The problem of canon describes the issue of why do we have the New Testament books we have? Why 27 books? Why not 28? Why not 5 gospels? Scholars have attacked Christianity by claiming that Christians don’t know which books should belong to the New Testament canon and which ones shouldn’t.
If we don’t know the answer to why these 27 books, then we do have a problem. But it’s not the Achilles heel of Christian faith that critics claim it is. We Christians do have an answer.
Definition of Canon
The Greek word “kanon” means “rule or measure” (i.e. a measuring rod or standard of evaluation). Today it refers to a list of books that are accepted by the churches as the measuring rod of Christian faith.
As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between ‘lightening’ and ‘lightening bug.'” Scholars look at the same evidence and date the canon differently because they define “canon” differently. How we define canon determines how we date the New Testament canon.
There are 3 complementary definitions and we need all of them.
Canon as exclusive list
The canon as a fixed, final, closed list. This definition defines the canon by the end of the process. You have a canon when the debate ends and consensus is reached. When you have a list to which nothing can be added or taken away, then you have a canon.
If you define canon by the end of the process, then you date the New Testament canon to the 4th-5th century.
Pros: This definition recognizes that the canon evolved over a period of time.
Cons: This definition gives the impression that the church was in the dark until the New Testament light clicked on in the 5th century. But the historical evidence suggests Christians knew which books were authoritative long before the 5th century.
Cons: This definition also suggests the church did something to “create” the canon in the 5th century. But we have a canon regardless of whether the church acts or not.
You have a canon when you see Christians using certain books as Scripture, even if the list is not fixed. Once we see the New Testament books function as Scripture and recognized as authoritative in the churches, we see a canon.
If you use this functional definition, we see a New Testament canon very early in the second century.
Pros: This definition recognizes that a core collection of 22 out of our 27 books functioned as Scripture very early in church history with very little debate. Only the tiny books were in question. (Smaller books tend to get overlooked.)
Cons: This definition also implies the church has to do something to create the canon (i.e. treat the books as Scripture). But the New Testament canon is not an authoritative list of books, but rather a list of authoritative books.
Canon as gift of God
The canon is the list of books that God gave to His church. This definition looks at the canon from God’s perspective. If God inspired an author to teach and write His message, it is authoritative and part of the canon.
If you hold this definition, you have a canon in the 1st century, as soon as the authors wrote the book. The canon was completed when the last authoritative author wrote his last letter (i.e. when the Apostle John finished writing Revelation).
Pros: This definition reminds us that these books have authority regardless of whether the church recognizes them.
Cons: The church can still debate which books are authoritative gifts from God.
Together these 3 definitions give us a complete picture: God gave His people the gift of authoritative books, the church began to use them as Scripture and reached a consensus on the fixed list.
- The New Testament Canon by Michael Kruger
- The Canon of Scripture by FF Bruce
- The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance by Bruce Metzger
- Introduction to the New Testament