The Bible: The Canon of Scripture
The Bible

The Bible: The Canon of Scripture

The Bible: The Canon of ScriptureThe sum of Your word is truth,
And every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting. (Psalm 119:160)

The Bible is the authoritative word in the Christian’s life. We base our lives and eternity upon the doctrine and theology revealed in the pages of the Scripture. It is the rule by which we obtain all our theology and doctrine. It is the standard by which we measure everything that we are taught.

“The basis of Christianity is found in the authority of Scripture. If we cannot identify what Scripture is, then we cannot properly distinguish any theological truth from error.” ~ Got Questions13

The Bible is the authoritative word in the Christian’s life. Click To Tweet

If we do not have the right books, how can we know the Truth? How can we know God? Can we know that we have the right books? What about other books? Why were they not included? Did man decided what would be included in the Bible and what would not?

“Issues of canon are important because they deal with such things as the basis upon which we know that we have the correct Scriptures.” ~ TableTalk1

What is Canon?

What is canon? Click To Tweet

Canon is not to be confused with the war machine for launching missiles. Rather canon comes from the Greek meaning ruler or measuring rod.

“In a metaphorical sense, it came to refer to the standard by which various books of the Bible were judged as worthy of being called the Word of God.” ~ Erwin Lutzer10

In the canon, we have the entirety of God’s Word. The canon of Scripture is closed, meaning there is no more to add to the Word of God. It is inerrant, infallible, and completely sufficient.

“…the writings of Scripture were canonical at the moment they were written. Scripture was Scripture when the pen touched the parchment.” ~ Got Questions13

The canon of Scripture is made up of sixty-six books. Thirty-nine of which make up the Old Testament and twenty-seven making up the New Testament.

In future posts in this series on the Bible, I will be going into greater depth regarding the inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, completeness, and the organization of God’s revealed Word.

How Do We Know Which Books Should Be in the Canon?

How do we know which books should be in the canon? Click To Tweet

Old Testament

Before the birth of Christ, the Old Testament that we have in our Bibles today was already considered Scripture. As the books were being written, they were believed to be the Word of God. The books of Moses were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24-26), the kings of Israel were tasked with recording the law (Deuteronomy 17:18-20), the prophets writings were recorded and kept, and they were all kept in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8-13).

Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus said this about the Old Testament:

“We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men”12

After Malachi, around 40 B.C, the Jewish people believed that this special revelation had ceased. They believed they had all they needed to live holy lives and all the prophecy they needed to recognize the Messiah.

“And how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them-, but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willing to die for them.” ~ Flavius Josephus12

All Old Testament fit two criteria for the Jews: it had to agree with the Torah (the books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament) and it was believed to have been revealed by God.

“This is not to say that the Jews gave these books their authority; these books were believed to have inherent authority. If a book is inspired by God, it would have authority whether men recognized it or not.” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

A reinforcement for us today, is that Jesus, God the Son, believed the Old Testament to be the Word of God. If one Person of the Trinity says something revealed by God, then that alone is sufficient evidence to its legitimacy.

Jesus believed the Old Testament to be the Word of God. Click To Tweet

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Jesus quoted the Old Testament, claimed it was Scripture, and verified it’s truthfulness.

“Modern-day theologian Carl F. H. Henry wisely concluded, ‘The church inherited the Old Testament, and Jesus defended, encouraged and exemplified faithful submission to these writings as an inspired canon.’” ~ Brian Edwards4

Got Questions summarizes the arguments for the validity of the Old Testament as being the Word of God very well:

“When it came to the Old Testament, three important facts were considered: 1) The New Testament quotes from or alludes to every Old Testament book but two. 2) Jesus effectively endorsed the Hebrew canon in Matthew 23:35 when He cited one of the first narratives and one of the last in the Scriptures of His day. 3) The Jews were meticulous in preserving the Old Testament Scriptures, and they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong.” ~ Got Questions13

Four Elements of Criteria

For a book to be considered canon, it must fulfill certain elements of criteria. It is important to know that this criteria is not man-based standards as to vote to which books to include but, rather, they are commonalities that the books share alluding to one divine Author.

The four elements I am mentioning today is not an exhaustive list nor is it an official list. In an effort to be concise on this very large and fascinating topic, I have only listed four criteria that books of the canon of Scripture follow.

1. The author must be a prophet or an Apostle.

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles. (2 Peter 3:1-2)

The prophets and Apostles were specifically gifted by the Holy Spirit to be the mouthpiece of God.

”For a book to be considered canonical, it must have been written by a prophet or apostle or by one who had a special relationship to such (Mark to Peter, Luke to Paul). Only those who had witnessed the events or had recorded eyewitness testimony could have their writings considered as Holy Scripture.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12

2. The claims made within the book must be true.

The books must be consistent with previous revelation. Click To Tweet

What is said in the book must be consistent with previous revelation. There are no contradictions in the Word of God. God is immutable (unchanging) and consistent and so His Word must be free of inconsistency.

“The authoritative voice of the prophets, ‘This is what the Lord says,’ is matched by the apostles’ claim to write not the words of men but the words of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It was the internal witness of the texts themselves that was strong evidence of canonicity.” ~ Brian Edwards4

God is immutable (unchanging) and consistent and so His Word must be free of inconsistency. Click To Tweet

There are some statements that seem contradictory at times, but when you look closer, you find that they are not true contradictions.

“Martin Luther thought that James taught salvation by works so he questioned its position in the canon. Later, when he revised his preface to the book, he dropped his criticism. A closer reading indicates that James does not contradict Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith. The early church was quite correct in receiving it as authoritative.” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

3. These books were already accepted by the church.

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. (John 14:26)

The Apostles who knew and were chosen by Christ are the ones who accepted and taught what was Scripture. While they are fallible men, God is powerful enough to preserve His Word. He promised that He would give them the ability to remember all that was said to them by Jesus.

While the Apostles were fallible men, God is powerful enough to preserve His Word. Click To Tweet

“We have the promise of Jesus that His disciples would be given total recall by the Holy Spirit of the things He said and did. These same disciples either wrote the New Testament books or had input into which works were accepted as Scripture. Any book that claimed canonical status, yet diverted from the truth of the life of Christ, would have been rejected by Jesus’ own disciples who were, eyewitnesses to the New Testament events. Thus the acceptance of God’s people is an important criterion for book to be considered canonical.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12

Even if a book’s original author is not fully known, the Apostles accepted the writing based on the truth within it.

“Yet in other instances the identity of the author was not always determinative. For example, the authorship of the Book of Hebrews is unknown, but the book was accepted without serious questioning because it bears the unmistakable stamp of the transforming power of God.” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

There were lists very early on as to what books were being accepted as the canon of Scripture. However, some books were not included in the early lists simply because not all books were known by all.

In the time before internet, letters and other writings would take many years to circulate. However, once they came to the knowledge of the church, the inspired books were immediately accepted as the Word of God.

“There is evidence that when an inspired book was written, it enjoyed immediate acceptance…Thus, the canon of the New Testament formed gradually as the books were written. Because communication was cumbersome in biblical times, it is understandable that the complete list of authoritative books was not agreed upon until a few centuries had passed. The Books of Revelation and 3 John were not immediately accepted, in part because they were unknown in some parts of the New Testament world. As their circulation grew, so did the recognition that they had the marks of divine inspiration.” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

4. The books must be ancient.

The books that are to be considered the inspired Word of God should be old. They should be written as closely to the time of Christ as possible. The newer a book, the less likely it was to have been written by an Apostle.

“Most of the false writings were rejected simply because they were too new to be apostolic. ” ~ Brian Edwards4

These four criteria are not exhaustive but they are a good start to understanding that the canon of Scripture is not just a random assortment of writings from thousands of years ago but there is a real and true link that binds them all together in one book.

“As scholars look at the issue of canon, they find that the church focused on three matters when receiving a book as Scripture—apostolic (or prophetic) authorship, its corporate use in the church, and the witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of the work as inspired by God. ” ~ Tabletalk1

Did the Councils Decide Which Books Would Make Up the Canon?

Did the councils decide which books would make up the canon? Click To Tweet

Many people today claim that the Bible is compiled based upon which books councils decided best fit in with their preconceived ideas of morals and who Jesus is. But, the truth is much less conspiratorial.

“A distinction needs to be made between canonizing and collecting. No man or council can pronounce a work canonical or scriptural, yet man was responsible for collecting and preserving such works.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12

The Bible: The Canon of ScriptureThere have been many councils that can be discussed in connection with the canon of Scripture but the two most common ones are the Council of Jamnia and the Council of Nicea.

This was a Jewish council that met around AD 100. This council did not meet to decide which books to accept but rather to discuss the writings that had already been accepted as Scripture.

The Council of Nicea is probably the most commonly discussed council in regards to the Bible. Secularists often point to this council and claim that these men chose certain books and tossed out others based on their own personal ideas of theology. However, this is far from true.

“The council of Nicea met in A.D. 323 to discuss how Jesus Christ was related to God. There were some in the church, led by Arius of Alexandria, who denied that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity. In order to answer these issues, the church had to make a pronouncement about which books authoritative doctrine could be based on. 
“The council of Nicea did not meet to discuss which books belonged in the New Testament canon. It only recognized the books that the church had from the beginning considered to be the Word of God.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12

The Bible is not under man’s authority. Click To Tweet

The Bible is not under man’s authority as to whether it is the inspired Word of God or not. Councils do not deem a writing legitimate but rather acknowledge it as being inspired.

“Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there.” ~ Michael Kruger8

The church does not have the authority or power to authorize a writing as God’s Word. Rather, the church received the books that God has inspired.

“However, as the canon was formed, the church did not speak of being the body that confers authority upon it. Rather, it was said that the church ‘receives’ certain books as Scripture. Just as we receive Christ without conferring authority on Him, so too does the church receive Scripture as authoritative without conferring authority upon it.” ~ Tabletalk2

What About Other Writings? Why Aren’t They Considered Part of the Canon?

So, what about all the other writings that people have claimed belong in the Bible? What about the books that the councils rejected? Is there any truth or validity to these accuser’s arguments? Should these books be considered part of the canon?

The Apocrypha

Apocrypha means hidden. This collection of fifteen books false between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Roman Catholic church includes eleven of these fifteen books in their canon of Scripture. The Douay version of the Bible (the Roman Catholic Bible) only shows seven additional books because four of the eleven books of the Apocrypha are actually combined with other Old Testament books.

The Roman Catholic church includes the Apocrypha for several reasons. Erwin Lutzer lists four of them there:

“Briefly, they are (1) the New Testament quotes mostly from the Septuagint, which contained the Apocrypha. Then, (2) some of the early church fathers accepted the Apocrypha as canonical—Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria for example. Also, (3) Augustine and the great councils of Hippo and Carthage, which he led, are said to have accepted them. Finally, (4) the Council of Trent called to respond to the inroads of the Reformation pronounced them canonical in A.D. 1546. The council said that if anyone does not receive these books in all of their parts, “let him be anathema.”” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

The Roman Catholic church claims to have the authority to name what books are to be considered part of the canon of Scripture. However, this act is to place man in authority over God’s Word.

“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” ~ JI Packer12

There are many reasons not to accept the Apocrypha as part of the cannon of Scripture. I may write an entire separate article about that topic one day. However, today I will point back up to the four criteria that reveals a book of God:

  1. The authors of the books were not prophets or Apostles.
  2. The claims made in the books of the Apocrypha are often inaccurate and inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.
  3. The books of the Apocrypha were not accepted. Jesus never quotes from any of them, the Apostles never refers to any of them as being authoritative, the Jews never considered them a part of the Old Testament, and they were never considered part of Scripture until the Council of Trent in 1546 in response to the Protestant Reformation.
  4. They are much younger than the writings that are in our New Testament today by at least a century with some being two to three centuries newer.

“Lost” Books

"Why does our culture love 'lost gospels?' Because they don't want for there to be one way of truth." ~ Michael KrugerThese so-called “lost” books have never actually been secret or lost. Scholars have been aware of them for centuries but no one, including both Roman Catholics and Protestants have ever considered them as credible candidates for the canon.

“… these books were recognized as legends from the beginning. These “forgotten books” are so obviously inferior to those in our Bible that they cannot be taken seriously.” ~ Erwin W. Lutzer10

Many of these extra-biblical writings were influence by gnosticism. The teachings of gnosticism runs contrary in many ways from Scripture and eliminates them from consideration of the canon.

While these books may be interesting to read, they hold no power over our lives and should not be considered part of the Word of God.

“We conclude that any other book apart from the New Testament that attempts to fill in the gaps of the life of Christ only reveals the superiority of the four Gospels.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12


“It has been estimated there are a quintillion stars in the universe and the Bible says God calls them by their names. If God is able to do this, He certainly is able to preserve intact His Word for the benefit of mankind.” ~ Blue Letter Bible12

What peace we can rest in knowing we have the complete and holy Word of God! Click To Tweet

What peace we can rest in knowing we have the complete and holy Word of God! What peace we can rest in knowing that the God who created and sustains galaxies, time, our every breath is also perfectly capable of preserving His Word so that His children can know Him, know ourselves, and know salvation!

“The church does not establish the Bible; rather, the sacred events and interpretation of redemptive history in the Bible establishes the church. Thank God today for the providential provision of His Word.” ~ Tabletalk2

The Bible: The Canon of Scripture

Additional Recommended Resources

  1. “A Canon Of Books”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed February 2.
  2. “Authority And Canon”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. Accessed February 2.
  3. Edwards, Brian. 2007. “Why 66?: How Can We Be Sure Which Books Belong In Our Bible?”. Answers In Genesis.
  4. Edwards, Brian. 2010. “Why 66?”. Answers In Genesis.
  5. Hodge, Bodie. 2008. “A Look At The Canon: How Do We Know That The 66 Books Of The Bible Are From God?”. Answers In Genesis.
  6. Keathley III, Th.M., J. Hampton. 2017. “The Bible: The Holy Canon Of Scripture”. Bible.Org.
  7. Kruger, Michael. 2013. “Ten Basic Facts About The NT Canon That Every Christian Should Memorize: #1: “The New Testament Books Are The Earliest Christian Writings We Possess””. Canon Fodder.
  8. Kruger, Michael. 2013. “Ten Basic Facts About The NT Canon That Every Christian Should Memorize: #8: “The NT Canon Was Not Decided At Nicea—Nor Any Other Church Council.””. Canon Fodder.
  9. Kruger, Michael. 2013. “Ten Basic Facts About The NT Canon That Every Christian Should Memorize: #2: “Apocryphal Writings Are All Written In The Second Century Or Later””. Canon Fodder.
  10. Lutzer, Erwin. 2004. “How Many Books Are In The Bible?”. Bible.Org.
  11. Slick, Matt. 2017. “What Is The Canon?”. Carm.Org. Accessed February 2.
  12. “The Canon Of Scripture – Study Resources”. 2017. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed February 6.
  13. “What Is The Canon Of Scripture?”. 2017. Gotquestions.Org. Accessed February 2.