The Canon of Scripture

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 04/10/2009 by Ian Clary.

Recommended. Award-winning book about the historicity and reliability of the Bible.

Christians adhere to a set number of books that constitute the Bible. The Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew bible, consists of thirty-nine books, and the New Testament consists of twenty-seven. Together, all sixty-six books of both testaments are collated into what is called “the canon of Scripture.” The word "canon" comes from the Greek word kanōn and simply means “rule” or “standard.” The canon of Scripture is what determines the Christian’s rule or standard for life and faith.

Since the inception of the church the canon of Scripture has been in dispute. Certain books like The Shepherd of Hermas, though considered useful, was eventually not accepted as biblically authoritative. Other books, like the Gnostic documents, were rejected out of hand as being incoherent to a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Challenges against the canon of Scripture continue into this century. Take, for an example, the recent spate of books by Dan Brown that argue for the inclusion of the recently found Gnostic library into the Christian scriptures. Thus it is necessary for Christians to understand the process of canonization and the rationale for why some books are included in the canon and others are not. Enter Frederick Fyvie Bruce.

The late F. F. Bruce (1910-1990) was a well-respected historian both in Christian and non-Christian circles. He taught at the University of Manchester as the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis for almost twenty years. A prolific writer, Bruce penned books and articles on a wide range of subjects from Christian theology, to New Testament commentary, to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian origins. Bruce was one of the most influential scholars in biblical studies of the twentieth century. Therefore what he has to say about the canon is significant. In The Canon of Scripture Christians are reminded of the embarrassment of riches that they possess in terms of proving the historical reliability of the Old and New Testaments. Anyone who comes away from reading this book, if read thoughtfully, will be well versed in why we possess the Bible that we have today and why it is trustworthy.

The book is divided into four simple sections: Introduction; Old Testament; New Testament and Conclusion. Bruce begins by explaining the key terminology related to our understanding of the Bible’s construction. He explains the background of words like canon and testament and shows how Christians used the Bible throughout the church’s history. This opening chapter serves as a springboard to the rest of the book.

The second section, on the Old Testament, deals with questions surrounding the documents that are included in it and how they were chosen or recognized. Bruce answers challenges posed against the authenticity of the Old Testament and explains why books like those of the Apocrypha should not be included. He explains the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the affirmation of the Old Testament and how the Greek Old Testament – the Septuagint (LXX) – was written. Questions of why the Hebrew canon differs in number from the current Christian canon are answered. Bruce also explains how the Old Testament was used by new covenant Christians, from the biblical and patristic eras down to the Reformation.

Sadly, Christians today are little aware of the significance of the Old Testament. Reading this section of Bruce’s work is valuable because it reminds us that the Old Testament is important for our understanding of Christianity as a whole and that what we have in our possession is the historically reliable, written revelation of God.

In the third section Bruce does much the same with the New Testament as he did with the Old. However, here he spends much more time on historical analysis of the period after the writing of the New Testament, specifically dealing with the patristic authors up to the time of Augustine, explaining their views on the New Testament’s historicity and authority. He goes into great detail regarding the issue of the Gnostic writings and the orthodox responses to them, proving why these documents are rightly excluded from the canon on historical grounds.

Bruce concludes the book in the fourth section by explaining the criteria used for recognizing the canon – although he only deals with the New Testament and not the Old (which he addresses earlier in the second section). For the New Testament documents to be included in the canon the following criteria had to be met: they had to have the stamp of apostolic authority, had to be of an early date, had to contain orthodox theology, and had to be recognized both by local Christian congregations and the church as a whole as authoritative. Bruce offers an explanation of the doctrine of inspiration (that the documents are inspired by God) and how that relates to questions of canonicity. He also answers the common question, “What if a lost document from the apostolic age were to be discovered, which could establish a title to apostolic authority comparable to that of the New Testament writings?” His basic answer is that such a document could not be included in the canon because it does not meet the aforementioned criteria of catholicity (universal acceptance of the church). This is wise reasoning.

Appended to the book are two lectures. The first is derived from the Ethel M. Wood Lecture of 1974 on the “secret” gospel of Mark and the second is drawn from the Peake Memorial Lecture of 1976 on the primary and plenary sense of scripture. The former challenges the arguments of Morton Smith, who argues that Mark wrote another gospel that should be considered authoritative. The latter explains the difference between the primary sense of the text (the direct meaning of the author) and the plenary sense (how the text is understood in its fullest possible meaning within the rest of revelation). Both are illuminating discussions, but are rather specific to their field and only relate to the question of canonicity in a peripheral sense.

All in all, Bruce’s work on the canon is incredibly important. Christians practice an historical religion grounded in texts that come by inspiration of God and the pen of man. By recognizing the sheer volume of historical data that point to the reliability of the bible, we should be thankful to God that he has left us with such confirmation. It is greatly re-affirming to our faith that the bible proves itself and is attested to by historical evidence. This, alongside all of Bruce’s writings, should be read by all Christians, whether scholar, pastor or layperson. Any of the challenges brought today against the bible are easily answered just from having read this book. It is easy to understand why it was the recipient of both the Readers’ Choice Award and the Critics’ Choice for Theology and Doctrine by Christianity Today magazine in 1990.