The Belgic Confession, Article IV

We believe that the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely, the Old and New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These are thus named in the Church of God. The books of the Old Testament are the five books of Moses, viz.: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; the books of Joshua, Ruth, judges, the two books of Samuel, the two of the Kings, two books of the Chronicles, commonly called Paralipomenon, the first of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, the Psalms of David, the three books of Solomon, namely, the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; the four great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; and die twelve lesser prophets, namely, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Those of the New Testament are the four evangelists, viz Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles; the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, viz.: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, and one to the Hebrews; the seven epistles of the other apostles, namely, one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude; and the Revelation of the apostle John.

The Importance of and Approach to the Canon

This fourth article deals with the subject of the canon of Holy Scripture, or the question: which are the canonical books, i.e., which books are acknowledged as forming part of the written Word of God, spoken of in Article III, that was not sent nor delivered by the will of man?

Although there does not appear to be very much content to the article under discussion, we may notice that evidently our fathers were very careful to express themselves exactly on this matter of the canon. For there are, in the first place, no less than three articles of our Confession which refer to this subject. The present article sets forth positively the contents of the canon. The next article, while it deals with the authority of Holy Scripture, nevertheless deals necessarily once more with the limitation of the canon, as well as connecting the authority of Scripture directly with that canon. And the sixth article again treats the content of the canon, this time rather negatively, when it distinguishes between the canonical and the apocryphal books. In the second place, we may notice that our Confession takes special care to protect that canon against all violations and intrusions. In the present article it not only speaks of the fact that these books are canonical, but it specifically adds: “against which nothing can be alleged.” And then the article takes the trouble to furnish an exact list of all the canonical books. Again, in Article V we find the precise expression: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical . . .” And in Article VI once more our Confession takes pains to distinguish and set apart the canonical books as over against the apocryphal writings, and sets forth that in every respect the canonical books are of absolutely determinative authority.

For more than one reason, perhaps, we are inclined to wonder at all this attention to the subject of the canon. One reason is undoubtedly that for most of us, at least most of the time, this matter of the canon is no issue. We simply accept the sixty six books of our Bible as constituting the canon. And as a rule we are never troubled by the question unless we happen to study the Confession, or unless we come into contact with an adherent of Rome, who accepts the apocryphal books as well, or unless we have dealings with some sect which acknowledges other authoritative writings, such as the Mormons, or unless we are attacked by the modernist, who denies the canonicity as well as the inspiration of Scripture. Historically, of course, this was indeed a crucial question at the time when our Confession was born. For the authority of Holy Scripture is in turn dependent upon the canonicity of Scripture. And also on this matter of the canon the Reformers differed radically with Rome, which today still includes the so called apocryphal books in its Bible. Hence, in this and the following articles the Reformed churches take position over against Rome. And that position, both as to the contents of the canon and the source and fixing of the canon, is still our position today. In fact, it is in respect to this whole subject of the Scriptures that the Protestant church today remains radically at odds with Rome. However, we of today are not often under direct attack as to our faith concerning the canon; and therefore, we do not pay overly much attention to the subject. This is natural in a way; but it is also rather perilous. This brings us to consider a second reason, namely, that only too often we are not acutely conscious of the precious heritage we have in the Scriptures, and therefore do not appreciate and use and enjoy that heritage as we ought. We take it for granted. In the days when God’s people were in danger of being deprived of that heritage, and when they had to fight for it and suffer for it, and when it was a rare or relatively new event to have a printed Bible in your own language and in your own personal possession, the Scriptures were a more highly prized possession also. This too is somewhat natural; but the fact that it is does not excuse us. That we have the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, against which nothing can be alleged, writings that are the holy and divine Scriptures—this reality should never become commonplace among its. And let us be warned that when the church no more knows the meaning and significance of the canon, and no longer appreciates and cherishes this most precious heritage, then that church is in peril of its very life.

For this truth of the canonicity of the Scriptures is no less important than the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. In fact, the two are interrelated. The one calls for the other. If you attack the one, you necessarily attack the other. What is not canonical can scarcely be acknowledged as inspired; and what is not inspired cannot be acknowledged as canonical. Thus it is too, historically, that the foes of an inspired Scripture have made themselves very busy in attacking thegenuineness of the sacred writings, striving mightily to find historical evidence which might prove that a certain book is not what it claims to be, either as to authorship or contents. Hence, the church must certainly make it its business to insist upon and to understand by faith the canonical character of the Scriptures.

I say: by faith.

For the very form of this article again reminds us that we are dealing with a confession of faith: “We believe. . . .” And so it is. Here too, as well as when we speak of inspiration, we proceed on the basis of faith. And the canon, no less than the inspiration, of Scripture is strictly an object of faith. Modern Biblical science requires that we approach the Bible in an absolutely unbiased attitude, without any prepossessions; and it demands that we conduct an impartial investigation of the Bible, according to general historical and literary principles, approaching it as we would any other book on our library shelves. But this is impossible for the believer. He carries the strong and spontaneous assurance in his heart that the Bible is the Word of his God. In this conviction he approaches Scripture. His faith concerning the Scriptures, also as respects the canon of Scripture, is not the result of his scientific investigation and dogmatic thinking; it is rather the starting-point. The believer cannot possibly divest himself of the Spirit-wrought assurance that the Bible is the Word of God. Nor is such an approach possible for the Christian scholar any more than for the ordinary believer. After all, the question is a spiritual, ethical one. It is not a question of being biased or unbiased. It is rather—if you will pardon the expression—a question of which bias you have, the bias of faith or the bias of unbelief. For the standpoint of unbelief is no more unbiased than that of faith. And a third possibility there is not.

In this same connection, it is well to remember that in our discussion of the canon it is not our purpose to produce logical proof, convincing to the unbeliever, that our Bible is the Word of God and that its sixty-six books, and they only, constitute the canon! It is quite impossible to create the conviction of faith by means of logical proof. Indeed, you may point to the Bible and its intrinsic evidences and exquisite beauties. You may point to many evidences that the Bible is distinct from all other books. You may find much so-called historical evidence for the canonical character of the various books of the Bible. But you will never succeed in revealing to the eye of the unbeliever, the natural eye, darkened by sin, the glory of the divine light that shines from the pages of God’s Holy Word.

For the same reason it is rather difficult for me to become excited about various external evidences, as they are called, for the Bible, and even for its canon. There is much attention given in our day to various archeological discoveries in this connection. And at present especially there is a good deal of excitement about the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls.” Much is written, on the basis of these discoveries, about the canon and proofs for the reliability of the canon. But I fear that too often these writings are an attempt to meet modernistic criticism on its own ground. And if this is indeed the attempt, then it is futile as far as unbelief is concerned, and it is even rather dangerous as far as faith is concerned. As far as the former is concerned, it is futile because if they will not believe Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe though one rose from the dead. And for faith it is dangerous, because almost without realizing it one gets himself in such a frame of mind that he begins to base his faith on these external evidences that are discovered. And therefore, while such studies are not valueless, but probably have a certain supporting value for faith, we may well be on the alert against overrating their value. At the same time, we may say that it is a perfectly legitimate study to investigate the process of canonization, or the history of the canon.

The Idea of the Canon

This article speaks of the books of the Bible as “canonical, against which nothing can be alleged.”

What is the meaning of the term canon as here used?

The term is of Greek origin, and it denotes a rod or wood measuring rule. From thence the idea is derived of a standard or rule according to which our life is measured, a norm. Scripture uses the term in this sense in Galatians 6:16: “And as many as walk according to this rule (canon is the literal term here), peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” And thus in our Confession by the canon is meant a certain rule, measure, norm, of faith and life. By canonical books, therefore, is meant that collection of inspired writings which the church accepts as the Word of God, and therefore as the only infallible rule, or norm, for the faith and life of believers.

For us today this implies that the canon is a finished, or closed, collection. This was not always true. When the Old Testament was completed and acknowledged as canonical long before the first advent of Christ, the canon was not closed. For the entire New Testament was still to be added. But today the canon is complete. It is a finished collection of inspired writings. The question is sometimes raised as to what would be the attitude of the church if another of the writings of the apostles would be discovered. Would such a book, should a copy of it be discovered, be added to the present Bible and also be considered canonical? The question is, of course, hypothetical. But the answer would have to be negative. The canon is closed. And it is closed in such a way that it cannot be opened. Nothing need be, nor can be, added to the canonical books. They are complete. They form one whole. It cannot be alleged against them that they are incomplete.

(to be continued)