What is a good definition of the biblical canon and what is the basic criteria and chronology of the formation of the New Testament canon. Why did early Christians feel a need to establish an authoritative list of Scripture? What element in the criteria is most important? Which element is least important? What are the reasons why these particular elements are most important. How can you respond to a person who claimed that the canon of the Bible should still be open? Read this post to find out the answers to these questions.

The word canon as derived from the Greek language meant “measuring reed” (Carson, 2005, 726). The definition of “canon” predominant in theological studies today is, “the closed collection of documents that constitute authoritative Scripture” (Carson, 2005, 726).

Orthodoxy, apostolicity and universality were three fundamental components directing church leaders in antiquity to determine which books deserved canonical status (Lea, 2003). According to Carson (2005) whether the document conformed to orthodoxy was assessed by aligning the document with truth recognized in churches as normative. Church Fathers frequently referred to apostolicity as documents written by the apostles or those associated directly with individuals identified as apostles. Finally, the geographical range the document traveled and the prevalent acceptance by churches came to be known as universality (Carson, 2005).

Scholars may commence their formation analysis of the New Testament canon with The Canon of Marcion. However, Carson (2005) appears to present ample evidence of canonization originating prior to A.D. 140. Although unequivocal evidence of the Old Testament delivery of a prototype for a New Testament canon does not exist, a closed Old Testament canon may have been furthered at the Council of Jamnia, by Jewish historian Josephus with references to a tripartite division of the Old Testament, and numerous references in New Testament manuscripts to the Old Testament as canonized Scripture (Carson, 2005).

The first list considered a closed canon was delivered by Marcion and excluded the Old Testament and three gospels (Carson, 2005). In A.D. 170 The Muratorian Canon, according to Lea (2003), included the majority of New Testament writings as canonical. However, it “excluded James, Hebrews and the Petrine epistles, and expressed doubt about the Revelation of John” (Lea, 2003, 73). The Marcion and Muratorian canon both encouraged Christians to
establish an authoritative list of Scripture (Carson, 2005). Furthermore, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340) documented a tripartite classification of recognized, disputed and heretical books that display early universal acceptance of much of the New Testament (Carson, 2005). Finally, in A.D. 367, The Festal Letter of Athanasius, “accepted all twenty-seven New Testament writings” (Lea, 2003, 73). Carson (2005) noted that subsequent to The Festal Letter of Athanasius, the
sixtieth canon of the Council of Laodicea (c. 363) included all books except Revelation, and The Third Council of Carthage (c. 397) recognized all currently canonized New Testament books. No significant deviations occurred subsequent to The Third Council of Carthage (Carson, 2005).

In agreement with Lea, I believe the most important element of canonicity is inspiration (Lea, 2003). Although human guidelines of orthodoxy, apostolicity and universality may assist in determining inspiration they cannot replace the precept that, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16, New American Standard [NAS]). Further, in accordance with Carson, I believe universality is less important than other criteria used in the canonization process (Carson, 2005). “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21, NAS). The word “made” is translated as “carried, borne” which is an indication that human will and interpretation was not the origination of Scripture or the canon (Ryrie, 1995, 1986). Thus, I believe the impact of universal acceptance and widespread interpretive usage is less important than other forms of criteria.

As mentioned earlier, the Church Fathers often refer to the importance of direct or indirect contact emphasizing the role of apostolicity as a criterion for canonization (Carson, 2005). Unfortunately, after many centuries neither direct nor indirect physical association with Jesus or the Early Church currently exists; accordingly, the detrimental risks of opening the canon would be significant.

Carson, D.A., & Moo, D. J. (2005). An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Lea, T. D. (2003). The New Testament its Background and Message (2nd ed.). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. (1995). Ryrie Study Bible (Expanded ed.). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.