By Dr. Norman Geisler
(from Baker Encyclopedia of
Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, 1999)
Canonicity (Fr. canon,
rule or norm) refers to the normative or authoritative books
inspired by God for inclusion in Holy Scripture. Canonicity is
determined by God. It is not the antiquity, authenticity, or religious
community that makes a book canonical or authoritative. A book is
valuable because it is canonical, and not canonical because it is or
was considered valuable. Its authority is established by God
and merely discovered by God’s people.
Definition of Canonicity.
The distinction between God’s determination
and human discovery is essential to the correct view of canonicity,
and should be drawn carefully:
The Authority Relationship Between
Church and Canon
In the "Incorrect View" the authority of the
Scriptures is based upon the authority of the church; the correct view
is that the authority of the church is to be found in the authority of
the Scriptures. The incorrect view places the church over the
canon, whereas the proper position views the church under the
canon. In fact, if in the column titled "Incorrect View," the word
church be replaced by God, then the proper view of the canon
emerges clearly. It is God who regulated the canon; man merely
recognized the divine authority God gave to it. God
determined the canon, and man discovered it. Louis Gaussen
gives an excellent summary of this position:
Appropriate methods must be employed to
discover which books God determined to be canonical. Otherwise, the
list of canonical books might be varied and incorrectly identified.
Many procedures used in the study of the Old Testament canon have been
marred by the use of fallacious methods.
Inadequate Criteria for Canonicity.
Five mistaken methods have particularly troubled the
church (see Beckwith, 7-8):
1. failure to distinguish a book that was "known"
from a book that carried God’s authority;
2. failure to distinguish disagreement about the
canon between different parties from uncertainty about the canon
within those parties;
3. failure to distinguish between the adding of
books to the canon and the removal of books from it;
4. failure to distinguish between the canon that
the community recognized and eccentric views of individuals;
5. failure to properly use Jewish evidence about
the canon transmitted through Christian hands, either by denying the
Jewish origins or by ignoring the Christian medium through which it
has come (Beckwith, 7-8).
Principles of Canonicity.
Granted that God gave authority and hence canonicity to the Bible,
another question arises: How did believers become aware of what God
had done? The accepted canonical books of the Bible themselves refer
to other books that are no longer available, for example, the "Book of
Jasher" (Josh. 10:13) and "the Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Num.
21:14). Then there are Apocryphal books and the so-called "lost
books." How did the Fathers know those were not inspired? Did not John
(21:25) and Luke (1:1) speak of a profusion of religious literature?
Were there not false epistles (2 Thess. 2:2)? What marks of
inspiration guided the Fathers as they identified and collected the
inspired books? Perhaps the very fact that some canonical books were
doubted at times, on the basis of one principle or another, argues
both for the value of the principle and the caution of the Fathers in
their recognition of canonicity. It provides assurance that the people
of God really included the books God wanted.
Five foundational questions lie at the very heart of
the discovery process:
 Was the book written by a prophet of God?
The basic question was whether a book was
prophetic. Propheticity determined canonicity. A prophet was one who
declared what God had disclosed. Thus, only the prophetic writings
were canonic. Anything not written by a prophet of God was not part of
the Word of God. The characteristic words "And the word of the Lord
came to the prophet," or "The Lord said unto," or "God spoke" so fill
the Old Testament that they have become proverbial. If substantiated
these claims of inspiration are so clear that it was hardly necessary
to discuss whether some books were divine in origin. In most cases it
was simply a matter of establishing the authorship of the book. If it
was written by a recognized apostle or prophet, its place in the canon
Historical or stylistic (external or internal)
evidence that supports the genuineness of a prophetic book also argues
for its canonicity. This was exactly the argument Paul used to defend
his harsh words to the Galatians (Gal. 1:1-24). He argued that his
message was authoritative because he was an authorized messenger of
God, "an apostle not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but
through Jesus Christ, and God the Father" (Gal. 1:1). He also turned
the tables on his opponents who preached "a different gospel: which is
really not another; only… to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal.
1:6-7). His opponents’ gospel could not be true because they were
"false brethren" (Gal. 2:4).
It should be noted in this connection that
occasionally the Bible contains true prophecies from individuals whose
status as people of God is questionable, such as Balaam (Num. 24:17)
and Caiaphas (John 11:49). However, granted that their prophecies were
consciously given, these prophets were not writers of Bible books, but
were merely quoted by the actual writer. Therefore, their utterances
are in the same category as the Greek poets quoted by the apostle Paul
(cf. Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12).
The arguments Paul used against the false teachers
at Galatia were also used as grounds for rejecting a letter that was
forged or written under false pretenses. One such letter is mentioned
in 2 Thessalonians 2:2. A book cannot be canonical if it is not
genuine. A book might use the device of literary impersonation without
deception. One writer assumes the role of another for effect. Some
scholars feel such is the case in Ecclesiastes, if Koheleth
wrote autobiographically as though he were Solomon (see Leupold, 8f.).
Such a view is not incompatible with the principle, provided it can be
shown to be a literary device and not a moral deception. However, when
an author pretends to be an apostle in order to gain acceptance of his
ideas, as the writers of many New Testament Apocryphal books
did, then it is moral deception.
Because of this "prophetic" principle, 2 Peter was
disputed in the early church. Even Eusebius in the fourth century
said, "But the so-called second Epistle we have not received as
canonical, but nevertheless it has appeared useful to many, and has
been studied with other Scriptures" (Eusebius 1:193). On the basis of
differences in the style of writing, it was felt by some that the
author of 2 Peter could not be the same as the author of 1 Peter. But
2 Peter claimed to have been written by "Simon Peter, a servant and
apostle of Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1). Thus, the epistle was either a
forgery or there was great difficulty in explaining its different
style. Those who were disturbed by such evidence doubted the
genuineness of 2 Peter and it was placed among the antilegomena books
for a time. It was finally admitted on the grounds that it was Peter’s
genuine writing. The differences in style can be accounted for by the
time lapse, different occasions, and the fact that Peter verbally
dictated 1 Peter to an amanuensis (or secretary; see 1 Peter 5:13).
Inspiration was so certain in many prophetic
writings that their inclusion was obvious. Some were rejected because
they lacked authority, particularly the pseudepigrapha. These books
provided no support for their claim. In many cases the writing is
fanciful and magical. This same principle of authority was the reason
the book of Esther was doubted, particularly since the name of God is
conspicuously absent. Upon closer examination, Esther retained its
place in the canon after the Fathers were convinced that authority was
present, although less observable.
 Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
A miracle is an act of God to confirm the word of
God given through a prophet of God to the people of God. It is the
sign to substantiate his sermon; the miracle to confirm his message.
Not every prophetic revelation was confirmed by a specific miracle.
There were other ways to determine the authenticity of an alleged
prophet. If there were questions about one’s prophetic credentials it
could be settled by divine confirmation, as indeed it was on numerous
occasions throughout Scripture (Exodus 4; Numbers 16-17; 1 Kings 18;
Mark 2; Acts 5).
There were true and false prophets (Matt. 7:15), so
it was necessary to have divine confirmation of the true ones. Moses
was given miraculous powers to prove his call (Exod. 4:1-9). Elijah
triumphed over the false prophets of Baal by a supernatural act (1
Kings 18). Jesus was attested to by miracles and signs God performed
through him (Acts 2:22). As to the apostles’ message, "God was also
bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various
miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to his own will"
(Heb. 2:4). Paul gave testimony of his apostleship to the Corinthians,
declaring, "the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with
all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles" (2 Cor. 12:12).
 Does the message tell the truth about God?
Only immediate contemporaries had access to
the supernatural confirmation of the prophet’s message. Other
believers in distant places and subsequent times had to depend on
other tests. One such test was the authenticity of a book. That
is, does the book tell the truth about God and his world as known from
previous revelations? God cannot contradict himself (2 Cor. 1:17-18),
nor can he utter what is false (Heb. 6:18). No book with false claims
can be the Word of God. Moses stated the principle about prophets
A prophet who made such false claims might be
stoned. The Lord said, "The prophet who shall speak a word
presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or
which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall
die" (Deut. 18:20). That kind of punishment assured no repeat
performance by that prophet, and it gave other prophets pause before
they said, "Thus says the Lord."
Truth in itself does not make a book canonical. This
is more a test of inauthenticity of a book, rather than
canonicity. It is a negative test that could eliminate books from the
canon. The Bereans used this principle when they searched the
Scriptures to see whether Paul’s teaching was true (Acts 17:11). If
the preaching of the apostle did not accord with the teaching of the
Old Testament canon, it could not be of God.
Much of the Apocrypha was rejected because it
was not authentic. The Jewish Fathers and early Christian Fathers
rejected, or considered second-rate, these books because they had
historical inaccuracies and even moral incongruities. The Reformers
rejected some because of what they considered to be heretical
teaching, such as praying for the dead, which 2 Maccabees 12:45
supports. The apostle John strongly urged that all purported "truth"
be tested by the known standard before it be received (1 John 4:1-6).
The test of authenticity was the reason James and
Jude have been doubted. Some have thought Jude inauthentic because it
may quote inauthentic pseudepigraphical books (Jude 9, 14; see Jerome,
4). Martin Luther questioned the canonicity of James because it lacks
an obvious focus on the cross. Martin Luther thought the book appeared
to teach salvation by works. Careful study has cleared James of these
charges, and even Luther came to feel better about them. Historically
and uniformly, Jude and James have been vindicated and their
canonicity recognized after they have been harmonized with the rest of
(to be continued)