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The Canon

Today, more than ever before, the Christian needs to be fully assured as to the basis of his faith and to be prepared to resist attack from any quarter One of the lines of attack by "liberal theologians" is to cast doubt upon the authenticity of vaguely defined parts of the Word of God, and at the same time ascribe a measure of authority to human reason. The outline of God's revealed truth is thus blurred, making belief difficult if not impossible. But the precise extent of Scripture is not in doubt, as we shall endeavour to show.

In its application to the Scriptures the word "Canon" means the list of books which are divinely inspired and authoritative. We believe that in our traditional English versions, containing 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New, we have the Scriptures in their complete and final form. How has it come about that the Bible is composed of these books alone and no others? Furthermore, how do we know that these books are authentic, that is, God-given?

Although a great deal has been written about the evidence provided by history, for the Christian the most convincing answers to these questions will be found within the compass of the Scriptures themselves, for the Word of God is our highest authority. In relation to the Canon of Scripture such an approach may be thought to be prejudging the issue. However, doubts and difficulties are best settled by reference to an authority, indeed this is often the only possible course. In spiritual matters we consult the Bible, and no less so if the question relates to the Bible itself, for it is self-authenticating, there is no higher court of appeal. When we read the Bible we find it has a singular quality not found in any other book; there is that therein which produces a response in the heart of the believer because the Holy Spirit dwells within him. He experiences its authority and its divine power which grips him, brings light, love and comfort into his soul, and guides him through all life's difficulties. Since the Holy Spirit, operating through men, produced~ the Scriptures, we can have no doubts that He has, through Spirit-filled men of all ages, ensured that what is inspired should be preserved, and what is not inspired should be rejected.

With such thoughts in mind we can examine the suggestion that our present Bible is incomplete and that there are other books which have an equal claim to be included in it. It is, of course, true that there are a number of ancient literary works which have at various times been credited with some kind of spiritual value. They may be grouped into four broad categories as follows:

(1)The "Old Testament" Apocrypha. These comprise twelve books which have been included in some versions of the Bible.

Readers of the Revised Version (1881) are made aware of their existence by unfamiliar abbreviations such as "Ecclus.", "Esd.", and "Macc." in the editions with marginal references. Such references are to be deplored because they may tend to give the impression that the apocryphal books have a status side by side with Scripture. Non-canonical books of the Old Testament period may have some literary or historical value, but judged on a spiritual basis they are found wanting. They had no place in the Old Testament writings acknowledged by our Lord and His apostles.

(2) Pseudepigrapha. These are writings published under assumed names and are not sufficiently authenticated to be included in the apocrypha.

(3)"New Testament" Apocrypha. These are a vaguely defined class of writings, mainly published under assumed names in order apparently to attribute to them apostolic authority. They are composed to a large extent of imaginative and heretical matter.

(4) Patristic Literature. This comprises such works as the epistles of Clement and Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. They are the writings of men known as the apostolic fathers; men of some spiritual standing who lived in the second century A.D. These ancient Christian writings are of historical value and their quotations from Scripture are useful to scholars.

There is a great deal of testimony from men who have studied these works that they in no way compare with Scripture. Neander, for instance, draws attention to certain marks of the agency of the divine Spirit in the canonical books, and says of patristic literature, "There is no gentle gradation here but all at once an abrupt transition from one style of language to the other..."

Some theological books discuss at length the process of recognition of the Canon of Scripture. It is not our intention to do so here since the early historical records outside the pages of the Bible are often vague and fragmentary, and, as has already been pointed out, the evidence provided by the Scriptures themselves is perfectly reliable. A general comment on this type of external evidence may, however, be desirable. A number of attempts were made in early Christian times by religious leaders and councils to compile lists of books which in their day were widely accepted as being authentic. Their purpose was usually not to determine the Canon of Scripture but to recognize officially a situation which already existed in which by general consent some books were accepted and others rejected, or held in suspicion. Public recognition had become necessary in order to combat heretical teaching, such as that of Marcion which sought to ignore certain inspired writings and to accept others which were spurious. By the fourth century A.D. the process had become stabilized and the Canon as we know it today was generally accepted as the correct one. Recognition of some of the books had been slow but this was not due to any deficiencies in the books themselves; it was the result of the dimness of men's knowledge of the teaching of Scripture.

It is implicit in what has already been said that the canonicity of a book does not depend upon the identity of its human author. We do not know with certainty who wrote Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles and some of the Psalms, for instance, for there is no information given in Scripture as to their human authorship, and traditions on such matters are notoriously unreliable. Where Scripture testifies to the authorship of a book, that testimony can be relied upon, but if no such testimony exists the question of who the writer was is relatively unimportant. In either case the canonicity of a book is not affected: it is divine authorship, not human, that is under consideration.

Having considered briefly some general aspects of the subject, we now proceed to examine in more detail what the Bible has to say about the authenticity of the books comprising it. So far as the Old Testament is concerned, proof of the canonicity of its various parts is found in the New Testament, particularly in the sayings of the Lord Jesus, and in the words of the Spirit-filled apostles. The Lord testified in Luke 24.44 to the genuineness of the Old Testament in its entirety, specifying the three sections into which it was divided by the Jews: the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. In spite of the bitter opposition of the Jews to the Lord Jesus, it is quite clear that there was mutual agreement on one subject, namely the authority and extent of Scripture (Matthew 21.42-46; John 5.39). He gave divine approval to what they by general consent accepted, and there is little doubt that the Jewish Scriptures of that day comprised the same books as our Old Testament. Most of the books of the Old Testament are quoted in the New, often in such a way as to show that they had divine authority, and were generally accepted by the Jews as having it (e.g. Acts 2.17-21, 25-28, 34, 35). A further consideration is that the New Testament proofs of the divine inspiration of Old Testament passages (dealt with in a former article in this series) also support the correctness of the Canon.

There is clear teaching in the New Testament that the Scriptures of the Jews were incomplete. The oracles of God which they so greatly revered were being extended by a fuller revelation which the Lord Jesus was now giving (Luke 16.16; John 1.17; Hebrews 1.1,2). Divine provision was accordingly made for the New Testament books to be written and authenticated. Thus the divine origin of our Lord's words is stressed (John 3.34), and His statements equated with the already accepted Old Testament writings (John 2.22). The apostles taught similarly and extended this truth to their own inspired words (1 Peter 1.22-25; 2 Peter 3.2). Exceptional memory and the gift of the Holy Spirit were given to enable the apostles to witness accurately to what they had seen and heard (John 15.26,27; 16.12-14; Acts 1.21,22). The apostle Paul, who had not accompanied the Lord in the days of His flesh as the twelve had done, was given one or more direct revelations to enable him to write his inspired epistles (1 Corinthians 11.23-25: 14.37: 15.3-11; Galatians 1.11,12). The gift of prophecy was bestowed also to enable the divine revelation to be brought to men (1 Corinthians 12.28; Ephesians 3.4,5; 4.11).

The Pauline letters were quickly collected and vouched for as Scripture (2 Peter 3.14-16). Paul himself, speaking through the Spirit, requested that his letters should be read publicly (1 Thessalonians 5.27), and to a wider circle than the immediate recipients (Colossians 4.16).

Finally the book of Revelation makes its own claim to have a divine origin (Revelation 1.1). John was commissioned by the risen, glorified Lord to write the book (1.11,19), and an angel bore testimony to him that he was a prophet (22.9). The book was by divine command to be sent to the seven churches in Asia (1.11). At the end of Revelation special emphasis is placed upon the authentic and inviolable nature of its contents (22.6,10,16,17-21). Such words, coming as they do at the very end of the Bible, must have a significance in relation to the whole of God's Word. There is within Scripture a remarkable assurance that its precise extent is divinely fixed and preserved (Psalm 119.89). We can therefore have complete confidence that God would not allow His revelation to man to be obscured either by the admixture of dross or partial loss of substance, but has overruled to preserve His Word pure and intact throughout man's turbulent history for the benefit of people of every age.