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What Is the Biblical Canon and Why Should Christians Know about It?

What Is the Biblical Canon and Why Should Christians Know about It?

What is the biblical canon? When you think of the word "canon," images of the Bible might not immediately come to mind. You might think of cameras or bombs but definitely not Bibles.

That is, unless you know the answer to ‘what is the Biblical canon?’ If you have never heard that term before it simply refers to the books that were chosen to make up the Bible that we currently have today. These books were given by God to his people and are useful for the formation of doctrine and for teaching and training. This is how Paul told it to Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

When it comes to answering "what is the Biblical canon?" The questions that often arise are how were these books chosen and why these books were chosen over some of the others. This is all valuable knowledge to have, so you can understand and trust the Bible that you have today.

What Is the Biblical Canon?

Many people look at the Bible as one book written by one author. In fact, this is not the case. What makes the Bible unique is that it is one book - however it was written by about 40 different authors, spanning a period of over 1500 years. In essence, the Bible is a compilation of different books written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

This not only makes the Bible unique but truly speaks to its authenticity because many of the authors did not know each other yet there is a continuous flow and theme throughout the book. Only the hand of God could cause something to happen to that degree with that many different authors and that great a time span between the first book written and the last.

The Old Testament Canon

The books of the Old Testament were written somewhere between 1400 BC and 400 BC. One of the things to recognize is there is a gap between the last book written in the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. This gap lasts about 400 years. The reason I mention this is that by the time the New Testament begins the Old Testament canon is pretty much settled.

There is some, but not too much, debate as to which books are part of the canon of the Old Testament but for the most part it was fairly established and recognized. There may have been conversation of what the meaning of the Law and the Prophets was. But overall, there was not much issue over which books belonged there.

Rather than diminishing the importance, this gap between Old Testament and New Testament solidified these books as belonging to the canon.

The New Testament Canon

The books of the New Testament were written somewhere between 45-90 AD. However, the canon of the New Testament was not finalized until about 397 AD. One of the things that motivated the process of establishing a New Testament canon was a gentleman named Marcion. He was a Christian-leader-turned heretic who rejected many of the teachings of the scriptures and, for the most part, rejected the entire Old Testament.

His heretical views underscored the necessity to establish what was and what was not to be part of the Biblical canon. This process of canonization was neither quick nor was it considered lightly. The goal was to help define and preserve what were the true and authentic doctrines and teachings of the faith. This was essential work that would allow Christianity to stay true to its foundational teachings.

How Were the Books Chosen in the Biblical Canon?

What many people may not realize is that there were more books written other than those included in the Biblical canon. There were certain tests that were applied to help decide what books would be included as part of the canon and what books would be left out. To give you a framework of this process let me share with you some of the tests that were applied in this process.

1 – Authorship

The first test was authorship, who wrote the book. Old Testament authorship referred to the authority of the person writing it. Were they a lawgiver, a prophet, or a leader in Israel? In the New Testament, the authority came from the person either being an apostle or someone who was backed by or closely connected to an apostle.

2 – Inspiration

The question had to be asked, "was this book inspired by God?" This was determined by the writings themselves meaning they had to have God’s handprint on them. Without inspiration, they would not be included.

3 – Universal Acceptance

In general, if these books were included, it was the writings and content were universally accepted by the different churches or the leaders and teachers in Israel.

Here is how Dr. Chafer, a theologian who was the founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary, put it.

“The authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments which gives to them their canonical preëminence is attributable to at least seven different sources. (1) The Scriptures are authoritative being God-breathed. (2) The Scriptures are authoritative being written by chosen men who were “borne along” by the Holy Spirit. (3) The Scriptures are authoritative being accredited by those who first received them. (4) The Scriptures are authoritative being attested by the Lord Jesus Christ-the Second Person of the Godhead. (5) The Scriptures are authoritative being received, delivered, and attested by the Prophets. (6) The Scriptures are authoritative being the Word employed by God the Holy Spirit. (7) The authority of the Bible is seen in the fact that without the slightest deflection it vindicates and satisfies its every claim.”

It was upon these types of foundations that we have the Bible that we have today.

The important process of canonization was not a process to discover inspiration, it was a process to authenticate it. In other words, they didn’t try to create an inspiration that did not exist but simply they wanted to recognize the inspiration that did. 

Can We Trust the Biblical Canon?

A common question that many people will ask is can the Bible be trusted. With all of the different translations does that disqualify the authenticity and accuracy of the scriptures? When you are faced with these types of questions it is good to know the answer to ‘what is the Biblical canon’ as well as how the Biblical canon was put together.

When you know this, it will give you the confidence to trust in the word of God as it is. You will understand that none of this was put together by the will of man and honestly even if they tried there would be no way that 40 different authors over a period of 1500 years who didn’t all know each other could write anything that would be so uniform and consistent in thought, truth, and ideas.

The canonization of Scripture recognizes this, and it is why you can put your trust in the scriptures we have today. They were God’s Word when they were written, and they are God’s Word still today.

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Matthew 5:18

Further Reading

What Is the Biblical Canon - Bible Dictionary

What Are the Apocryphal Books and Do They Belong in the Bible?

What Is the Pseudepigrapha?

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Clarence Haynes 1200x1200Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit