What is the "canon of Scripture?" How do we know what books belong in the Bible?
Canonicity refers to a book’s status, as to whether or not it should be regarded as divinely authoritative (inspired) and thus worthy to be included within the canon. Canon can be defined as the “norm” or “standard” and is known to be the group of writings or collection of books recognized as the inspired Word of God. Perhaps you have wondered how the early church knew which books should be regarded as part of the Bible, and which ones should be excluded? Many people mistakenly think that some group of church officials at the council of Nicia in A.D. 325 sat down and voted on which books they thought should be included and that’s how we got our Bible. But that simply isn’t the way it happened. God determines the Canon, Canonicity is determined by God. A book is not inspired because men made it canonical; it is canonical because God inspired it. Thus, canonicity is determined by inspiration. Canonicity is determined by God and discovered by man. This is true of both Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures. False books and false writings were not scarce in the first century. There ever-present threat made it necessary for the people of God to carefully review their sacred collection. Even books accepted by other believers or in earlier days were often brought into question by the church. The following are five basic criteria they could use to establish inspired writings: 1) is the book authoritative - does he claim to be of God? 2) is the prophetic - was it written by a servant of God? 3) is it authentic - does it tell the truth about God? 4) is the book dynamic - does it possess the life transforming power of God? 5) is this book received or accepted by the people of God for whom it was originally written - is it recognized as being from God?
In order to understand how we came to have the specific sixty-six books that are in our Bible we need to look at the formation of the Old Testament and New Testament canons individually. Again, the word “canon” means “authority,” or “standard” by which other things are judged. The word “canon” when used of Scripture refers to the books deemed to be authoritative, i.e., God’s Word. Let’s look at the status of the Old Testament and New Testament canons.
Old Testament Canon
Note the following examples of how Scripture was immediately recognized as the Word of God by the hearers. Moses put the Book of the Covenant, including the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1—23:33), into writing and the people agreed to obey it (Ex. 24:3-8). The Book of the Covenant became part of the Book of Exodus and immediately was accepted at the Word of God. The Book of Deuteronomy was immediately stored by the Ark in the Tabernacle after Moses wrote it (Deut. 31:24-26). Later it, with the rest of the Law of Moses, was moved to the Temple (2 Kings 22:8). Joshua added his words and set them up in the sanctuary of the Lord (Josh. 24:26). Daniel refers to “the books” which contained the “law of Moses” and the prophets (Dan. 9:2, 6, 11).
Later Old Testament books quote earlier O.T. books as authoritative. Consider the following. The books of Moses, which were immediately recognized as canonical, are cited throughout the Old Testament from Joshua 1:7 to Malachi 4:4. The events of Joshua are referred to in Judges 1:1, 20-21; 2:8. The books of Kings cites the life of David as told in the books of Samuel (1 Kings 3:14; 5:7; 8:16; 9:5). Chronicles reviews Israel’s history from Genesis through Kings including material from Ruth (1 Chronicles 2:12-13). The ninth chapter of Nehemiah reviews Israel’s history as recorded from Genesis through Ezra. 1 Kings 4:32 refers to Solomon’s proverbs and songs. Daniel cites Jeremiah 25 (Daniel 9:2). Jonah recites parts from the Psalms (Jonah 2). Ezekiel mentions both Job and Daniel (Ezekiel 14:14, 20). Not every book is cited by a later one, however; enough are cited to demonstrate that there was a growing collection of divinely authoritative books available to and quoted by later prophets.
From these readings, we can conclude that the standard description of the whole canon of the O.T. Scripture is built on a distinction between Moses and the prophets after him. Since the New Testament specifically cites virtually all of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon (same thirty-nine books as our known Bible today; though they had them arranged so that some books now split were combined, e.g., 1 & 2 Samuel, which gave them only 24 books) recognized by first-century Jews, we also conclude that the limits or extent of that canon has been defined for us.
New Testament Canon
There are twenty-seven books recognized as canonical. These twenty-seven books are commonly classified into 4 groups: Gospels (Matthew – John), History (Acts), Epistles (Romans – Philemon), and Prophecy (Revelation). Unlike the Old Testament that was written over a thousand year period, the entire New Testament Canon was written within fifty years. Although the New Testament Canon was written in a much shorter period of time than the Old Testament Canon, the geographic range of the New Testament Canon is far wider. The N.T. was written in Asia, Africa, and Europe. This greater distance may explain why some books of the New Testament took longer to be universally recognized as canon.
It is extremely important to understand that the early church did not determine which books would become Scripture; they merely endeavored to recognize which books the churches had already received as Scripture, and to exclude him false documents. Such tests weren’t arbitrary; they were derived from what the church leaders already knew about the character of Scripture from those books of undisputed authenticity. Some of the questions they would have used as a litmus test have been listed in our introduction above of canonicity.
There were many reasons for the first century Christians to begin this collection. One reason would be because the early church was interested in collecting those books that were inspired and thus, prophetic. The works written by the apostles and prophets were considered valuable and worthy of preservation. A second reason would be to give themselves guidelines for faith and practice. The early church needed to know which books should be read in the churches as the Word of God and which books could be used to determine God’s will for doctrine and living. A third reason for collecting the canon would be to give a defense against other religions and philosophies. As the Christian movement was confronted with philosophical and religious trends current in the Mediterranean world of its time, the need for the exact collection of the Words of God and foundation of their belief became the basic motivation toward the realization of the New Testament canon. This became even more important after the deaths of the first generation of eyewitnesses. A fourth reason for collecting the canon would be heretical threats. The early church needed to know exactly which books were canonical because certain heretics were coming up with their own canons and they needed to stand on the truth of God and dispute the canons of men. Finally, a fifth reason for the collection of N.T. canon would be because of persecutions. Roman emperors in power continued to persecute and choke out Christianity. This persecution motivated the church to sort through and settle on which books were truly Scripture and worth suffering for.
We can summarize canonization by saying that the vast majority of the N.T. books were never disputed from the beginning. Of the books originally recognized as inspired but later questioned, all of them came to full and final acceptance by the church. Some other books throughout time have gained popularity for a time, but were never accepted as canon. The books of the N.T. as we know them can be confidently known, respected, and followed as the books God would have us follow for His new law under His son and our Christ.
Certainly much more can be said on the subject of canonicity of scripture, but this will hopefully help you as you begin your own personal study!