The Biblical Canon
by Fred G. Zaspel
We call these sixty-six books of the Bible the Biblical “canon” — the books that are recognized as divinely given and uniquely and authoritatively binding on us. The old liberal “higher critical” explanation is that the Old Testament is a collection of legends and stories gathered by an editor(s) and gradually gaining authority status in the Israelite community. Discredited as it has been it continues to be promoted as established fact.
What really happened is something much simpler. The prophets spoke and wrote from God, and their as they did their words and writings were recognized by God's people as the Word of God. Our Old Testament canon was recognized as such by the Israelite people before the time of Christ. “The law, the prophets, and the writings” (Luke 24:44) are the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, containing the same thirty-nine books we have today. This collection was endorsed by Christ as canonical (Luke 24:44, etc.).
The New Testament canon was formed in a similar way. Christ said ahead of time that his Spirit would be given to his apostles in order to teach them His word (John 14:24-26; 16:12-13). The apostles, in turn, gave the word of Christ to us (John 17:20). As they spoke and wrote for God, the people of God recognized it as such and submitted to its binding authority (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
The apostles themselves placed their writings on par with the Old Testament (1Tim. 5:18; 2Pet. 3:16), and the early church immediately followed suit. Polycarp in AD 115, for example, linked the Psalms and Ephesians equally as “Scripture,” Clement likewise linked Isaiah and Matthew as “Scripture,” and so on.
Of course, in the day before moveable type and mass reproduction copies were slow in coming, and individual churches were slow in receiving the New Testament canon in full. As in the days before Christ, the New Testament church recognized a canon in progress. Just as Israel’s earlier canon “grew” over the centuries, so the church’s canon grew over the course of the second half of the first century, A.D. New book after new book was received from the apostolic company and welcomed as the rule of faith, laid beside the older revelation and together designated, The Law and the Prophets with the Gospels and the Apostles, or more briefly, The Law and the Gospel. The newer additions to the canon, The Gospels and the Apostles, or more briefly, The Gospel, was not viewed by the early church as different from the older canon but as additions to it. Of course the “canon” that was recognized by each assembly varied from locality to locality, as the copies were hand-made and then hand-delivered to successive churches. And as the various churches gradually became acquainted with new apostolic writings their canon gradually became complete. But from the time of Irenaeus (c. 175), the disciple of Polycarp, the church at large had the complete canon as we now possess it ourselves.
The criterion for recognition of this growing canon was, simply, apostolicity — apostolic endorsement. These men were the spokesmen for the Lord, and it was theirs to impose the new rule upon the church. Apostolicity does not necessarily imply apostolic authorship but apostolic endorsement — “imposition by the apostles,” as one has put it. Thus Paul cites Luke as “scripture,” Hebrews is recognized as “Pauline” at least in some sense, and so on.
What is important to recognize in all this is that both the Old and New Testaments, coming to us before and after Christ respectively, are alike given to us from Christ. He gives his divine imprimatur on both — one after the fact and one before. It is therefore on his authority that the church recognizes its present Biblical canon.