How Did the Church Get Its Bible?

February 2019 Credo

Reader’s Question: How was the canon of Scripture determined and finalised by the Church?

The word ‘canon’ can be traced to the Greek word kanonas, which could mean ‘measuring-rod’, ‘standard’, ‘list’ or ‘index’. The third century theologian, Origen, used ‘canon’ with reference to the Bible’s role as the ‘standard’ or ‘rule of faith’ on the basis of which the Church must assess religious doctrines and practices. It was Athanasius (AD 296-373) who used ‘canon’ to refer to the list of books in the Bible that the Church regarded as God’s revelation and therefore as authoritative.

How the Church arrived at this list and the criteria that guided her in the entire process is an important story that many Christians are unfamiliar with. However, it is also a long and convoluted story that this short article is unable to tell in detail. What is attempted here is only a very brief sketch of this fascinating history.

The Church has, from its inception, accepted the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible comprising thirty-nine books. These books were generally divided into three sections or divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The Law comprises the five books of Moses, and the Prophets included the books of the ‘Former Prophets’ (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), the ‘Major Prophets’ (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), as well as the ‘Latter Prophets’ (or the ‘Minor’ Prophets). Under the Writings we find the Wisdom Literature (Psalms, Proverbs and Job), the Megillot or the ‘five scrolls’ (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and Histories (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles).

Although there is insufficient evidence to be entirely certain, most scholars are of the view that the order of the books that appear in the Hebrew Bible is the same order which Jesus and his contemporaries were acquainted with. It is also the order that is found in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was completed in the 3rd century BC that Jesus and Paul used.

Thus, the early Church regarded the Hebrew Bible as its authoritative Scripture. But gradually, this body of literature was supplemented by other writings, and, at around the dawn of the second century AD, the terms ‘Old Testament’ (Greek: palaia diatheke) and ‘New Testament’ (Greek: kaine diatheke) were used sporadically to distinguish the two corpuses.

In roughly the same period (i.e., the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd), two collections of Christian writings became evident in the liturgies of the early church and in the writings of her theologians and ministers: the Fourfold Gospels and the Pauline epistles.

By the fourth century, the great historian of the early Church, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340), was able to provide a comprehensive list of the books used by the Church, which he divided into ‘recognised books’ (Greek: homologoumena) and ‘disputed books’ (Greek: antilegomena).

Among the recognised books are the Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 Peter, and 1 John. The jury was still out with regard to James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.

But by the time Athanasius (ca. 296-373) became Patriarch of Alexandria, there’s evidence that the Church recognised the entire list of the books in the New Testament that we have them today as authoritative and canonical. In his famous 39th Festal Letter (AD 367), Athanasius provides the following list:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one: of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

Describing them as ‘canonical writings’, Athanasius maintains that ‘[t]hese are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain, In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these’.

The canonisation process was somewhat complexified by the presence of other texts that jostled to be included. Among them were Gnostic Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth. In addition, the heretic Marcion rejected the canonical status of the Old Testament, and pontificated that only the Gospel of Luke and the epistles of Paul must be regarded as authoritative because they were unblemished by the corruptions of the Judaizers.

The Fathers of the Church categorically rejected the Gnostic Gospels as authoritative, and unapologetically condemned Marcion as a heretic, despite his many followers and formidable influence.

Discussion on the formation of the canon of Scripture will not be complete without addressing – even if very briefly – the canonical status of the Apocrypha (1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the Epistle of ‘Jeremy’ [Jeremiah]). These books are not found in the Hebrew Bible, and the leaders of official Judaism do not regard them as canonical.

But the early Church’s attitude and reception of these books was at best mixed. The early Greek Fathers of the Church did not recognise these books as canonical but found them beneficial for the edification of the Christian community. With the exception of Jerome, the Latin Fathers generally regarded them as if they were canonical.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent convened by the Roman Catholic Church officially affirmed the full canonical status of the books of the Apocrypha. The Reformers did not regard them as canonical, but, like the early Greek Fathers, allowed them to be read in Church only ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’.

If we read the long and tedious process of the formation of the canon of Scripture only through the lens of history, we might be led to conclude that the canon is a purely human construction, that it was the Church that made the canon. But it would be a mistake to read this story in this reductive manner.

The story must also be read theologically. So read, the story of the canonisation of Scripture is the story of the work of the same Spirit by whose inspiration and superintendence brought into being this collection of texts that reveal God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Article 5 of the Belgic Confession summarises well the nature of Scripture, and its relationship to the Holy Spirit and the Church:

We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without doubt all things contained in them – not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and because they prove themselves to be from God.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.