Canonicity and the Self-Authenticating Scriptures

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

Protestants are told the scriptures are self-authenticating; because the scriptures are God’s word, they have the power to convince us of their truth. This idea is promoted as a means of determining whether a particular book is canonical or not. However plausible this may sound, this is not a useful principle for determining canonicity. The self-authenticating principle can draw one astray into all manner of enthusiasms, allowing an individual or group to determine their own canon of scripture. This was the error of Marcion, who is the first one to devise a Christian canon that “self-authenticated” his preexisting heresies.

The problem is in the nature of canonicity, which is the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon is determined. Regarding this process, Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

On what basis were certain books accepted and others rejected? What criteria were used? Did the authority of the book precede its canonization or was it recognized as authoritative because of its history or a particular quality that ultimately rendered it officially canonical? Which qualities were most important? Apostolicity? Prophecy? Spirituality? Perceived inspiration of the writer? Inspired reaction in the reader? Dogmatic importance? Orthodoxy of doctrine? Use by the community of faith? Didactic usefulness? Resonance with Christian experience?[1]

Scholars debate two different approaches: what John C. Peckham defines as the Community-Canon approach and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. Peckham describes the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.”[2] On the one hand, a text is authoritative because the community declared it to be so; on the other hand, a text is authoritative apart from the community’s declaration of the text to be scripture.

The Community-Canon Approach

The Community-Canon approach is based on the community’s declaration of certain books to be Scripture. This presupposes the existence of said books, and their recognition by and use within the community. The pure Community-Canon approach implies that the books are not Scripture until the community declares them to be so, but this is something of a straw man. There is no evidence for such an idea among the various Christian communities and their individual canons of Scripture. The early church was more concerned to declare particular books outside the canon than to positively decide upon the limits of the canon. But, when pressed by outside forces, or out of necessity, the community of faith found itself in the position of creating an authoritative collection of inspired writings.

Objections to the pure Community-Canon approach include the hostile reaction of the community of faith to the prophets, and the failure the community to immediately declare a text to be scripture. For example, Jeremiah’s writings were not immediately recognized as scripture. John C. Peckham writes:

The biblical concept of a true prophet refers to one divinely authorized to speak for God (Jer 15:19; Acts 3:18, 21). There is then, by definition, a divinely appointed authority belonging to true prophets that is thereby inconsistent with the epistemological[3] primacy of the community.[4]

In layman’s terms, the prophet’s being authorized to speak for God exists independently, apart from any criteria the community might use to determine the prophetic authority of the prophetic writing. The prophetic authority is, therefore, intrinsic to the text, and exists apart from the texts witness to and existence within the community.

Peckham then raises another interesting question: “What Constitutes a Legitimate and/or Adequate Community?” There were various canons circulating in the early church; seemingly each Bishop had his own opinion. And there were different communities of faith which considered themselves Christian, and considered themselves to have the authority to determine canonical issues. Among these was the early heretic Marcion, whose canon did not include the Old Testament, and included only portions of the New Testament. The Gnostics also had their own canonical texts that were rejected by the orthodox Christian community. Peckham writes:

Perhaps one might posit that a later community, whether a community of a particular time and place or the collective early Christian community over a period of time, is authoritative to determine canonicity. Yet the same problems apply to later communities. On what grounds should one accept that a later community is more legitimate and/or adequate to determine canonicity? As was the case for the earliest Christian community, the “community” is not monolithic decades or even centuries later. There are now and have been in ages past numerous communities that differ regarding the scope of sacred writings as canon. Examples include the times of the early church (the so-called canon of Marcion and Irenaeus’ view of the scriptures vs. his Gnostic opponents), over one thousand years later (the canon posited by the Council of Trent vs. the Thirty-Nine Articles), and more recent times (the Gospel revisions of the Jesus seminar). Hence, asserting that a later community might be authoritative to determine the canon likewise raises the question, “which community?”[5]

John C. Peckham fails to mention that this argument also applies to the Reformation. The idea that the Reformers could determine for themselves the canon of Scripture raises the question of their authority to do so. Did the Holy Spirit reveal Himself to the Reformers in a way that He had not revealed Himself to the previous 1,500 years of the body of Christ? By what authority were the Reformers able to make that decision on behalf of themselves and their followers, over and against the authority of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the historical Church? What were the criteria the Reformers used to determine which books were truly Scripture — which books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? It is interesting that Peckham mentions the Jesus Seminar, but fails to recognize that the Reformers functioned in exactly the same way when they devised their truncated canon.

Objections to the Community-Canon Approach

We must deal with the objections to the Community-Canon approach, so clearly defined by John C. Peckham. First, how do we account for the fact that the larger community of faith does not immediately attest to the inspiration of a particular book? Did not the Holy Spirit inspire the author to write it? And was it therefore not Scripture before the community declared it to be so? The solution to this dilemma is that communities are not time bound, but change and grow. The Holy Spirit is not subject to time; witness of the Holy Spirit comes as a still, small voice, working within the heart of the community, just as He worked within the heart of the prophet. Just as dripping water will eventually wear a hole through a rock, so the voice of the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, leading the community of faith to recognition of same.

The question of which community has the authority to decide is a more difficult one.[6] Just what is the proper basis upon which the community determines the canon? This is an important question, and was answered in different ways by different communities in the early church. Some churches used books that were later dropped from the canon by the larger community. Other books that were later included in the canon which were rejected at some point by large parts of the Christian world. Different bishops produced different canonical lists, lists which in some cases were changed by later bishops using different criteria. So what were these criterion used?

The primary basis was apostolicity. This did not mean that every New Testament book was written by an apostle, but that every book was consistent with the witness of the apostles. While this is a highly subjective assessment today, it was considerably more objective in the primitive church, which contained people who had been taught by the apostles themselves. As the earliest canonical testimonies contained the core of the New Testament as we know it today, we can safely say these books were confirmed by those who actually were taught by the apostles.

Part of apostolicity has to do with orthodoxy, with the regula fidei — the rule (or deposit) of faith. When the apostle Paul reminded the Thesselonians of all that he had taught them concerning the Gospel, he used the term “traditions”, which is a way of referring to the apostolic deposit, the rule of faith.

But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.(2 Th 2:13-15)

Paul uses a similar line of thought when he addresses the Corinthians, telling them he is sending Timothy to remind them of “his ways” which he teaches everywhere, and to every church. In this extended passage he tells them not to follow the teachings of men, but to follow the rule of faith which is held in common among the churches — which we call orthodox doctrine.

I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. (1 Cor 4:16-17)

Another part of apostolicity is antiquity. Indeed, one of Tertullian’s arguments against the truncated canon of Marcion is that it doesn’t pass the test of antiquity. Tertullian argues the unedited version of Luke had been accepted from the time it was written, while Marcion’s edited version was unknown to the Church. In his writing, he connects apostolicity and antiquity.

That Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people, and to none whatever is it known without being at the same time condemned. It too, of course, has its churches, but specially its own—as late as they are spurious; and should you want to know their original, you will more easily discover apostasy in it than apostolicity, with Marcion forsooth as their founder, or some one of Marcion’s swarm. Even wasps make combs; so also these Marcionites make churches.  The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.[7]

Another important criterion was authorship. Was the author of a particular book known and accepted as an authority? The book of Hebrews was troubling, because the book does not state who wrote it, and the book’s authorship has been lost. Some, such as Eusebius, attribute the book of Hebrews to the apostle Paul. Yet the Pauline authorship is doubtful, and the Western Church did not include the book in its list of approved texts on the basis of its disputed authorship. Yet eventually, Hebrews was accepted as Sacred Scripture. The important thing to note is that authorship is a criterion while the status of a book is in doubt. Once the general consensus of the Church declares this or that book to be Scripture, the issue of authorship is no longer relevant.

Today there are any number of disputes as to the authorship of various books of the Old and New Testament. Many scholars believe that II Peter was not written by Peter, but instead by Peter’s disciples after his death. Some scholars believe the John who wrote Revelation is not the same as the John who wrote the Gospel of John. The authorship (in the modern sense) of the five books of Moses is in dispute. All this is troubling to the Protestant mind, and some have even lost their faith over issues such as these. Yet these issues are unimportant to the Orthodox, and indeed to other Christians. For them the Church has spoken, and the issue is settled. The books of Hebrews, II Peter, Revelation, and the Pentateuch are Scripture, no matter who the author is.

It should be obvious that one of the criterion used was that a book was consistent and free of contradiction. Of course the writing had to be internally consistent, but more important was that it did not contradict other writings considered to be either scripture or authoritative. Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, argues that scripture does not contradict itself.

If a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself.[8]

Another important canonical criterion is that the writings were read in church. For a writing to be read in church, it needed to be authoritative. For example, Paul’s letters were written to be read aloud in church. They were then copied and passed on to other churches, who found them to be valuable and worthy of being read in church. The use of our New Testament books became part of regular church usage, a process Eusebius describes as their being “recognized” and “encovenanted”. Steve Rudd writes:

The regular use of writings in the ancient churches was also an important factor in their selection for the New Testament canon. This is what Eusebius had in mind when he mentioned that certain writings were “recognized” (homolegoumena) among the churches and became “encovenanted” (endiathekoi = “testamented” or “canonical”).[9]

One criterion that applied to the book of Jude was that a writing should not quote from books that were not part of the canon. Since Jude quotes the Book of Enoch, which was not part of the Septuagint, some argued that the book of Jude should not be approved for reading in church. Eventually this argument was deemed unpersuasive, and Jude became part of the New Testament canon.

These different criterions were not applied as part of some algorithmic process. There are books that meet these criterions, yet did not make it into the canon. The Didache was written prior to 70 A.D. and the destruction of the temple. Some wanted to attach it to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, where it seems a natural fit. As it describes the regular functioning of the church, its use was normative in the early church. It certainly does not contradict any other scripture text. And yet it did not make it into the canon. Some books like Clement 1, the epistles of Ignatius, and the Shepherd of Hermas were fully orthodox in doctrine, and were often read in church. And yet, eventually, they were left out of the canon.

The process of canonical formation is not a smooth, logical process. The rules were applied loosely, and sometimes were bent or ignored. The only rules that were applied across the board were that a writing had to be consistent with other scripture, and that it be fully orthodox in doctrine. The rest of the rules were applied in a seemingly haphazard fashion, a process that suggests a supra-rational approach, following the leading of the Holy Spirit working within the community of faith.

Epistemology and the Community-Canon Approach

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Community-Canon approach is that it uses an epistemological criterion (one determined by propositional knowledge) to determine the suitability of a book for inclusion into the canon. If the Biblical canon is a list of authoritative and inspired books compiled by the Christian community, then only the Christian community can recognize and define that list. If, however, canonicity is an epistemic criterion, then individuals and groups can each use different criterion and reason their way towards producing different lists. William Abraham describes the key difference between these two views.

The older way was prepared to leave scripture as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as subject to the ongoing activity of the Spirit without worrying overmuch about epistemology. In my terms, the older way was content to leave scripture as a means of grace. The new fashion was to give primacy to ideas of revelation and inspiration as applying in some unique fashion to the Bible, and to limit scripture to the Bible. However, it is only someone already smitten by epistemology, and more precisely by the kind of epistemology furnished by Aquinas, who can accept the shift identified here so gladly and readily.[10]

For us to understand this argument, we must discuss the development of an epistemological role in theology — the foundation, source, and validity of revelatory truth. Richard Foley comments: “For the medievals, religious authority and tradition were seen as repositories of wisdom”. According to Foley, it was the enlightenment views of men like Descartes and Locke who “regarded tradition and authority as potential sources of error and took reason to be the corrective”.[11] But interestingly, this view did not originate with Locke and Descartes, but has its roots in the writings of Aquinas. William Abraham develops this thesis following this quote from the French theologian Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, who claims Thomas Aquinas inherited the following crucial assumptions from the Middle Ages:

First, the attributing of all true (and holy determinations of the life of the Church, to a [revelation, inspiration, suggestion], of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the practice of including the Fathers, the conciliar canons and even the pontifical decrees and (more rarely) the more outstanding treatises of the theologians, in the Scriptura Sacra [sacred Scripture], or again, without distinguishing, in the divina pagina [interpretation of scripture].[12] This is a practice of long standing; there seems no doubt but that it arises from the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ][13], which …had passed into canonical collections, and into those chapters which dealt with sources and rules.[14]

For William Abraham, and likely with Protestants in general, the implications are quite startling.

‘Scripture’ was not originally confined to the Bible; it had a much wider frame of reference. …What we see emerging in what follows is a quite different range of sense and reference. Over time, Scripture was cut back to apply materially to the Bible; and its primary function lay in that of operating as an authority.[15]

According to William Abraham, Thomas Aquinas developed that “special kind of rigour in theology”, and was therefore the first to distinguish the authority of the Bible from that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.[16] Thus, it was Aquinas that laid the foundations for the Reformation’s outright rejection of the Bible as interpreted by the Father’s and the Councils, and in favor of the Bible as interpreted by Reason and Conscience.

The Intrinsic-Canon Approach

As we have spoken unfavorably of the Community-Canon approach, and particularly with its reliance upon human reason and epistemological criteria, we bring ourselves to the Intrinsic Canon approach.

John C. Peckam’s arguments against the Community-Approach apply to the Intrinsic-Canon approach as well. As previously mentioned, Peckham defines the Intrinsic-Canon approach as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” There is something important missing here: is a book inspired apart from its being part of a collection of authoritative books? And how can there be a collection of such books apart from the community who collected them?

Peckham’s own explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach argues for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative. Why? Because an inspired scripture is of no use to anyone if it is not recognized as such. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the inspiration of the writing, and this witness takes place within and to the community of believers — the Church.

If we deal with the two views atomistically, they seem like alternate and opposing approaches. However, we have already noted that the Intrinsic-Canon approach does not preclude the community’s involvement in recognizing that a particular book is authoritative and inspired. Therefore, in practical terms, the two approaches are much the same, and attempts to separate them are short-sighted at best.

As you will remember, John C. Peckham wrote of the prophet as being one “divinely authorized to speak for God.” Thus we must conceive of the Holy Spirit primarily working with individuals, and of inspiring them to write Sacred Scripture. Just as the Holy Spirit works with individuals apart from the community, so then the text produced is inspired apart from its being part of “a collection of authoritative books.”

This raises some important questions. Can we conceive of a single book being inspired, apart from its inclusion in a collection of inspired books? More importantly, is a book inspired apart from its witness to and within a community? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this?

Objections to the Intrinsic-Canon Approach

The idea of an Intrinsic-Canon, of the inspiration of the text apart from the community’s recognition of said inspiration, is a problem historically. A prophet would speak, and then he, his amanuensis, or his followers would write down what he had to say. For the text’s continued existence, it had to be copied by hand, which was an expensive and laborious process. Thus we cannot conceive of a text’s existence apart from its usefulness to and recognition by the community.[17]

The case of Jeremiah is important in this regard. The original text of Jeremiah was destroyed by Jehoakim, king of Judah, and Jeremiah had to dictate another scroll to his scribe, Baruch. (Jeremiah 36) So the question becomes which text was inspired: the first scroll, or the second? Actually, both of them were inspired, but only one is canonical. How can this be? Because the Scripture is a witness to the revelation, not the revelation itself. Therefore, a pure Intrisic-Canon approach will not do, as it does not account for the problem of Jeremiah.

The Verbal Icon and the Witness of the Holy Spirit

Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, seems to argue against the Community-Canon approach when he states: “the Bible is the witness of divine revelation.” Barth thus draws a distinction between the revelation of God and the Bible as the witness to that revelation. Barth goes on to state: “there is a Word of God for the Church: in that it receives in the Bible the witness of divine revelation.”[18] Thus the Bible is the Word of God for the Church precisely because of its witness to divine revelation. Regarding this proposition, Barth writes:

A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses. This corresponds with the facts upon which the truth of the whole proposition is based. In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself a revelation, but only — and this is the limitation — the witness to it.[19]

Barth is careful to say that the Bible mediates the original revelation; that it is the means by which the revelation comes to us, the means by which the revelation accommodates itself to us, and the means by which the revelation of God becomes “an actual presence and event.”[20] In other words, the revelation of God is primary; the text of the Bible is absolutely dependent upon the initial revelation, and is a faithful witness to that revelation, but must be distinguished from it.

Here would be a good place to develop the idea of the “Verbal Icon”. The icon is an image of a thing, and not the thing itself. Thus the icon resembles and is symbolic of the object to which it refers. The icon therefore interprets and illumines reality.[21] When God says “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26), the Hebrew word used is צלם (tselem, pronounced tseh’- lem). The Greek translation of that term is εικων (eikon,pronounced  i-kone’), which is the source for our English word icon. Thus an icon is not, as is often thought, merely a visual symbolic representation: humans are the created icon of God; paintings may be the icon of Jesus, of saints, and of angels; and the Bible may be a “verbal icon” of God.[22]

This is important because the Scriptures are written in human language. Words are not the thing itself, but are symbols of that thing. The word “running” represents the act of running; the word “love” represents an abstract concept; the word “God” represents many things, not of which capture the essence of divinity. It is because of the consideration and condescension of God that we have this verbal icon at all. As St. John Chrystom says in his Homily 17 on Genesis:

Let us follow the direction of Sacred Scripture in the interpretation it gives of itself, provided we don’t get completely absorbed in the concreteness of the words, but realize that our limitations are the reason for the concreteness of the language. Human senses, you see, would never be able to grasp what is said if they had not the benefit of such great considerateness.

Robert C. Hill, the translator of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis 1-17, writes of “the delicate balance or the two correlatives: in Chrysostom’s “theology of the Word — divine transcendence and considerateness for human limitations.” It is as though the text of Sacred Scripture represents both the immanence and transcendence of God. It is as if, to use an idea from C.S. Lewis, the inside is larger than the outside.[23] St. John of Damascus writes of the “womb in which the Uncontained dwelt.”[24] Germanos of Constantinople describes the infant Jesus, as being “wider than the heavens.”[25] Our Lord Jesus Christ was both locally present according to his humanity, and everywhere present and filling all things according to his divinity. We should therefore not be astonished at the idea that the God who is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, nevertheless shows consideration of human weakness by allowing His divinity to be circumscribed in human language. The bible is the verbal icon of God Himself.

If we accept the idea that the initial revelation of God is separate and distinct from the capture of that witness in the pages of Sacred Scripture, then we have a problem, for the Bible is witness to that revelation, and therefore not that revelation itself. Thus the Intrinsic-Canon approach to canonicity will not work. But the Community-Canon approach will not work either, for the revelation of God predates the community’s recognition of its witness in the text.

The resolution to this problem is quite simple, and remarkably profound. The previous approaches to canonicity ignore the work of the Holy Spirit. If we accept the Holy Spirit’s role as working with “holy men of God” (2 Pet 1:21) as opposed to the community as a whole, then it is possible for an inspired text to exist apart from its recognition as Scripture by the community. We know that it took time after a book was written and in use by the community before the community began to refer to it as Scripture. In nearly every case (with the possible exception of 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), what the New Testament authors speak of as Scripture is the Old Testament, even while using the books that would become the New Testament in their services. And, as we have mentioned previously, Paul referred to his own writings as “traditions” and “epistles” (meaning letters), rather than as Scripture (2 Th 2:15).[26]

However, the thesis that the Holy Spirit’s ministry is primarily to the individual is a problem. The very concept of the individual is a recent western phenomenon. The ancients considered themselves to be persons, but persons who were part of a larger whole. Their identity as persons, their self-worth and reason for living, was tied to the community they were part of. Thus the prophet was moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt 1:21) to be a witness to the community and, eventually, his witness was accepted as such by that same community, as influenced by that same Holy Spirit. The Protestant conception of the Holy Spirit’s working primarily through individuals was unknown to the biblical authors, for whom inspiration developed within a community, and functioned as a witness to that community. Thus the inspiration of Sacred Scripture was for the community the witness of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the community, through the inspired text, of the original revelation of God. Thus the Holy Spirit doesn’t work at one level, through the person, but within and through the community as well.

If we accept the idea that the Holy Spirit works within the community, and in a special way to persons as a witness to that community, then it is possible a text could be inspired apart from the community’s initial recognition of such. However, the Holy Spirit works within the community towards its recognition of the Scriptures. And although we are limited by time, the Holy Spirit is not. From God’s perspective, it is unlikely there is any difference between the scripture’s recording of revelation, and the community’s recognition of that record as inspired.[27]


Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ambrose. “Letter XLII.” In The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop Of Milan, by Ambrose, translated by H. Walford, 282-287. London, Oxford, & Cambridge: James Parker And Co., And Rivingtons, 1881.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. “Introduction to the Bible – Lesson 2: Inspiration and inerrancy.” Search the Scriptures. Ancient Faith Ministries, Jun 14, 2008.

Contantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Cunningham, Mary B., trans. Wider Than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God. Kindle Edition. Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.

Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler. Systematic Theology: Tasks and Methods. Vol. 1, in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin, 1-88. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991.

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Kruger, Michael J. “The Gospel Coalition.” Apocrypha and Canon in Early Christianity. March 13, 2013. (accessed July 13, 2014).

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Last Battle. New York: Collier Books, 1970.

McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rudd, Steve. Criteria used by apostolic fathers to determine canon. n.d. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

Schaff, Philip, and Allan Menzies. ANF03 Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Vol. 3. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2006.

Wimsatt, William Kurtz, and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Kindle Edition. The University Press of Kentucky, 1953.



[1] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 31)

[2] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[3] Epistomology is a philosophical concept having to do with the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge.

[4] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011, 209)

[5] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[6] There are a variety of ways to approach the issue. For myself, the question was answered when I became convinced through the pages of Scripture, the witness of the church fathers, and the evidence of Church history that the fullness of the Church was to be found only in Eastern Orthodoxy. However, my situation is odd, in that I began life as a Fundamentalist, coexisted uneasily with the Evangelicals for a time before I became Lutheran, and finally ended up as Eastern Orthodox. You could think of me as open-minded, or as unstable as water. Frankly, the question is between you and the Holy Spirit. Once you prayerfully examine the evidence, it may well be that the Holy Spirit wants you to stay where you are, using the canon approved by your community.

[7] (Schaff and Menzies, ANF03 2006, 581-582)

[8] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 370)

[9] (Rudd n.d.)

[10] (Abraham 1998, x-xi)

[11] (Foley 2001, 13)

[12] Divina pagina refers to the interpretation of Scripture, (McGinn 1998, 127) and is one of the three early medieval terms used for theology, the other two being sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura (Fiorenza 1991)

[13] Tradition attributes the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ] to Pope Gelasius I, who was Pope from 492-496. The second part of the Decretum Gelasianum is a list of canonical scriptures. The list includes the Old Testament Scriptures which the Protestants consider to be Apocryphal, and the entire New Testament with the exception of 2 Corinthians. The third part discusses the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The fourth part makes the ecumenical councils authoritative and receives the works of a number of the church fathers. Finally, the fifth part contains a list of books compiled or recognized by heretics and schismatics, works which are not received by the church. It is possible that the list of Apocryphal books represents a tradition that can be traced back to Pope Gelasius, but was not actually written by him.

[14] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[15] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[16] (Abraham 1998, x)

[17] The idea that the preservation of a text is related to the community’s acceptance of the text leads to the idea that the number of preserved or extant manuscripts reflects the importance of that manuscript to the community. Michael J. Kruger, author of The Question of Canon, describes this as “Extant Manuscript” evidence, which concept us used to demonstrate the canonicity of the New Testament books over against the New Testament apocryphal writings — in particular, the gnostic texts recently discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. (Kruger 2013)

[18] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 462)

[19] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[20] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[21] (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1953, Kindle Locations 35-38)

[22] (Constantinou, Introduction to the Bible Lesson 2 2008)

[23] (Lewis 1970, 180)

[24] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 1458)

[25] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 3328)

[26] The recognition that Paul did not refer to his own writings as Scripture is significant, because Paul was something of a braggart. I understand that Paul was forced to defend his apostleship, as he was not one of the original twelve. Still, we know more about Paul’s torments from his own mouth, rather than from the mouths of others.

[27] Although God created time and is aware of its limitations upon us, God is apart from time, seeing the particular moment and the sweep of history all at once.

Canon and Canonicity

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

The meaning of the Greek word canon (κανών) is problematic. Karel van der Toorn says the term itself is of “Christian coinage.”[1] The term canon means table, rule, or measuring stick. In early Christian usage, the term canon has reference to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. This concept is best captured by the apostle Paul when he says the scriptures are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17) This idea of canon as the regula fidei, the rule of faith, does not contain the idea of a list of authoritative writings.

When we think of the canon today, we generally think in terms of a list of inspired scriptures. However, the idea of canon as a list is a relatively recent development; the ancients used different term (pinakes or katalogos) for a catalogue of writings. Lee McDonald writes:

The word canon was not regularly used in reference to a closed collection of writings until David Ruhnken used it this way in 1768. In his treatise entitled Historia critica oratorum Graecorum, he employed the term canon for a selective list of literary writings. …In antiquity [the Greek word] pinakes is more commonly used of catalogues or lists.[2]

When modern theology conceives of canon as a list, it speaks solely of the text; when ancient theology conceives of canon as the rule of faith, it speaks of the revelation contained within the text. The two thoughts are not opposed to one another; a book becomes part of a list of scriptures texts because of the revelation contained therein. However, when we conceive of canon solely as a list, we wind up arguing over issues of canon and canonicity, rather than focusing on the revelation of Jesus Christ — which is, after all, the whole point of the Sacred Scriptures.

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

F. F. Bruce writes:

The Christian church started its existence with a book, but it was not to the book that it owed its existence. It shared the book with the Jewish people; indeed, the first members of the church were without exception Jews. The church owed its distinctive existence to a person — to Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, dead and buried , but ‘designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead ’ (Rom. 1: 4). This Jesus, it was believed, had been exalted by God to be universal Lord; he had sent his Spirit to be present with his followers, to unite them and animate them as his body on earth. The function of the book was to bear witness to him.[3]

Given that the function of Scripture is to bear witness to Him, it is curious that the idea of canon has shifted away from this idea to a mere listing of books. The discussion of the canon as a list of authoritative and inspired books, and canonicity as the process by which an individual text became part of that collection of books, has taken on increased urgency following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the gnostic writings contained in the Nag Hammadi library. Together these have fueled the imagination of biblical scholars, and have added detail to the background of our Sacred Scriptures — all of which have sparked a renewed interest in the subject of canon and canonicity.

The debates over canon and canonicity are taking place more among the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches than among the Christian communions of the east. Seemingly every Protestant introduction and commentary on the Scriptures covers the issues surrounding the canon. But in the 16th century theological conversation between the Protestants and the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity didn’t come up at all — in part because the Lutherans never mentioned their use of a different canon.[4] Instead, the Lutherans argued for the authority of Scripture, an issue then Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II accepted without comment. The discussion between the Lutherans and the Orthodox really focused on what was authoritative for faith and practice. The Lutherans kept bringing up Scripture as the authority, and the Patriarch accepted their position but included Holy Tradition as part of that discussion. In a sense, neither of them understood the other’s position, and so they simply talked past one another.[5]

As for the Eastern Orthodox position, consider the following. The two-volume Introduction to the Old Testament by the Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi[6], Professor of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, does not discuss the issues of canon and canonicity at all. This topic is also glossed over or ignored in most Eastern Orthodox dogmatics. By way of example, Dumitru Staniloae’s five-volume “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” discusses the nature of revelation, its relationship with the world at large, and its relation to the Church and Holy Tradition, but his books do not deal in any substantive manner with canonicity — at least not in a way the western Church would recognize. In Fr. John Breck’s book, entitled “Scripture in Tradition”, he avoids the subject of the canon altogether, instead focusing on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. How do we account for the difference between these approaches? What impact do these issues have upon the regula fidei, the faith once delivered to the saints?

While the use of canon as list is relatively modern, the issues regarding canon and canonicity have their roots in the Middle Ages. Fr. John Breck writes:

Scripture determines what constitutes genuine Tradition, yet Tradition gives birth to and determines the limits of Scripture. To many people’s minds, this way of envisioning the circular relationship between Scripture and Tradition appears untenable. The Protestant Reformers attempted to break this form of the hermeneutic circle by advancing the teaching known as sola scriptura [Scripture alone], holding that Scripture alone determines faith and morality… This was to a large extent in reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism which had separated Scripture and Tradition into separate domains, giving priority to the latter.[7]

When we debate the issues of canon and canonicity, it is helpful to discuss the Old Testament and the New Testament separately, because they each took very different paths in their development. As we know, the Old Testament is called “Scripture” by the New Testament authors, but there is little indication that the New Testament as we know it today was considered to be Scripture. There are two passages which may suggest some parts of the New Testament were considered Scripture (1 Tim:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), but as we will discuss in a later chapter, these are by no means conclusive. The apostle Paul did not refer to his writings as scripture, but instead categorized his teachings as “traditions”, and referred to his books as epistles (2 Th 2:15). Moreover, nowhere in the New Testament do we have a catalogue of canonical books, neither for the Old Testament books (which are explicitly called scripture) or for the writings of the New Testament.

The earliest evidence for the current list of Old Testament books comes from the period after the fall of Jerusalem, and is the first statement of what we now call the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. F. F. Bruce writes:

One of the clearest and earliest statements of these three divisions and their respective contents comes in a baraitha (a tradition from the period AD 70—200) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Baba Bathra. This tradition assigns inspired or authoritative authors to all twenty-four books, and discusses their order.[8]

Babylonian Talmud

Babylonian Talmud

The problems with this reference to the Babylonian Talmud begin with the dates. A tradition dating from after the fall of Jerusalem, and as late as the end of the 2nd century, can scarcely be used to describe the state of Judaism in the time of Christ. This is especially true when we know that Judaism was forced to change in response to the destruction of the temple and the rise of Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Judaism could no longer be the temple, but was focused instead on the Hebrew Scriptures. And the Scriptures themselves changed in response to the growth of Christianity as a rival sect, a sect that used the Septuagint as its own Sacred Scriptures. This change in the Hebrew Scriptures began in the mid-2nd century, as demonstrated by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.[9]

Another problem is that the baraitha (or Babylonian tradition) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud was not authoritative, but was one of many voices in an ongoing discussion. That this particular bairaitha was not authoritative is demonstrated by its failure to be included in the Mishnah, which was completed sometime between 200 – 220 A.D. Not only that, but the proposed three-fold division of the scriptures was not adopted by the Christian community, who devised their own ordering and division of books.[10]

The example from the Babylonian Talmud demonstrates something that needs to be kept in mind, which is this: we cannot derive the pre-Christian status of the Jewish canon from post-Christian sources, because these are all arguing a point of view — one that is largely informed by and in opposition to Christianity.

The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.

The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:

By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at [the first council of Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine.[11]

So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined.[12] Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament.[13]

Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable given the Protestant understanding of the canon, the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This guide led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. Many of us were taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.

There never was any formal agreement which settled the issues of canon and canonicity for the New Testament. This is why Martin Luther was able to consider eliminating books from the corpus of the New Testament — because in his day, the idea of canon as a list of books did not exist. Thus, when Martin Luther came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, he appealed to his peculiar regula fidei as his guide to determining which books should be in the canon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Luther was not allowed to alter the catalogue of the New Testament (although he was allowed to separate the “Apocrypha” from the rest of the Old Testament. The restrictions placed upon Luther’s alteration of the canon was likely done for practical reasons; by this time the canonical consensus was deeply ingrained, and the people would not have stood for it.

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church held their Concilium Tridentinum, or Council of Trent, and in their fourth session (8 April, 1546 A.D.) published their catalogue of the biblical books. This catalogue was not new, having previously been published by the Council of Florence in 1422 A.D., and contained our current 27 book canon of the New Testament. Since the Council of Trent was convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, it had dogmatic significance for Catholic and Protestant alike (in the sense that it hardened the dogmatic positions of each.) Thus, although the list of New Testament books remains the same for Catholics and Protestants alike; what differentiates them is the manner and context in which the texts are interpreted.


Breck, John. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Mastrantonis, George. Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tübingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession. Edited by N. M. Vaporis. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.


[1] (van der Toorn 2007, 233)

[2] (McDonald 2007, 51)

[3] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 27)

[4] In the late 17th century, a group of Lutheran theologians sent a Greek translation of their Augsburg confession to Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople. What followed is an intriguing correspondence which took place over a period of years. While this theological correspondence is well known among the Orthodox, surprisingly few Lutherans and Protestants know anything about it, and fewer still have read the actual texts. It is unclear what the Lutherans were trying to do. Some think the Lutherans were trying to convert the Ecumenical Patriarch (unlikely). Some think the Lutherans were trying to become part of the Orthodox Church (also unlikely). The text seems to indicate that the Lutherans merely wanted the Ecumenical Patriarch to accept that the Lutheran doctrine was consistent with that of the Orthodox Church; the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch is that it was not.

[5] (Mastrantonis 1982, passim)

[6] The Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi is a controversial and polarizing figure, so perhaps we should not read too much into his failure to deal with the issue of canonicity.

[7] (Breck 2001, 11)

[8] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 29-30)

[9] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, Chapters LXXI and LXXII)

[10] (McDonald 2007, 164-165)

[11] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 38)

[12] (McDonald 2007, 22)

[13] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 32)

John Calvin, the Church, and the Canon

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin, in his argument against the role of the Church in the canonical process, does discuss the role of the Holy Spirit. However, he seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit works in the individual, but not in and through the Church.

A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed—viz. that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times; who persuade us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list, did not the Church regulate all these things with certainty? On the determination of the Church, therefore, it is said, depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture, and the books which are to be admitted into the canon. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 74-75)

Calvin then argues that since the apostles and prophets existed prior to the Church, that the inspiration of the Scriptures is intrinsic apart from the Church.

These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Eph. 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist. Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from thence, it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the apostles and prophets, until her Judgment is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed. Nothings therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 75)

John Calvin is correct that the inspiration of the Scriptures precedes its recognition by the Church. But if the Church’s determination of the canon is invalid, what does John Calvin offer in its place? Why, the Holy Spirit who enlightens the individual believer’s heart.

Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own Judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human Judgment, feel perfectly assured—as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it—that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our Judgment, but we subject our intellect and Judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.

Such, then, is a conviction which asks not for reasons; such, a knowledge which accords with the highest reason, namely knowledge in which the mind rests more firmly and securely than in any reasons; such in fine, the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality. I do not dwell on this subject at present, because we will return to it again: only let us now understand that the only true faith is that which the Spirit of God seals on our hearts. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 78-79)

It is curious that John Calvin reason’s his way to a dismissal of human reason, but instead posits some ephemeral, mystical revelation of inspiration to the individual believer. Of course, John Calvin then modifies this by reference to the “children of the renovated Church” made up of the “elect only”, who “shall be taught of the Lord” (Isaiah 54:13). So Calvin’s argument isn’t so much against the Church bearing witness to the canon of Scripture, but to the Roman Catholic Church bearing said witness.

In essence, John Calvin’s predisposition against the Roman Catholic Church colors his view of canonicity. We can break down his argument like this: 1) The Holy Spirit works within His true church. 2) The Roman Catholics do not constitute a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin makes another argument: 1) The Holy Spirit works upon the hearts of the elect. 2) The Roman Catholic Church contains none of the elect. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. And finally, with regard to the canon of Scripture: 1) The Holy Spirit works to reveal the canon of Scripture to His Church. 2) The Roman Catholic Church is not a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture was not revealed by the Holy Spirit.[1]


Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.




[1] I may not have constructed these syllogisms correctly, but you get the point.