The Limits of Canon

For those of us who grew up within Protestantism, especially in the Bible belt, it’s likely that we were seldom ever confronted with questions concerning the limits of the biblical canon.

If ever we happened to come across a NRSV (including Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books), we may have possibly responded with, “What is this? The book of Mormon or something?” OK, maybe I’m not giving my fellow southerners enough credit. It’s more likely we thought, “This must be a Catholic Bible.” Ecumenical might as well mean heretical for some.

It’s a legitimate concern for Christians of whatever tradition to have a reasonable and defensive position on what books are considered “inspired” by God—which books ought to be in our Bibles and read as the inspired Word of God—those books which are the standard biblical text.

I personally believe the process of canonization should follow a few basic criteria: (1) Does the text claim divine inspiration? (2) Was the text written by a true prophet or an apostle of Christ? (3) Is the text consistent with the orthodox message of other inspired texts? (4) Is the text broadly accepted by adherents and followers of Judaism and Christianity? (5) Does the text have transformative power for readers? Was it widely used for teaching and liturgical purposes within the Early Church?

It is clear that the canonizing of Scripture is a communal effort that took place over the first two centuries of the church. Contrary to Dan Brown’s fictional “The Davinci Code,” I reject the idea that Constantine was responsible for the limits placed on the canon at the First Council of Nicea in AD 325. There is no evidence to support the idea that the biblical canon was discussed at Nicea. Arianism (the Father created the Son) and the nature of Christ (the articulation of his deity) was the primary concern of the council.

No, the evidence suggests that the collection of NT writings had been formulating years prior due to the rising threat of Gnosticism. This heresy brought about the canonization process, the earliest creeds, and the articulation of Christian theology. All of this happened in the ecclesiastical community one-two generation(s) removed from the apostles.

That being the case, it ought to be through the efforts of the community that a person comes to any particular conclusion regarding the limits of the Biblical canon—lest they follow in the infamous steps of the second-century heretic, Marcion, or other Christian gnostic pretenders.

There are several historic Christian traditions that have set boundaries upon the canon—the primary canons being the Protestant and Catholic of the Western tradition, and the Greek Orthodox tradition of the East.

There is a great deal of agreement among these traditions as to what books should be included in the canon of Scripture, but there is still a noticeable difference with some books being placed in an “appendix,” some being dubbed as “apocrypha” or “deuterocanonical,” and others being entirely excluded from the collection altogether.

Like most Christian traditions, I accept the time-honored 27 books of the New Testament. However, I do not accept those “apocryphal” or intertestamental (e.g. Jubilees, Enoch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, etc.) books as being on the same level of inspiration as the rest of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments (i.e. Protestant Canon).

I use the criteria mentioned above, along with the interpretive methods of my own communal tradition, in order to reach that conclusion.

I do believe those texts that lay beyond the limits of canon can be a tremendous help in reconstructing the historical and theological developments during the biblical period. However, they do not find overwhelming support for canonicity based off the reasonable and communal guidelines for canonization set forth in this post.

How have you worked these things out in your own tradition?


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

12 responses to “The Limits of Canon

  • Jan Eisele

    “apocrypha” or “deuterocanonical,” David, can you define…or simplify those two terms for me? It would help my understanding.
    When it comes to anything other than what is traditionally considered a Bible book….I fall into the lot of those who dismiss them as not Biblical. : )

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Jan,
      Apocrypha: lit.”hidden things”
      Protestants use this term to describe those books outside of the biblical (66 book) canon that Catholics would call deuterocanonical (i.e. secondary books) and to some level inspired by God.

      Yes, that was my point. Many believers in the south are not aware that some Christian traditions accept some books into the canon that Protestants would consider “not biblical” as you put it. I am simply proposing that instead of simply denying those apocryphal books as being biblical because that’s what were taught, or because they weren’t in the Bible we grew up with, we should have a more sound and reasonable explanation. So, I mentioned the criteria above as guidelines that I use to draw my conclusions about the biblical canon.


  • Josh

    It’s interesting you bring this up, David. I’ve recently come across the Odes of Solomon and find many of them to be quite beautiful and in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament. Have you ever read them?

    Martin Luther made a comment once to which I find myself more and more saying “amen.” He said: “Christ is the Master; the scriptures are only the servant. The true way to test all the books is to see whether they work the will of Christ or not. No book which does not preach Christ can be apostolic, though Peter or Paul were its author. And no book which does preach Christ can fail to be apostolic, although Judas, Ananias, Pilate, or Herod were its author.”

    What do you say to that?

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Josh, I have read some of them. I enjoy several of the apocryphal/pseudepigraphal books.

      I like the heart of what Luther stated about Christ being the master and whether they work the will of Christ or not. However, I do think, as a community, we are in need of criteria along the lines of what I have presented above, which plenty others have embraced as well. Luther is a prime example of that very need. He called the book of James a “strawy epistle” and placed it, along with Hebrews and the apocalyptic book of Revelation (I think), at the back of his Bible separated by several pages. Why? Because he was ignorant of Second Temple Judaism and reacting to his own biases and proclivities of his 16th century context. So, I think using some reasonable criteria within informed and educated community is not only helpful but necessary.

      Thanks for commenting, bro.

  • Theron Mathis

    I grew up Protestant with no real exposure of these books, and even considered them a little dangerous or forbidden. As an adult, I became an Orthodox Christian, and they are part of our canon (because of their inclusion in the Septuagint).

    Recently our church published an OT translation of the Septuagint, and because I do adult education at our church, several people approached me about doing a class on these extra books. My initial response was, “I don’t know them either.”

    I spent some time studying them for a teaching series that I eventually got published into a book.

    One of the biggest takeaways from these books is that all Christians should read them, even if they doubt their canonicity. I would say they helped me understand the NT much better and lay the groundwork for a lot of the teaching of Jesus and Paul. The other nice surprise was how much they reveal the coming Christ.

    deSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha is the best scholarly book I found on the subject. He is a Methodist, and does not consider them canonical but finds tremendous spiritual and academic benefit in reading them. If you are looking for a quick overview with a devotional bent, my book would work.

  • Theron Mathis

    The Rest of the Bible…here’s the Amazon link:

    For us, these books have always been part of the OT canon, yet that does not mean they receive the same authority as the Gospels or even the Pentateuch. We can’t ignore them either because we use them liturgically. The Wisdom of Sirach is read at a handful of feast days, and the two songs by the 3 men in the Fiery Furnace form the basis for a lot of hymnography.

  • John Metz

    Thanks for the post, David.

    It has been years since I looked at the apocryphal books but I did read them carefully a long time ago. I found them to be inconsistent with the genuine books of the canon and so, I did not and do not accept them as such. However, that is not to say that all of them have no value concerning history, etc.

    Your five points are very good. It is not that the canon was empowered by the councils; rather, the councils recognized the inherent authenticity of the canon.

    This is one we agree on!

  • James

    The whole concept of Cannon is very difficult for me. Growing up in a traditional christian family and church, it was just something that you don’t question. The implied ideology was that the church had received leather bound, English, ESV Bibles from God himself. This wasn’t actually taught but it was thought.

    The actual process for canonization is much more subjective than most people like to think and when you actually talk about how early church fathers sat down and basically voted (obviously based on what I would consider decent criteria) on which books would be accepted and which wouldn’t, many Christians freeze. They don’t know what to do with that concept. It scares them. It scares me.

    At the end of the day, I’m okay using a book that was compiled by those who walked the earth before me. I’m okay placing my trust in the wisdom of the early church fathers and using the books that they used. But then I don’t hold to strict inerrancy, and I understand inspiration differently than most fundamental Christians that I know. Maybe that makes cannonicity easier to deal with.

    Great article.


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