Episode 149 - Who Created the Canon?



Have you ever had to defend how we got our Bible and why the books we have are the right books, or who chose them or determined them, and that sort of thing? Well there's a lot there, and we've talked about some of it in the past. We've talked about the transmission of the text. “How did we go from the original manuscript, for instance, that Paul wrote, to what's in our Bible today?” But there's a parallel question, and it's: How did we get the books that are in our Bible?

Did some council or person decree that they were the right ones? How did we end up with what's called the canon, the list of books that are considered to be authoritative scripture? That's what we mean when we say canon. In this context we're not talking about the printers or the things that go boom. We're talking about the canon of scripture.

The first thing to point out is that there's this idea going around that some council, maybe at Nicaea, in the 4th century, in the 300 ADs, decreed what was in and would be in the Bible. This is just simply incorrect. The topic of debate at the Council of Nicaea was the deity of Christ. It wasn't what books should be in the Bible.

But there's a bigger problem here besides the factual error with Nicaea, and that's that no man can determine what the canon is or contains. Here's why. I think there's this view, like I've said, where people look back in history and they see that at certain times there were a different list of books, perhaps, if that's even true, that were affirmed as authoritative scripture. Therefore, the inference is that man created the canon. That is where the fundamental error lies.

Let's flip this around. I have a canon, actually. I have a list of books that are mine, that I have written. There's Unapologetic: A Guide For Defending Your Christian Convictions and there's Gender: A Conversation Guide. As soon as I wrote those books, I had a canon that I had created. I didn't have to do anything to create the canon besides write the works. It's actually exactly the same way with the Bible. God created a canon by inspiring certain works. For the letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, the ones that are inspired are a part of the canon because God wrote them too, there's a dual authorship to scripture, and the ones that were not inspired are not in the canon. Paul actually wrote four letters to the Corinthian church. Only two are in our canon because only two were inspired by God.

As soon as God inspired a document or a writer, that document is added to the canon of God's works. It's the same way for a human author. It's the same way for the Bible. So you see, there never was the ability for anyone to say if a certain thing should be in the canon or not because God alone determines what the canon is, because God alone writes things that are in his canon. And his canon is the Bible.

Now you may say, "Well how do we know which documents, how do we recognize the ones that are inspired so that the canon we recognize is actually the true canon, which is the one that contains all of the inspired documents by God?" That's a good question. We'll get to that.

There's a second area to this I want to tease out, and that's often what's said by the Roman Catholic Church is that the church created the canon. The church alone determines canonicity, if something should be in the canon. The problem with this is it's actually entirely backwards. It's the canon that created the church. The church did not create the canon. The church does not determine what scripture. Scripture actually creates the church. It's those documents, those kind of covenant documents, documents about God and his relationship to his people, that are the word that was shared that led people to faith and the Christ and that the church was then centered around. The church didn't create or determine, in that way, scripture. Scripture actually created the church.

This actually, if taken to an extreme, is very important. Because there are some who want to say that the church determined the canon, therefore the church can also tell you what the canon means. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church says we alone determine what is scripture, and we, authoritatively, only, tell you what it means. That's a problem. Because it is God who creates the canon and it's God, through scripture, who creates the church.

This is also an extension of that. If the church created the canon, the church stands over the canon. This is very much related to the discussion of sola scriptura that we looked at back in the fall, where since the scriptures are the only example of God breathed revelation in the possession of the church, they're the church's highest authority. Basically, since scripture is inspired, since it's the word of God, it's the highest authority for the Christian and for the church.

Well, on a Roman Catholic view, the church determined what is scripture. The church actually stands over scripture. The church is the higher authority when it comes to scripture because it tells you what is scripture and it tells you what it means. It's kind of like if you say, "What's the higher authority, the rules or the person who determines the rules?" Well, the person who determines the rules, obviously. Because they tell you what the rules are and they tell you what the rules mean. It's that exact way when it comes to scripture and the church. The church either stands under the rules and is governed by them and created by them, and exists in the space carved out by them, or it stands over the rules. The former is the Protestant way, and the latter is the Roman Catholic teaching.

I mentioned this earlier. We have to be very clear that God alone determines the canon. God alone, by inspiring certain authors and certain works, created a canon. The canon exists whether the church recognizes it or not. There's a little asterisk there because we'll come back to that.

But we're still left with the question of: How do we know what God's canon is? Knowing the canon versus how the canon exists are two separate questions. This might sound a little familiar, but the way we recognize the canon — because remember, the canon exists regardless of the church's thoughts about it, it exists because God created it — the way we recognize it is based on a few factors. It has certain divine qualities. It's clear and internally consistent. It tells a unified story.

Now, not everything that tells a unified story is true or scripture, but this is a pointer towards the fact that this is the canon that God created. There's also the corporate reception. That the church received these documents, and not others, by a huge margin points to it being scripture. It's interesting, you look back in the 2nd century, to 120, 130, 150, in that area, and you have people treating the gospels very differently from other early Christian works. This even tracks back earlier than that. Very early on, we see that scripture was recognized as scripture and not just as religious writing.

It's the same way with many of the New Testament documents too. The Old Testament was already established at the time of Jesus, so that's kind of off the table in terms of debate here. All of that to say, the corporate reception, the reception of the canon, of scripture by the church, points to it actually being scripture. Here's why.

Remember, the scripture creates the people of God, and since it creates them, those people actually recognize it by its divine qualities. You know it's very common for us to argue that the natural world proclaims the glory of God, that everyone, based on Romans 1 and Psalm 19 and things like that, should recognize the glory of God in nature, and should recognize that there actually is a God behind nature.

Well how much more true should that be for scripture itself? We have the book of God's works out in the world, out in the natural world, and it speaks, scripture says. But scripture is actually the words of God, like the linguistic words in grammar and sentence form. So how much more does that clearly convey that it's from God? Well much, much more.

This is kind of what we would refer to as scripture being self-authenticating. It carries the nature of the divine. It speaks that it is in fact the word of God, so it authenticates itself also. So, since the church is created by scripture, the church will actually recognize scripture.

I think this is made more clear by statements of Jesus. For instance, when he says, "My sheep hear my voice." He's not talking about decision-making there. He's talking about the fact that his people will hear when he speaks to them. That would be through scripture, that would be a call to salvation. I think those are both appropriate understandings of that.

But, as people who have the Holy Spirit, we will recognize scripture as the voice of God. We have God's spirit in us. It was God's spirit who inspired, spoke through, breathed through the human authors such that the words of scripture are both fully human and fully divine. Since we have that same spirit who was behind scripture, we recognize what scripture is. We don't confuse it for something else like a devotional or that sort of thing.

That's really important. That we recognize scripture. We don't determine it. We describe what it is but God alone created scripture. God alone created the canon. We recognize it, and we recognize it as a church, as a body looking back historically, this has been the case.

Now, some people will say, "At a very late point in time, the church defined what the canon was." There's this interesting dynamic in church history where oftentimes definitive, dogmatic statements are not made until someone starts challenging the position. For instance, early on we talked about how at Nicaea that the deity of Christ was affirmed, that he was of the same substance with the Father. Does this mean no one believed it before that time? No, it means it wasn't really challenged before that time. There wasn't a huge problem that needed to be addressed. It was same way with scripture. When we look at the practices of the early church, what they read as a part of a church service and what they didn't, what they quoted from and how, and what they didn't, we see that the books that we consider to be scripture today were in a class all by themselves practically speaking, almost as soon as they were written, and as soon as they were quoted from, as soon as they were read.

The church recognized the divine qualities in scripture in part because they're in the text, if you can see them and if you notice them. But also because the church had the Holy Spirit inside of them to authenticate that scripture and testify to their spirit that this was scripture. So scripture has certain divine qualities. It was received by the church corporately. But it also is of apostolic origin. The apostles are behind it.

For instance, Paul was an apostle, Peter was an apostle, John was an apostle. These are, among others, the people behind the New Testament, either because they directly wrote a document or because someone under their tutelage or their authority wrote for them or with them, or wrote their account. For instance, mark was not an apostle, but Peter was the one who sanctioned Mark, most likely, that Mark is writing Peter's account. Luke talks with eyewitnesses and was a traveling companion of the Paul. The fact that there are apostles, these people who were expressly given a commission by Jesus to start the church, that gives scripture authority. It further authenticates it. It's a pointer towards the fact that this is the canon that God created.

Remember, God creates the canon. We recognize the canon. We can do that because, in part, it has divine qualities, it was received corporately, it was of apostolic origin in many ways, and so we recognize what God has created. The church does not create the canon. The canon created the church. The church does not stand over scripture or over the canon. The church stands under it. Scripture stands over it as our sole, highest authority.

So, this should give us confidence, that as we have the Holy Spirit and we read scripture, which are the inspired words of the Spirit, we understand that they are, in fact, scripture. They testify to us in that way. The Spirit affirms that to us as we read it.

But I think it's important for us to be clear that at Nicaea, the issue was the deity of Christ. It was not what is scripture, what is the canon. But even if that had been the issue — and there were later councils that talked about scripture — if that had been the issue, the issue is still fundamentally one of recognizing what God has created, not creating something. Who stands over what is the fundamental issue. God alone creates the canon.