Bible Canon Overview

What is the Canon of Holy Scripture?

Therefore we should give up empty and futile concerns, and turn our attention to the glorious and solemn rule (canon) and standard of our tradition. Let us attend to what is good and pleasing and acceptable in the sight of our Maker.
1 Clement 7:2-3

The word Canon is used in four senses with respect to the Church, a rule of life, a listing of scriptural books, rulings of an Ecumenical council or Church law. Clement captures the general sense of the word well. The Canon is the “standards” of our tradition, in this case the rule of life. The word comes to us from the Greek, which borrows the word from Semitic word for “reed.” In Greek Canon carries the sense of a rod or a measuring stick. These are used by builders and craftsmen to layout their work. Hence, a Canon is a “measure” of something, a standard by which we measure.

Early Christian instruction finds canon a convenient word to capture the ethical requirements of the Christian. Scripture and commentary on scripture use canon in the sense of a “rule of life,” a moral and behavior norm for us all. Paul in the letter to the Galatians quoted on the left, lays out the way of the cross as this canon for us. We separate ourselves from the world and join Christ in the re-creation in his resurrection. St. John Chrysostom connects this canon to our new life in Baptism.

This our rule of life he calls ‘a new creature,’ both on account of what is past, and of what is to come; of what is past, because our soul, which had grown old with the oldness of sin, hat been all at once renewed by baptism, as if it had been created again. Wherefore we require a new and heavenly rule of life.
Chrysostom Commentary on Galatians 6:16

This canon for our life provides the limits around which we may speak. Paul points out that boasting only makes sense when measured against this “canon.” The rule setup by Christ has specific roles for us. God has appointed our special work.

For we would not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who recommend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. But we will not boast beyond certain limits, but will confine our boasting according to the rule (canon) of the work to which God has appointed us, that reaches even as far as you.
2 Corinthians 10:12-13, RSV

But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule (canon), upon the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:14-16, RSV

The use of the word canon for rules that come from ecumenical councils and Church law is a natural extension of this canon of life. The norms of behavior in Church law and the rules of faith outlined by the council make the rule of life clearer. We can see that the “canon” of life sketched out in scripture becomes more explicit in the “canons” of the Church.

Canon of Scripture

When applied to scripture canon takes on a double meaning. Here scripture itself is the canon by which these other canons are measured and derived. But at the same time there is a canon of scripture, a listing of particular books that the community of the Church acknowledges as inspired by God. In a sense scripture is the canon of canons, the measure of the measures of our life.

The content of scripture provides the base for creating these rules of life. The tradition of the early Church interprets these scriptures and creates the canons of the Church. Periodically the leaders of the assembly meet in council and write definitive canons of this interpretation. Thus we stand today with a consistent body of guidelines that benefit from the full communion of Church Fathers. When new challenges arise we have a full complement of interpretive information to consult. We can measure our own challenge and potential responses against scripture and the fathers.

Formation of a Canon

But how was the canon of scripture formed? Scripture is the baseline measure for our actions and the foundation of all interpretation. But the bible we hold in our hands today contains a wide variety of literatures spanning hundreds of years. Christians divide the Bible into the Old and New Testaments. Clearly, the authors of the NT quote and refer to OT writings as scripture. But less clear is what combination of books this complete OT contained.

Throughout the first century Christian writings circulated and were collected. The Church used these for liturgy and instruction of the faithful. As disagreements in interpretation arose these writings became the standard by which arguments could be made. These discussions led to further clarification about what can be considered scripture, the content of the canon of scripture. Three requirements were ultimately decided:

  • Apostolic source
  • Sound doctrine
  • Universally accepted

By the end of the fourth century, the Bible as we have it today was formed. The whole process of the formation of the canon was a community effort. The canon is the rule of the community, but also the product of a community process. The canon of scripture reflects the Christian community’s values and ideal.

Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard (canon) that we have already attained.
Phillipians 3:13-16

Originally Posted June 27, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010