At first glance it might seem quite unnecessary to express the subject matter of the fourth article of our Confession as a matter of faith. The article simply lists the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments which we confess to be canonical. This matter is not disputed in Reformed circles. All are agreed that these books constitute the Holy Scriptures.
Moreover, the subject itself is one that is so familiar to us that we are inclined to read this article and pass it by without further comment. When we were considerably younger than we are now, we were made to memorize these books so that now all of us can recite them without hesitation in the order they appear in Scripture. Can’t we? If not, we should put everything else aside right this minute and learn them and then review them daily until they are so firmly fixed in our mind that we never again forget them. This familiarity of the subject is an added reason inducing us to conclude that there is nothing new here for further consideration.
This, however, is by no means the case. The subject matter of this article is of greatest importance and must be firmly maintained over against errors that are prevalent even today. Historically the fathers expressed the truth here over against the error of the Romanists who shortly after the Reformation, under the immediate control and direction of the Pope, declared tradition and the Apocrypha to be canonical and authoritative; and hence, these apocryphal books are always found in Roman Catholic Bibles.
Is this a serious error? We may see how the Holy Spirit, the primary author of Holy Writ, has anticipated in more than one way that there would be those who attempt to add to the holy writings and, therefore, placed three significant sentinels as it were to keep the inspired Scriptures intact, and to guard them from having any uninspired works included among them. Three times the Bible itself warns against any attempt to add to the words of Holy Writ and the significance of this is greatly enhanced by the fact that the first of such warnings was written by the first of all the writers of Scripture, the second is found very near to the middle of the Bible, while the third was written by the last of the writers; e.g. –
Moses wrote: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it.” (Deut. 4:2).
Solomon wrote: “Add thou not unto His words.” (Prov. 30:6).
And John wrote: “I testify to every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this Book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this Book. If any man shall take away from the words of the Book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the Holy City, and from the things which are written in this Book.” (Revelation 22:18,19).
Very important, therefore, is the matter of determining the Canon of Holy Writ. To clarify this further we must ask the question, What is meant by “Canon” or “Canonical Books” against which, the article of our faith states, nothing can be alleged? “Canon” literally means “a rod, a measurement” and as it is used here figuratively it has the sense of “a standard, criterion or rule” of faith and life. By canonical books then is meant that collection of sacred writings which the church accepts as the Word of God and, therefore, as the only infallible rule for the faith and life of believers. By these alone our life each day is to be governed. The books included in this “Canon” have divine authority over all our conduct and behavior. They are the “lamp unto our feet and light upon our pathway.” Blessed is he that walketh in the ways set forth in this canon and woe to him that despiseth them.
The Canon of Holy Writ is divided into two major parts, the Old and the New Testament. The former of these may again be divided into books of the Law, Prophetical writings, and Poetical books, while the New Testament has a similar three-fold classification – Historical Books, Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. We will not discuss this distinction further at this time except to say that the Old Testament Canon was already fixed before the first coming of Christ as is evident from various references of both Christ and the Apostles to it, while that of the New Testament was finally fixed by the church at the Council of Carthage in the year 397 A.D.
How, it may be asked, is it determined which of the many writings are to be considered as the authoritative Scriptures and which are not. This task, being very important, is not one in which man simply selects out of various possible writings those which are the most suited to his purpose. Then certainly other books than those which now comprise the Canon would have been selected. Man actually has nothing to say about this for God determines His own Word. It is God’s Word, not the word of man. In determining the limitation of the Canon, therefore, the church is led by two fundamental principles:
a) Firstly, the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The church has the promise that she will be guided into all the truth by the Spirit of God. That Spirit, given to Christ and poured out into the church, dwells in the latter and governs and directs her in this task.
b) Secondly, the testimony of the books themselves. The content of the books of Holy Writ are easily distinguishable from all other books, especially by their self-testimony as well as by the fact that they constitute one whole. There is an organic unity running through the whole Bible. The more Scripture is studied, the more one becomes convinced that they are self-contained and absolutely complete – revealing a perfect plan throughout and having neither superfluity nor lack. Neither are they contradictory for they are the perfect Word of the perfect Spirit – the rule of a perfect life.
Thus we have the Holy Word of God. Presently in some areas our Young People’s and other societies will begin another season of activity. Remember, the primary and in a sense exclusive purpose of our societies is the study of the Word of God in order that we may together grow in the knowledge of the truth and that the whole Word of God may become more and more the rule of our daily life as well as the standard of our faith. Study it, search it from cover to cover, and discuss it with all diligence as you see the things written therein being fulfilled before your eyes.