Canon and Canonicity

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

The meaning of the Greek word canon (κανών) is problematic. Karel van der Toorn says the term itself is of “Christian coinage.”[1] The term canon means table, rule, or measuring stick. In early Christian usage, the term canon has reference to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. This concept is best captured by the apostle Paul when he says the scriptures are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17) This idea of canon as the regula fidei, the rule of faith, does not contain the idea of a list of authoritative writings.

When we think of the canon today, we generally think in terms of a list of inspired scriptures. However, the idea of canon as a list is a relatively recent development; the ancients used different term (pinakes or katalogos) for a catalogue of writings. Lee McDonald writes:

The word canon was not regularly used in reference to a closed collection of writings until David Ruhnken used it this way in 1768. In his treatise entitled Historia critica oratorum Graecorum, he employed the term canon for a selective list of literary writings. …In antiquity [the Greek word] pinakes is more commonly used of catalogues or lists.[2]

When modern theology conceives of canon as a list, it speaks solely of the text; when ancient theology conceives of canon as the rule of faith, it speaks of the revelation contained within the text. The two thoughts are not opposed to one another; a book becomes part of a list of scriptures texts because of the revelation contained therein. However, when we conceive of canon solely as a list, we wind up arguing over issues of canon and canonicity, rather than focusing on the revelation of Jesus Christ — which is, after all, the whole point of the Sacred Scriptures.

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

Catalogue, Dead Sea Scrolls

F. F. Bruce writes:

The Christian church started its existence with a book, but it was not to the book that it owed its existence. It shared the book with the Jewish people; indeed, the first members of the church were without exception Jews. The church owed its distinctive existence to a person — to Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, dead and buried , but ‘designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead ’ (Rom. 1: 4). This Jesus, it was believed, had been exalted by God to be universal Lord; he had sent his Spirit to be present with his followers, to unite them and animate them as his body on earth. The function of the book was to bear witness to him.[3]

Given that the function of Scripture is to bear witness to Him, it is curious that the idea of canon has shifted away from this idea to a mere listing of books. The discussion of the canon as a list of authoritative and inspired books, and canonicity as the process by which an individual text became part of that collection of books, has taken on increased urgency following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the gnostic writings contained in the Nag Hammadi library. Together these have fueled the imagination of biblical scholars, and have added detail to the background of our Sacred Scriptures — all of which have sparked a renewed interest in the subject of canon and canonicity.

The debates over canon and canonicity are taking place more among the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches than among the Christian communions of the east. Seemingly every Protestant introduction and commentary on the Scriptures covers the issues surrounding the canon. But in the 16th century theological conversation between the Protestants and the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity didn’t come up at all — in part because the Lutherans never mentioned their use of a different canon.[4] Instead, the Lutherans argued for the authority of Scripture, an issue then Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II accepted without comment. The discussion between the Lutherans and the Orthodox really focused on what was authoritative for faith and practice. The Lutherans kept bringing up Scripture as the authority, and the Patriarch accepted their position but included Holy Tradition as part of that discussion. In a sense, neither of them understood the other’s position, and so they simply talked past one another.[5]

As for the Eastern Orthodox position, consider the following. The two-volume Introduction to the Old Testament by the Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi[6], Professor of Old Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, does not discuss the issues of canon and canonicity at all. This topic is also glossed over or ignored in most Eastern Orthodox dogmatics. By way of example, Dumitru Staniloae’s five-volume “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” discusses the nature of revelation, its relationship with the world at large, and its relation to the Church and Holy Tradition, but his books do not deal in any substantive manner with canonicity — at least not in a way the western Church would recognize. In Fr. John Breck’s book, entitled “Scripture in Tradition”, he avoids the subject of the canon altogether, instead focusing on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. How do we account for the difference between these approaches? What impact do these issues have upon the regula fidei, the faith once delivered to the saints?

While the use of canon as list is relatively modern, the issues regarding canon and canonicity have their roots in the Middle Ages. Fr. John Breck writes:

Scripture determines what constitutes genuine Tradition, yet Tradition gives birth to and determines the limits of Scripture. To many people’s minds, this way of envisioning the circular relationship between Scripture and Tradition appears untenable. The Protestant Reformers attempted to break this form of the hermeneutic circle by advancing the teaching known as sola scriptura [Scripture alone], holding that Scripture alone determines faith and morality… This was to a large extent in reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism which had separated Scripture and Tradition into separate domains, giving priority to the latter.[7]

When we debate the issues of canon and canonicity, it is helpful to discuss the Old Testament and the New Testament separately, because they each took very different paths in their development. As we know, the Old Testament is called “Scripture” by the New Testament authors, but there is little indication that the New Testament as we know it today was considered to be Scripture. There are two passages which may suggest some parts of the New Testament were considered Scripture (1 Tim:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), but as we will discuss in a later chapter, these are by no means conclusive. The apostle Paul did not refer to his writings as scripture, but instead categorized his teachings as “traditions”, and referred to his books as epistles (2 Th 2:15). Moreover, nowhere in the New Testament do we have a catalogue of canonical books, neither for the Old Testament books (which are explicitly called scripture) or for the writings of the New Testament.

The earliest evidence for the current list of Old Testament books comes from the period after the fall of Jerusalem, and is the first statement of what we now call the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. F. F. Bruce writes:

One of the clearest and earliest statements of these three divisions and their respective contents comes in a baraitha (a tradition from the period AD 70—200) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Baba Bathra. This tradition assigns inspired or authoritative authors to all twenty-four books, and discusses their order.[8]

Babylonian Talmud

Babylonian Talmud

The problems with this reference to the Babylonian Talmud begin with the dates. A tradition dating from after the fall of Jerusalem, and as late as the end of the 2nd century, can scarcely be used to describe the state of Judaism in the time of Christ. This is especially true when we know that Judaism was forced to change in response to the destruction of the temple and the rise of Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Judaism could no longer be the temple, but was focused instead on the Hebrew Scriptures. And the Scriptures themselves changed in response to the growth of Christianity as a rival sect, a sect that used the Septuagint as its own Sacred Scriptures. This change in the Hebrew Scriptures began in the mid-2nd century, as demonstrated by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.[9]

Another problem is that the baraitha (or Babylonian tradition) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud was not authoritative, but was one of many voices in an ongoing discussion. That this particular bairaitha was not authoritative is demonstrated by its failure to be included in the Mishnah, which was completed sometime between 200 – 220 A.D. Not only that, but the proposed three-fold division of the scriptures was not adopted by the Christian community, who devised their own ordering and division of books.[10]

The example from the Babylonian Talmud demonstrates something that needs to be kept in mind, which is this: we cannot derive the pre-Christian status of the Jewish canon from post-Christian sources, because these are all arguing a point of view — one that is largely informed by and in opposition to Christianity.

The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.

The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:

By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at [the first council of Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine.[11]

So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined.[12] Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament.[13]

Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable given the Protestant understanding of the canon, the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This guide led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. Many of us were taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.

There never was any formal agreement which settled the issues of canon and canonicity for the New Testament. This is why Martin Luther was able to consider eliminating books from the corpus of the New Testament — because in his day, the idea of canon as a list of books did not exist. Thus, when Martin Luther came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, he appealed to his peculiar regula fidei as his guide to determining which books should be in the canon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Luther was not allowed to alter the catalogue of the New Testament (although he was allowed to separate the “Apocrypha” from the rest of the Old Testament. The restrictions placed upon Luther’s alteration of the canon was likely done for practical reasons; by this time the canonical consensus was deeply ingrained, and the people would not have stood for it.

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church held their Concilium Tridentinum, or Council of Trent, and in their fourth session (8 April, 1546 A.D.) published their catalogue of the biblical books. This catalogue was not new, having previously been published by the Council of Florence in 1422 A.D., and contained our current 27 book canon of the New Testament. Since the Council of Trent was convened in response to the Protestant Reformation, it had dogmatic significance for Catholic and Protestant alike (in the sense that it hardened the dogmatic positions of each.) Thus, although the list of New Testament books remains the same for Catholics and Protestants alike; what differentiates them is the manner and context in which the texts are interpreted.


Breck, John. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Mastrantonis, George. Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tübingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession. Edited by N. M. Vaporis. Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.


[1] (van der Toorn 2007, 233)

[2] (McDonald 2007, 51)

[3] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 27)

[4] In the late 17th century, a group of Lutheran theologians sent a Greek translation of their Augsburg confession to Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople. What followed is an intriguing correspondence which took place over a period of years. While this theological correspondence is well known among the Orthodox, surprisingly few Lutherans and Protestants know anything about it, and fewer still have read the actual texts. It is unclear what the Lutherans were trying to do. Some think the Lutherans were trying to convert the Ecumenical Patriarch (unlikely). Some think the Lutherans were trying to become part of the Orthodox Church (also unlikely). The text seems to indicate that the Lutherans merely wanted the Ecumenical Patriarch to accept that the Lutheran doctrine was consistent with that of the Orthodox Church; the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch is that it was not.

[5] (Mastrantonis 1982, passim)

[6] The Very Rev. Paul Nadim Tarazi is a controversial and polarizing figure, so perhaps we should not read too much into his failure to deal with the issue of canonicity.

[7] (Breck 2001, 11)

[8] (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 29-30)

[9] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, Chapters LXXI and LXXII)

[10] (McDonald 2007, 164-165)

[11] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 38)

[12] (McDonald 2007, 22)

[13] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 32)