The Canon of Scripture

True Scripture is Tested

Some religious groups recognize the Bible as one of several holy books or scriptures. They claim God has spoken through the Vedic Scriptures or Book of Mormon just as He has spoken through the Bible. Evangelical Christians reject that claim because they believe the sixty-six books of the Bible form the completed canon of Scripture. We use the word “canonicity” to describe those books which are included in the Bible because they measure up to the standard of Scripture.

The word canon originally meant a measuring rod or standard of measure. It was applied to the Old Testament as Jewish leaders determined which books should or should not be viewed as Scripture. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were brought together during the life of Ezra (Neh. 8:1). The Old Testament canon was well established by the time of Jesus. Evangelical Christians have followed the example of Jesus and recognize the canonicity of the Old Testament.

4 Criteria for Determining a New Testament Book

The early church used four criteria to determine the canonicity of a New Testament book.

  1. First, each book was written by an apostle or one closely associated with an apostle.
  2. Second, the contents of these books were revelatory in nature.
  3. Third, these books were universally recognized by the church in their teaching and preaching ministry.
  4. Fourth, these books were considered inspired because they bore the marks of inspiration.

When the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were gathered into the canon, the Scriptures were complete.

There are several reasons we believe there will be no additions to the books of Scripture that we consider canonical. Scripture forbids adding or removing anything from itself (Rev. 22:18-19). The task of writing revelation is completed and we now have “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The prophetic and apostolic offices of the early church no longer exist, therefore no one is qualified to write additional Scripture (Eph. 2:20). The widespread acceptance of the Bible among spiritual people as the only authoritative Scrip­ture for Christians is also an indication that only the Bible is in fact God’s Word (1 Cor. 3:6-9; John 10:24).

Translation Is Different

Each Bible translation differs in both purpose and writing style. The simplest translations would be the NLT (New Living Translation) and NIV (New International Version). The most complex would include the KJV (King James Version) and NASB (New American Standard Bible). Some are more in the middle, like NKJV (New King James Version).

The different translations are to reach people with different literary backgrounds and tastes. It would benefit the believer to have multiple translations so they can compare and contrast, to deepen understanding of particular passages. They may find they prefer the way one translation says something over the other, and use that as their primary translation.

How the Books of the Bible were Chosen

Some religious groups today accept the Bible as one of their religious books but they also accept other so-called “revelations from God.” We deny that any of these claims are accurate. The sixty-six books of the Bible form the completed canon of Scripture. “Canon” comes from “reed or measurement.” A canonical book is one that measured up to the standard of Scripture. Today, books in the canon are those that are universally recognized by Christians on the official list of books of Scripture. Christianity accepts sixty-six books of the Bible, thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books.

Josephus, a Jewish historian during the life of Christ, testified that the books of the Old Testament were brought together during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus (464 to 424 B.C.) during the life of Ezra the Scribe (Neh. 8:1, 4, 99 14; 7:6, 11; 12:26, 36). H. C. Theissen notes:

By the end of the second century all but seven books, Hebrews, II and III John, II Peter, Jude, James and Revelation, the so called antilegomena, were recognized as apostolic, and by the end of the fourth century all the twenty-seven books in our present Canon were recognized by all the churches of the West. After the Damasine Council of Rome A.D. 332 and the third Council of Carthage A.D. 397 the question of the Canon was closed in the West. By the year 500 the whole Greek-speaking church seemed also to have accepted all the books in our present New Testament.

The early Christian church used four criteria to determine what books appeared in the canon. First, they included books that were written by apostles or an author in special relationship to an apostle, such as Mark, Luke, and James. Second, the contents were revelatory in nature; hence, apocryphal, (of doubtful origin) and pseudepigraphical (written under pseudonyms or anonymously) books were eliminated. Many such books appeared around 200 B.C. Third, the church accepted books that were universally recognized as Scripture. These were the books that were used in preaching and teaching. Finally, the books that were considered inspired or gave evidence of inspiration where placed in the canon.

There are several reasons why these sixty-six books were included in the canon.

The End of Doctrinal Revelation

God implied in Scripture that the giving of revelation would terminate and come to an end. By implication, those who added to revelation would be judged and those who took away from the revelation would also receive God’s condemnation (Rev. 22:18, 19). This verse is integrated specifically to the last book of the Bible, and by application can be extended to all sixty-six books.

God’s wisdom anticipated the tendency towards corruption of his message, and he issued warnings against those who would “corrupt the Word of God” (2 Cor. 2:12). The same warning was given to those who “pervert the gospel” (Gal. 1:7). Any tendency toward heresy was also condemned by God, apostasy being that which took away from God’s message. God warned in the Old Testament not to add to his Word (Prov. 30:6).

The New Testament concludes with a similar warning (Rev. 22:18, 19). James spoke of the Bible as the imperfect [complete] law of liberty” (James 1:25), again implying a full system of doctrine. Since God warned that no one could add or subtract from his doctrine, we conclude that the revelation of God in the Bible is complete.

Completion of the task of writing revelation

All the truth that God is going to reveal has been revealed. This means God will not add to the truth about himself that he revealed in the Bible. The task of revealing truth is completed. God began by revealing himself (theology proper) and ends with the doctrine of eschatology (the last things).

Everything that man needs on every subject has been revealed, but this does not include everything that man wants to know. Since this revelation is complete in content, there came a time when Jude could say, “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). We do not need additional revelations from God, therefore the canon is closed.

Prophetic Office

Revelation was recorded by “holy men of God … as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21). When Paul says that the church was built upon the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), he was indicating that these two offices were recipients of revelatory truth.

Acceptance by Spiritual People

A message from God is recognized by people who have his Spirit. One of the criteria to determine the canon is its recognition and acceptance by the church. We believe that the message of God is spiritually discerned, and that only those who possess the Holy Spirit can recognize God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and follow me” (John 10:24).

In essence, God’s people will recognize his voice in the written page and obey his commandments. But at the same time, they will recognize that certain claims to inspiration are false claims. While this is a subjective argument and will not stand alone, it will support the other arguments for a closed canon. There has been no large movement by evangelical Christians to recognize a new, inspired book.

The acceptance of the Old and New Testament and the apparent indestructibility of the canon are additional arguments for a closed canon. When the Bible is read alongside its contemporary literature, the mark of God becomes even more obvious in its pages.


There is no good reason for anyone to doubt the authority and accuracy of the Bible. The foundation of Scripture is the basis for Christian living (Matt. 7:24-27). And when the Bible is applied to the lives of Christians, it becomes a further source to demonstrate its credibility.

Paul used this argument when writing to the Corinthians, “Ye are our epistle written in our heart, known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3:2). People today will not recognize the Bible for what it is until they see it lived out in our lives.

Mahatma Gandhi has been identified as one of the most influential men of this century.’ This Hindu leader brought democracy to the nation of India. He was a man who had at one time seriously considered converting to Christianity. After studying Christianity and Christians, Gandhi is reported to have said, “I would be a Christian, if it were not for Christians.” He failed to see the principles of the Bible lived out in the lives of Christians.

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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