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The Definition of Canon

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
July 1, 2022 12:01 am

The Definition of Canon

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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July 1, 2022 12:01 am

Even in the earliest centuries of the church, Christians were reading books of the New Testament as inspired Scripture. Today, Michael Kruger helps us to define "canon" so we may better understand how God gave His Word to His church.

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Coming up today on Renewing Your Mind... Well, welcome back, everyone, for session two. We spent our time in session one talking about the problem of canon, just laying out the issues that face us as Christians to try to justify why these books and know others, and we realize, wow, that's a formidable challenge.

We have a lot of ground to cover ahead of us. Now, in the second session, though, I want to look at a second challenge we face as we talk about this issue of canon, and that is the canon's definition. What do we actually mean when we talk about the phrase, the New Testament canon? What are we actually looking for in the historical record when we look through the evidence in the historical record and say, oh, look, there's the time when Christians had a New Testament canon, and if we say that, what do we really mean, and what are we really looking for? Now, that's a really important question, right? Truth be told, though, it's not a question we really thought much about.

Most Christians use the phrase canon or the New Testament canon just to broadly talk about the collection of books that God gave this church, what you see listed in the front of your Bibles, okay, fair enough, but you may not know that behind the scenes there's this sort of raging debate going on about what you actually mean by canon. Now, you may wonder why such the controversy, and why does that matter for us sitting here as we talk about this in these sessions? Well, there's several reasons why this matters. We want to spend a session talking about the definition of canon. First and foremost, I think it matters because whoever controls the terminology controls the debate, right? And this is an important fact of any discussion, and you see this in our culture. I mean, you look out in the culture, you see certain phrases and certain changes of words are used, and it just reframes everything, and people use words in different ways. We've got to make sure we're using words rightly and that we get to have a say in how words are used because you're not going to make much progress in a disagreement if you don't have an agreement on terms. Getting the right words, therefore, matters. Makes me think of a famous quip by Mark Twain talking about using the right terminology.

He said this one time, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug, which I always thought was a great analogy there. If you mess up the terminology even just a little bit, it can mess up the whole debate. But there's a second reason why this matters, and that is a lot of people don't realize that the definition you have for canon, what you think a New Testament canon is, is going to determine the date you give it. In other words, one of the big hot topics in discussions today is, well, when did this happen? How early did Christians have a New Testament canon? Well, it depends what you mean by canon. And here's a phenomenon you probably don't know about, and I want to share it with you. There is an odd sort of phenomenon in scholarship where scholars have all these wide-ranging views on the date of canon, but they're all looking at the same evidence.

This is really interesting. Some scholars say we have a canon in the fourth century. And other scholars say, no, no, no, we have a canon in the second century. And then other scholars say, no, we didn't have a canon in the first century. And then you're like, well, are you all looking at the same facts?

And the answer is yes. Everybody's got the exact same historical evidence. How do you explain how you get such a wide divergence of dates for the canon when everybody's looking at the same facts? Answer depends on the definition you start with, okay? Here's the lesson for you as we begin the second session, and that is the definition of canon and the way it affects the date of canon is a great object lesson in the way historical investigations often happen. We tend to think historical investigations are neutral enterprises, don't we?

I see this in my students all the time and even members of my church. There's this sort of idea that historians are guys that walk around or women that walk around with these white lab coats on, and they're just scientists by golly. And all they're doing is looking at the data, and the data speaks for itself. And if the data speaks for itself, then you can't quibble with my conclusions. Is it really true that the data speaks for itself? Now, what you realize here is the data only makes sense when you read it through a certain lens. And you reach certain conclusions from the data based on where you start. And when it comes to the definition of canon, what we learn very quickly is the definition you start with determines what date you give the canon.

But here's the trick. The historical evidence doesn't determine your definition. The definition has to come from somewhere else. And what you realize then is that when we start talking about definitions of canon, we have to start bringing in people's world views, people's theology, people's perspective about what canon could and couldn't be or ought to be. And what you realize then is it's not so simple as looking at the historical facts.

And this is really important for you to know because I see this all the time. All over the internet and websites and blogs, people make statements such as there was no canon in Christianity until the fifth century. I see this in the scholarly world. I even heard a famous pastor say this long ago. Believe it or not, in a church, an evangelical church, was telling his congregation there was no canon until the fifth century. I'm thinking to myself, that's not quite accurate depending on what you mean by canon, right? And so oftentimes people hear that language and get a little nervous thinking, wow, the church was stumbling around in the dark for 400 years with no knowledge of what to read and it was only until the fifth century that that got resolved. That's not very comforting. Then you realize, hold on a second, that's not the whole story. When you say a statement like there's no canon to the fifth century or no canon to the fourth century, it just depends on what definition you're using.

So just hear this. The definition of canon is not something that comes from historical evidence. It's something that determines how you interpret the historical evidence. We've got to get that definition from somewhere else. And of course, as we'll argue here in just a second, part of what informs our definition is the Bible's own view of these books.

And there's nothing wrong with that, using the whole Christian worldview to inform how we should approach these things. So the reason I want to spend a session on this topic of definition is it really does teach us how historical investigations work. And here's another thing it's going to do for you.

It's actually going to, I know this sounds strange, it's actually going to give you a really well-rounded perspective on this thing we call canon. It's going to balance it out and give you the big picture because when you start talking about definitions and laying that out, it really does allow you to dig down deep into that question. Okay, so here's how we're going to proceed. You might think that the goal of the session then is for me just to pick a definition and defend it.

Right? So I'm going to pick my favorite definition, I'm going to make my case four. Actually, that's not what I'm going to do.

I'm going to do something probably a little surprising for you. I'm actually going to suggest three different complementary definitions that in fact balance each other out and round each other out. In other words, I want to suggest to you that this thing we call the New Testament canon is such a complex phenomenon that I think it's best understood when you actually look at it from three different perspectives. Each of those different perspectives I think have a level of validity to them. Now, each of those different perspectives is limited.

Therefore, if you pick just one of them, you're bound to distort your perception of New Testament canon. In fact, I think you only have a full-orbed, balanced view of what canon is when you look at all three definitions together as a package. So what I'm going to suggest to you in this session is there's three different definitions out there of canon and I think all three have their place. And actually, when you look at them as a whole, fit together quite nicely to give you a big picture of what this thing we call canon is. Okay, so with the introduction, let's talk about these three definitions.

I'm going to walk through them one at a time with you. We'll start with the very first definition. The first definition we want to talk about is defining the New Testament canon as a fixed, final, closed list, okay? Some have defined a New Testament canon as a list of books that's fixed, closed, and you can't add anything to it and you can't take anything away. When you have that, so the first definition says, then you can say you have a canon when that has been achieved. When you have a fixed, final, closed list, the church all agrees on, the boundaries are tight, you know exactly what books are in and exactly what books are out, and when you have that, well, by golly, now you have a canon. Now, what's interesting about this first definition is it sort of looks at canon at the end of the whole process.

You get that? In other words, this says that you have a canon when all the dust settles, all the debates are over, all the disagreements have been resolved, when the boundaries are tight and the list is made, well, then you can kind of go like this and by golly, now you finally have a canon. And so this definition then is what we might call, if we were looking for a name for it, we might call this something like an exclusive definition, okay? And we mean that is that this is when you have a list of books that excludes everything else and it's just these books and all the dust is settled on the process. And when you have something like that in the historical record, you can point to it and say, hey, by golly, there it is, now we have a canon. Now, if you have that definition of canon, it's going to affect the way you date it, okay?

If we ask the question, well, when is it in early Christianity that we have this final fixed closed list, if you will, and all the dust is settled and all little controversies are resolved, well, you probably don't really have that until about the fourth or fifth century. And so if you in fact have this definition of canon, you're going to end up probably with the date of canon around the fourth or fifth century. Now, what do I make of this first definition?

Let me just mention a couple positives and then one negative. First, the positive of this definition. One thing that's good about this definition is it reminds us of something very important, and that is the canon took time, okay? Before all was said and done and all the dust is settled, that didn't happen overnight. It took some time, probably about the fourth century before you could say kind of the edges have solidified and we have this sort of clear unanimity around these books. And it's important just to know that. If you're going to know something about the New Testament canon, this definition rightly reminds you, wait a second, this didn't happen in 24 hours, right?

This didn't happen in 48 hours. There's some natural historical processes that went on here and it took some time for this to get resolved. And that's certainly one of the positives of this definition. But this definition also has some negatives. And let me just mention why I don't think this should be the only definition we use. Because if we're the only definition we use, these negatives really become real negatives.

And I want to bring those out. The first and most important negative here of this definition is that it kind of gives the impression that before the fourth century, the church was in the dark, doesn't it? It's almost like if you just use this definition, you know what your impression would be? Is that suddenly the light clicked on in the fourth century. And that now Christians knew what to read. But when you look at the historical evidence, that wasn't at all the case. In fact, I want to argue in a little bit that long before the fourth century, Christians knew very well what to read. In fact, I'm going to argue in just a minute that there was what we could call a core collection of New Testament books, maybe 21, 22 out of 27, that had been in place for hundreds of years before the fourth century. So one of the weaknesses of this first definition is it misses that entirely, doesn't it? It kind of gives this impression that the church was tripping and falling and somewhere around the dark.

It didn't have a clue what to read. And then when the fourth century came around, suddenly, thankfully, everyone now has a canon. That's not quite how it worked. And so this definition has limitations.

You want to be careful about that. But there's a second limitation. There's a second critique I have of this definition I want you to know. And this is, I think, in some ways even more important, is that if you only use this definition, you kind of get the impression that you have the canon because of something the church did in the fourth century, that the church did something in the fourth century that created the canon. What did it do? Well, according to scholars, it closed it.

It put it on a list, drew up a long list of books and said these are no others. And then you have a canon. The reason I don't like that is because it kind of gives the impression that the church made the canon or the church created the canon or that without the church doing something, you don't have a canon, right? But that's a little misleading because I've already said for generations before this, Christians were reading books of Scripture just fine.

So that can't be quite what we mean, right? Certainly as Protestants and certainly even more than that as Reformed Protestants, we would believe that the church didn't create the canon. The church recognized what was already there.

So if you have a definition of canon that gives this idea that the church sort of made it, well, that's a problem, right? So here's what I want to say about this first definition. It has one real big positive.

It rightly reminds us it took a while, but it also has some negatives. If we only used this definition and no others, we'd be left with those negatives, right? Which is this idea that everybody was in the dark for 400 years.

Well, that's not true. So we need something else besides this first definition. And I think this is an important correction in this whole debate. So let me mention then a second definition that I think really does help begin to round out what we mean by canon. So the first definition is canon as a fixed final closed list of books.

When you see that, well, now you, by golly, you have a canon. But I want to suggest a second definition. This definition isn't that you have a canon when you have a fixed final closed list of books. The second definition is that you have a canon when you see books of the New Testament being used as scripture by Christians. When you see books of the New Testament being used by Christians as scripture.

Even if the boundaries aren't finalized, even if the edges are still a little fuzzy of the canon, do we see New Testament books being used as scripture? Once we see that on the second definition, we can say, ah, there's a canon. So if we were looking for a name for the second definition, we'd probably call it the functional definition, okay?

What do we mean by that? When books start functioning like canon, they start being used as scripture, and they start having authority in the church, even if the boundaries aren't solidified, even if there's not yet that final fixed closed list, then we can say, look, there we have a canon. Now, in the scholarly world, that second definition has been used a lot.

And guess what? It leads you to an entirely different date for canon. The first definition, you don't have a canon until the fourth or fifth century. But what if you define canon as just when books started being used as scripture?

Then you have a canon, well, what do you have a canon now? Answer, second century. In fact, and you'll see this in a later session because I'm going to show you the historical evidence for this, even very early in the second century, we see this exact thing happening, books being used as scripture. And that predates the fourth century by nearly 200 years. And that's a very important fact to understand. So, let me just lay out what I think are some positives of this second definition.

I've already just laid one of them out. One of the positives there is that this definition rightly reminds us that long before the fourth century, there was a core collection of books functioning as scripture quite nicely. In fact, probably about 22 out of 27 books were pretty established by the second century and being used fully authoritative scripture. And then there's a few books that kind of hovered around the edges, books that typically are smaller, books like 2 Peter, 2, 3 John, Jude, tiny books, right? By the way, when's the last time you heard a sermon series on Jude?

Probably been a while, right? Some of you probably think, I don't think I've ever heard a sermon series on Jude. And you realize sometimes smaller books just kind of get overlooked and you can see why those might take some time. And that's exactly what happened, but in the midst of that, what I want you to see on the second definition is that there was a core collection of books running powerfully as scripture in the life of the church by the early second century. Now, what's significant about that?

Here's what's significant about that. This means that Christians actually had a pretty good idea what to read and were very well aware of what books were scripture long before the church could ever say anything about it. And this is an important thing that I think Reformed Protestants want to acknowledge, right? Is that Christians seem to have a pretty good idea of what was in the canon before there was ever a church council?

Before there was ever a church meeting about it? Before there's any of these so-called votes? You hear this on the internet that someone voted somewhere.

That's not true. There's no votes on the canon. But nonetheless, before there's any declarations or list, by golly, what do we see according to the second definition? There's books functioning as scripture for 200 plus years in early... Apparently, they did pretty much know. Even though the borders were a little fuzzy, they did pretty much know this core collection of books was there from the very beginning. So what I tell my students all the time, and I'll tell you, and people are often surprised to hear this, for most of the canon, there wasn't really any debate. In fact, when it comes to things like the four gospels, it was just kind of always there from the start. The letters of Paul, yep, kind of always been there from the beginning. A couple other key books, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, Hebrews, yep, pretty much from the start.

In fact, all the so-called disagreements were actually only around about four, maybe five books. That is why the second definition is so important. What it reminds you of is actually how well advanced the Christian canon was at such an early date. Imagine for a moment you only had that first definition. You would think that things were in utter chaos in the first few centuries, and it was only in the fourth century the light clicked on. But if you remind yourself about the second definition, you're like, wait a second, books were functioning like Scripture for generations.

They were preaching from these books, they were reading these books, they were memorizing these books, they were studying them, and it wasn't really in doubt at all. Yeah, there's a few smaller books there's debates about, but generally speaking, things were pretty much in place. So the second definition is a really important balance. Now, are there any weaknesses with the second definition? I think so when we mention one, and this is an important weakness to acknowledge. In fact, this weakness is also shared by the first definition. Let me explain what I mean.

Neither the first definition nor the second definition of canon address what we might call the ontology of canon. Now, I know what's in your head right now. You're thinking, did you have to really use that word? Really? Yeah, I was doing just fine. Here we're clicking along, and you use this word ontology of canon, and I'm gone.

I'm checked out, but hang with me for a moment. When I say that neither the first or second definition address what we could call the ontology of canon, here's what I mean. Neither of those first definitions address what the canon is in and of itself apart from anybody even knowing it exists.

Think about it for a moment. Both the first definition and the second definition, you're allowed to use the word canon either when the church puts it on a final closed list or when the church starts using these books as scripture. But that means that our definition of canon means the church still has to do something for you to call something canon. It almost makes it sound like books become canon, like before they're nothing, and then when the church starts acting, they become something they weren't otherwise. But is that what Christians believe about these books? Do we believe that when Paul wrote Romans that it was nothing really of significance until the church did something with it? Or do we believe that when Paul wrote Romans it was already something special, already inspired, already in effect canon before anyone ever read it? Or let me put it a different way. Let's imagine that God gave his canon to his church and no one ever knew it existed.

Could we still say it was there? What I want to suggest to you is that what's missing from these first two definitions is a sense that these books have authority and these books have a standing apart from whether the church even knew they were there. And why would they have that authority?

By virtue of the fact that God gave them to his church. So that leads us to this third and last definition here. Because I love that big word, I'm going to stick with it. Ontological definition, right? The first definition was our exclusive definition, which is fixed final closed list. The second definition, well, these books just function as scripture.

What's the ontological definition? Well, that's where we could define canon as the books God gave his church. And that means that the ontological definition you could sort of say looks at the canon from God's perspective. Leaving aside reception, leaving aside when people begin to acknowledge and receive these books. Before that even started, what we want to acknowledge theologically is that if God gave these books and he inspired these books and his intent was that these were the authoritative books that would guide his church and there's something we can say that's true about them before anyone even knew they existed. In other words, we want to say that you could have an ontological definition of canon. Namely, that you could say there's a canon as soon as God gave these books. Now, let's imagine that that was your definition of canon. The books that God gave his church. Well, what would be your date then? Well, it would actually be in the first century, wouldn't it?

Think about it for a moment. If I had a definition of canon that the books God gave his church, well, when do you have that? When God gave those books to his church.

And when did that happen? Well, in the first century. So, if you look at canon from a theological perspective, from God's perspective, you have canon even before the first century is over. In fact, the very famous Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield actually used this definition of canon.

Here's what he said. The canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles. And that was when John wrote the apocalypse about 98 A.D. Well, what is Warfield saying? The canon's done in 98 A.D. Imagine someone with that first definition raising their hand going, wait a second, the canon's not done until the fourth century.

And you're like, well, you're only looking at it from the perspective of reception. What if you looked at it from the perspective of what God's doing? Well, then you have a canon in the first century. By the way, can you see now why theology determines your definition of canon?

And therefore, that actually determines the date. This is what I want you to see in this whole discussion. Is that the kind of world view you're looking at to start with is going to determine where you go with this. So let me draw these three definitions together into a close. Here's what we're saying. I'm not arguing for just one of these.

I'm suggesting that these all contribute something. The first definition reminds us canon didn't happen instantaneously. It took a while.

The fourth century is when the dust finally settled. So it's legitimate. The second definition, the functional definition, reminds us of something important too. That long before the fourth century, there was a core collection of books that were well established as scripture.

I mean 21, 22 out of 27 never really endowed. That's an important contribution. And then the canon definition we just looked at. Ontological definition reminds us that actually these books have a standing by virtue of the fact that God gave them. And they would have been canon from the moment they were written by virtue of their divine inspiration. When you realize those three definitions as a package, you know what you see? You see a nice full or picture of the way the canon developed.

And here's how it goes. God gave his books as inspired books. You have a canon in a sense then. His church begins to use these books as inspired scripture. You have a sense of a canon then.

And then his church finally reaches a full consensus on these books in the fourth century. And in a sense, you have a canon then. So when you look at all three definitions, you know what you realize? Canon is not really a dot.

It's more like a line. Canon is more like a process. This is why I suggest that sometimes maybe date isn't even really the right language. Maybe we should talk about stage of canon rather than date of canon. Because date of canon kind of gives you the idea that there's only one option. Where stage of canon can realize there's several options.

The upshot of all of this is to recognize that all three options fit together in a complimentary, balanced way. They give you a full picture of the history of canon. And they remind you that theology feeds how we look at this. We start with what we believe about these books. And that is what it guides our historical investigations.

That's Dr. Michael Krueger. We've been airing portions of his series, The New Testament Canon, over the past couple of days here on Renewing Your Mind. In six lessons, he answers the most common objections that we hear about how we ended up with the 27 New Testament books.

And he gives us sound reasons for confidence in the Word of God. I hope you'll contact us today and request this DVD. We'll send it to you for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can find us online at, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343. By the way, Dr. Krueger is president and New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also writes for our monthly magazine, Table Talk. The articles and devotional lessons you'll find in Table Talk will enhance your daily Bible study. If you're not a subscriber, I hope you'll check it out.

Just go to Well, next week we have the privilege of hearing selected messages from Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, Dust of Glory. The full series is 57 messages covering the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Next week we'll concentrate on the ministry and miracles of Jesus. So I hope you'll join us beginning Monday here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-28 13:41:35 / 2023-03-28 13:53:12 / 12

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