10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #1: “The Term ‘Canon’ Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books”

Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.

Graham Stanton has correctly observed, “In discussions of the emergence of the canon, whether of the Old or the New Testament writings, definitions are all important, and the devil is in the detail.”[1] Indeed, one’s definition of canon drives one’s historical conclusions about canon–particularly regarding its date.  And precisely for this reason, there has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.”  However, in recent years, that debate has taken an interesting turn.  One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one.  In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.”  This can be called the exclusive definition.

The impact of this new “consensus” has been profound on canonical studies:  If you cannot have a canon until books are in a closed, final list, then there could not be a canon until the fourth or even fifth century at the earliest.  Thus, this definition has been used to push the date of canon further and further back into the later centuries of the church. Remarkably, then, the date for canon has become later and later while the historical evidence hasn’t changed at all.

But, is the exclusive definition the best definition for canon?  And are we obligated to use it to the exclusion of all others?  Although this definition rightly captures the fact that the boundaries of the canon had fluid edges prior to the fourth century, I think it creates more problems than it solves.  A number of concerns:

1. It is difficult to believe that the sharp Scripture-canon distinction drawn by modern advocates of the exclusive definition would have been so readily shared by their historical counterparts in the second century.  Would early Christians have regarded Scripture as fluid and open-ended and only canon as limited and restricted?  If they were able to say that certain books in their library were Scripture, then that implies they would have been able to say that other books in their library were not Scripture.  But, if they are able to say which books are (and are not) Scripture, then how is that materially different than saying which books are in (or not in) a canon?   Thus, it seems some degree of limitation and exclusion is already implied in the term “Scripture.”

2. While the exclusive definition insists the term canon cannot be used till the New Testament collection has been officially “closed,” significant ambiguity remains on what, exactly, constitutes this closing.  If it is absolute uniformity of practice, across all of Christendom, then, on those terms, there was still not a canon even in the fourth century.  Indeed, on those terms we still do not have a canon even today!  If the closing of the canon refers to a formal, official act of the New Testament church then we hard pressed to find such an act before the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The fact of the matter is that when we look into the history of the canon we realize that there was never a time where the boundaries of the New Testament were closed in the way the exclusive definition would require.

3. This leads us to arguably the most foundational problem for this definition.  Inherent to the exclusive definition is an insistence that the fourth century represents such a profoundly different stage in the development of the New Testament that it warrants a decisive change in terminology. But, was the canon so very different in the fourth century?   While a broader degree of consensus was no doubt achieved by this point, the core books of the New Testament—the four gospels and the majority of Paul’s epistles—had already been recognized and received for centuries.   Whatever supposedly happened in the fourth century neither altered the status of these books nor increased their authority. The abrupt change in terminology gives the impression that these books bore some lesser status prior to this point; it communicates that Christians only had Scripture and not a canon.  Or, as one scholar put it, prior to the fourth century Christian only had a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts.[2]  But this is misleading at best.

In light of these concerns, we should not be forced to use just this single definition. If we are to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of canon, we must also let other definitions have a voice. Brevard Childs has highlighted what we might call the functional definition which suggests we have a canon as soon as a book is used as Scripture by early Christians.  On this definition, we would have a canon at least by the early second century.  And I have argued for a third definition in my forthcoming article for Tyndale Bulletin that would define canon as the books God gave his corporate church (what I call the ontological definition).  One might say this views canon from a divine perspective.  On this definition, we would have a “canon” as soon as these books were written.

Ironically, then, perhaps the debate over canon is best addressed not by choosing one definition, but by allowing for the legitimacy of multiple definitions that interface with one another.  If canon is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, then perhaps it is best defined in a multi-dimensional fashion.


[1] “The Gospels in Justin and Irenaeus,” 370.

[2] Dungan, Constantine’s Bible, 132-133.


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #1: “The Term ‘Canon’ Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books” — 11 Comments

  1. Pingback: What I Read Online – 04/03/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  2. Dr. Kruger,

    Thanks for this article, it is very enlightening. Could one say that the canon could be seen as developing in an organic manner, akin to a Vos-like view of the development of redemptive history? Much like the Gospel is contained in seed form in Gen 3:15, could we see the canon as developing and being progressively given to the Church by God over a period of time?

    Very much looking forward to your new book.



    • Yes, Richie, I think that’s exactly right. In chapter 5 of my forthcoming book I argue that the canon is primarily a natural,organic development. I will cover the same topic in a later installment of this blog series.

  3. Dr.Kruger,

    Thanks for your considerable erudition. A tangential question: Can you shed any light on the persistent question dogging the canonicity (however defined) of the book of Revelation? I understand that even Luther has his doubts. Thank you!

    • Thanks John. Revelation’s journey into the canon is an interesting story and not what people think. It was actually accepted quite early and most the doubts arose about it at later point, mainly due to the criticisms of Dionysius of Corinth. This caused some later doubts about it mainly in the East.

  4. Dear Dr. Kruger – a very interesting website and a most interesting piece. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has no closed canon, and some of the other non-Chalcedonian Orthodox have different numbers of books they recognised as canonical – all of which tends towards convincing me that your argument here is very well-founded.

    • Thanks John. Yes there is not pure unanimity on the canon even now. However there is overwhelming consensus on the NT canon even though there are still pockets of disagreement.

  5. Really helpful article here Dr Kruger, and very accessible. May I ask: what is to be lost (or gained, depending on one’s viewpoint) on insisting on a rigid definition of canon, and thus establishing a later date for canonical closure? Thanks.

    • Thanks, Matt. As I noted in my article, some have used the exclusive definition of canon to give the impression that pre-fourth century Christianity was a literary ‘free for all’ with only a vague and unbounded notion of Scripture. For critics of the canon, this definition would be a positive; for defenders of the traditional view of canon it would be a negative. Either way, I think the exclusive definition does not fully capture the reality of what canon is prior to the fourth century. Thus, as I have argued, there needs to be a balanced perspectives on its definition.

  6. Dear Michael,

    Excellent beginning article. I am looking forward to more. It seems that by 2 Peter 3 that Paul’s letters were considered Scripture, and if not, very close to Scripture. I also find that considering what Marcion, the Gnostics, and other groups, that the shape and form of the NT Canon had already developed. Regarding Matthew, Will Varner’s work on Didache shows that Matthew was already considered Scripture as early as 50-60 AD. This, then throws new light on when some of these books were being used as Scripture.

    Then there is the issue of the relationship of the OT Canon on the NT Canon both in its development and use. That will probably be worth a series of articles on in themselves considering Marcion’s attack on the OT where the God of the OT is not the God of the NT.

    Finally, there is the issue of the LXX and the Hebrew text and their respective use in the quotes and allusions in the NT. Which LXX is being used? The Old Greek? Theodotion?

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    • Thanks, Bryant. Good to hear from you. Yes, I think there is considerable (and often overlooked) evidence within the NT itself for the beginnings of the canon. Not only 2 Peter 3 (as you mentioned), but also 1 Tim 5:18 (where Paul appears to cite Luke?). You also raise a number of other important issues. Hopefully, these can be addressed in future blog articles.