Canonization: a Quick and Dirty Guide
It’s curious that, although so many passionate arguments are waged over how to interpret the Bible, many Christians can’t articulate why they believe the books in the Bible are divinely inspired, and have no idea how the sixty-six books were chosen to represent the whole of Scripture. I’m going to attempt to give an approachable introduction to the issue of how we got our Bible—essentially a “quick and dirty” guide that provides a little satisfaction if this isn’t a big issue for you, and an open door to becoming informed if it is.
First, though, the twenty-dollar word: "canonization" just refers to how Scripture becomes accepted as authoritative. It’s important to note that canonization doesn’t indicate that the Church (or lowercase-c church, depending on the context) has authority to decide what texts govern it, but only that it formally recognizes God’s revelation in particular texts. Think of it like a physicist formulating a scientific law. He isn’t telling matter and energy how to behave: he has no authority to do that. Rather, he’s formally describing what they do or are.
There’s somewhat of a procedural divide between Old and New Testament canonization. Literally thousands of years of tradition establish the 39 Old Testament books as the authoritative revelation of God and story of His interactions with humanity. (The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books, but that’s only because the same content is divided up differently.) A better criterion than those thousands of years of tradition, though, is that Jesus quoted from something like all but two Old Testament books, in contexts that indicated that He accepted them as true—and if they were good enough for Jesus, who was Himself God, that sounds pretty good to me.
New Testament canonization operated slightly differently. Nearly the whole present-day New Testament was recognized as authoritative without dispute or even question by the 300s AD. Criteria for canonization included
- apostolic/prophetic authorship,
- witness of the Spirit,
- acceptance by the people of God, and
- consistency with other Scriptures.
I realize that this has probably raised more questions than it’s answered, and I’m okay with that—in fact, it’s my goal. I hope that you’re unsatisfied with this surface-level skimming of the topic of Biblical authority, because it’s a topic that deserves a lot of attention and careful thought, and it’s obviously a pretty fundamental issue for every Christian to understand. I’ve included a few outstanding resources which will point you to still more resources: happy reading, and may your love abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight as you pursue truth on this issue.
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