Far from simply being an intellectual exercise in studying history, what is the Word of God? How do we know?
what is the canon?
What do we mean by the word canon? Let’s unpack this word some more. Canon comes from a Greek term that refers to a “measuring rod.” Picture a ruler or yardstick with notches up the side indicating each incremental measurement. Accordingly, canon indicates what books are accepted as the authoritative word of God, while giving us the image of measuring our lives against the Scripture.
how did we get the canon?
The early followers of Christ already saw the Hebrew Scriptures, what was later referred to as the Old Testament, as the authoritative word of God. Later, in the second century, a man named Marcion put forth a list of Scripture that excluded the Old Testament; he believed the God of the Old Testament was not the same God revealed in Jesus Christ. His list was rejected by church leaders.
But what about the twenty-seven books that now makes up our New Testament? How did those books come to be accepted as part of the canon of Scripture?
Early on, in the first generation of the church, letters of the apostles such as Ephesians and Romans written by Paul, along with the four gospel accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus, circulated among the early churches. These writings were read during worship alongside the Hebrew Scriptures.
How did the church know what to receive as Scripture? The early church used three important criteria in determining what books to accept as Holy Scripture. First, the writings of the apostles held a special weight for the early church. Second, they took into account how authoritative and widely used the books were in shaping and directing the life of the community of faith. The majority of churches across geographical regions were using these texts, showing a broad movement of the Spirit beyond any one region. Finally, those writings accepted as Scripture upheld the rule of faith, or the teachings passed on from the apostles.
As scholars note, the writings that were included in the canon had a “self-authenticating quality.” In other words, the testimony of the letter (for example, James or 1 John) or gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) itself witnessed to its authentic nature. People heard them and received them as the word of God.
The combination of the three criteria mentioned above, along with the self-authenticating nature of these texts, led the church to treat them as Scripture. In other words, it did not depend on the presence of just one of the criteria alone, but on the presence of all the factors.
the development of the canon
There is a common, popular idea that the canon of Scripture was officially created at the Council of Nicaea. However, this is not true; the development of the canon was a process influenced by the factors outlined above. The canon emerged organically from the life of worship in local Christian communities.
In this we see the development and formation of the canon, as the church discerned what truly was the Word of God. In the process, we see God at work through human beings as they discerned Him speaking through His written Word and formed the canon of Holy Scripture.
confirmation of the canon
In the year 367, Athanasius wrote a letter that contained a list of the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament. He called them the canon and named these books, “divinely inspired Scripture.” He went on to write, “These are the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain.”
It should be noted today that Protestants include sixty-six books in the Bible, while the canon for Roman Catholics and the Orthodox includes those sixty-six but also additional writings.
Believers the world over and through history have looked to the Word of God for God’s own revelation of Himself and His purposes.
Want to hear more of today’s conversation? https://vimeo.com/189853978
How has your life been shaped by the Word of God?
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