Nature and Canon of Scripture
I. The Nature of Scripture
A. What do we mean by “Scripture”? (Gk. graphe - writing)
1. It is the Word of God in written form.
2. How the Scriptures became the word of God (inspiration). Comment on 2 Tim. 3:14-17 and 2 Pet. 1:20-21.
3. Heb. 3:6 – human author eclipsed by the Divine author, the Holy Spirit.
4. Mt. 19:5-6, quoting Gen. 2:24, in words not specifically attributed to God in the text are nevertheless quoted as the very words of God, indicating that our Lord understood all the Pentateuch to be the words of God.
5. “And the LORD spoke to Moses...” throughout the Pentateuch. Also, “Thus saith the LORD” in the prophets.
B. What about the NT?
1. Apostles spoke the words of God: 1 Cor. 2:12-13; Jn. 14:26; 16:13-15.
2. They understood their writings to be Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18, quoting Luke
10:7; and 2 Pet. 3:16 referring to Paul’s epistles in the category of Scripture).
C. Other forms of God’s Words (as distinguished from Scripture per se)
1. Jesus, the incarnate Word, Jn. 1:1, 14.
2. God’s decrees. Ps. 33:6
3. God’s personal address, speaking from heaven.
4. God’s words through the prophets (not written down)
5. God’s word in nature (Ps. 19; Acts 14:17)
D. Why focus on Scripture in our study of theology?
1. Because this is how God’s word is available to us today, and it is the written word (law) that is repeatedly encouraged to be the object of our study and delight (see Ps. 119).
E. Why start here (why not start with theology proper)?
1. Because the only saving knowledge of God can be found in Scripture. We can know God as creator in nature, but not as Savior (Ps 19).
2. Because, apart from God’s word, our corrupt hearts will twist God’s general revelation into idolatry (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 1). Natural theology needs special revelation to keep it on the straight and narrow.
II. The Canon of Scripture
A. We need to know what body of writings compose the Scriptures. As Grudem puts it, “What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?”
1. See Deut. 4:2l
B. OT Canon:
1. Jewish witness: Josephus (Against Apion), after enumerating the list of books in the Jewish Scripture – which corresponds to the books in our OT – says, “We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own Scriptures. For although such long ages have now passed [since the last book in the OT was written], no one has ventured either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable; and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for them.”
a) In the same book, Josephus divides the OT into three categories, which the Jews call the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Under these three categories belong all the books of the OT. This is significant, for the following reason. Our Lord witnesses to it!
2. Our Lord’s witness – Luke 24:44. Here is Henry Alford’s comments: “This threefold division of the O.T. is the ordinary Jewish one, into the Law, Prophets, and Hagiographa – the first containing the Pentateuch; the second Joshua, Judges, the four books of Kings, and the Prophets, except Daniel; the third the Psalms, and all the rest of the canonical books, - Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah being reckoned as one book, and the Chronicles closing the canon.”
a) See our Lord’s attitude to the OT: Mt. 4; 5:17-18; Jn. 10:35.
3. What about the Apocrypha? Refer back to points 1 and 2! It only gained gradual approval in the Roman Catholic Church, and wasn’t even granted canonical status until the Council of Trent in the seventeenth century.
a) Grudem’s summary: “(1) they do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings; (2) they were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated; (3) they were not considered to be Scriptures by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and (4) they contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.”
C. NT Canon:
1. Apostolic authorship (see the comments on the nature of the NT writings).
2. Apostolic oversight (Mark, Luke-Acts, Hebrews)
3. Widespread use by the church
D. What about other books? Like the gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas for example)? Didn’t the church use its power to squelch other books (as claimed in The Da Vinci Code)? Weren’t there many Christianities at first and we have the Bible of the winners?
1. There were always various “Christian” sects, but the reality is that, from the first century to the fourth when it was recognized by the Roman Empire, there was always one dominant Christian Church, as can be seen from the bishops of the time and from the description by Celsus of the “the Great Church.”
2. Also, the early church – as early as the second century, long before the church had the power of the state to back it up – believed in the Four Gospels as canonical, and nothing else. Irenaeus, writing in the late second century: “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.”
3. Origin, writing in the early third century (again, before the fourth century when all this was supposed to be decided): “I know a certain gospel which is called ‘The Gospel according to Thomas’ and a ‘Gospel according to Matthias,’ and many others have we read – lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine they possess some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the church has recognized, which is that only the four gospels should be accepted.”
4. Not only the gospels were fixed by the second century, but most of the rest of the NT books were considered Scripture. It is true that some of the smaller books (like 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude) continued to be debated until the fourth and fifth century. But two things need to be noticed: the core of the canon was already there, and it was considered and quoted as Scripture by the early church.
5. Writing about Irenaeus, Michael Kruger notes: “In the midst of his battles with the heretics of his day, he provides one of the clearest articulations of the state of the canon in the second century, affirming the scriptural status of at least the four Gospels, Acts, all the Pauline epistles (minus Philemon), Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Revelation – 23 out of the 27 books in the New Testament.”
Resources: Systematic Theology (2nd ed), by Wayne Gudem
Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock
Christianity at the Crossroads, by Michael J. Kruger