Our Bible is a wonderful book!
Consider its form. It contains two large divisions: the Old and New Testaments. Each of those main divisions consists of several sub-divisions, books. There are 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books, for a total of 66; and yet they form one Bible, with one central message, the Word of God, the God of our salvation, in Christ.
Study its historical origin. It was written by many different men, some of whom are mentioned by name, but some of whom are not mentioned and remain entirely unknown. It was written in various periods of history, over a total period of some 1500 years, from Moses to the Apostle John. Further, the writers lived in many different places and wrote under diverse circumstances, sometimes very unfavorable circumstances. They wrote in the desert of Sin and Sinai. They wrote in various places in the land of Canaan. They wrote in Babylon and Persia, in Caesarea and in Rome and points between. Some of the writers were men of education. Others were uneducated Galileans. Among them were prophets and priests, kings, choir leaders, shepherds, herdsmen, and fishermen. They wrote while guiding their flock, while sitting on a royal throne, while living in the courts of world emperors, and while they were imprisoned by such rulers. Often these men wrote being unaware of one another’s writings. They wrote without being conscious of the fact that they were collaborating to produce one great and unified literary product. There was as little outward and mechanical unity among the writers as is conceivable. They had no master plan to follow, as, for example, when The Standard Bearer or Beacon Lights plans an issue and makes assignments to various writers. (There was a “master plan,’’ of course, God’s plan; and He executed that plan, too.) Moses did not write the Pentateuch with a view to what others might add later. David had no idea that his psalms (written behind a flock or while a fugitive from Saul or Absalom) would become part of one beautiful volume. Even the apostles and evangelists did not write their gospel narratives and their epistles with the conscious purpose in view to complete the Bible and to have their writings incorporated into one Book along with the Old Testament.
Yet our Bible is characterized by most beautiful inner harmony and coherence, in spite of this most complete lack of outward unity. There is both unity and progress in the successive books of the Bible. There is one great subject, one Great Figure presented in many ways and in manifold riches of beauty: the God of our salvation in Christ, the Immanuel, the Anointed of God, the Head of the covenant. Christ is undeniably the center of all the Scriptures and pervades the whole of the Bible. The Old Testament leads us towards Him as a long shadow, cast over many centuries of history, guiding us to the body, the reality. The New Testament is the fulness of light streaming from His blessed countenance through the ages to come until the final day, the day of the consummation of all things. Together those Scriptures point us to the final day, the day of the Lord, the day of the perfecting of God’s covenant and kingdom in the new heavens and the new earth, when His tabernacle shall be spread over all things.
That Bible is called the “canon” of Holy Scripture, and the books of the Bible are called the “canonical books.”
There are three articles in our Confession of Faith which speak of this canon in one way or another. (Look them up and read them: Article 4, 5 and 6. I will only summarize them.) Article 4 teaches that – “the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely, the Old and New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged.” (emphasis added) It then goes on to name all the books of both the Old and New Testament. Article 5 states that “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them. . . .” (emphasis added) And then it goes on to tell why. And Article 6 speaks about the difference between the canonical and the apocryphal books, emphasizing the unique character and authority of the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture.
What is meant by canon and canonical?
The term is of Greek origin, and it denotes a rod or wood measuring rule. From this it gets the idea of a standard, or rule, according to which our life is measured, a norm. It is used this way, for example, in Galatians 6:16: “And as many as walk according to this rule (canon is the literal term here), peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” And so by canon in connection with the Bible is meant a certain rule, measure, norm, of faith and life. By canonical books is meant that collection of inspired writings which the church accepts and believes as the Word of God, and therefore as the only infallible rule, or norm, for the faith and life of believers.
For us today this implies that the canon is a finished, or closed, collection. Nothing can be or need be added. The Bible is complete. This is also our Confession of Faith: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical. …”
This was not always true. When the five books of Moses were completed, those books were canonical; but the Old Testament was not by any means complete. And when the Old Testament was finished long before the birth of Christ, the Scriptures were not completed and the canon was not closed. All that could be said—and this was true, as we shall see —was that the Old Testament canon was closed. But the entire New Testament was still to be added.
But today the canon is complete. It is a finished collection of inspired writings constituting the one, whole, written record of the Word of God in Christ. The question has sometimes been raised: what would be the attitude of the church if another of the writings of the apostles would be discovered? Would such a book, should a copy of it be discovered, be added to the present
Bible and also be considered canonical? The question is, of course, hypothetical. But the answer would have to be No. The canon is closed. And it is closed in such a way that it cannot be opened. Nothing need be. nor can be, added to the canonical books. They form one whole, one Bible. It cannot be alleged against the Bible that it is incomplete.
Against these canonical books, our Confessions say, “nothing can be alleged.’’
This is implied in the very idea of a canon. A canon is a rule or standard; it is normative. The canon of Scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and life. Now if you could allege something against the canon, it would not be trustworthy; it would not even be worthy of being acknowledged as a canon, a rule, norm. This is true in everyday life. If a carpenter had a measuring rule that measured only eleven inches to the foot, or of which it could be claimed that its markings are not regular or are not clear, such a measuring rule would be absolutely
untrustworthy. So it is with the Bible. If anything could be alleged, rightfully claimed, against the canonical books, they would not be trustworthy and would not be fit to serve as a norm for our faith and life. Suppose that one of the sixty-six books was not genuine and did not belong in the Bible; that would spoil the whole Bible and make it untrustworthy. Or suppose that there were errors in one of the books —something closely related to the preceding idea —then it could not be said of it that nothing could be alleged against the contents of that book. But again, as long as such a book would be included among the canonical books, that would spoil the entire canon, so that it could not be trusted as the only infallible rule of faith and life.
This, then is the idea of the canonical books and of the canon of Holy Scripture.
We must still answer the question: how and when was the canon formed? But this will have to wait for a later article.