Living Theology #2 – The Canon

by Garrett Glende

Last week we looked at the doctrine of the Bible as the very word of God. As we continue to develop a systematic theology, it is important to have a proper understanding of Bibliology. Keeping along these lines, chapter three in Grudem’s book is titled “The Canon of Scripture,” and it asks what books should be included in the Bible and which should not be. Grudem simply defines the canon as “the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.” As we will see, this question is vital to the way we live our lives, as it allows us to know exactly what is from God and what is not. If we seek to walk only according God’s will as revealed through His word, then it is important that we have a source that we can trust to be fully from God. Grudem writes:

“To add or subtract from God’s words would be to prevent God’s people from obeying him fully, for commands that were subtracted would not be known to the people, and words that were added might require extra things of the people which God had not commanded.”

Although this article is not by any stretch of the imagination intended to be comprehensive (I encourage you to study more deeply on your own), it will be helpful to understand a small amount about how the Bible was put together and why some books were included or not. The beginning of the canon came with the writing of the Ten Commandments by God on Mount Sinai. The people understood that what they had was the word of God and they placed it in the ark of the covenant. Moses then added more books when he wrote the Pentateuch and placed them beside the ark, signifying their equal authority as God’s word. It is interesting that Moses would write that “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2), but then Joshua and kings and prophets after him would go on to write more and add it to the canon. Such perceived disobedience could only have taken place if they were completely sure that what they were writing was truly God’s word. These writings were added to one another up until around 435 B.C., signaling the end of that specific era in Jewish history. Many other writings were gathered that detail the events of the Jewish people during the intertestamental period, but these have been left out of the canon for various reasons. The famous church historian, Josephus, writes that “From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records.” Books that have been considered for canonicity have been disqualified either on historical or theological grounds. In addition to this evidence, none of the writings outside of today’s canon are found quoted in the New Testament.

The New Testament canon was assembled first by including the writings of the apostles, who were given the Holy Spirit to guide them. Jesus promised them this Helper in John 14:26, saying that “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 have said to you.” Jesus’ words authenticate all that the apostles wrote, but there are still books in the New Testament that were not written by those to whom this promise was made. Mark, Luke/Acts, Hebrews, and Jude were all written by men other than the original twelve or Paul. These books came to be accepted because of their author’s intimacy with the other apostles (Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul, Jude with James). Hebrews is unique in that the original author is not known, but the sheer magnitude of high Christology it contains has led it to be included with the rest of the New Testament. Along with personal eyewitness testimony to the events recorded in the gospels, the New Testament’s authenticity as Scripture is self-attesting. Peter mentions that Paul’s letters are confusing, but that “the ignorant and unstable twist [them] to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). The Greek word for “Scriptures” is graphé, which is used fifty-one times in the New Testament, each time referencing the Old Testament. Therefore, Peter is placing Paul’s writing on the same level as the whole Old Testament. There have been many other documents claiming to be inspired by God, but these have not stood up to close scrutiny either theologically or historically. Thus, we can trust that God, in His faithfulness, has preserved His word for His people.

Considering that we know what we have in our Bible is trustworthy and is the completed word of God, how then should we respond? The nature of the closed canon has direct implications to our daily lives, especially in our post-modern culture where truth is relative and absolutes absolutely do not exist. If we claim to hold the 66 books of the Bible as the completed canon, then why do we often find ourselves looking elsewhere for guidance in our lives, letting outside sources change our perception of God? Does the canon change in response to new cultural standards? Many of us would affirm with our words its sufficiency for all things in life, but when placed under much pressure we fold to worldly ideals, adding them to our own new canon in a sense. We cannot canonize the cultural standards of our day because they are bound to change. Has God’s stance concerning men’s and women’s roles changed? Our society would surely say so. The same goes for homosexuality. What is acceptable today will be shunned tomorrow, but God’s word is unchanging. The canon is closed.

We see this most clearly in the legalism in our hearts. We add new laws to God’s word: thou shall not drink, thou shall not hold hands while dating, thou shall wear a tie on Sundays. Granted it’s not wrong to abstain from alcohol, not hold hands, or wear a tie every Sunday, but when we see others doing differently and immediately condemn them for their “sin” then we have added our own made up laws to Scripture, placing us right next to the Pharisees.

Instead of concocting our own personal canon, may we instead become intimate with what God has revealed to us, realizing that all of Scripture is Scripture. I, myself, have been personally challenged in my own treatment of the Old Testament. I cannot say that I have always acted as if it were part of God’s word. Of course I would affirm the truth with my lips, but never would I turn there for a morning devotional. This study has helped me to understand that I must know all of God’s word, not just the New Testament. In fact, the Old Testament contains many great and glorious truths about who God is and how He has shown grace and mercy to His people. May we all grow in our love for His word in its entirety.

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The Beacon is the monthly newsletter for Lighthouse Bible Church in San Diego, California. It covers a variety of subjects including LBC events, church history, current events from a Christan perspective, ministry profiles, and messages from our pastors and elders. To join the Beacon ministry, please contact Stephen Rodgers.

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