NT epistles.

John 16:12–15 – “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak of His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.”

6. The authoritative testimony of the Incarnate Word gives us the primary reason to affirm the canonicity of the Old Testament and the canonicity of those books that bear the mark of apostolic authority (e.g. the New Testament).

The teachings of the New Testament were pre-authenticated by Christ Himself (John 14:26; 16:12-13), when He authorized the apostles to be His witnesses in the world (Matthew 28:18–19; Acts 1:8). The apostles, therefore, rightly recognized their own inspired writings as being part of the biblical canon, on par with the books of the Old Testament (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 3:15–16).

Thus apostolic authorship (or apostolic oversight of the author) is the primary test of canonicity for NT books. Because there are no longer apostles in the church today, the canon is closed. It closed immediately when the apostolic age passed.

7. As Christians, then, we affirm the inspiration of the 39 books of the Old Testament because Jesus Christ affirmed them. Secondly, we affirm the inspiration of the 27 books of the New Testament because Jesus Christ promised that He would reveal further truth to His apostles.

Paul Helm, “Faith, Evidence, and the Scriptures,” p. 310: How do we get to the sixty-six books from the slender base that has been established? The short answer to this is that we get to it through the authority of Christ. It is because He endorses the Old Testament and makes provision for the New that both Old and New have this authority.

8. Insofar as we have believed in Jesus Christ and submitted ourselves to His lordship, we must likewise view His authority as absolute. There is no higher authority than His when it comes to establishing our own confidence in the biblical canon.


A. Jesus Christ affirmed the first-century Jewish canon of the Old Testament as Scripture. Therefore we must also do the same.

B. Jesus Christ also established the principle of apostolic authority when He promised to give further revelation through the Spirit to the Church.

C. Apostolic authorship (or apostolic oversight of the author), then, becomes the primary principle for affirming the books of the New Testament as canonical. The church is bound to submit to the teaching of Christ’s authorized representatives.

D. Because additional revelation was only promised to the apostles, the canon was closed when the apostolic age ended.

E. The church did not establish the NT canon.  The Lord Himself established the canon. The church merely recognized and affirmed the canon, based on whether or not a book was written under the authority of Christ’s apostolic representatives.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Great overview Nathan! It’s nice to have such a great resource for organizing the different components of canonicity. I appreciated it a lot, especially after finishing a paper for my Christian philosophy class on the importance of special revelation to Christianity.

  • Milton Almeida

    If one is a no-conformist and I consider myself to be, one MUST question “E” on the article. If the Lord (Jesus) established the Canon, the ONLY proof we have that He did is on Luke 24 when He appeared to the disciples on the road to Emaus and later when He appeared to all in the upper room. Read the text in context and you will find that He mentioned: MOSES, (law), PROPHETS AND PSALMS speak of HIM. Jesus said, THESE BOOKS SPEAK OF ME. That’s the Christocentric Hermeneutics which I spouse. Don’t bomb me! I accept the 66 books but not for the same reason other theologians, or theology students accept. To say that there was no influence of man in the Canonical choosing is to DENY a large portion of Church History, Colloquies, Diets (pronounce DEE-EH-TZ) and is to deny what the earliest Church Fathers thought about some books including, but not limited to up to Martin Luther, and at least a FEW of the Reformers.
    Again, don’t bomb me, or BOMB ME if you must… The only reason I posted this in here is that anyone who passively accepts things as the affirmation that Jesus established the Canon without considering the ONLY verse where Jesus spoke of it, is NOT A NO-CONFORMIST. I am posting this on that blog and I hope they publish.


    “I shall never be a heretic; I may err in dispute, but I do not wish to decide anything finally; on the other hand, I am not bound by the opinions of men.” – Martin Luther.

  • excellent – the fact that Christ is the rule by which we know the canon of Scripture is great. So often critic say it was “the church” that made the canon. I like your thesis that Christ validates God’s words as God’s Word.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, this is really, really helpful, thanks Nathan! Love your “short answer to the canonicity question.” I might even print the last five points and tape them in my study Bible for quick reference.

    Also, by saying Christ authorized the apostles, the question then becomes, “So who is an apostle?” (Pope? Joseph Smith?) And this question, to me, is a lot easier to deal with biblically than the question of canonicity.

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  • Stevelabaw

    On a similar comment to Milton’s, is there anyway to get around the idea of the Bible validating itself? The argument that the only authority/”evidence” we have to base our knowledge of God’s inspiration of the Bible is also written in the Bible, namely the teachings of Jesus Christ. While external archaeological findings and historical events may point to true events in the Bible, this is far from evidence of God’s inspiration, even while still being an accurate historical manuscript.

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