By Michael Milton, Crosswalk.com
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was at the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-4, 14 ESV).
Knowing the canonical story behind the Holy Bible helps us defend the Faith, and as the Lord opens hearts, it supports the advance of the Kingdom of God. The Christian faith is not, firstly, about a feeling, a religious duty, or a philosophy of life. Christianity is about Christ, who is revealed as the Eternal Word in the flesh and revealed in the supernatural Word written for our salvation. It is in this sense that one approaches the Canon of Scripture. The Canon of Scripture is a doctrine of divine origin. The Bible is as miraculous as the creation of the heavens and the earth, an iron ax-head floating on top of the water, the dead man Lazarus walking forth in his burial winding-sheet, the Virgin birth, or the resurrection of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is how we must approach this critical subject.
Here are four truths we can know about the canonization of the Bible to help us trust the Bible, defend the Faith, and unleash its reality in our day.
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What Is the Canonization of the Bible?
1. The Canon Debated
There are undoubtedly some who are reading these words who might be tempted to believe the study of Canon is dull. Perhaps, you think of the canonization of the Bible as something only academics chat about in dark, book-lined libraries. Maybe you believe that it is of little value to your life as a believer. Well, if that is you, I want to say: draw closer. Canonicity represents the activity of God in the Church in giving us his Word, recording that Word, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, distributing the Word to the ends of the earth. There has never been a time when we in the evangelical churches needed a higher view of Scripture. Yet, we all recognize that we are living in a dry land:
"Because God has made himself known in his Word, a commitment to a high view of Scripture is of paramount importance. Yet, sadly, more and more people—not only from outside the Church but also from within—are denying the complete truthfulness of God's Word" (Sproul).
2. The Canon Defined
The Canon of the Old Testament was set by the time of Jesus. Jesus recognized the canonicity of the Old Testament, that is, the very collection of books that you have in your Bible today. The doctrine of Christ will naturally, effortlessly, cause the believer to develop a high view of Scripture. Infallible and inerrant are just so because Jesus believed it. Please make no mistake about it: Jesus is our ultimate source of knowledge about the canonization of the Bible. No one can deny that the New Testament is replete with examples of Jesus and the apostles referring to the old testament books as the very Word of God. In a similar self-attesting way, the New Testament speaks of itself ends on par with the Old Testament Scriptures. By the time of the early Church, the authentic epistles and histories (viz., the Gospels, Epistles, and Acts) written by the Apostles and aids were used and received as the Word of God. This is because we must not suppose that the early Church received these as divine by Man, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit. We shall address this further as we move forward. This leads me to attend to some essential foundation stones of the canonicity of Holy Scripture before erecting any further points of doctrine.
So, before we go any further, let us make sure we speak about the same thing. Let us begin with definitions.
The Word “Canon” in the Canonization of the Bible
Our English Word, "Canon," is derived from a Hebrew and Greek word denoting a reed or a cane. So we would call it a "ruler," like the old wooden ruler you had in your supplies for third grade. Canon, then, grew out of a word that means something straight, or something to keep straight, a standard of truth. In this way of thinking, the Canon of Scripture refers to measuring the God-breathed truths revealed to men.
A Defense for the Canon of Holy Scripture
So, the word "canon" is the accurate measurement of a thing against the model in the most general meaning. In the case of Holy Scripture, the written Word of God must equate to the Holy Spirit-inspired ("God-breathed") Word of God. This is the meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (NKJV).
Thus, the Word of God is Inscripturated by God, as the Reverend Jonathan Witherspoon put it. The imminent Presbyterian minister, scholar, public theologian, Princeton president, and only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence gave us solid and valuable work. The eternal Word of God became flesh and became—for us, and our salvation—the Word made accessible. Israel was prohibited from seeking to know God by making images. Instead, we were to think thoughts after God. The People of Israel were to meditate upon God through his Word, which he gave them. Abundant life and eternal life came not from manufactured religious attempts for atonement but rather through the Word of God read, taught, preached, song, and shared with others, beginning with our own families. This is quite different from learning the Gospel by stained glass windows only. Instead, those sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament are measured by an inerrant and infallible standard, the very Word of God. So, we may say, the Canon of Holy Scripture is the divinely authorized collection of writings—no more and no less—than are indeed God's Word revealed to humankind for God's gracious purposes, through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit.
Now. How did Canon come to be?
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How Was the Canonization of the Bible Decided?
3. The Canon Decided
Was there one big meeting in history when the canonization of the Bible was set? No. While there were essential councils of both the Hebrews and the early church fathers, no single gathering of representatives of the Church issued the final Word on the Word of God. The reason is apparent. The Church did not create the Holy Bible. The Church, in both the Old and New Covenants, was revealed by the Bible,
The matter of "who decides what is in and what is out" leads the student of Canon to a perennial debate within the Church. The division of thought could be characterized as the "Community or the Received" debate.
Is the Canon of Scripture a Product of the Community?
In this view, held by many Roman Catholic believers and some in Protestant denominations, the Canon of Scripture is set, not by one gathering of church leaders on a specific date, but, instead, is authorized by its usefulness and acceptance in the churches. Here is a description of the view by a Roman Catholic source, set forth, in my opinion, in the most gracious way, allowing room for both sides of the argument:
The Early Church Fathers understood the Canon of Scripture was set by God. They also knew that God communicated this fact through the Catholic Church. Many of them lived during the period when this was done. There was no consensus, as some seem to think. Eusebius tells us that the book of 1 Clement was read in the churches from the early days until his own time (Church History 3:16 [A.D. 325]).
This via media view has much to commend. However, this explanation stops short of affirming the miracle of the Canon of Scripture.
Is the Canon Both Created and Received through the Work of the Holy Spirit?
Yes. The canonization of both the Old and New Testament developed through time, in localities, by mortal writers, yet all by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was and is received as the Word of God because it is the Word of God. This is the message of those (I am among them) who confess Scripture because we believe that the Holy Spirit in a believer (or the Spirit working upon the heart of an unbeliever) recognizes Himself in His Word. There is a supernatural connection that is not a nebulous "burden in the bosom" of Latter-Day Saints, but, relatively, a Spiritual power from on high that converts, convinces, condemns, corrects, and, in all ways, glorifies Jesus Christ as the Word of God. No Reformed confessional document teaches the miracle of the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible any better than the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). The following is from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), 1:IV:
IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God, (who is truth itself,) the author thereof: and therefore, it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Some have argued that this is circuitous reasoning and, therefore, a logical fallacy. Others have called it biblicism. The charges would be credible but for one immovable and incontestable reason: The Person of Jesus Christ. If Christ Jesus is the resurrected, ascended, and reigning Lord of Lords and King of Kings, then the origin, Canon, and purposes of Holy Scripture are altogether divine: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27 ESV).
The believing community did not select the books of the Bible for their purposes. God brought forth the books of the Bible for His intentions.
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4. The Canon Defended
The canonization of the Bible does not need me or any other to defend its divine nature. The heavenly essence of Holy Scripture is its citadel.
The Bible was God’s Word before the beginning of the World. The Logos, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the Word of God personified. His presence and teaching are the fullness of that Word. Yet, the Word came to be recorded. God desired that humanity have a special revelation from heaven and gave us the Bible. We must remember that the Word of God was already the Word of God before the Old Testament prophet heard it and preached it. There is no human agency to either commission words as the Word of God or take words away.
The Canon of Scripture is the divinely authorized collection of sacred text—though debated— is defined, decided, and defended by the One who breathed forth its power., assembled, and completed for God's mission in the World.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) says, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men."
Perhaps there is no greater self-validation of the Word of God than Hebrews 4:12: “For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (NKJV).
This leaves us with one final Word on the Canon of Scripture: What is the place of the Word of God in your life? For some, it is dull. But, for those who have received Jesus Christ as Lord, the Canon of Scripture is nothing short of dazzling.