We are now ready to discuss the matter of the formation of the canon from a principal point of view. We have traced the history of the formation of both the Old and the New Testament canon. But the question remains: on what authority does the canon of Scripture rest? Who determined the canon? How do we know that this canon is correct? What moved the church in the past to declare that these books, and no others, constitute the canon? Does the authority of the canon rest simply upon the declaration of a church council?
Concerning these questions there are various views.
Usually the Roman Catholic position is presented as maintaining that the church made the Bible, not the Bible the church. This view is undoubtedly current, although it is even apparently contradicted by the following declaration of the Vatican Council of 1870: “And these books of the Old and New Testaments are to be received as sacred and canonical, in their integrity, with all their parts, as they are enumerated in the decree of the said Council (of Trent), and are contained in the ancient Latin edition of the Vulgate. These the Church holds to be sacred and canonical, not because, having been carefully composed by mere human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation, with no admixture of error; but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their Author, and have been delivered as such to the Church herself.” This declaration is rather deceiving, unless we remember that by “Church” the Romish Church always means the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the Romish hierarchy. Hence, after all it is the Roman Catholic position that the church, that is, the institute represented in the Roman hierarchy, and ultimately in the pope, authenticates the Scriptures. The canon rests upon the decree of a church council. This position was historically practiced at the Council of Trent, which officially gave the apocryphal books a place in the canon, contrary to the consensus of the church in the past not only, but contrary to the authentication of the Old Testament by Christ and the apostles themselves. The addition of the Apocrypha rests on the mere decree of a church council. That is the Roman Catholic position.
In regard to this view, we may say the following. In the first place, it is, of course, the implicit assumption of the Romish position that the church of the first few centuries, A.D., was a Roman Catholic Church. And this assumption is utterly false. In the second place, it certainly is not true that any decree of the church made the various books of Scripture into Bible books. If the decrees, for example, of Hippo Regius and of Carthage have any value, it lies herein that these decrees simply recognized the fact that for a long time the church at large was in full agreement on all but a few of the books of the New Testament. Besides, we do not even have any decree fixing the canon of the Old Testament during the inter-testamentary period. The canon of the Old Testament rests directly on the authority of Christ. In the third place, we would sound a note of caution against the slogan, “The Bible made the church, not the church the Bible.” For, first of all, it is simply not true historically that the Bible is before the church. Long before there was any Bible, or even any part of the Bible, there was a church. During the entire period of the old dispensation prior to Moses, there was not even any part of the Bible, though there was certainly the revealed Word of God. And, secondly, we must not fall into the very common error of deprecating the church and the function of the church in the historical formation of the canon. This is often done out of a certain mistaken zeal to combat Roman Catholicism. But the Roman Catholic error lies, as we have noted above, in a different direction. And it is neither Reformed, nor Scriptural, nor historically correct to ignore or to deny the position and function of the church as the custodian of the Scriptures and ‘as the instrument in the recognition and acknowledgment of the canon.
Various other theories have been put forward in order to explain the formation of the canon. Some have emphasized the factor of God’s providence, which cared for both the preparation and the preservation of the canonical books. Others have stressed the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit as the guiding principle in the determination of the canon. Still others have been satisfied simply to maintain that the test of canonicity was inspiration: only the inspired books were acknowledged to be canonical. This view obviously leaves the question: but which books are inspired? And therefore, others have sought a more definite principle, and have maintained that the test of inspiration in the Old Testament was authorship by the prophets, while the test of inspiration in the New Testament was authorship by the apostles. Others want to apply the test of internal agreement between the various books of Holy Writ.
Some of these same questions arise, of course, in connection with Article V, which, however, really treats the question as to why we today receive these books as canonical. This question is related. But we are now interested in the question: how was the canon arrived at in the past, when it was formed and first came to be acknowledged?
And then we may remark, in general, that all of the above theories have their peculiar merits. There is an element of truth in each of them. Yet all of them together do not give complete satisfaction, that is, if we seek satisfaction purely on the basis of reason. Thus, for example, on the basis of mere, natural reason the principle of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit is certainly vulnerable. Not only that, but even to faith this can certainly form but a part of the explanation of this question. But when the canonicity of Scripture is, by others, based on objective grounds, you also run into difficulties. And basically all these difficulties may be concretely expressed in the question: “Who says so? And how do we know they were correct?” It is well to make the test of canonicity that of inspiration. But the question remains: who determined whether a certain book was inspired and how did they determine it? Then, of course, you can put forth the further test of prophetic and apostolic authority. And indeed, one can make a rather plausible case for this test. But this is simply moving the problem back a step. And the old question recurs: who applied this test, and how do we know that this test was accurately applied? And therefore, at one stage or another it will have to be admitted that there is a human agency, or instrument, through whom God caused the canon to be selected and fixed. That agency or instrument is the church.
We must not forget, therefore, that also the canon and its formation is a matter of faith. Ultimately unbelief will never accept the idea of a canon, even as it will not accept the idea of inspiration, or the idea of an infallible Word of God. The canon and its authority constitute an article of faith.
But at the same time we can say something about the manner by which the canon originated.
In the first place, we must remember that the canon is of God; it has its origin in God. He, and He alone, determines the norm of faith and life. He determines what we must believe and what we must do. And from eternity the canon of Scripture is in His counsel. And in His counsel God did not only conceive of some inspired writings, but of an entire book, an organic whole, His Word, the Bible. This truth we set forth already in connection with our discussion of inspiration in Article III. And it is important that we see this. The canon is of God, or it has no authority whatsoever. He formed the canon in time too, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, moving men to write His Word. It is that work of inspiration which brings the canon into existence. After the canonical books are brought into existence during the course of history, it remains yet that this canon, which is already there, whether it is acknowledged or not, must also be recognized as such. And step by step this whole canon must be “fixed,” until finally it is recognized as having been completed. The latter is also the work of God.
In the second place, there is the manner in which God caused the canon to be formed in time. And then we shall have to acknowledge that it was the church, both in the old and in the new dispensation, that distinguished and selected from among all other writings those books that she considered to be and accepted as canonical. This was not a mechanical process, however, as though suddenly some ecclesiastical assembly sat down before a large pile of books or in an entire library and began to picky out a number of books that it considered canonical. No, this took place spontaneously and organically in the consciousness of the church as a whole, in the organism of the church, the gathering of believers. And the result was that when finally some assembly or council issued an official decree as to the canonical books, they were merely declaring what was already a real fact in the life of the church. And how did the church act in this process? We may distinguish two elements. In the first place, the church has the inward testimony and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who moved holy men to write the Word of God also moved the church to receive those writings and to recognize them as the Word of God. And in the second place, we may undoubtedly say that the Spirit guided and gave the church this testimony as to the canonical books through those very books themselves. Both the contents of the books, by which, through their self-testimony, they were easily distinguished from all other books, as well as by the fact that these books constituted one whole and were in agreement with one another, moved the church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to acknowledge the canonical books. And to this may be added some of the elements mentioned in the various theories listed above.
The Division of the Canon
In this article all the canonical books are specifically listed, so that there may be absolutely no question as to which books belong to the canon.
In connection with this list we may make the following remarks:
1) There is an error in our present edition of thePsalter in the order of Ruth and Judges. We have quoted Article IV as it appears in the Psalter because it is this edition of the Confession that we use in our churches. The Confession lists the canonical books in the order in which they appear in our Bibles. And this order is, of course, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and not Joshua, Ruth, Judges. In a future printing this error should be corrected.
2) The order and division of the books is not specifically canonical, except, of course, the division into Old and New Testament. Otherwise, various divisions and orders have been followed. The common Jewish division of the canon is quite different, for example, than our division.
3) The article makes no comment on the division into the Old and New Testament, and says nothing here as to the relation between the two. This is hardly necessary. All of us understand, of course, that the New Testament sets forth the fulfillment of and completion of the Old. In Article XXV our Confession has a statement concerning the abolishing of the ceremonial law and of the shadows, which is important and which will be discussed in due time.
4) Concerning the list of Old Testament books we may note:
a. Chronicles is further described by the words, “commonly called Paralipomenon.” This is, of course, not common today. The name is from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, and means “the things left over,” or, “the things left untold,” concerning the kings of Judah especially.
b. Ezra is called “the first of Ezra,” because among the ancient fathers Nehemiah was referred to as “second Ezra.”
c. Lamentations is included under Jeremiah.
5) Finally, we may note that the epistle to the Hebrews is ascribed to Paul. This is, of course, a mere theory. There is no principal objection to this; nor is there any principal objection, by the same token, to denying this. No Reformed church, in other words, would ever make this a test of orthodoxy. And therefore, if you prefer to think that Hebrews was written by someone other than Paul, you will not be accused of militating against our Confession.