The Biblical Canon and Christian Tradition



“I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God.” (John Wesley)

Walk into any bookstore and you can probably find “a Bible” – that is, what appears to be a single book considered by Christians to be the word of God. If you turn to the table of contents, though, you will find that what we call the Bible is actually a collection of books – a small library of various texts that collectively form “the Christian scriptures.” This table of contents is usually taken for granted, but there are issues surrounding which books are included.

In reality, what counts as “the” Bible differs slightly across Christian traditions. The issue extends beyond these small differences, however. For if the Bible is to be trusted as the word of God, then we must be able to account for every book’s inclusion. And how we go about doing that can have major ramifications on our faith.


The Importance of the Question

It is common for Protestant Christians to claim to rely solely on the Bible as their source of religious authority (a doctrine known as sola scriptura – “the Bible alone”). There is a strong intuitive appeal here: If the Bible is inspired by God, then it is without error and authoritative in a way that no other authority could be. This ideal is reflected in statements like this:

“When speaking of its divine authority, the Bible makes it clear that this is a final authority, the court of last appeal in everything that it affirms . . . . the Bible, and the Bible alone, is a supremely authoritative book in matters of faith and practice.” (Norman L. Geisler –  Systematic Theology Vol. 1, 240-241)

This is a problematic statement on more than one level. First, the Bible nowhere claims to be “a final authority,” “court of last appeal,” or “supremely authoritative in matters of faith and practice.” Therefore this claim (itself a matter of faith) comes from some other authority than the Bible. Second, because the Bible is not a book but rather a collection of books, even if one of them made such claims for “the Bible,” how would we identify the other books (or even the one making the claim!) as being “the Bible” without an inspired table of contents?

This is not a merely abstract problem. There are differing collections of books that various traditions claim belong in the Bible. Some consider only the books of the Protestant Bible to be inspired, but this is a recent and minority position in the Church. Catholics include seven additional books in the Old Testament, the Eastern Orthodox Church includes even more (e.g., 3 Maccabees and Psalm 151), and some Oriental Orthodox Churches add to or subtract from these.


Before one can rely on sola scriptura, then, one must know “quae scriptura?” (“Which Bible?”). The problem is of supreme importance for the Christian,  for if Scripture alone is held to be one’s highest authority, then one must be able to identify it. Yet with all the energy devoted to proving the accuracy and inspiration of the Bible, not much is spent on its identification. For example, in Geisler and Turek’s popular apologetics text I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, approximately four out of its fifteen chapters argue for the reliability of the New Testament, yet only three pages (one of which is a chart) are devoted to the canon question. Another example is Hindson and Caner’s The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics which has four pages on biblical inspiration but less than one on the canon. Further, this much space is unusually large for popular apologetics books. Many do not discuss the issue at all.

This article will explain and evaluate the historical formation of the biblical canon as well as the suggested criteria for the inclusion of the books that make up our Bible.

The Formation of the Biblical Canon

“Surely what the Bible is has much importance for what the Bible says.” (Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture?, 11)

The word “canon” is a Greek term which originally meant a straight rod or rule – a criterion. It began to be applied by Christian writers of the later 4th century to the correct collection and list of the scriptures. Christianity, unlike many other religions, does not have a scripture written by its founder. The process of determining what counts as scripture is thus of paramount importance.

Early Christians accepted three streams of authority: 1) the Jewish Scriptures, (2) the teachings of the Lord, and 3) the teachings of the apostles. The Christian New Testament was written over a period of at least 40 years by the followers of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their associates.  What we are dealing with is the canon of scripture. The New Testament writings had considerable authority and use by the time they were completed in the 1st century, but were not listed in any authoritative fashion. During the 2nd-3rd centuries the Church began to discern these books more clearly, and toward the end of 4th century official canon lists began to emerge. This formation took place in three basic phases with continuing debate following.


First Century

After Jesus’ resurrection, the stories about Jesus and his teachings were passed along orally by the apostles, who were committed to guard the message they proclaimed and promised they could do so (Jn. 16:13). The apostles’ teaching (whether by word of mouth or by letter) was authoritative (Acts 2:42; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). The first written apostolic documents were written to particular Christian congregations or groups of congregations. The teachings of Jesus continued to play an important role for those who had known the apostles and had been trained by them. By the end of the 1st century, most of the New Testament books were in use by the churches and were being cited frequently by early church Fathers such as Clement and Ignatius.

An important distinction to keep in mind at this stage is that between “Scripture” and “the canon of Scripture.” The two concepts are not equivalent in their early use. The issue was which books which might properly be read in church. F. F. Bruce states that, “between seventy and eighty years after it was sent, 1 Clement continued to be read at services of the Corinthian church. Neither it nor the more recent letter from Rome carried anything like the authority of the letters which the Corinthian church had received from Paul; but they were helpful for the building up of Christian faith and life” (The Canon of Scripture, 268). Even the Hebrew canon was still being debated amongst the Jews in the 1st century (see Bruce, Canon, ch. 2).

Second Century

This basic trend continued after the death of the last apostles when written documents began to play an increasingly important role for Christians. The Church’s usage of the New Testament writings evened out with that of the Old Testament. However, no one thought of the New Testament as forming a fixed collection. The four Gospels were probably already circulating together at this time, and Paul’s letters were circulating as a collection. These were regularly being referred to authoritatively, as were other writings of the apostles. Some books, such as ActsRevelation, and some of the shorter epistles, seem to have been accorded second-class status based on citations. Other books such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and 1 Clement were also being used, but these were used as well but were cited less frequently. Later in the second century, conflicts with three aberrant groups such as the Marcionites, Gnostics, and Montanists prompted discussions of which books were acceptable. Some writers began to conceive of the “New Testament” as an authoritative single collection. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c. 170) produced the first orthodox attempt at a Christian Old Testament canon following from the Septuagint without the book of Esther.

The Muratorian Fragment (often misnamed the “Muratorian Canon”) was written around A.D. 180, listing 22/27 New Testament books and others with some comments. The beginning is missing, but “the second gospel” and the gospels of Luke, and John are mentioned. Then Acts, and Paul’s Epistles to PhilemonTitus and Timothy (spurious le/tters to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians are rejected), Jude, two Epistles of John (1 John and one other); and the Apocalypses of John (Revelation) and Peter (noting that some will not allow it to be read in the church). Then the Shepherd of Hermas is allowed to be read, but not in church. The author also includes the Book of Wisdom in the canon.The books of Hebrews1 and 2 Peter and James are not mentioned in the fragment.

Third Century

By the third century the Church’s usage of the “second-class” New Testament books had evened out with the core texts. Major distinctions being made were books whose use was limited to specific rites (such as the instruction of catechumens).


Fourth Century

The first Church council to draw up an official canon list was the local Council of Laodicea (c. 360) which was similar to the Catholic canon. It was not until A.D. 367, though, with Athanasius’s  Festal Letter 39, that a list was made that matches the traditional list. Athanasius, who was bishop of Alexandria, devoted most of his letter (which actually concerned the dating of Easter) to the limits of the New Testament. This was the first time that the term “canon” was used to specify the content of the New Testament, and it is the first to exactly match the current 27-book list. Athanasius includes the Catholic deuterocanonical books (“apocrypha”), Esther is left out, and non-canonical writings are not excluded from use. This list did not, however, settle the discussion. Alternate lists continued to be drawn up later, especially in the Eastern churches.

The first list to exactly match the pre-Reformation canon was that decreed by the Council of Rome in A.D. 382. The later Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Third Synod of Carthage (A.D. 397) approved the same list. These were local councils, however and not considered binding on the entire Church. About this time St. Augustine listed all of the current Old and New Testament books without distinction between the Hebrew and the the Septuagint Old Testament.

Fifth-Fifteenth Century

None of the first millennium ecumencial councils ever pronounced a canonical list of the books of the Bible, however local pronouncements continued to match the above list. Pope Innocent I responded to a request from the Bishop of Toulouse to produce a list of canonical books of Scripture with the same list as above in A.D. 405, and the later council of Carthage (A.D. 419) approved the same.

These lists were never taken to be authoritative for the churches in the East, however, and thus canonical “fluidity” continued from the 5th century on. Westcott notes the existence of six different lists of the Scriptures even into the 10th century (cf. Allert, 144). The West, however seemed to have settled on the 4th Century canon and it continued unabated for over one thousand years (e.g., the same list was approved by the Council of Florence in 1441). Eventually the NT canon in the East was brought into concert with the West after their long refusal of accept the book of Revelation.


Sixteenth Century

The canon issue might have seemed settled after one and a half millennia, but with the Protestant Reformation came renewed discussion. The Reformers produced a new canon devoid of the Old Testament “apocryphal” books, and Martin Luther’s famous distaste for The Epistle of James (“a right strawy epistle”) and his questioning of the “disputed books” (“antilegomena”) is well known. In his commentaries, John Calvin mentions conflicting opinions concerning the books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude. Zwingli also questioned parts of the New Testament canon.  Even today, classical Lutheranism distinguishes the New Testament  “homologouna” from the “antilegomena.”

Lest this be seen as a Protestant-only issue, it should be noted that “Luther’s opponent, Cardinal Cajetan, following Jerome, expressed doubts concerning the canonicity of Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Erasmus likewise expressed doubts concerning Revelation as well as the apostolicity of James, Hebrews and 2 Peter” (M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 11 (Spring, 2009): 45.).

Although Rome still followed the 4th Century canon list, it was not until after the Reformation was under way that the various complete biblical canon(s) began to be authoritatively decreed in their final form:

*Note: The Eastern Orthodox Council in Trullo affirmed the local councils of Carthage in its second canon, it might be taken to be its earliest council to affirm the full canon.


The Criteria for the Biblical Canon

Given the known history of the biblical canon, why not simply trust that the Church got it right? The Westminster Confession seems to sum up neatly why this would be of concern:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

In other words, the fear is that if the Church is credited with determining the canon of scripture that it would somehow come to be in authority over the Bible itself. It is said that the Church only “discovered” the canon, it did not “determine” it. This is true of course – no Christian tradition claims to have made the books of the Bible be the inspired word of God! (Not even the Catholic Church makes this claim – see Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, ch. 3.) This is not the issue – rather it is how these inspired books were authoritatively discovered / determined (the words can mean basically the same thing).

Various criteria have been suggested to show how the Church could authoritatively determine the canon without being in authority over it. The problem is that while the history of the formation of the canon is fairly straightforward, attempts to “reverse engineer” the criteria used by the Church to determine its contents is not:

  • John Calvin said God bears testimony to the Canon through the voice of the Spirit in the hearts of the believer.
  • The Westminster Confession says the divine authority of Scripture is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Bible scholar Roger Nicole considers seven criteria: (1) Apostolicity (2) Orthodoxy (3) Christocentricity (4) Inspiration (5) The Testimony Of The Holy Spirit To The Individual Christian (6) The Authority Of The Church (7) The Witness Of The Holy Spirit Given Corporately To God’s People And Made Manifest By A Nearly Unanimous Acceptance (“The Canon of the New Testament.” JETS 40, no.2 June, 1997: 200-207).
  • Famed New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce considers six: (1) Apostolic Authority (2) Antiquity (3) Orthodoxy (4) Catholicity (5) Traditional Use (6) Inspiration (The Canon of Scripture, ch. 21).
  • Evangelical apologist Norman Geisler asks five questions: (1)Was the book written by a prophet of God?  (2) Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?  (3) Did the message tell the truth about God?  (4) Does it come with the power of God? and  (5) Was it accepted by the people of God? (A General Introduction to the Bible, ch. 12).
  • Eastern Orthodox philosopher Richard Swinburne lists just three factors: (1) Conformity to Christian Tradition (2) Apostolicity (3) Widespread acceptance by the Church (Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy).
  • Reformed apologist James White lists just one: (1) Inspiration (Scripture Alone, ch. 5).
  • New Testament scholar Michael J. Kruger rejects all criteria and says the New Testament is self-attesting (Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament).

Even were the criteria agreed upon, however, issues remain.



Being inspired by God is, by definition, the only real criterion for inclusion in the biblical canon. This is fine in the abstract, but useless when it gets down to brass tacks – for to respond to the question “Which books are canonical?” with “The books that are inspired” is just to say we can know the inspired books by their being inspired! The question just gets pushed back a step to “How do we know which books are inspired?” What the canon is does not tell us how to identify it.

Further, if we assume the early Church knew which books were inspired and used this as their means of determining the canon we run into several problems. First, non-canonical Christian writings were described as inspired in the writings of the early Church (e.g., Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians and Ignatius’s Epistle to the Philadelphians). Second, non-Christian writings were described as inspired in the writings of the early Church (e.g., Clement’s Stromata on pagan philosophers). Even the allegedly technical term for God’s inspiration (theopneustos from 2 Tim. 3:16) is used of other writings such as Gregory of Nyssa on Basil’s Genesis Commentary and the Council of Ephesus on their ruling against Nestorius.



Another seemingly obvious and objective criterion is authorship: namely, if a book is written by an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is inspired / canonical. Even here, though, problems arise. First there is the issue of anonymous books. None of the Gospels name their author in the original text. The book of Hebrews has had numerous suggestions (the earliest being Paul). There were several James in the New Testament who have been considered for the author of the epistle of James. And the book of Revelation does not identify its author by name. Although Church tradition is fairly strong on most of these, can we trust that the Church did not lie or was not simply ignorant as to the original authors? Modern skeptics answer no!

Further, what about excluded books that claim to be written by the apostles (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas or the Apocalypse of St. Peter)? Since these do have named apostolic authors (and are not simply late spurious writings), why are they not considered canonical? The historical fact is that authorship was often a matter of Church tradition. Thus, even if apostolic authorship were a trustworthy criterion, one is still trusting Church tradition for authorial identification.


Spiritual Witness

Trusting that the Holy Spirit will confirm the canonical books to individual believers is fraught with problems. First, no such thing is promised in Scripture itself, and so the very idea is based in some tradition (some cite John 10:27 -“My Sheep Hear My Voice”- as a proof text, but this is about the call to salvation, not recognizing authentic scripture). Second, if this criterion is legitimate, all Christians should be able to pick out the canonical books (or even verses) from non-canonical ones. But the fact of the dispute shows this to be questionable (which group is hearing the Spirit’s voice?). Finally, if the Holy Spirit really does guide the Church in this manner, then why don’t Protestants trust the Church of the first 1,500 years of history?



Another suggestion is that the canon was determined by comparing various writings to some standard of orthodoxy. It must be asked, though: If the canon was determined by its orthodoxy, would this result from its agreement with itself (i.e., other canonical books – which is circular) or something else (which would seem to place something other than the Bible in authority over the Bible, which is the very thing these theories seek to avoid)?  further, how are skeptics to be answered who claim that the NT conflicts with the OT (e.g., Acts 15)? There might be a solution, but who would decide whether it was sufficient? Finally, this test has actually been used to exclude canonical books form the canon. Some were maligned due to non-inclusion of particular doctrines (e.g., Luther advocated excluding EstherEcclesiastes, the Song of Songs and James). Revelation was discounted because of its heretical use by the Montanists, and other groups were known to twist the Bible to their own ends. This led Tertullian to assert that,

“Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures…wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.” (Tertullian, Prescriptions Against the Heretics, 19.)



To say that the Bible is its own test is difficult to take seriously. First, any alleged holy book could make the same claim and so such a test offers nothing in the way of religious discernment, much less a more detailed method of Christian scriptural determination. Second, even the most recent proponent of such an idea ends up including the classic marks of canonicity in his exposition of the “self-attesting” view (Kruger, Canon Revisited, 290). But if the Bible’s self-attestation requires an “epistemic environment” that includes most of the standard proposed criteria, why not just say that these are the criteria? While the theological motivation for such a claim is clearly to avoid “subordinat[ing] the canon to outside authorities” (ibid., 289), it ends up relying on the same external factors anyway.


Acceptance by God’s People

This if often tagged on last in the above “criteria lists” as an apparent nod to the actual historical situation. In fact, it is because the leaders of the Church are responsible for the canon that these other criteria are generally proposed. The fear is that if the canon question is answered by appeal to the Church’s tradition, then, well, “we should all be Roman Catholics today” (Sawer, “Evangelicals and the Canon,” 45). The problem with this inclusion is that either God’s people used the other criteria in their determination (in which case, they are not really part of the criteria, but only an instrument for employing the criteria), or they did not (making themselves the authority). Thus, it seems that either God’s people are authoritative and the other criteria are unnecessary, or they are redundant as far as criteria goes. Finally, even if this criterion did not reduce to, or do away with, the others, which group of “God’s people” are to be trusted?


Christian Tradition

The biggest problem with this “reverse engineering” procedure is that all proposed criteria were apparently ignored (or simply failed) for (at least) hundreds of years before the canon was finally settled. But if the very early Church did not have a clear view of which books belonged in the canon, how could the Church of of the late 4th Century have had one? As Roger Nicole states it,

“If this principle were as simple as it is thought to be by its advocates it is difficult to understand why it took the Church some 300 years to make up its mind on the exact list of NT books.” (Nicole, “The Canon of the New Testament,” 203)

Given the above issues, theologian Herman Ridderbos concludes that,

The church did not begin by making formal decisions as to what was valid as canon, nor did it begin by setting specific criteria of canonicity . . . . As their artificiality indicates, these arguments are a posteriori in character. . . . If the canon is discovered by principles within the Bible then it is circular, and if by the Church (whatever its criteria) then it is not “biblical,” but “traditional.” (The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures, 45-46)
New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger correctly states that,
“A basic prerequisite for canonicity was conformity to what was called the ‘rule of faith’ . . . that is, the congruity of a given document with the basic Christian tradition recognized as normative by the Church.” (The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, 251)

What these scholars have discovered is that at root, the Church knew which books belonged in the Bible because the Church knew which books it used as its Bible. These lists were not decrees based on popular 4th Century opinion, they were descriptions of what the Church already recognized as being true tradition.

“Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority…”
(Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 2.8)

What mattered, ultimately, was not whether the Church had an authoritative canon, but whether it had authoritative guidance. The Church could survive without the Bible, but not the Bible without the Church. The rule of faith (regulei fidei) is that common faith handed down (paradosis) from the apostles to their successors (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:2) and recognized from the very beginning as being the true faith (Jude 1:3).  This explains why there seems to be so little concern over the matter until heretics began making up their own canons in support of their private interpretations. It also makes sense of why some books could go in and out of favor – what they taught that mattered.

Providence or Power Play?

This historical explanation accommodates the best factors in the criteria-based theories previously discussed, but incorporates them into the life of the Church instead of making them out to be abstract external factors existing outside of it.The Church existed at least a decade before the earliest book of the New Testament was even begun, and it was four to six decades before the New Testament was completed. Because the Church already knew what the faith was, it could determine the canon of Scripture without ruling over it. It is not that Church tradition was an external standard as some fear, rather it is that both the Church’s teaching and the Bible were part of the one Christian tradition.

A Church-determined canon makes some people uncomfortable, however. Besides the misguided concern that it places the Church above the Bible, there are skeptical issues raised as well. If the Church decided what books made it into the canon and which did not, then our faith in the biblical canon cannot be greater than our trust in the Church that determined it. Christians are left with either trusting in God’s providential guiding of the Church, or skepticism.


 Popular scholar Bart Erhman describes the situation this way:

The Christians who won the early conflicts and established their views as dominant by the fourth century not only gave us the creeds that have been handed down from antiquity, they also decided which books would belong to the Scriptures. Once their battles had been won, they succeeded in labeling themselves “orthodox” (i.e., those who hold to the “right beliefs”) and mar­ginalized their opponents as “heretics.” (Lost Christianities, 13)


Similarly, critical scholar Richard Carrier complains that,

“Until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call ‘orthodoxy’ is simply ‘the church that won.’” (Carrier, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon”)

The Christian can, in good conscience, affirm the letter (if not the spirit) of these kinds of assertions with a few corrections. The first error is in assuming that a competing tradition was a “church.” Jesus established only one Church (which Paul called a “pillar and ground of truth”). The second error is the assumption that the Church (which was promised never to fail – Mt. 16-18; Jn. 16; 1 Tim. 3:14-15) was just expressing its opinion. Being faith-based, the Church cannot ultimately have lost the faith or it would not only fail, but cease to exist.

This leads to the error in the implicit conclusion that the canon is really not authoritative. Simply because fallible men made the determination / recognition of the biblical canon, that does not imply that it was a fallible process anymore than God’s use of fallible authors necessitated fallibility in their writings. Since the biblical canon is certainly part of the faith that must be safeguarded to ensure the Church’s existence, we can trust that, in God’s providence, the Church did not err in its selection of the biblical canon.

“If we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, then it is also reasonable to assume God’s hand in the matter of the compilation of the canon.” ~ J. P. Holding



If Christians cannot ground the authority of the Bible in its historical reality without violating their own principles, then they will remain open for skeptical attack. Unfortunately, many ignore or misrepresent this history, and end up with a Bible that is “grounded firmly in mid-air.” Making high claims about what the Bible teaches while misunderstanding its formation and nature can only lead to crisis when a believer learns the truth (often from the skeptics themselves). The number of ex-evangelical atheists attests to the fact that most of the alleged criteria for a book’s inclusion in the canon is either unhelpfully circular or ultimately relies on Christian tradition to be useful.

“The conservative American evangelical apologetic for the shape of the New Testament canon has been historically the weakest link in its bibliology. Arguments for the shape of the canon have been built upon unexamined theological assumptions and historical inaccuracies” (James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon,” 29).

In the end, to trust in the Bible is to trust in the Church that compiled it. While this fact may make skeptics upset, or cause others to illicitly conclude that this places the Church in authority over the Bible, that is how it happened. 

“Those who accept the traditional canon of scripture today cannot legitimately defend it with arguments which played no part in its formation” (Ellen Flesseman-van Leer in Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 275).

Only if God worked through the Church is this not a problem. If God infallibly guided the Church in its discernment of the canon, then the canon is infallible and trustworthy as a ground for the faith. If the Church cannot be trusted in its determination of the biblical canon, then the Bible is (at best) “a fallible collection of infallible books.” Such a collection hardly provides legitimate grounds for faith in an infallible revelation.