Category Archives: Canonicity

The Closed Canon?

The Four Evangelists, by Rubens

The Four Evangelists, by Rubens

F. F. Bruce, in his book “The Canon of Scripture”, writes approvingly of the canon of Sacred Scripture being closed.

The words ‘to which nothing can be added … and from which nothing can be taken away’, whatever they precisely meant in this context, seem certainly to imply the principle of a closed canon. There are some scholars who maintain that the word ‘canon’ should be used only where the list of specially authoritative books has been closed; and there is much to be said in favour of this restrictive use of the word (a more flexible word might be used for the collection in process of formation), although it would be pedantic to insist on it invariably. (F. Bruce 2010, 22)

The idea of nothing can be added and nothing taken away comes from a variety of sources. F. F. Bruce cites from the Old Testament (Deut 4:2; cf 12:32), the New Testament (Rev 22:18 f.), the Didache, and Josephus. Of all these citations, Bruce says: “This language can scarcely signify anything other than a closed canon.” (F. Bruce 2010, 23) The impression is given that these citations apply to the Word of God as text, rather than the doctrinal substance of the books. Certainly in the case of Josephus this is a reasonable interpretation, but the other citations are more problematic.

In Deuteronomy we read: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deut 4:2). If this implies a closed canon, how are we to account for the remainder of the Old Testament since, apart from the book of Job, none of it had been written yet? Equally important for we Christians, how are we to account for the New Testament, given that it not only speaks of the fulfillment of the law of Moses in the person of Jesus Christ, but also reveals the Triune God, something never made explicit in the Old Testament, and not even made implicit apart from the reading of Christ back into the Old Testament

Historically, the canon of the Old Testament was accepted by the Christian Church up until time of the Reformation. Henry Wace, in his commentary on the King James Version, admits as much when he writes:

“When the Reformers denied the inspired authority of the books of the Apocrypha, it was by no means their intention to exclude them from use either in public or in private reading. The Articles of the Church of England quote with approbation the ruling of St. Jerome, that though the Church does not use these books for establishment of doctrine, it reads them for example of life and instruction of manners.” [emphasis added] (Wace 1811, xxxvi)

There were individuals who devised lists of books approved for use in the church (such as the “ruling of St. Jerome), lists similar to that used by Protestants today, but these were not authoritative in the wider church. It should be noted that the Bible texts created prior to the Protestant Reformation included what Protestants call the Apocrypha. The Geneva Bible of 1560 and the original King James Version (KJV) of 1611 both contained the Apocrypha, and versions of the KJV with the Apocrypha are available today (although printed versions are quite rare in the United States).

But the situation is more complicated when we discuss the lectionaries, the appointed Scripture readings for the Church year. The King James Bible with Commentary contains, in its introduction, a history of the gradual elimination of the Apocrypha from the Common Lectionary of the Anglican Church. Originally the Lectionary included the Apocrypha with the exception of the books of the Maccabees. Henry Wace notes: “Among the Puritan complaints in the reign of Elizabeth, objections to the public reading of the Apocrypha had no prominent part.” (Wace 1811, xxxvi) Various redactions were made over the years, and while the revised lectionary of 1867 contained readings from the Apocrypha only on weekdays, readings from the Apocrypha were reduced from two months to only three weeks. Of the Anglican Lectionary of 1867, Wace writes:

So small a portion of the apocryphal books has been retained in the present Lectionary that the retention of any would seem intended for little more than an assertion of the Church’s right to use these books if she pleases in public reading. This is still more true of the American Church, which entirely discontinued the use of lessons from the Apocrypha on ordinary week-days ; but still uses such lessons on two or three holy days. The Irish Church on its last revision of the Lectionary has not even retained so much as this. (Wace 1811, xxxviii)

The complete elimination of the Apocrypha from the life of the Protestant Church turns out to be a relatively recent innovation, one which would not have been acceptable to the Reformers.


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

Wace, Henry. Holy Bible According to the Authorized Version (A.D. 1611). Edited by Henry Wace. Vol. 1. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1811.



Punctuation, Vowel Pointing, and Lower Criticism

The Divine Name in unpointed Hebrew

The Divine Name in unpointed Hebrew

Punctuation can change the entire meaning of a text. We tend to think of the punctuation of our English texts as part of the text, rather than a commentary or gloss on the text. However, the original texts had no punctuation, no separation between words, and (in the case of Hebrew) no vowels. The problem of punctuating scripture is well known, as illustrated by Lynn Truss in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

For example, as Cecil Hartley pointed out in his 1818 ‘Principles of Punctuation: or, The Art of Pointing’, consider the following:

                “Verily, I say unto thee, This day Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”


                “Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret this passage, (Luke xxiii, 43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were), and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for the Catholics, who believe in it. Similarly, it is argued that the Authorised Version of the Bible (and by extension Handel’s Messiah), misleads on the true interpretation of Isaiah xl, 3. Again, consider the difference:

                “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


                “The voice of him that crieth: in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


                “Comfort ye my people”
                (please go out and comfort my people)


                “Comfort ye, my people”
                (just cheer up, you lot: it might never happen)

Of course, if Hebrew or any of the other ancient languages had included punctuation (in the case of Hebrew, a few vowels might have been nice as well), two thousand years of scriptural exegesis need never have happened, and a lot of clever, dandruffy people could definitely have spent more time in the fresh air. (Truss 2006, 74-75)

It should be noted that our English punctuation may be based upon a best approximation of the mood or case of the original language. The meaning can also be determined from the context. For example:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isa 40:1-5)

From the context alone it should be clear that the second of Lynne Truss’ suggested punctuations is incorrect. The passage is not telling people to cheer up because something bad might not happen, but is stating that the people should be comforted, that their iniquity has been pardoned, that the Lord is coming, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Moreover, none of the Catholic bibles I’ve read (Douay-Rheims and the New American Bible) punctuate the Luke 23:43 passage the way Lynne Truss suggests it can be punctuated.

Nevertheless, the point is valid; the punctuation is not in the original. Likewise, the chapter and verse divisions are also not in the original text. They are artificial devices, serving in some manner as a gloss or commentary on the text. (“Verse” Article, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature 1880) The same argument can and has been made regarding the separation of the text into individual words, and the addition of vowel points to the Hebrew. The 18th Century Anglican Scholar Adam Clarke, in the Preface to Volume 1 of his Commentary on the Whole Bible, writes the following:

The Mazoretes were the most extensive Jewish Commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone, add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss, through its influence. (Clarke 1853, iii)

It should be noted that the Hebrew word mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת) is a reference to tradition; specifically, the transmission of a tradition. Therefore, the Masoretic text should be understood as fixing a particular understanding of scripture, a particular strain of Jewish thought.

Karel Van Der Toorn, in his book Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, writes:

Biblical scholars have long been aware of the fact that the Greek translation of Jeremiah as extant in the Septuagint is shorter by one-seventh than the text in the Hebrew Bible. Its arrangement of the material, moreover, differs at some points from that in the Hebrew text. The most striking instance is the position of the Oracles against the Nations. Whereas the Septuagin places them right after 25:13 (“ And I will bring upon that land all that I have decreed against it, all that is recorded in this book — that which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations”), the Hebrew Bible has them at the end of the book (Chapters 46-51). The discoveries in the Judean Desert have yielded a fragment of a Hebrew version of Jeremiah (4QJerb) that agrees with the Septuagint (henceforth JerLXX) against the Hebrew text known from the Masoretic tradition (Henceforth JerMT). Based on this fragment, scholars have concluded that the Greek translation goes back to a Hebrew test of Jeremiah that differs in important respects from the Hebrew Bible. The differences between JerMT and JerLXX are such that they cannot be attributed to scribal errors in the process of transmission. Nor can the Hebrew vorlage[i] of the Septuagint be interpreted as an abbreviated version of the book. In view of their different placement of the Oracles against the Nations, JerMT and JerLXX represent two different editions of the same book. Chronologicall, the edition reflected in JerLXX  precedes the one extant in JerMT. (Toorn 2007, 199-200)

Lawrence Boadt, in his book Reading the Old Testament, confirms this. He writes:

There were quite a variety of copies of the Hebrew Old Testament available by the time of Jesus. Since copying had gone on for a long time already, many different editions circulated, some longer with sections added in, some shorter with sections omitted. All had some change or error in them. Since a scribe in one area often copied from a local text, the same error or change often appeared regularly in one place, say, Babylon, but not in text copied in Egypt. Thus, at the time of Christ, three major “families” or groupings of text types could be found: The Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Egyptian. …Only at the end of the first century A.D. did the rabbis decide to end the confusion and select one text, the best they could find, for each part of the Bible. In the Pentateuch they chose the Babylonian tradition, but in other books, such as the prophets  Jeremiah and Isaiah, they followed the Palestinian-type text.

These first century rabbis also inaugurated a method of guaranteeing the text from any more glosses and additions, though not completely from copying errors. They counted words, syllables, and sections, and wrote the totals at the end of each book of the Old Testament. …The standard Hebrew text that resulted from the decisions of these early rabbis has become known as the “Masoretic text,” named after a later group of Jewish scholars of the eighth to eleventh centuries A.D., the masoretes, or “interpreters,” who put vowels into the text, and thus “Fixed the words in a definitive form. No longer could a reader be confused by whether the word qtl in the text meant qotel, “the killer,” or qatal, “he killed.”

The problem is this. The 1st century rabbis fixed the text in a form significantly different than that used by the Jewish diaspora for several hundred years. This was a radical emendation of the text which, when coupled by the Masoretic vowel pointing, fixed the interpretation of the text. Thus it is clear that as Judaism underwent substantial changes subsequent to the destruction of the temple, so too did the text used as the basis for their faith.

From this description of Masoretic textual development, you may well argue that any translation would be an interpretation of the text, and you would be correct. Hebrew is a very different language than Greek, reflecting a very different mindset. Hebrew is a language of actions, a language of concrete things. By contrast, Greek is a language that allows for and indeed almost requires a degree of abstraction. Thus when the 70 (or so) Jewish scholars in Alexandria translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (thereby creating the Septuagint), they were converting one mindset and worldview into a language best suited for a very different mindset and worldview, thereby fixing a particular reading and interpretation of the text. It is important to note that the Septuagint was the text used by the Jewish diaspora until the 2nd century A.D. (or CE, for the scholarly inclined); thus this interpretation and text was widely accepted as representing Judaic thought.

The Septuagint was initially completed in the 3rd century B.C. (or BCE), and initially consisted of only the first five books of Moses (the Torah, or Pentateuch.) Further books were added to the Septuagint over the next three centuries; most of them are translations from the Hebrew Scriptures, containing the books in the Protestant Old Testament. Other books were written during what Protestants call the intertestamental period and added to the Septuagint; some of these books were originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek, while others appear to have been written in Greek. The Septuagint (which is best understood as a loose collection of scrolls rather than a single book) was the authoritative text of the Hebrew Scriptures for several hundred years, well into the Christian era, reflecting a post-exilic, pre-Christian interpretation of Scripture. By contrast, the Masoretic text reflects the rabbinic interpretation of scripture, one hostile to Christianity, and which is at least partially derived from the traditions of the Pharisees.

The growth of Christianity after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ caused a great problem for the Jews. As Oskar Skarsaune notes, “while Judaism was a religio licita, a recognized religion, Christianity was not.” (Skarsaune 2002, 265) The status of the Jews was “vulnerable and fragile”, but nevertheless secured by imperial decree. At first Christianity was viewed as just one of many Jewish sects, covered under imperial decree. It could be argued that Jewish objections to sharing their status led to the persecution of Christians. One notable and early example of this is found in the account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp, where “the multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 70-71) The careful reader will note the resemblance between this account and of Jesus before Pontius Pilate (Luke 23).

One difficulty for the Jews was the new and radically different interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Oskar Skarsaune describes it this way.

In this battle, the Christians were by all objective standards the underdogs. One should keep this in mind when one reads the many harsh and derogatory remarks about the rabbis and rabbinic theology and exegesis in the Christian writers of the second century. Many of the church fathers betray an awareness that the rabbis far excelled them in biblical scholarship; and in later centuries Origin and Jerome were to seek Jewish instructors in order to read the Old Testament in the original text and to understand it better. In the eyes of the Christians, Judaism was not only the elder brother, Judaism was also the mightier and the more learned brother — which no doubt corresponded to the objective facts.

The only thing the Christians had to set against this scholarly superiority was their basic conviction that the rabbis had nevertheless failed to recognize the Messiah when he came, and that therefore their scholarship was combined with a fundamental blindness with regard to the meaning of the Scriptures. What a man like Justin Martyr has to set against rabbinic scholarship is not superior scholarship, but something Justin calls “the grace to understand”. (Skarsaune 2002, 266)

The rabbis held the Christians in disdain because they failed to recognize and acknowledge their superior scholarship and accept their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures; the Christians held the rabbis in disdain because they had failed to recognize the Christ when He came, thereby calling their scholastic interpretive tradition into question.

After the Masorites completed their work, the Masorites made the decision to destroy the older, alternative, non-Masoretic texts. This fixed the Masoretic interpretation of scripture, ensuring that it alone would survive. This was aided by the Jewish insistence that old and worn out scriptures be destroyed (while Christians, having no such tradition, maintained their older texts.) Thus we have little manuscript evidence of the Hebrew scriptures predating the Masoretic texts, while we have a wealth of textual evidence for the Septuagint. What textual evidence we do have supports the idea that the Septuagint represents the older and more accurate text.

The history of the Masoretic text, combined with its known and relatively obvious gloss on the Hebrew text makes it curious that this text is the preferred text for Protestant translations.


Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 1. 6 vols. New York: Ezra Sargeant, 1853.

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.

Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002.

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

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.

[i] Vorlage: a prior version of a text under consideration.

Inspiration and Canonicity

A scroll of the Book of Esther

A scroll of the Book of Esther

Inspiration and Canonicity

The typical Protestant, if he or she were asked, would likely tell you the scriptures contained 66 books. They might even be able to name them. However, the Latins would tell you Sacred Scripture consisted of 77 books, while the Orthodox would say 81. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church would also say 81, but includes a New Testament canon of 35 books and adds additional books to the Old Testament, while numbering them according to the Hebrew scriptures instead of the Septuagint. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is also unusual in having both a narrow canon and a broader canon, although the difference escapes me. (Cowley 1994) And there are other groups, like the Syriac churches and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which have different canonical criteria. (Halnon n.d.) The group Islamic Awareness has an interesting take on problem, entitled “To Every Church a Canon”. Under that heading they produce eight different canons of scripture: the Anglican Church, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Syriac Church. (Islamic Awareness n.d.) How curious that it takes the Muslims to inform us the canon of Scripture is not as settled as we like to think.

Canonicity and the Self-Authenticating Scripture

Protestants are told the scriptures are self-authenticating; because the scriptures are God’s word, they have the power to convince us of their truth. This idea is promoted as a means of determining whether a particular book is canonical or not. However plausible this may sound, this is not a useful principle for determining canonicity. The self-authenticating principle can draw one astray into all manner of enthusiasms, allowing an individual or group to determine their own canon of scripture. This was the error of Marcion, who is the first one to devise a Christian canon that “self-authenticated” his preexisting heresies.

The problem is in the nature of canonicity, which is the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon is determined. Scholars debate two different approaches: the Community-Canon approach, and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. John C. Peckham defines the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” (Peckham 2011) Peckham’s explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach allows for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative.

Objections to the pure Community-Canon approach include the hostile reaction of the community of faith to the prophets. Even Jeremiah’s writings were not immediately recognized as scripture. John C. Peckham writes: “The biblical concept of a true prophet refers to one divinely authorized to speak for God (Jer 15:19; Acts 3:18, 21).28 There is then, by definition, a divinely appointed authority belonging to true prophets that is thereby inconsistent with the epistemological primacy of the community.” Peckham raises another interesting question: “What Constitutes a Legitimate and/or Adequate Community?” (Peckham 2011) There were various canons circulating in the early church; seemingly each Bishop had his own opinion. And there were different communities of faith which considered themselves Christian, and considered themselves to have the authority to determine canonical issues. Among these was the heretic Marcion, whose canon did not include the Old Testament, and included only some of the New Testament. The Gnostics had a variety of texts that were rejected by the surviving Christian Community.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Community-Canon approach is that it uses an epistemological[1] criterion (one determined by propositional knowledge) to determine the suitability of a book for inclusion into the canon. If the Biblical canon is a list of authoritative and inspired books compiled by the Christian community, then only the Christian community can recognize and define that list. If, however, canonicity is an epistemic criterion, then individuals and groups can reason their way towards producing different lists. William Abraham describes the key difference between these two views.

The older way was prepared to leave scripture as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as subject to the ongoing activity of the Spirit without worrying overmuch about epistemology. In my terms, the older way was content to leave scripture as a means of grace. The new fashion was to give primacy to ideas of revelation and inspiration as applying in some unique fashion to the Bible, and to limit scripture to the Bible. (Abraham 1998)

For us to understand this argument, we must discuss the development of an epistemological role in theology — the foundation, source, and validity of revelatory truth. Richard Foley comments: “For the medievals, religious authority and tradition were seen as repositories of wisdom”. According to Foley, it was the enlightenment views of men like Descartes and Locke who “regarded tradition and authority as potential sources of error and took reason to be the corrective”. (Foley 2001, 13) But interestingly, this view did not originate with Locke and Descartes, but has its roots in the writings of Aquinas. William Abraham develops this thesis following this quote from the French theologian Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, who claims Thomas Aquinas inherited the following crucial assumption from the Middle Ages:

[T]he practice of including the Fathers, the conciliar canons and even the pontifical decrees and (more rarely) the more outstanding treatises of the theologians, in the Scriptura Sacra, or again, without distinguishing, in the divina pagina [interpretation of scripture].[2] This is a practice of long standing; there seems no doubt but that it arises from the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ][3], which …had passed into canonical collections, and into those chapters which dealt with sources and rules. (Abraham 1998, ix)

For William Abraham, and likely with Protestants in general, the implications are quite startling. “‘Scripture’ was not originally confined to the Bible; it had a much wider frame of reference. …What we see emerging in what follows is a quite different range of sense and reference. Over time, Scripture was cut back to apply materially to the Bible; and its primary function lay in that of operating as an authority.” (Abraham 1998, ix) According to Abraham, via Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, Aquinas was the first to distinguish the authority of the Bible from that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. (Abraham 1998, x) Thus it was Thomas Aquinas that laid the foundations for the Reformation’s rejection of the Bible as interpreted by the Father’s and the Councils, and in favor of the Bible as interpreted by Reason and Conscience.

As we have spoken unfavorably of the Community-Canon approach, and particularly with its reliance upon human reason and epistemological criteria, we must now consider the Intrinsic Canon approach. If we deal with the two views atomistically, they seem like alternate and opposing approaches. However, we have already noted that the Intrinsic-Canon approach does not preclude the community’s involvement in recognizing that a particular book is authoritative and inspired. Therefore, in practical terms, the two approaches are much the same.

John C. Peckam’s arguments against the Community-Approach apply to the Intrinsic-Canon approach as well. As previously mentioned, Peckham defines the Intrinsic-Canon approach as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” There is something important missing here: is a book inspired apart from its being part of a collection of authoritative books? Historically speaking, the answer is yes, because we know that it took time after a book was written before the community began to be use and refer to it as Scripture. Moreover, there is a difference between a book’s being useful within a community and a book’s being viewed as inspired Scripture. In nearly every case (with the possible exception of 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16)[4], what the New Testament authors speak of as Scripture is the Old Testament; only rarely do the New Testament books imply the creation of new Scripture, and the implications are unclear.

Moreover, the inclusion of the community into the recognition of an authoritative collection of documents creates another problem: which community, using which criteria? John C. Peckam writes:

If each community is authoritative to determine their own canon, then since mutually exclusive canons of sacred writings are posited by various communities, the “Christian canon” is not authoritative over and against the canon of any other community but is authoritative only within the community or communities that determine and/or recognize it. This amounts to a canonical relativism that is mutually exclusive to a universally authoritative biblical canon (cf. Matt 24:14; 28:19–20; Acts 17:30; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16). (Peckham 2011)

The question of Community-Canon vs. Intrinsic-Canon is an example of Systematic Theology (or Dogmatics) run amock. The church has a long history of organizing its dogma around various themes, but the Western Church has taken this to extremes. The Western way of doing theology, going back further than Aquinas, has been to reason one’s way to the truth. This tendency increased with the onset of the Protestant Reformation which promoted the primacy of reason and the individual conscience as a means of interpreting Scripture. What began as organization around simple themes has developed into uncountable definitions of terms and increasingly complex theological taxonomies. The question of canonicity is part of that pattern.

Canonicity and the Holy Spirit

One thing that is left out of the previous definitions and discussions regarding canonicity is the role of the Holy Spirit in determining and preserving the canon of Scripture. The concept of the self-authenticating role of the Scripture provides no room for God to act. Apart from providing His authority and power to the canon, God appears to have no role in the canonical process.

If we desire to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in the canonical process, how might we begin? With the idea of Inspiration, as described in the Bible. The apostle Peter writes: “Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21). The Holy Ghost is described in the Old Testament as the breath of God; thus comes the idea of inspiration, or “God-breathed”.[5] Of the inspiration of Scripture, the apostle Paul writes:

But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Pet 3:14-17)

All scripture is “given by inspiration of God.” It is the spiration or breath of God, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The function of scripture is to “make us wise unto salvation”, which salvation comes “through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” This aligns well with Christ’s description of the role of the Holy Spirit: “When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me” (Joh 15:26). Just as Jesus reveals the Father to us, the Holy Spirit reveals to us the person and work of Christ Jesus.

Jesus calls the Comforter “the Spirit of Truth” (Joh 14:17) To the Father, Jesus prays: “Thy word is truth” (Joh 17:17). Of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says: “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Joh 14:26).

We see from the New Testament that Holy Spirit who inspired the Hebrew Scriptures is the same as the Holy Spirit who works in and through the Church. Jude writes: “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 19-21). From this we understand that those who separate themselves from the Church separate themselves from the Holy Spirit. As they have not the Spirit, they are unable to pray in the Holy Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, works in and through the Church, which is Christ’s body, just as He works in and through the Scriptures.

The apostle Paul writes to Timothy of the Church: “These things write I unto thee, …that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 14-15). The “church of the living God” is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” We need to unpack this a bit. The pillar and ground both refer to the metaphor of the church as a building made up of living stones, with Christ as the cornerstone and the apostles as the foundation (1 Pet 2:5-7; Eph 2:20). The ground should be understood as providing stability; it does not shift, causing the edifice to collapse (Mat 7:24-27). The ground also refers to the “good ground” that brings forth much fruit (Mat 13:23). (The role of a pillar is to hold up and support the roof, and refers to God’s “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3).

Returning to the subject of canonicity, we see the Holy Spirit working in and through the Scripture (the Intrinsic-Canon), just as we see the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church (the Community-Canon). These two explanations of canonicity are not mutually exclusive, but neither makes any sense apart from the Holy Spirit. And how does the Holy Spirit work through Scripture and the Church to produce and maintain the canon? It’s a mystery.

The work of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. We can’t define it, we can’t categorize it, and we can’t explain it. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (Joh 3:8). When we try to define, categorize, and explain canonicity apart from the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we are raising human reason to a place of primacy. We are telling God how to do His job. If the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, our job is simply to plug into the truth and let the Holy Spirit do His work without interference from us.



Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cowley, R. W. “The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today.” Islamic Awareness. 1994. (accessed December 23, 2008).

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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[1] Epistomology is a philosophical concept having to do with the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge.

[2] Divina pagina refers to the interpretation of Scripture, (McGinn 1998, 127) and is one of the three early medieval terms used for theology, the other two being sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura (Fiorenza 1991)

[3] Tradition attributes the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ] to Pope Gelasius I, who was Pope from 492-496. The second part of the Decretum Gelasianum is a list of canonical scriptures. The list includes the Old Testament Scriptures which the Protestants consider to be Apocryphal, and the entire New Testament with the exception of 2 Corinthians. The third part discusses the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The fourth part makes the ecumenical councils authoritative and receives the works of a number of the church fathers. Finally, the fifth part contains a list of books compiled or recognized by heretics and schismatics, works which are not received by the church. It is possible that the list of Apocryphal books represents a tradition that can be traced back to Pope Gelasius, but was not actually written by him.

[4] What Peter refers to as “other scriptures” clearly refers to the Old Testament. It is not certain that Peter intends to place Paul’s writings into that category, although this is implied. Nor does Peter say which of Paul’s many epistles were to be considered as Scripture; we know that Paul wrote more letters than just the ones preserved in the New Testament. And just because Peter may have considered Paul’s writings to be Scripture does not mean they were part of the community’s “collection of authoritative books”. Nevertheless, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield makes a cogent argument that Peter was indeed declaring Paul’s epistles to be Scripture. It should be noted that Warfield is in error when he says Paul authenticates Luke’s Gospel; he could just as easily have been authenticating Matthew’s Gospel. Compare Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, & 1 Timothy 5:18. Also Paul could have been referring only to his first quote from Proverbs as Scripture, as the second quote is little more than the explanation of the first. (Warfield 1882)

[5] Ruach Elohim (Spirit or Breath of God)