Disciple Hour: Systematic Theology (The Canon of Scripture – Chapter 3)

Systematic Theology: The Whole Counsel of God[1]

Lecture Notes[2] Chapter 3: The Canon of Scripture

26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all,
27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God
 (Acts 20:26-27)

What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?

Canon- list of divinely inspired books.  In other words, a list of all the books that belong in the Bible.

Why is this question important?  The words of Scripture are what bring forth life and give spiritual nourishment.

What would be the result of not having all the books that are inspired Scripture?  If commands were subtracted then God’s people could not obey Him fully.

What would happen if we had extra books in the Bible that were not divinely inspired?  Things would be added to the commands of God that God did not intend. 

Deuteronomy 4:2 (ESV)
2 You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.
(see Deut. 32:47)

A. The Old Testament Canon

Where did the idea of a canon begin—the idea that the people of Israel should preserve a collection of written words from God? Scripture itself bears witness to the historical development of the canon.

The earliest collection of written words of God was the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments thus form the beginning of the biblical canon. God himself wrote on two tablets of stone the words which he commanded his people: “And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18).

God Wrote…

The tablets were deposited in the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:5) and constituted the terms of the covenant between God and his people.

Deuteronomy 10:5 (ESV)
5 Then I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark that I had made. And there they are, as the LORD commanded me.”
Moses wrote…
Deuteronomy 31:24-27 (ESV)
24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end,
25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD,
26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.
27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death!

Joshua wrote…

Joshua 24:26-27 (ESV)
26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD.
27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.”

Later, others in Israel, usually those who fulfilled the office of prophet, wrote additional words from God…
1 Samuel 10:25 (ESV)
25 Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home.
2 Chronicles 26:22 (ESV)
22 Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote.
Other Old Testament Scripture could be quoted, but hopefully you get the point.  God’s approved men wrote what He wanted them to write and it has been preserved for us.

Our current Old Testament is divinely inspired Scripture.

Thus, after approximately 435 b.c. there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon. The subsequent history of the Jewish people was recorded in other writings, such as the books of the Maccabees, but these writings were not thought worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.

In the New Testament, we have no record of any dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the extent of the canon. Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This fact is confirmed by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament. According to one count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures as divinely authoritative over 295 times, but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority. The absence of any such reference to other literature as divinely authoritative, and the extremely frequent reference to hundreds of places in the Old Testament as divinely authoritative, gives strong confirmation to the fact that the New Testament authors agreed that the established Old Testament canon, no more and no less, was to be taken as God’s very words.

Apocrypha- are statements or claims that are of dubious authenticity. The word’s origin is the medieval Latin adjective apocryphus, “secret, or non-canonical”

What then shall be said about the Apocrypha, the collection of books included in the canon by the Roman Catholic Church but excluded from the canon by Protestantism?

The fact that these books were included by Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (completed in a.d. 404) gave support to their inclusion, even though Jerome himself said they were not “books of the canon” but merely “books of the church” that were helpful and useful for believers. The wide use of the Latin Vulgate in subsequent centuries guaranteed their continued accessibility.

It was not until 1546, at the Council of Trent, that the Roman Catholic Church officially declared the Apocrypha to be part of the canon (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh). It is significant that the Council of Trent was the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of Martin Luther and the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation, and the books of the Apocrypha contain support for the Catholic teaching of prayers for the dead and justification by faith plus works, not by faith alone. In affirming the Apocrypha as within the canon, Roman Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as “Scripture,” while Protestants have held that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already caused to be written as his own words.

Thus the writings of the Apocrypha should not be regarded as part of Scripture: (1) they do not claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings; (2) they were not regarded as God’s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated; (3) they were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and (4) they contain teachings inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. We must conclude that they are merely human words, not God-breathed words like the words of Scripture.

B. The New Testament Canon

The development of the New Testament canon begins with the writings of the apostles. It should be remembered that the writing of Scripture primarily occurs in connection with God’s great acts in redemptive history. The Old Testament records and interprets for us the calling of Abraham and the lives of his descendants, the exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings, the establishment of God’s people in the land of Canaan, the establishment of the monarchy, and the Exile and return from captivity. Each of these great acts of God in history is interpreted for us in God’s own words in Scripture. The Old Testament closes with the expectation of the Messiah to come (Mal. 3:1–4; 4:1–6). The next stage in redemptive history is the coming of the Messiah, and it is not surprising that no further Scripture would be written until this next and greatest event in the history of redemption occurred.

Those who have the office of apostle in the early church are seen to claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets, an authority to speak and write words that are God’s very words. Peter encourages his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). To lie to the apostles (Acts 5:2) is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and lying to God (Acts 5:4).

It would not be surprising therefore to find some of the New Testament writings being placed with the Old Testament Scriptures as part of the canon of Scripture. In fact, this is what we find in at least two instances. In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter shows not only an awareness of the existence of written epistles from Paul, but also a clear willingness to classify “all of his [Paul’s] epistles” with “the other scriptures”: Peter says, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16).

A second instance is found in 1 Timothy 5:17–18. Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” ’ The first quotation from “Scripture” is found in Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quotation, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It does occur, however, in Luke 10:7 (with exactly the same words in the Greek text). So here we have Paul apparently quoting a portion of Luke’s gospel and calling it “Scripture,” that is, something that is to be considered part of the canon.

Because the apostles, by virtue of their apostolic office, had authority to write words of Scripture, the authentic written teachings of the apostles were accepted by the early church as part of the canon of Scripture. If we accept the arguments for the traditional views of authorship of the New Testament writings, then we have most of the New Testament in the canon because of direct authorship by the apostles. This would include Matthew; John; Romans to Philemon (all of the Pauline epistles); James;24 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation.

This leaves five books, Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude, which were not written by apostles.

For some books (at least Mark, Luke, and Acts, and perhaps Hebrews and Jude as well), the church had, at least in some areas, the personal testimony of some living apostles to affirm the absolute divine authority of these books. For example, Paul would have affirmed the authenticity of Luke and Acts, and Peter would have affirmed the authenticity of Mark as containing the gospel which he himself preached.

In a.d. 367 the Thirty-ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius contained an exact list of the twenty-seven New Testament books we have today. This was the list of books accepted by the churches in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. Thirty years later, in a.d. 397, the Council of Carthage, representing the churches in the western part of the Mediterranean world, agreed with the eastern churches on the same list. These are the earliest final lists of our present-day canon.


1. Why is it important to your Christian life to know which writings are God’s Word and which are not?

2. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of other cults have claimed present-day revelations from God that they count equal to the Bible in authority. What reasons can you give to indicate the falsity of those claims? In practice, do these people treat the Bible as an authority equal to these other “revelations”?[3]


[1] Based on and various Quotes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Zondervan

[2] All Scripture from ESV Bible, Crossway

[3] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 69). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

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