The Discovery and Preservation of the Biblical Canon Part I

When discussing how the Biblical canon was formed, it is important to define what a canon is. A canon is a collection of the most important and foundational truths of a particular belief system. This can be in oral or written form. For example, the British Constitution is not in written form. It consists of customs, traditions, principles and some written laws of differing dates. Though it is not written, it is real and firmly established. This unwritten Constitution is the foundation of the British system of law as well as an important influence upon our American system of law.

So what is in a canon? The American “canon” would contain the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and letters by the Founding Fathers.[3] These documents represent what America stands for and who we are. These documents were produced by authoritative eyewitnesses and participants in the founding of our country and yet reflect the whole country. In the same way, the biblical canon is the authoritative collection of the biblical texts that serve as a foundation of Christianity.  Christianity is built on the canon.

The idea of canon was not new to the Early Church. They had grown up using the Hebrew canon of Old Testament Scripture. According to F.F. Bruce, the Old Testament canon was settled before 70 C.E.[1] The Council of Jamnia, informal discussions/debates that took place after the Fall of Jerusalem among the rabbis, firmly acknowledges the Old Testament canon.[2] The Hebrew canon had three basic divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  Jesus’ words in Luke 11:51, 24:44, and John 10:31-36 serve as evidence that these three divisions were well established and had long been considered Holy Scripture. It is also important to note that Jesus refers to the Old Testament as Scripture (John 10:35).

It would be a mistake to speak of the formation of the New Testament canon as if it is something that human beings decided. Wilber Dayton says it this way, “The New Testament is an authoritative offer of salvation.” It was revealed by God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus appointed his apostles as witnesses on which to found the Church. The canon then was already established by the work of Christ. The question is not how the Church discovered or confirmed the Canon, but how the Canon, established by Christ, survived through the history of the Church.

The Early Church recited and sang Scripture in their participatory meetings (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, I Corinthians 14:26).  Justin Martyr gives a similar account of Christian worship. He describes reading “from the memoirs of the apostles.”[9] We know that Paul instructs the churches to read his letters aloud and share them with their sister churches. The Apostle John expected Revelation to be read in the churches as well. From 50 through 70 C.E., the Apostolic Fathers quoted the four gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, I John and Revelation.[10] So we see the Canon unfold through the practice and use of Christians including laity.

[1] James Patrick Holding, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon,” in Trusting the New Testament (, 2009), 249-263.

[2] “What is the Difference Between Written and Unwritten Constitution?” Preserve Articles (2012). Accessed   September 13, 2015 at

[3] Holding, pg. 251.


Audiobook Nook

The New Year is here! Why not start it right by learning the Names of God? Author Chris Adkins explores the many ways by which God identifies Himself through the Old and New Testaments in the Names of God. Over 50 copies of the audio book have already been purchased through and you can even obtain this audio book (slightly over five hours in length) entirely for free with a new membership to Audible.

“Counting the cost” is a key element in determining whether people have fully recognized the responsibilities that attend a particular verbal commitment that they have made. Why would someone shy away from commitment unless they know what they are getting themselves into? While it is true that discipleship entails “counting the cost,” it is also very true that followers of Christ often do not understand the full implications of that pursuit and that passion until their spiritual journey is well underway. One committed follower of Christ who wrote about this journey is the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He did not compromise, even though he was given many “escape hatches” whereby he could have avoided persecution for his Christian faith and commitment to follow Christ unswervingly.

Following the dictates of your conscience and your faith may land you in trouble with the “powers-that-be” as Reverend Bern points out in his book on Occupying America. He reminds those who would separate faith and politics that they are, in fact, interrelated.

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