The Canon Question

By Tom Brown

 “I would not have believed the gospel, unless the authority of the Church had induced me.” (St. Augustine, Contra Ep. Fund., V, 6.)


As Christians, how is it that we know we are saved by the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God? For those raised as Christians, the Sunday School sing-song answer “for the Bible tells me so” may come to mind, and this fairly well summarizes the Protestant teaching on the communication of saving truth. The Belgic Confession, an historical expression of the Reformed faith used widely in Dutch denominations, asserts that we know God by the beauty of creation, and “more openly by his holy and divine Word.” 1 The Westminster Confession of Faith, widely adopted by Presbyterian denominations with traditionally Scottish origins, contains a comparable teaching: while the “light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable,” we still need revealed truth to possess the “knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.” 2 Regarding this revelation, the Westminster Confession holds that God chose “to commit the same wholly unto writing.” 3

But this answer, that we know saving truth from the Bible, pushes the question back. What is the Bible? Our previous two articles, Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture and Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority, explored aspects of this question, including what we believe about the Bible, and our notion of the Bible as inerrant truth. In this paper I intend to explore another aspect of the question “What is the Bible?,” and this I will refer to as the Canon Question: “By what criterion do we know which texts comprise the Bible?” This is an essential question all Christians should be able to answer, but, in my experience in discussing this with other believers, it is to many a foreign subject matter. Without understanding why we believe the Gospel of Mark, or the Epistle of James, or the book of Esther to be among those writings inspired by the Holy Spirit, we cannot give a principled reason why we believe these books to be Scripture. Without any principled reason why we believe these books to be Scripture, we have no principled reason or basis for knowing what is the deposit of faith, and thus cannot give an answer to ‘everyone who asks us to give a reason for the hope we have.’ 4

In this article, I argue that Reformed theology is intrinsically incapable of answering the Canon Question. The confessional and classical Reformed answer to the Canon Question, which will be considered in depth in section II.A., relies upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of each believer to give assurance of a text’s canonicity. I will argue that since any two Spirit-filled Christians who are new to Scripture might not agree that any given text is canonical, this test is of dubious reliability, and thus cannot be our ultimate measure of Scripture. The inherent subjectivity of this classical Reformed basis for the canon has led to a variety of different answers to the Canon Question, each seeking a more objective basis for identifying God-breathed texts. These various efforts to articulate an objective test for the canon are not mutually exclusive. They can be summarized as follows: the Old Testament canon is that set of Hebrew texts that were canonized by Jewish leaders of Jerusalem around the time of Christ; the New Testament canon is defined as those books which are immediately or mediately of Apostolic authorship; and finally, the canon is defined as those books which received widespread acceptance in the early Church (until a certain point in time). I will explore these topics, as well as Martin Luther’s view that the canon properly consists of those Old and New Testament books which “preach Christ,” in the remainder of section II. There, I shall argue that, given the Reformed assumption that whatever authoritatively testifies to the canonicity of Scripture must be more authoritative than Scripture, each of them necessarily places extra-biblical evidence above Scripture in its effort to objectively identify the canon. This places something from outside of Scripture above Scripture, and thereby violates the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.

In Section III, I argue that the very process of answering the Canon Question violates sola scriptura. This is because answering the question must involve extra-Biblical human judgment. This judgment is placed over Scripture because it defines the canon. By placing this judgment above the sole permitted infallible authority, the process of answering the question violates sola scriptura. As I will conclude, the fundamental problem for the sola scriptura position is that it has no way of determining the canon that is faithful to its own concept of authority.


Over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation, a variety of theories have sprung up that attempt to articulate an objective test for determining a text’s canonicity. The answers to the Canon Question that I describe here are comprehensive of the Protestant positions, although not exhaustive. Outlying variants on these theories abound, but the principal theories in use by Reformed and evangelical scholars are included below.5 These principal theories share the characteristics of purporting to reach their conclusion objectively, and (although being different tests) of reaching the same 66-book conclusion. The late Covenant Seminary professor R. Laird Harris believed that there is room within Protestant scholarship for multiple, and perhaps even competing, principles for determining the same canon:

[S]everal differing views concerning the principle of determination of the canon–views not necessarily exclusive–have been held through the centuries, and there is room for some differences of opinion on this point. . . . It is freely acknowledged that the views on canonicity here expressed are not the only views held by conservative Biblical scholars.6

For Harris, having a variety of canon theories within the Protestant academy is tolerable, so long as they each yield the 66-book Protestant canon. But as Dr. Flesseman-van Leer has rightly observed, those who accept the traditional canon of Scripture today cannot legitimately defend it with arguments that played no part in its original formation. 7 Post hoc rationalization of such a critical point as the formation of the canon would be like painting a target around one’s arrow that is already embedded in the wall. If a rule which has led some to the 66-book canon proves false, or fails to be truly objective, the remedy is not to find a new rule allowing us to reach the same conclusion. Instead, to be intellectually honest, we must find the rule that is ultimately right and true, and accept where it leads us, wherever it leads us.

Besides those Protestant theologians who tolerate competing canon theories but themselves only advance one criterion of canonicity, other theologians are willing simultaneously to use a plurality of criteria to reach the same conclusion. For example, Harris determines the extent of the Old Testament canon by following “[t]wo lines of approach,” “one historical and the other an appeal to authority.” 8 He writes, “[b]y both methods it can be seen that these Apocryphal books cannot properly be included in the sacred canon.” 9 That is, Harris is willing to use a plurality of theories, ones which he views as complementary, to reach his conclusion about the canon of Scripture. 10 While using plural criteria to accumulate evidence in favor of a text’s inclusion in the canon would be proper to the extent that each criterion is valid and consistent with one’s overall scriptural paradigm, it would be improper to the extent that any one component criterion was not. That is, for the Protestant, a theory that proves incompatible with sola scriptura cannot be salvaged merely by tying it together with a more defensible theory. Bearing in mind that each Protestant theory must be internally consistent with sola scriptura, I will now take them up in turn.

1 Peter 3:15
15But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.

  1. Belgic Confession of Faith, art. 2, available here.
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith [hereinafter WCF], ch. I, sec. 1.
  3. Id.
  4. See 1 Peter 3:15.
  5. Examples of some other variants are given in Ridderbos, p. 1. E.g., Johann Salomo Semler, author of Abhandlung von freier Untersuchung des Kanons (1771-1775), determined from his studies that what is canonical is “the list of books that might be read [by the early church] in public worship, the books that the bishops thought were the most suitable and in the best interests of good order.” Hermann Diem taught that the test of canonicity is that which “permits itself to be preached.” Ridderbos, p. 6. Ernst Käsemann sees the New Testament texts as contradictory and not the Word of God until such time as the Holy Spirit uses them to lead believers, “in an always new and contemporaneous way,” to gospel truth. Id. quoting Käsemann, Begründet der neutestamentliche Kanon die Einheit der Kirche? (1951-1952), p. 21.
  6. Harris, pref.
  7. Cited in F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (1988) [hereinafter Bruce], p. 275.
  8. Harris, p. 178.
  9. Id.
  10. As another example of using a plurality of criteria of canonicity, Bruce uses the “subsidiary criteria” of antiquity and orthodoxy to measure what he views as the original criterion of canonicity–apostolicity. Bruce, p. 255-256, 259. Since apostolicity as a criterion of canonicity is not testable in the present day, because we cannot decisively conclude of which texts the apostles approved, Bruce needs both “subsidiary criteria” to identify the canon. This leaves Bruce in the same place as Harris, i.e., determining the canon by following ‘two lines of approach.’


The Classical Reformed View:

The classical and confessional Reformed answer to the Canon Question stresses that the Holy Spirit is our immediate assurance of the canon’s truth, and also notes that the reliability of Scripture appears from within Scripture itself. This answer varies somewhat from source to source in its particular emphasis, but the assurance of the Holy Spirit is a clear common theme. In the course of the Reformation, Calvin was an early advocate for this position, which later became solemnized by the Reformed confessional standards. 1 He taught that for the reader enjoying the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is self-attesting (i.e., it says on its own to this reader that it is Scripture):

[T]hose whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! 2

Calvin also likens asking the Catholic’s question, “how can we be assured that [Scripture] has sprung from God without recourse to the decree of the church?,” to asking “whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter?” 3 For John Calvin, it is as apparent as black is from white which books are to be included in the canon: “Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.” 4 His answer, then, is that we can be assured that Scripture is of God simply by looking at it, just as we can tell black from white simply by looking at it.

The traditional Reformed confessions also did not neglect to answer the Canon Question.5 According to the Belgic Confession, we are to receive the books of the Protestant canon, and all taught within 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 also because they prove themselves to be from God.  For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.”6

Similarly, in the words of the Westminster Confession,

[O]ur full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.7

What makes this classical and confessional position attractive, from the Reformed perspective, is its immediate reliance on God to lead Christians to His revealed truth. We do not have to accept the canonical texts “so much because the church receives and approves” them, but because we are convinced immediately by the Holy Spirit. There are no middle men to muddy the waters. By doing this, the Reformed confessions mean to avoid subordinating infallible Scripture to a fallible mediate human authority. This is essential to the Reformed system because if Scripture were subordinate to fallible human authority, its contents could be erroneous, thus rendering Scripture unreliable. And if Scripture were unreliable, it could not act as our sole infallible authority over all matters of the faith.

However, since any two Christians might not agree that any given book is (or is not) canonical even where they reflect carefully on the testimony of the Holy Spirit as they approach it, this test lacks objectivity and reliability. We should be able to verify the reliability of this classical Reformed canon criterion in the following way. If the classical Reformed canon criterion were true and we set various candidate texts, like books or passages from the New Testament, apocryphal works, or revered writings from the early Church Fathers, in front of new Christians who have the Spirit but have never read the Bible, they would all pick out the same books or passages as canonical. If Calvin’s black-from-white claim is true, our hypothetical new Christians attempting to discern canonical books from non-canonical would come to one conclusion. If we could run this hypothetical test, and we obtained a result that was successful less than 100% of the time, or even less than the vast majority of the time, at identifying the one true canon, this would show that this test is not a reliable test for determining the canon of Scripture.

Something close to this hypothetical test has already been run. In the early centuries of Christian history, the many faithful Christians in close communion with the Holy Spirit, and who did not yet have a determined canon for their Bible, did not conclude that the Protestant 66-book canon is correct. We have evidence that many early Church figures, including St. Augustine himself, supported the inclusion of the deuterocanonical texts within the canon. Not one single source from this period articulates the Protestant canon. 8 Following the Reformation, before the first generation of Reformers had died, the alleged black-from-white clarity regarding which books belong in the canon also failed to produce universal agreement. 9 These cases from history are evidence that the Reformed answer to the Canon Question does not provide a reliable method for determining the canon. This is deeply problematic, since assurance in the canon is the foundation of the sola scriptura paradigm.

Part in parcel with Calvin’s view that the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts to the veracity of the canon, Calvin rejects the essential role of the Church in identifying the canon. In his Institutes, he starts with the proposition that Scripture obtains its authority directly from God, and not from the Church:

But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. . . . For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask: Who can convince us that these writings came from God? . . . . Who can persuade us to receive one book in reverence but to exclude another, unless the church prescribe a sure rule for all these matters?10

As an initial matter, Calvin misstates the Catholic position by stating that, according to the Catholic Church, Scripture has its authoritative weight accorded to it by the Church. Rather, the Catholic position is that Scripture has divine authority because it is God-breathed, the Holy Spirit having inspired the texts’ authors. That is, Scripture has divine authority because of its divine author, not because of the role of God’s Church in producing it. As the Catholic Church decreed during the First Vatican Council:

These [73] books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.11

This belief is reflected also in the dogmatic work Dei Verbum, written by Pope Paul VI in 1965:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20,3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testament in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.12

These texts prove that the Catholic Church does not maintain that the Scriptures have only so much weight as is accorded to them by the Catholic Church. Rather, as the Catholic Church explains, the authority of the Scriptures derives from their being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with God as their author.

Furthermore, regarding Calvin’s view of the relationship between the Church and Scripture, he merely asserts, but does not demonstrate, that the Catholic Church’s position would mock the Holy Spirit. He claims to find such mocking in the belief that one cannot be persuaded to receive one book and exclude another without the Church prescribing a sure rule. Why would the Church’s prescribing a “sure rule” for knowing Scripture be a mockery of the Holy Spirit? Because for Calvin, our obtaining assurances from the Church would necessarily exclude obtaining assurances from the Holy Spirit. This is because, as shown in the quotation from Calvin cited above, he has created a false dichotomy between the Church and the Holy Spirit. For him, these two sources of assurance cannot work in a confluent way. For obvious reasons, once one accepts this dichotomy, one comes to favor the Holy Spirit option, making the option of seeing the Church as a source of assurance a mockery.

Calvin’s rhetorical question: “Who can persuade us to receive one book in reverence but to exclude another, unless the church prescribe a sure rule for all these matters?” also misstates the Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church does not claim that a person cannot be persuaded to receive or exclude a book without the Church prescribing a sure rule. One could accept or reject a book without the benefit of a “sure rule” from the Church, as occurred throughout the early Church. Rather, apart from Magisterial guidance concerning the canon, it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for all believers independently to come to complete agreement about the canon without each believer receiving miraculous enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. Christ has given authority to the Magisterium in such a way that grace builds on nature. That is, the visible government of the Church, being guided by the Holy Spirit, does not nullify, but fulfills, our natural need for visible government in the supernatural society that is the Church. But, the Church and the Holy Spirit do work together to assure us of the scriptural canon. As St. Augustine said, “I would not have believed the gospel, unless the authority of the Church had induced me.” 13

Calvin next argues that the Church itself is grounded upon Scripture, and not the other way around:

But such wranglers are neatly refuted by just one word of the apostle. He testifies that the church is “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles.” If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation, this must have had authority before the church began to exist. 14

Note the significance of Calvin’s addition of the word “teaching” to his restatement of Ephesians. But St. Paul actually says that the Church is built on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles themselves. For Calvin, a teaching has authority, not the teacher. He treats Paul’s statement that the Church is “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles” as referring to a set of teachings, not any persons.

Calvin’s whole doctrine of Scripture revolves around this insertion of the word “teaching” into St. Paul’s statement to the Ephesians, and upon seeing the teacher as having authority derived from the teaching only insofar as he holds to that teaching. But it is the prophets and apostles themselves who were given divine authority. Consider Matthew 7:29, in which we are told that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus taught as one ‘with authority,’ not as one ‘with words with authority.’ Words of law do not have authority in isolation from their source, but are authoritative because of their relationship to their source. For example, the U.S. Constitution is not authoritative apart from its source, but represents the authority of the People who promulgated it. Likewise, the words of the Bible are authoritative because of their relation to their authors, especially their divine Author. The Church is not founded upon these words, the teachings of prophets and apostles, but upon the prophets and apostles themselves based on their divine authority. Because of the prophets’ and apostles’ divine authorization, we can know the teaching they transmitted to be divine in origin.

Further Refinement of Self-Attestation:

In his work, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, theologian Herman Ridderbos provides a modern Reformed articulation of the confessional view. In line with Calvin, he argues that canonical texts are self-attesting (or self-witnessing) to the reader who is aided through faith by the Holy Spirit to see Scripture for what it is. 15 Ridderbos also issues a noteworthy critique of the various proposed Protestant criteria of canonicity other than the classical Reformed position. He sees these as little or no better than the Catholic view, which, he says, effectively places the Church over Scripture, because they too put something over Scripture. He explains:

For no New Testament writing is there a certificate issued either by Christ or by the apostles that guarantees its canonicity, and we know nothing of a special revelation or voice from heaven that gave divine approval to the collection of the twenty-seven books in question. Every attempt to find an a posteriori element to justify the canon, whether in the doctrinal authority or in the gradually developing consensus of the church, goes beyond the canon itself, posits a canon above the canon, and thereby comes into conflict with the order of redemptive history and the nature of the canon itself.16

In this context, Ridderbos uses a priori to mean knowledge that has nothing but the canon as its starting point. His claim, then, is that if any part of a canon test depends on something outside of the canon (what he calls “a posteriori” elements)–for example, on the consensus of the Church–this explanation has placed some extra-Biblical authority “above” the canon. Within the framework of sola scriptura, this is a commendably logical observation. If Scripture is the sole infallible authority of the faith, and everything else is subordinate in authority to Scripture, then the basis for determining the canon cannot be any authority but Scripture. The working principle here is that an authority is only as authoritative as that on which it is founded. Each of the criteria listed below within the remainder of section II, most of which Ridderbos takes up with particularity, falls prey to this claim. Lessons of history, use by Hebrew-speaking Jews of the time of Christ, prophetic and apostolic authority, and the like–each of these involve criteria by which a text is judged to be canonical that is extra-canonical, so goes beyond the canon itself, and thus posits a canon above the canon.

Here is Ridderbos’s riddle then, which he believes Calvin’s view has solved: how can we determine the canon, which does not fall from Heaven, without relying on extra-canonical evidence? Riddberos sees the need to avoid the use of extra-canonical evidence, because doing so would, under the Calvinist assumption, place the confirming evidence over the canon, which would violate sola scriptura. Given Calvin’s assumption, Ridderbos needs to find evidence for the contents of the canon that is located in or derived from the canon itself. Ridderbos sees the Reformed answer to both the riddle he presents and the Canon Question this way:

Reformed theologians do not justify the acceptance of the canon by appealing to a “canon within the canon.” Nor do they appeal to its recognition by the church or to the experience of faith or to a recurring, actualistic understanding of the Word of God as canon. . . .

. . .

Calvin appealed not only to the witness of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers but above all to the self-attestation of the Scriptures. The divine character of the Bible itself gives it its authority This divine character is so evident that anyone who has eyes to see is directly convinced and does not need the mediation of the church. . . . [As] Karl Barth wrote, ‘The Bible makes itself to be canon.’

Corresponding to this objective principle of the self-attestation of Scripture, from its inception Reformed theology has expressly distinguished the subjective principle of the testimonium Spiritus Sancti. . . . He opens blind eyes to the divine light that shines in the Scriptures. Later Reformed theology has correctly emphasized the fact that the internal witness of the Spirit is not the basis for but the means by which the canon of Scripture is recognized and accepted as the indubitable Word of God.17

From this we see that his view consists of two elements: (1) that Scripture is self-attesting, (2) via the Holy Spirit leading the reader to recognize it as canonical. 18 The first element, if taken on its own, would certainly answer Ridderbos’s riddle. If some quality of Scripture allows it to attest to its own canonicity, then there is no need to resort to evidence that is external to Scripture in order to define Scripture. 19 Thus, nothing is placed “above” the canon, leaving Scripture as our final authority. The second element also plays a vital role; it explains why it is not the case that the entire world recognizes Scripture’s own attestations, why the world does not see the black from the white. In Ridderbos’s own terms, the first element of the test of canonicity is objective and the second element is subjective.

But prior to Calvin, the Church never used this method to recognize a book as belonging to the canon. The Church recognized books as canonical on the basis of their having been inspired by the Holy Spirit. 20 In its process of identifying which books possessed this quality, the Church never employed a private, individualistic means. Instead, it relied upon councils of the Church confirmed by the Bishop of Rome. 21 Again, as one cannot legitimately defend the canon with arguments which played no part in its original formation, Calvin’s novel elements cannot explain how Church reached its present canon. 22

Also, the subjective aspect of Ridderbos’s theory renders the entire test too subjective to be reliable. This is because each text’s objective quality, self-attestation, is only evident to an observer to the extent that he subjectively experiences the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. Just as a building cannot be more sturdy than its foundation, the Reformed answer to the Canon Question is no more objective than its most subjective part. Here, the objective quality is not merely supported or enhanced by the subjective, but is entirely dependent upon it. Using the Reformed frame, if two people disagree in their view of which texts are (objectively) self-attesting as Scripture, they can only settle their disagreement by calling into question the degree to which (subjectively) the Holy Spirit is testifying in their interlocutor’s heart. In this way the classical Reformed theory is too subjective to be a reliable basis for assuring believers which texts belong in the Bible.

That the Reformed test is too subjective to be reliable because new Christians considering candidate texts would not reach the same conclusion when applying it, has already been discussed above. This also appears from the views of Luther himself. Remember that according to Ridderbos, the objective element of the Bible’s “divine character [is] so evident that anyone who has eyes to see is directly convinced and does not need the mediation of the church.” 23 But Luther’s subjective interpretation of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit regarding Scripture led him, at least at times in his life, to some different conclusions than Calvin about certain of our New Testament books. 24 Neither was Luther alone in his day in doubting the canonicity of certain New Testament works.

Calvin knew of and addressed conflicting conclusions about the canon in the introductions to his commentaries on Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude. In one instance Calvin called into question which spirit was working in the doubters’ heart. In his argument for the inclusion of the book of Hebrews in the canon, Calvin says, “I, indeed, without hesitation, class [Hebrews] among apostolical writings; nor do I doubt but that it has been through the craft of Satan that any have been led to dispute its authority.” 25 Calvin is explaining that Satan undoubtedly is involved in a case where some are denying what he finds to be canonical. We see that under the classical Reformed view, in a case of dispute, a failed meetings of the minds on what is self-attesting is explained at the subjective level.

What of the reply that since all Protestants agree on the canon, this is evidence that these 66 books properly comprise the canon, objectively reached? First, the premise that all Protestants agree on the canon is false. The classical Lutheran position does not agree with the Reformed view of the canon, in that Lutheranism creates a canon-within-a-canon, relegating some books to a secondary place. This position distinguishes a homologouna from an antilegomena, i.e., never-disputed books from disputed books such as Jude and Revelation. Unlike the Reformed canon, which is a proper source for the formation of dogma in its entirety, only the never-disputed books may be used for the defintion of dogma within a classical Lutheran view. 26 Further, to the extent that Protestants see themselves as lineal descendants of pre-Reformational proto-Protestants, it cannot be said that “Protestants” have agreed on the canon throughout the Church’s history. As I discuss elsewhere, many biblical texts have been rejected at one time or another by various Church Fathers. Finally, widespread agreement amongst today’s Protestants does not disprove the objective canonical quality of the deuterocanonical books since the vast majority of Protestants have never read them. Today’s average Protestant does not study why he has the Protestant 66-book canon, and does not independently decide if the Bible handed to him is correct. Rather, he accepts as an a priori of his Protestant faith that the 66-book canon is correct. Belief that the 66-book canon is right is part and parcel with the small cluster of unifying evangelical Protestant beliefs. Since it is a unifying principle for most Protestants, we would hardly expect to see anything but universal agreement; thus we can draw no lessons about the canon from this widespread agreement.

With Ridderbos’s answer to the Canon Question, we have no way of knowing whether the Holy Spirit is permitting a reader to recognize a text as canonical, or is simply permitting a reader falsely to perceive it as Scripture. We cannot tell since we would necessarily have to appeal to Ridderbos’s subjective element in order to know which of these actions the Holy Spirit is engaged in when, for example, He permits Catholics to recognize the deuterocanonical texts as Divine. If the Holy Spirit is simply permitting Catholics falsely to perceive them as Scripture, as Protestants must maintain, then Protestants have no objective criteria by which to distinguish this act of the Holy Spirit from cases in which He is permitting readers to recognize a text as canonical. And such a test is surely a kind of ad hoc opportunism in which it is claimed that the Holy Spirit is doing whatever I am doing, even if many others are doing many things contrary to what I am doing.

To resolve the disputes that lingered in spite of his supposedly objective test, Calvin employed a potpourri of fall-back arguments to shore up his teaching that the Holy Spirit allows a reader to perceive directly what belongs to the canon of Scripture. According to Ridderbos, Calvin distinguished Scripture from what did not belong to Scripture, “not simply by appealing to the witness of the Holy Spirit as some infallible, inward arbitrator, but he appealed to the fact that the authority of those books has been recognized from the church’s inception, that they contain nothing unworthy of an apostle of Christ, and that the majesty of the Spirit of Christ is everywhere apparent in them.” 27 Thus he utilizes four different factors, culled from reason and not revelation, to settle the disputes in favor of his ‘objective’ conclusions. 28 Calvin is not alone in finding the need for supplemental arguments to support the supposedly objective, self-attesting, black-from-white criterion for determining the canon. The renowned 20th-century Reformed theologian F. F. Bruce, in employing his own supplemental arguments, said that “[i]t is unlikely . . . that the Spirit’s witness would enable a reader to discern that Ecclesiastes is the word of God while Ecclesiasticus is not.”29

This ‘appeal to external facts’ reveals something about Reformed thinkers’ discomfort with relying too heavily on the supposedly objective self-attestation method of discerning the canon. This ‘appeal to external facts’ also is in tension with Calvin’s and Ridderbos’s position that sees using evidence outside of Scripture to determine Scripture as effectively placing that evidence over Scripture, and Calvin’s potpourri use of fall-back argumentation. 30 Calvin, in using reason and historical proof to determine the canon (for example, by appealing to “those books” that have “been recognized [as canonical] from the church’s inception”), is either contradicting his principle that no evidence outside of Scripture can determine the canon, or is refining his principle in an ad hoc fashion.

But without the external appeal, Calvin’s position is left only with the two elements mentioned above: self-attestation and the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. However, as we have seen, the self-attestation element effectively collapses into the subjective element–the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit–when faced with disagreements about the canon. Because what then remains is too subjective a test to yield a single canon if put before a hypothetical test group of new faith-filled Christians, it cannot bind us to a single set of texts as certainly belonging in the Bible.

John 20:31
31But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name.

2 Timothy 3:16
16All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice,

2 Peter 1:19-20,3
3As all things of his divine power which appertain to life and godliness, are given us, through the knowledge of him who hath called us by his own proper glory and virtue.

19And we have the more firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

20Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation.

Ephesians 2:20
20Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone:

Matthew 7:29
29For he was teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees.

  1. Belgic Confession, art. 5; WCF ch. I, sec. 5.
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [hereiafter Institutes], book I, ch. 7, sec. 5.
  3. Institutes, book I, ch. 7, sec. 2.
  4. Id.
  5. However, the question is infrequently taken up elsewhere. As Harris noted, “It is rather strange that more attention has not been given in theological studies to questions of canonicity.” R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures (A Press, 1995) [hereinafter Harris], p. 123.
  6. Belgic Confession of Faith, art. 5.
  7. Westminster Confession, I.V.
  8. See Section III.D. below.
  9. See Section III.D (discussing the lack of universal agreement in the early church), and III.E (noting Martin Luther’s inability to detect the influence of the Holy Spirit in the book of Revelation).
  10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book I, ch. 7, sec. 1.
  11. First Vatican Council, Sess. 3, Ch. 2, Para. 7.
  12. Dei Verbum, ch. 3, para. 11.
  13. St. Augustine, Contra Ep. Fund., V, 6.
  14. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book I, ch. 7, sec. 2, quoting Ephesians 2:20 (emphasis added).
  15. Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1988), intro ix.
  16. Ridderbos, p. 35, emphasis added.
  17. Ridderbos, p. 9.
  18. Cf. Belgic Confession, art. 5.
  19. Although, were it so simple, this position would seem strikingly similar to the canon falling from Heaven.
  20. See Dei Verbum, art. 11; St. Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 45; St. Irenaeus, Adv. Her., bk. 2, ch. 28; St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, bk. 3, ch. 16.
  21. Fr. Henry G. Graham, Where We Got the Bible? Our Debt to the Catholic Church (Tan, 2004), p. 38-39.
  22. See Ellen Flesseman-van Leer, cited in F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, p. 275.
  23. Ridderbos, p. 9.
  24. See section III.D. below for more on Luther’s view.
  25. John Calvin, The Epistle to the Hebrews, the Argument.
  26. See Christian Cyclopedia, Canon, Bible (Concordia Publishing House, 2000), available here.
  27. Ridderbos, p. 10.
  28. Ridderbos here admits that “Calvin’s reasoning may be open to criticism.” Id.
  29. Bruce, pp. 281-282.
  30. Ridderbos, p. 35.


Another Protestant answer to the Canon Question, used either as an independent criterion of canonicity or as a supplement to other criteria, holds that the canon of the Old Testament is that which originally was in use by Hebrew-speaking Jews. The timeframe of this hypothetical ‘original’ canon will go back as far as the historical evidence will support the idea of a closed Hebrew canon. Dr. Harris, a noted Reformed Old Testament scholar, put forward this view in an extensive treatment of Old Testament history in his book Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures.1

Starting with a discussion of the Hebrew manuscripts in use amongst modern biblical Scholars, Harris states: “Our English Old Testament depends largely on medieval Hebrew manuscripts from about A.D. 900 and following. These Hebrew manuscripts contain our familiar 39 Old Testaments books.” 2 He then attempts to proceed back through history, as early as can be traced, to determine the original Hebrew canon. The Babylonian Talmud lists the Hebrew books accepted in about A.D. 200, the time of its writing. These align with the 39 Protestant books of the Old Testament. 3 Harris also presents a litany of early Christian writers who discussed Hebrew canons quite similar to the 39-book Protestant Old Testament. 4

A test of canonicity that relies on such extra-Biblical evidence as what the Jews of A.D. 200 (or any other time) accepted as canonical falls subject to the critique of Ridderbos, noted above. 5 Without biblical warrant to craft such a test, it remains extra-Biblical. Therefore, its application would be a canon above the canon and thus violate sola scriptura according to Ridderbos’s criteria. A major problem with this canon theory is that it grants to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day an authority which, it claims, if possessed by the Church, would undermine the authority of Scripture. But it would be ad hoc to allow a Jewish magisterial authority to determine the canon while claiming that a determination of the canon by way of Catholic magisterial authority would undermine the authority of Scripture.

The ‘Original Hebrew’ Canon:

Setting aside its extra-biblicality and focusing on its application, the ‘Original Hebrew Canon’ answer to the Canon Question leads to additional problems.

First, there is no historical basis to conclude that any one Jewish group had the authority to pronounce and close the canon for other Jewish groups, or that any one of them could conclude the canon for Christianity. While there was a body of Scribes sitting “in the chair of Moses” who may have had the authority to rule on the contents of, and eventually to close, the canon of the Old Testament, the fact remains that differing groups of Jews at the time of the founding of Christianity accepted different canons. 6 Harris admits that the Essenes probably accepted for their canon, in addition to the generally accepted texts, “other books written by members of their own sect.” 7 While Harris and Bruce reject claims from within academia that the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch as canonical,8 Bruce goes on to explain that the Samaritans held exactly that belief: “As for the Samaritans, their Bible was restricted to the Pentateuch9.”

The Diaspora Jews, on the other hand, used the Greek Septuagint, which included the deuterocanonical texts as well as some apocryphal texts. 10 Harris dismisses this problem by denying that history can prove that the canon used by Jews of the Diaspora (what Harris calls the Alexandrian canon) included the deuterocanonical texts:

That our present Septuagint copies have a variant canon really proves nothing about the Alexandrian canon of A.D. 50 much less the Alexandrian canon of around 200 B.C., when the Septuagint was translated, for in those vital centuries there were three major factors which surely affected such questions.11

What follows is Harris’s explanation of how it might have come to pass that the modern Septuagint does not match the earlier Septuagintal canon, which presumably would have matched the ‘original Hebrew canon’ that Harris is pursuing. Firstly, says Harris, the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, but until that time “the canon would naturally be defined at Jerusalem for all the Jewish world.” 12 In other words, while the views of dispersed Jews are not authoritative in determining the Old Testament canon because of their distance from the Jewish center of gravity, for Harris, the views of those Jews in the Holy City are binding. Harris does not expand his claim beyond opining that the canon “naturally” would have come from Jerusalem. Harris does not show that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem decided anything regarding the deuterocanonical texts prior to AD 90. He does not show that they formally made a conclusion regarding the canon that was binding on all Jews.

No authority within Scripture, and no argument from reason, requires Christians to abide by the speculative conclusions of the first-century Pharisaic leaders from Jerusalem, some of the very ones who had Christ put to death. The definitive reason why the Septuagint was accepted by the Church is because it was accepted by the Apostles. Even if the non-Christian Jews of A.D. 40 had ruled against the Septuagint, that would not in any way change its acceptance by the Church. After all, the authority for the Church flows from Christ to His Apostles, not to the determinations of non-Christian Jewish leaders.

Secondly, Harris argues, early “Christians throughout the Roman Empire naturally used the Greek, as the New Testament language evidences. They therefore naturally appealed to the Greek Old Testament,” while the “Jews in self-defense argued that some of the Messianic passages were mistranslated.” 13 The “Jews retreated into the Hebrew while the Christians took over the Septuagint.” 14 Along these same lines, Bruce notes the Jewish disdain for the Christians’ thorough appropriation of the Septuagint: “the Jews became increasingly disenchanted with it. The time came when one rabbi compared ‘the accursed day on which the seventy elders wrote the Law in Greek for the king’ to the day on which Israel made the golden calf.” 15

Why, then, as Harris implies, is the opinion of the non-converting Jews more reliable than the opinion of those who converted to Christ and widely used the Greek Septuagint? For Harris, the answer is because “the Christians did not have the regulative effect of ancient history to help them retain a proper view of the canon.” 16 By this, he means that early Christians lost their grounding in Hebrew tradition, and thus lost the guiding benefits this tradition would have provided. Here we have a striking statement from Harris. He must believe that the “regulative effect of ancient history” (that is, tradition) could maintain the non-Christian Jews in truth about the canon, while the “regulative effect” of the Holy Spirit did not preserve the Church from the grave error of canonizing spurious texts. There are important presuppositions implicit in Harris’s position. He views the first century Church with the eye of an ecclesial deist, meaning he does not see God as actively protecting the Church from error. 17 It is as if, for Harris, either the Apostles had no authority to determine for the Church what is her Old Testament Canon, or the Christians of the first century already had departed from what the Apostles had declared to be the authoritative Old Testament canon. For whatever reason, Harris believes that the early Christians were not guided by tradition, while the non-Christian Jews were.

The rapid and ubiquitous way in which Christians made use of the Septuagint is more reason, not less, to trust its contents. These Christians’ use of the Septuagint indicates their conviction that it was authentically divine, and therefore authoritative. Absent the doubts of ecclesial deism, the widespread use of the Septuagint by first-century Christians reveals not only that this was the Old Testament of the early Church, but also that it therefore remains authoritative today.

Harris’s third point about the Septuagintal canon is that, with the advent of the codex (i.e., bound book) replacing the scroll, early Christians found the need to fill up the scores of empty pages of valuable paper in their bound Bibles. To do this, Harris argues, they “[n]aturally” would “fill it with helpful devotional material.” 18 This, he concludes, led to a conflation of helpful books with scared books. The extent of Harris’s historical evidence for his view is that it seems to him the only plausible explanation for these texts’ survival in spite of a lack of support from the early Church Fathers.

First, Harris is wrong about an absence of support from the early Church in favor of the Septuagint. He asserts that “from considerable testimony of the first four centuries,” the “Apocryphal books were not then received into the canon of the Christian church.” After repeating the views of Origen and Melito in favor of the Jewish rendering of the Old Testament canon, he goes so far as to say that “[t]he single voice of antiquity in favor of the Apocrypha is that of Augustine and the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (397).” 19 But Harris had just stated that there were some uses of Baruch by the fathers, and some other exclusions of Esther. 20 Further, Origen’s own canon was not the same as the Protestant canon, as Harris also admits. Origen argues at length against Africanus regarding the validity of Susanna, and he also confirms Tobit and Judith:

Where you get your “lost and won at play, and thrown out unburied on the streets,” I know not, unless it is from Tobias; and Tobias (as also Judith), we ought to notice, the Jews do not use. They are not even found in the Hebrew Apocrypha, as I learned from the Jews themselves. However, since the Churches use Tobias, you must know that even in the captivity some of the captives were rich and well to do. 21

We see from Origen’s support for Tobias, as well as from the fathers who supported the inclusion of Baruch, that Augustine and the Councils of Hippo and Carthage were not alone in antiquity in favoring the inclusion of deuterocanonical texts. It is also unlikely that two councils of the early church–Hippo and Carthage, A.D. 393 and 397 respectively–would draw within their list of sacred books what had to that point been universally rejected. If even a majority of the Church’s leaders had rejected those books, their inclusion in the canon by St. Augustine (b. 354) and the North African councils would have created uproar. But history records no such reaction. For this reason, Harris’s claim that with “one voice,” “all the important witnesses in the early church to about A.D. 400 . . . insist that the strict Jewish canon is the only one to be received with full credence”22 is false, as Bruce agrees. Bruce sees that the Councils of Hippo and Carthage “did not impose any innovation on the churches; they simply endorsed what had become the general consensus of the churches of the west and of the greater part of the east.” 23 So widely held was the belief in the deuterocanonical books, that Bruce writes, “[i]n 405 Pope Innocent I embodied a list of canonical books in a letter addressed to Exsuperius, bishop of Toulouse; it too included the Apocrypha.” 24

Second, even if there was an absence of support from the early Church in favor of the Septuagintal texts, as Harris claims, Harris does not give any reason to rule out the possibility that the Holy Spirit preserved these texts and guided the Church to include them. Harris implicitly presumes that the Holy Spirit did not act this way in the early Church, and instead offers the speculation that these books exist because they were filling in empty pages. This speculation or hypothesis has no more support than the deisitic assumption of the Holy Spirit’s non-intervention upon which it is based. Rather, the Septuagintal texts’ early appearance in the Church, opposition-less acceptance, and widespread propagation by Christians lead to the conclusion that these very Jewish books had been in use by Alexandrian Jews. The evidence I have provided here indicates that, at the time of Christ, Samaritan, Essene, and Alexandrian Jews used a canon different from the 39-book Protestant canon. Even the rabbis at Jamnia, who famously debated in the year A.D. 90 about which books were prophetic, gave the opinion that Ezekial should be “withdrawn.” 25

As I have shown, Harris’s claim that there was an absence of support from the early Church is based on a weak hypothesis, and fails to account for contrary evidence. His historical claim that there was nothing but a single voice from antiquity favoring the inclusion of the deuterocanonical texts is demonstrably incorrect. His arguments to explain the eventual inclusion of deuterocanonical texts in Christian use–that they filled empty space in Biblical scrolls; that the Greek Septuagint that supported them lacked the regulative effect of Jewish tradition; and that the original Septuagint from before the temple’s destruction would have matched what the first-century Pharisaic leaders from Jerusalem used–are based on unreliable speculation and give undue regard for Jewish tradition. It remains that a major problem for the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory is the lack of historical basis to conclude that any one Jewish group had the authority to pronounce and close the canon for other Jewish groups, or that any one of them could close the canon for Christianity.

The second reason that the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory fails to answer the Canon Question is that it simply pushes back the question. By what criterion was the original Hebrew canon determined? Unless the answer to this deeper question can objectively produce a complete list of books belonging to the Old Testament canon, the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory cannot be our criterion for determining the Old Testament canon. One theory Harris considers is that the Jews accepted as canonical those texts which were written by Prophets.26 However, as he notes, six books in the Old Testament are of unknown authorship: Judges, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job. He takes comfort that “[n]ot only is it true that it cannot be shown that these books were not written by prophets, there is some evidence that they were.” 27 But if the test of canonicity that the Jews applied was ‘prophetic origin,’ then either these books were known to be prophetic, or were prematurely canonized, since their authorship was unknown. Harris later states that the “Books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are more problematical [than Job]. . . . We cannot prove that Ezra, Nehemiah and the author of Esther (Mordecai?) were prophets.” 28 Harris believes, and I think reasonably, that the books must have been known to be prophetic when treated as Scripture, even if the authors’ identities are not known to us today. But if this is our defense of the canon, we are left once again relying on Jewish tradition in the formation of canon. And if we are relying on Jewish tradition, then we have no reason not to accept the tradition of the Alexandrian Jews who accepted the deuterocanonical texts. Because looking for the ‘works written by Prophets’ does not objectively produce a list of Old Testament scriptures, it does not answer the Canon Question.

Concerning whether the deuterocanonical books meet the ‘written by Prophets’ test, Harris rejects them first on an historical ground: [t]hey were all composed after the period when prophecy was recognized to have departed from Israel. 29 But he does not state by whom prophecy was “recognized to have departed from Israel.”

There is no non-Christian authority who can establish this claim for Christians and the Church. There are only competing claims from an uncertain and distant period in history. Even if it is possible that, as a matter of history, the Jews in Christ’s time believed that the canon was closed before the deuterocanonical texts were written, there is no evidence that the Jews had made any such determination prior to the time of Christ, or even prior to Jamnia. Neither the majority, the Pharisees, those in Jerusalem, or some other group had the authority to do so for Christians. Were they to have made a conclusion on the canon, it would have been no more binding on the Christian than is their belief that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Christ.

Finally, the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory must be rejected because not one of the early Church Fathers who were in favor of using the extant Hebrew text certainly pointed to the 39-book Protestant Old Testament. Among the early Church Fathers used by Harris to support his theory that the early Church sought the ‘original Hebrew’ to determine the proper canon are Jerome and Origen. Jerome, as is well known, made certain observations in the prefaces to his translations of certain deuterocanonical texts indicating his opinion that the Jews rejected them as non-canonical. But even granting the widely recognized authority of St. Jerome, his concerns about the deuterocanonical books do not indicate that the Church of his day accepted only the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament.

Ultimately, Jerome explicitly stated his acceptance of the Church’s Old Testament over and against the opinion of the Hebrew scholars under whom he had studied. For example, in his preface to Tobias, he says:

For the studies of the Hebrews rebuke us and find fault with us, to translate this for the ears of Latins contrary to their canon. But it is better to be judging the opinion of the Pharisees to displease and to be subject to the commands of bishops.30

His clear conviction is to be subject to the ruling of a Catholic bishop as opposed to the conclusions of Jewish Hebrew scholars. This same conviction appears in Jerome’s prolouge to Judith. There he states:

Among the Hebrews the Book of Judith is found among the Hagiographa, the authority of which toward confirming those which have come into contention is judged less appropriate. Yet having been written in Chaldean words, it is counted among the histories. But because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request, indeed demand.31

Clearer still is Jerome’s work Against Rufinus. In it he writes:

What sin have I committed if I followed the judgment of the churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children, and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I was not relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are wont to make against us.”32

From this we see clearly that Jerome, for all his studies with Hebrew scholars, did not hold to a 39-book Old Testament canon that matches the Protestant canon. In each of the three instances I have given, we see what Jerome’s actual test of canonicity was: that which matched the Church’s determination of the canon. Harris’s heavy reliance upon Jerome to support the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory, therefore, is badly misplaced.

Origen, upon whom Harris also relies, while apparently a proponent of the “true Hebrew” texts, did not teach what is now the Protestant Old Testament canon. 33 Origen excludes the twelve minor prophets from his own listing. Harris explains this conflict with his canon theory by speculating that the omission was merely an oversight by Origen.34 But even if it were a scholarly error to leave out the Minor Prophets while listing the Hebrews’ canon as Origen understood it, Origen included in his listing the Letter of Jeremiah, a text from the Septuagint that is not part of the Palestinian Hebrew canon. 35 Bruce similarly explains this inconsistency with the Protestant Old Testament by speculating that Origen’s inclusion was by oversight. This use of one’s pre-existing conclusions to determine what must be “oversight” and what must be accurate scholarship is the kind of post hoc rationalization to which I referred earlier. Only by painting the target around one’s arrow, rather than making judgments in a principled way, can one use Jerome and Origen in defense of the Protestant Old Testament canon.

Harris next examines the works of Melito, a second-century Bishop who travelled to Palestine to record the Hebrew canon. 36 However, he too does not record a Hebrew canon aligning with the 39-book Protestant canon. Specifically, Melito omits the book of Esther. 37 In fact, concerning Harris’s strong claims of universal use by the early Church Fathers of the Hebrew-now-Protestant Old Testament, there is an abundance of contrary evidence. Athanasius includes Baruch and the deuterocanonical additions to Daniel. 38 Cyril includes Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, and excludes Esther. 39 Gregory of Nazianzus omits Esther. 40 Amphilochies notes of his fellow scholars that only “some include Esther.” 41 Epiphanius includes the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. 42 Theodore of Mopsuestia denies the divine inspiration of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes,43 as well as Job, Song of Songs, and Ezra44. Tertullian, who accepted “the whole instrument of Jewish literature,” and who gives the impression that he knows exactly what it contains, uses an Old Testament that is “evidently co-extensive with the Septuagint (including the ‘Septuagintal plus’).” 45 He accepted Wisdom, the Letter of Jeremiah, and the Greek ‘additions’ to Daniel as authentic. 46

Esther is a particularly difficult case for the advocate of the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory to make from history. Of all the Old Testament books that the Church Fathers variously excluded from the lists of Old Testament books, Esther is the book most commonly omitted. Further, all of the Old Testament books, or fragments from them, have been found in the Dead Sea scrolls except Esther. 47 Full or fragmentary portions of Tobit, Jubilees, and Enoch have also been found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls. 48

Harris’s theory, that the Hebrew canon both matched the Protestant 39-book Old Testament and was used by the Church until Augustine came around, does not fit with the historical evidence. In fact, while there was no universal consensus among the early Church Fathers about the complete list of divinely inspired Hebrew books, there was a consensus among them that certain deuterocanonical Septuagintal (Greek) texts must necessarily be included. So widely was this held, Bruce writes, that:

Jerome’s dependence on Jewish instructors increased the suspicion of some of his Christian critics who were put off in any case by such an innovation as a translation of the sacred writings from Hebrew (with its implied disparagement of the divinely-inspired Septuagint). 49

The translation from ancient Hebrew biblical texts was mistrusted, while the Greek Septuagint was seen as divinely inspired. As we have already seen, the Septuagint contained deuterocanonical texts as well as the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament. Therefore, Harris is not right on both points, namely, that the Hebrew canon around the time of Christ matched the Protestant Old Testament and that the Hebrew canon was the Old Testament canon used by the Church until Augustine’s time.

  1.  (A Press, 1995.)
  2. Harris, p. 130.
  3. Id.
  4. Harris, pp. 130-133.
  5. See supra, part III.A.
  6. For a discussion of the Jewish authority that likely existed to rule on the canon in the early days of Christianity, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article, Canon of the Old Testament, available here.
  7. Harris, p. 182, quoting William H. Green, General Introduction to the Old Testament, the Canon (New York, Scribner, 1899), p. 124.
  8. Harris, p. 182; Bruce, p. 40.
  9. Bruce, p. 41.
  10. The deuterocanon is that collection of canonical Old Testament writings in the Catholic Bible which Protestant writers commonly refer to as the “apocrypha.” By “apocryphal” here, I mean texts which both Protestants and Catholics would agree are outside the canon. As no original manuscript of the Septuagint exists, scholars have the burden of reconstructing its original contents through later manuscripts, most importantly the Codex Vaticanus (See here), Codex Alexandrinus (See here), and Codex Sinaiticus (See here).
  11. Harris, p. 182-183.
  12. Harris, p. 183.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Bruce, p. 50.
  16. Harris, p. 183.
  17. Cf. Bryan Cross, Ecclesial Deism, Called to Communion. “Ecclesial deism is the notion that Christ founded His Church, but then withdrew, not protecting His Church’s Magisterium (i.e., the Apostles and/or their successors) from falling into heresy or apostasy. Ecclesial deism is not the belief that individual members of the Magisterium could fall into heresy or apostasy. It is the belief that the Magisterium of the Church could lose or corrupt some essential of the deposit of faith, or add something to the deposit of faith.”
  18. Harris, p. 184.
  19. Harris, p. 186.
  20. Harris, p. 185.
  21. Origen, Letter to Africanus, available here.
  22. Harris, p. 187.
  23. Bruce, p. 97.
  24. Id.
  25. Bruce, p. 35. That is, “withdrawn, probably, from the synagogue calendar of public readings,” which could not be done to true divine prophecy. Id.
  26. Harris, p. 154, ff.
  27. Harris, p. 171.
  28. Harris, p. 173.
  29. Harris, p. 178.
  30. The Vulgate prologues are available here.
  31. Id.
  32. Against Rufinus II.33 [A.D. 402].
  33. Cf. Harris, p. 131.
  34. Id.
  35. Bruce, p. 75.
  36. Id.
  37. Bruce, p. 71.
  38. Bruce, p. 79.
  39. Bruce, p. 81.
  40. Id.
  41. Id.
  42. Id. Peculiarly, he includes these with his New Testament books!
  43. Id.
  44. Theodore of Mosuestia, Catholic Encyclopedia.
  45. Bruce, p.84. This ‘Septuagintal plus’ is Bruce’s term for the Greek writings that are not part of the Palestinians’ Hebrew text.
  46. Id.
  47. Harris, p. 139; Bruce, p. 39.
  48. Bruce, p. 39.
  49. Bruce, p. 89.

Accepted by the New Testament:

Finally, Harris says, we can use the New Testament itself as historical evidence of what texts should be in the Old Testament canon. 1 He argues that the books of the Old Testament were referenced in the New by Christ and the Apostles, and thus we can be certain of their canonicity: “Christ and the apostles have authenticated for us the thirty-nine Old Testament books and strictly avoided the seven Apocrypha.” 2 Harris supports this claim by noting that the New Testament “cites almost all of the Old Testament books, often by name.” 3

One problem with that claim is that the New Testament also cites “scripture” whose referent we cannot even identify. To give an example, “[w]e have no idea what ‘the scripture’ is which says, according to James 4:5, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us.’” 4 If the criterion of the Old Testament canon is ‘that which the New Testament treats as Scripture,’ then we have here a grave problem, for in that case our Old Testament canon is incomplete. Also, the New Testament is full of themes and even direct phraseology from the deuterocanon. While there are dozens of these uses, here are two short examples. 5 The mention in Revelation 1:4 of the seven angels petitioning before the Throne in Heaven is a reference to Tobit 12:15: “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” Similarly, Jesus’s reference to the “gates of hell” in Matthew 16:18 may be a reference to Wisdom 16:13: “For you have dominion over life and death; you lead down to the gates of the nether world, and lead back.” Careful examination of the Septuagint shows that Christ and the Apostles did not “strictly avoid” the seven deuterocanonical books.

In addition to the New Testament citation of “scripture” that is now lost, and the many references from the New Testament to deuterocanonical texts, the ‘adopted by the New Testament’ canon criterion faces one other major flaw. Judges, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs are not cited in the New Testament, and so would fail to satisfy this criterion of canonicity and drop from our canon. Harris states that they are probably omitted from the New Testament “because of their brevity.” 6 But this is no assurance of the propriety of including these five books, and no assurance of the propriety of excluding from the New Testament other brief texts circulated in Hebrew before or at the time of Christ.

If we develop from reason the canon rule that the New Testament’s use of Old Testament texts canonizes them, then we could similarly develop a rule canonizing these texts in the same form in which Christ and the Apostles used them. That is, if the New Testament’s acceptance of Old Testament texts instructs us about which texts we are to include in the Old Testament canon, then certainly its use of the Septuagint should be instructive regarding the authenticity and authority of the Septuagint, in the eyes of the early Church. According to Catholics United for the Faith, 86 percent of the New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are from the Greek Septuagint. 7 If the Apostles had believed that the Septuagint contained uninspired texts, it seems that the Apostles would not have used it as their source of Scripture in composing the New Testament texts. But the Apostles did use the Septuagint in their teaching and writing. Therefore, the Apostles believed that the Septuaginal collection was the authoritative source of Scripture of the Old Covenant. It is ad hoc to acknowledge that Jesus and the Apostles treated the Septuagint as the written word of God, but then to deny tout court the canonicity of the books included in the Septuagint. We can imagine that if Christ lived in a time and place where the King James Bible was available, His use of it would be taken today by English Protestants as a divine seal on its canon. Bruce reaches an unsupported conclusion to get around this problem:

When we think of Jesus and his Palestinian apostles, then, we may be confident that they agreed with contemporary leaders in Israel about the contents of the canon. We cannot say confidently that they accepted Esther, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs as scripture, because evidence is not available. 8

But there is no indication from history that the Jewish leaders in Israel at that time had rejected the deuterocanonical texts. As said above, we know that the New Testament authors–who, prior to the establishment of the New Covenant, would have been obedient to the Jewish leaders–widely used the Septuagint when they quoted the Old Testament. And, as also has been said, the Septuagint contained the deuterocanon as well as other texts beyond the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament. There is no evidence that there was an immediate change at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection among the Apostles in the use of the Septuagint. If they widely used it when quoting the Old Testament, then without such an immediate change, it seems to follow that they must have widely used it prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. So we have no reason to believe that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had, by the time of Christ, ruled against the Septuagint or the deuterocanonical texts. Otherwise, the deliberation of the rabbis at Jamnia in A.D. 90 about whether the deuterocanonical books were canonical would have been unnecessary. If Jesus and His apostles agreed with the contemporary Jewish leaders in Israel regarding the Jewish canon, then it is likely that these leaders either accepted deuterocanonical texts or had reached no conclusion concerning them.

In this section we have seen a number of reasons why the ‘original Hebrew canon’ theory fails to provide an objective listing of the Old Testament scriptures binding on Christians, and therefore fails to answer the Canon Question. There is no historical basis to conclude that any one Jewish group had the authority to pronounce and close the canon for other Jewish groups, or that any one of them could conclude the canon for Christianity. We find not one of the early Church Fathers adopting a 39-book Old Testament canon. In addition, the New Testament identification of the Old Testament cannot be the basis for the Protestant Old Testament canon because it proves too much and too little. The New Testament has many texts which quite probably are references to the deuterocanon, and also identifies as “scripture” a line of text the source of which is still completely unknown. The New Testament does not identify five books which Protestants do treat as canonical. The historical evidence also indicates that the deuterocanonical texts were still accepted at the time of Christ. We have no evidence that there was an ‘original Hebrew canon’ matching the 39-book Protestant canon.


Another proposed canon test, this one tailored for the New Testament texts, maintains that the proper test for canonizing the New Testament is apostolic authorship, or at least apostolic origin. For example, William A. Sanderson and Carl Cassel have concluded that “the test of canonicity applied by the early church was apostolic authorship.” 9 According to Ridderbos:

For the communication and transmission of what was seen and heard in the fullness of time, Christ established a formal authority structure to be the source and standard for all future preaching of the gospel. 10

On this point the Catholic heartily will agree. And Ridderbos acknowledges that Jesus appointed an apostolate for this purpose. 11 He goes on to make the claim:

we can establish that the apostles’ role in the history of redemption was unique and unrepeatable. Because they not only received revelation but were also the bearers and organs of revelation, their primary and most important task was to function as the foundation of the church. To that revelation Christ binds His church for all time; upon it He founds and builds his church.12

With some of this the Catholic will agree. The Apostles, in accord with their commission from Christ, were to be the foundation of the Church. So they were, in one sense, unique and unrepeatable. But for Ridderbos, the Apostles were only to “function as the foundation of the Church.” The Apostles themselves are not the foundation of the Church; they are mere receptacles of a message that is the foundation. This is similar to the error made by Calvin that I addressed above in Section II.A., in which he saw the “teaching” of the prophets and Apostles as the foundation of the Church. To Ridderbos, then, the divine message received by the Apostles is the only thing that they were to pass on to the Church. For Catholics and Orthodox, by contrast, Christ also gave to the Apostles an authority to preach and teach in His Name, and with His authority, as His representatives. And this missional and magisterial authority can be, and is, passed down through the laying on of hands by the Apostles on those whom they have ordained.

For Ridderbos, Christ founded His Church upon revelation, rather than upon the Apostles themselves. Ridderbos’ position implies that authority within the Church was restricted only to the divine message delivered by Christ, wherever that message was communicated. Relevant at present is the implication this view has on the test for canonicity. If the revelation qua revelation were our authority, and the Apostles were (historically) simply its “bearers and organs,” then authority within the Church passed with the communicated revelation, leaving no authority with the succesor bishops whom the Apostles put in place.

This suggests the following answer to the Canon Question: those books which contain the authoritative revelation given to the Apostles belong to the canon. Some have gone to extensive lengths to prove that the New Testament corpus is from the Apostles either directly or via an amanuensis. 13 But Ridderbos rejects this answer to the Canon Question, “because we can no longer establish with historical certainty what in a redemptive-historical sense is apostolic and what is not.” 14 The nature of apostolicity was not limited to the twelve Apostles, and we are uncertain of the number or identity of persons who were in some way or other ‘apostolic.’ According to Ridderbos, as “historical judgments cannot be the final and sole ground for the church’s accepting the New Testament as canonical,” this method will not do. 15

But Harris and Bruce both argue that Apostolic authorship is a necessary criterion of New Testament canonicity. 16 Harris states, “The Lord Jesus did not, in prophecy, give us a list of twenty-seven New Testament books. He did, however, give us a list of the inspired authors. Upon them the church of Christ is founded, and by them the Word was written.” 17 But this position faces two insurmountable problems.

First, its primary premise is incorrect. Christ did not give us a list of inspired authors, as Harris claims. Harris may have in mind the synoptic Gospels’ listings of “the twelve apostles,” but these listings do not, of course, include the Apostle Paul. Besides this, the synoptics do not identify the Apostles as “inspired authors.” 18 If they did, or if we are to assume this attribute of apostolicity from reason, then it would seem that all of the Apostles’ writings were inspired, not just some of their writings. If that were the case, then we would have already lost some of Scripture, since we can be sure that there were other Apostolic writings besides those that have been canonized. For example, Paul wrote a letter to the Church at Laodicea which is no longer extant. 19 Because there is no God-given list of “inspired authors” just as there is no God-given list of the New Testament books, the Protestant can only reach the conclusion that the twelve Apostles were inspired authors through the use of reason or extra-Biblical sources.

Second, this position, that Christ gave a list of inspired authors who wrote out the Word, must be able to prove Paul’s actual apostolicity in order to defend his epistles as having apostolic authorship. But Paul’s apostolicity cannot be settled without resort to Tradition. This position also must defend the ultimate apostolic origin of Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude, books whose apostolic authorship is known only through Tradition. For the sake of brevity I will give an example of a Reformed defense of just one of these books. Harris notes that many scholars doubt the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, which “has less external evidence in its favor than do any of the other books.” 20 However, he notes, “there is no evidence that it is not by Peter, except debatable questions of style, and eventually the ancient church was convinced of its authorship.”21

But from the absence of evidence that 2 Peter was not written by Peter, we cannot reach the conclusion that 2 Peter was written by Peter, unless we resort to reliance upon Tradition. If Harris means to rely upon Tradition, as his words about the eventual conviction of the ancient Church imply, then without being ad hoc, he would also need to accept the deuterocanonical books. This is because the ancient Church eventually came to the conviction that the deuterocanonical books were canonical, as shown by the determinations of the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, already discussed above. Also, and of note, Origen, on whom Harris places great weight in concluding that the Protestant rendering of the Old Testament canon is correct, notes wide doubts in his day about 2 Peter’s Petrine authorship. 22 Harris is being ad hoc by using Origen when it suits him, and rejecting Origen when it does not. This wide doubt abut 2 Peter’s authorship is itself “evidence that 2 Peter was not by Peter,” which evidence Harris denies exists (“there is no evidence that it is not by Peter, except debatable questions of style”). Also, because Origen wrote in the first half of the third century A.D., we can see how late in time the “eventual conviction” on which Harris relies was in coming.

It is striking that Harris would look to the eventual conviction of the ancient Church. If the ancient Church did not have a conviction about 2 Peter’s canonicity at the point in time closest to that epistle’s composition, then its later-reached conclusions would only become less reliable with the passage of time. Memories of actual authorship would have faded, and opportunities for the inclusion of ‘urban legend’ would have expanded exponentially. That is, the Church’s Traditions would have become less reliable unless the Holy Spirit gave a special grace to the Church to be preserved from error. But if this is Harris’s position, it is again a resort to the ad hoc, because as a Reformed theologian he would deny that the Holy Spirit preserved the Church from error in any other area.

As Ridderbos notes, the position that the early Church accepted what was of apostolic origin “fails to explain why the Epistle to the Hebrews was (again) finally accepted in the West, in spite of the fact that its Pauline authorship was most strongly doubted just by those who were most instrumental in gaining its acceptance, that is, by Jerome and Augustine.” 23 That is, Ridderbos admits that during the original process of the formation of the New Testament canon, the criterion of Apostolic origin was not being applied. He also notes that this criterion cannot account for the rejection of the Didache, which was widely accepted in the early church and claimed apostolic origins for itself. 24 Finally, the spurious letter of Paul to the Laodiceans “had a place in many manuscripts in the West and apparently around A.D. 600 was still accepted as Pauline by Pope Gregory.” 25 For these reasons, this test of canonicity cannot be employed objectively without resort to “debatable” “historical judgments” as the “final and sole ground for the church’s accepting the New Testament as canonical.”26

As we have seen in this section, ‘Apostolic origin’ as a criterion of canonicity for the New Testament fails to provide an adequate answer to the Canon Question. It requires the use of extra-Biblical historical evidence in determining the canon, because Scripture does not list which ‘apostles’ wrote canonical books, does not list Paul with the listing of other Apostles, and does not guarantee the apostolic authorship of a number of New Testament books. This answer to the Canon Question is not what Jerome and Augustine applies when they simultaneously accepted Hebrews’ canonicity and denied its Pauline authorship. The Apostles, and not merely the message deposited with them, were the foundation of the Church. But the ‘Apostolic origin’ canon criterion makes the assumption that the books containing the Apostolic message are the foundation of the Church and as such belong to the canon. Unless we rely upon tradition and fallible historical judgments to define the canon, we cannot prove with certainty which books are of apostolic origin, or which persons possessed the nature of apostolicity such that their writings would be canonized. For these reasons, this answer to the Canon Question is unreliable and, given the Reformed assumption that whatever authoritatively testifies to the canonicity of Scripture must be more authoritative than Scripture, places Scripture ‘under’ fallible extra-Biblical evidence.


A fourth criterion used in Reformed and evangelical writings on the canon is that widespread reception of a text by the early Church infallibly establishes its canonicity. 27 This reception or acceptance, these scholars maintain, is evidence that the Holy Spirit specially and infallibly led the Church to accept a text as canonical. 28 According to Harris, Bruce would even have it that the canon of the New Testament was first settled by a general consent of the whole Church, and recognition of inspiration of the scriptural texts only came later as a “corrollary” of canonicity. 29 Ridderbos addresses the Church’s acceptance of the canon this way:

Within the history of Protestant dogma as well, certain utterances have been made that appear to imply ecclesiastical infallibility with respect to the acceptance of the canon. It has been argued . . . that the church received a special gift of the Holy Spirit to enable it to establish the canon by infallibly distinguishing inspired from noninspired writings. . . .

Another Protestant viewpoint is that the church’s consensus about the canon arose of itself and so is the clearest proof that in establishing the canon, the church was guided by special providence; history itself, so to speak, offers the evidence for the canonicity of the New Testament. That consensus of the church, or rather that absolute authority acquired by the writings of the New Testament everywhere and without dispute, is then thought to guarantee the canonicity of these [New Testament] writings. 30

It would be ad hoc to claim that the “church” infallibly established the canon through widespread acceptance while otherwise being unable to arrive at any infallible conclusions, without a principled basis for affirming infallibility in the one case and denying it in all others. If the Church was not infallibly preserved from error in its early teachings on ecclesiology, iconography, justification, etc., there is no reason to believe it was so preserved from error when its canon came into widespread acceptance. To maintain otherwise would be a textbook case of special pleading. Ridderbos himself rejects this answer to the Canon Question, writing:

From the standpoint of the Reformation . . . reference to the church’s infallibility clearly was never intended to be understood as a basis for the canonicity of the New Testament. The very fact that such infallibility or inspiration is accepted solely with respect to the establishment of the canon and is thus to be qualified as an ad hoc inspiration or infallibility proves that the real order here is just the opposite.31

That is, according to Ridderbos, claiming that the “church” could infallibly establish the canon by widespread acceptance denies the traditional Reformation understanding that the canon is the basis for any infallibility enjoyed by the Church. If the traditional Reformed view that the Church is infallible only insofar as it teaches Scripture is true, then the Church cannot infallibly declare (by widespread acceptance or otherwise) what is Scripture. Either the Church has authority to reach binding doctrinal conclusions, such as the extent of the canon, or it lacks this authority across the board, and thus cannot make any binding determination on the canon.

Besides this logical error, there are other problems within a sola scriptura framework with claiming as a criterion for canonicity that we accept those texts that received widespread acceptance by the early Church. Even if wide acceptance and liturgical use by the early Church would indicate a text’s canonicity, according to Ridderbos, considerations of historical acceptance were not used in the original process of forming the canon. 32 He returns from this assertion to his premise that the books were accepted because the Church was certain that these “particular books had been received from the hand of the Lord himself.” 33 He says elsewhere:

Yet it is absolutely incorrect historically to imagine that the process of selecting certain writings and of rejecting others took place automatically without argument and debate and so bears visibly the mark of a divine work. It is an undeniable fact, for example, that James, Hebrews, and 2 Peter could not acquire general recognition until the fourth century, that until the sixth century the Syrian church rejected Revelation and of the Catholic Epistles accepted only James, 1 Peter and 1 John, at the same time giving an apocryphal third epistle to the Corinthians a fixed place in the ecclesiastical canon. [Et cetera.]34

There simply was no single corpus of texts universally accepted by the Christians of the early Church. The famous Vincentian canon, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all,” cannot be of avail to Protestants in defining the canon, because before or after the Reformation there has never been universal acceptance of the Protestant canon.

Bruce, in his section “Tests in the Apostolic Age” from his chapter “Criteria of Canonicity,”35 sums up what appears ultimately to be his answer to the Canon Question this way:

By an act of faith the Christian reader today may identify the New Testament, as it has been received, with the entire ‘tradition of Christ.’ But confidence in such an act of faith will be strengthened if the same faith proves to have been exercised by Christians in other places and at other times–if it is in line with the traditional ‘criteria of canonicity.’ And there is no reason to exclude the bearing of other lines of evidence on any position that is accepted by faith.36

That is, like Ridderbos, Bruce believes that the Protestant canon as it stands should be accepted as an a priori. But he is also willing to make use of any other evidence that will support the act of faith by which one initially recognizes the Protestant books as belonging to the canon. The prerequisite to using a supplemental canon criterion, including that which has been believed by “Christians in other places and at other times,” seems to be that it yield the conclusion that the canon as it stands in the Protestant Bible is correct. The measure of universal (or at least widespread) acceptance does not tell us which Christians, and from what times, get a vote in this election which is used as “evidence” to prop up confidence in the Protestant canon. It cannot explain why the views of Jerome or Origen should count toward ‘widespread recognition,’ whereas the views of Augustine, or the councils of Hippo and Carthage should not. It cannot explain without resort to ad hoc stipulation why widespread acceptance by the fourth century (or some other early time) is authoritative while the consensus of today’s 1.5 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians regarding the deuterocanon is not.

James 4:5
5Or do you think that the scripture saith in vain: To envy doth the spirit covet which dwelleth in you?

Revelation 1:4
4John to the seven churches which are in Asia. Grace be unto you and peace from him that is, and that was, and that is to come, and from the seven spirits which are before his throne,

Tobit 12:15
15For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord.

Matthew 16:18
18And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Wisdom 16:13
13For it is thou, O Lord, that hast power of life and death, and leadest down to the gates of death, and bringest back again:

Matthew 10:1-4
1And having called his twelve disciples together, he gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities.

2And the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother,

3James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the publican, and James the son of Alpheus, and Thaddeus,

4Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

Mark 3:13-19
13And going up into a mountain, he called unto him whom he would himself: and they came to him.

14And he made that twelve should be with him, and that he might send them to preach.

15And he gave them power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils.

16And to Simon he gave the name Peter:

17And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he named them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:

18And Andrew and Philip, and Bartholomew and Matthew, and Thomas and James of Alpheus, and Thaddeus, and Simon the Cananean:

19And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.

Luke 6:12-16
12And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and he passed the whole night in the prayer of God.

13And when day was come, he called unto him his disciples; and he chose twelve of them (whom also he named apostles).

14Simon, whom he surnamed Peter, and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew,

15Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alpheus, and Simon who is called Zelotes,

16And Jude, the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, who was the traitor.

Colossians 4:16
16And when this epistle shall have been read with you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans: and that you read that which is of the Laodiceans.

  1. Harris, p. 136.
  2. Harris, p. 288.
  3. Harris, p. 136.
  4. Bruce, p. 52.
  5. Further examples are available here.
  6. Harris, p. 136.
  7. Availablehere.
  8. Bruce, p. 41. His preceding paragraphs discuss the views of the Essenes and Samaritans on the Jewish canon, so the “then” seems misplaced.
  9. Harris, pref.
  10. Ridderbos, p. 13.
  11. Id.
  12. Id., emphasis added.
  13. E.g., Harris, p. 260, ff.
  14. Ridderbos, p. 31.
  15. Ridderbos, p. 32-33.
  16. Harris, p. 233, ff.; Bruce, p. 256, ff.
  17. Harris, p. 247.
  18. Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16.
  19. Colossians 4:16.
  20. Harris, p. 240.
  21. Id.
  22. Harris, p. 270.
  23. Ridderbos, p. 45.
  24. Id.
  25. Id.
  26. See Ridderbos, p. 32-33.
  27. E.g., Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001), p. 319.
  28. Id.
  29. Harris, p. 124.
  30. Ridderbos, p. 34, emphasis added.
  31. Ridderbos, p. 34.
  32. Ridderbos, p. 43.
  33. Id.
  34. Ridderbos, p. 35.
  35. Bruce, p. 255. Note the plurality of tests in these titles.
  36. Bruce, p. 283.


Lastly I will consider Luther’s own answer to the Canon Question, as well as other early Lutheran permutations. Luther answers the Canon Question by looking internally at the teachings of candidate books themselves. “‘What preaches and urges Christ’ was for Luther the criterion of apostolicity and canonicity.” 1 That is, Luther started with Christ, the heart of the Gospel (or his own understanding of Him) and then reflected upon various texts to determine whether or not they preached and urged Christ. If so, they were canonical.

But Luther’s canon criterion has problems too. Objectively applied, this test would seem to allow ancient Christian art to be “canonical,” so long as it urges Christ. However, to give a more familiar shape to the outcome of this test, Luther relies on the Holy Spirit’s movement in his heart to perceive what is ‘preaching Christ.’ In this way, Luther’s view is similar to the theory in section II.A. addressed above. But if Luther’s canonicity test is a version of the Reformed view presented in section II.A., Luther’s application of it, as I shall now show, should be especially disturbing to proponents of Calvin’s view.

Luther spoke boldly against the value and even reliability of certain books that all Protestants treat as canonical. Within the Old Testament, Luther found Christ preached with special clarity in Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah. 2 However, according to Bruce, when challenged by the passage in 2 Maccabees supporting prayers for the dead, “that they might be delivered from their sin,”3 Luther “found a ready reply in Jerome’s ruling that 2 Maccabees did not belong to the books to be used ‘for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas”4. Bruce goes on to quote Luther thus: “I hate Esther and 2 Maccabees so much that I wish they did not exist; they contain too much Judaism and no little heathen vice.” 5 Notice Luther’s special animus toward Esther; if the Spirit’s movement in his heart to see Christ preached is the measure of canonicity, there would be no principled basis for accepting Esther and rejecting Second Maccabees. Notice also that Jerome, while excluding 2 Maccabees, did accept Esther as fit for establishing doctrine. So if Luther “found a ready reply” from Jerome, it was only in an ad hoc fashion. It is worth recalling here that Calvin believed that “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.”6 To explain Luther’s animus toward Esther, among other books, Calvin would either have to deny that the Holy Spirit was aiding Luther in seeing black from white, or would have to admit that the canonicity of at least some texts is not as plain as black is from white or sweet is from bitter.

If Luther’s perception of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit about some New Testament texts were the measure of canonicity, the New Testament too would have to be altered. He said of Revelation that it “lacks everything that I hold as apostolic or prophetic.” 7 Further, he said of Revelation, “For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” Readers may be familiar with Luther’s description of James as a “right strawy epistle.”8 Because at some point in his life Luther did not see the Divine character of several books included in the New Testament canon, if his perception of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit were the measure of canonicity, several books have been wrongly included in the New Testament.

His German New Testament prefaces also set off Hebrews and Jude as lesser books, for he “did not recognize in them the high quality of ‘the right certain capital books.’” 9 This view of a collection that gets at the heart of the Gospel, and lesser books that do not, naturally results in a “canon within the canon.”10 For Luther, as for Lutherans today, “the ‘inner canon’ is a Pauline canon,” along with the Gospels. 11 This test, coupled with Luther’s opinion against certain books, raises a difficulty for the canon-within-a-canon position. There is no principled standard to determine when a dispute about a book’s getting at the heart of the Gospel, or doing so in a lesser or disputed way, puts a text outside of the inner canon. Even if there were such a standard, it would be extra-biblical and, from the perspective of sola scriptura, effectively superior to the canon. That is because this procedural mechanism has the power, through its narrowness or broadness, to control what will and what will not be in the canon.

The Lutheran theologian W. G. Kümmel follows Luther’s approach. To him, the New Testament books are canonical only to the extent that each is in accord with the norm of the Christian faith, which is the “central proclamation” of the New Testament. 12 This position gives rise to a circularity problem: the canon is defined by what preaches Christ, and we know Christ through the canon of Scripture. For this theory to work, we first have to know Christ from some other source besides the Scriptures in order to determine the canon. Hence comes the need for special revelation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the individual considering whether a given text preaches Christ. As Ridderbos says of the canon-within-a-canon view:

The final decision as to what the church deems to be holy and unimpeachable does not reside in the biblical canon itself. Human judgment about what is essential and central for Christian faith is the final court of appeal. 13

That is, by basing the canon on a human determination of what is “holy and unimpeachable,” the human determination is placed above the Bible. Scripture is relegated to a position secondary to human judgment. This characteristic of Luther’s answer to the Canon Question is indistinguishable from the supposed position of the Catholic Church, which depends on the judgments of the Church to determine the canon. For this reason, ‘that which preaches Christ’ as a criterion of canonicity also fails to provide an objective answer to the Canon Question.


In our quest to determine how we know which texts are divinely revealed, we have found no answer to the Canon Question that does not itself violate sola scriptura by using some criterion external to Scripture to establish which books belong to Scripture. But even if one of the considered criteria could objectively yield a canon without resorting to extra-biblical evidence, the Protestant position suffers a deeper deficiency. As I shall argue, the advocate of sola scriptura, by the terms of his own doctrine, lacks the authority even to give an answer the Canon Question.

The doctrine of sola scriptura maintains that the Bible is to be the Christian’s sole infallible authority. The sine qua non (‘that without which’) of the Reformation is that no Church or other human judgment can be placed over Scripture. Power over the canon is power over Scripture itself because it is the power to eradicate a necessary part of the canon or to add a spurious part to Scripture. So the Reformed position is not any more compatible with the Church or other human judgment being placed over the canon than it is compatible with their placement over Scripture itself.

But the very act of answering the Canon Question inherently involves an extra-Biblical fallible human judgment, unless one is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit. This fallible human judgment, by defining the criterion of canon, exercises power over the canon itself. And as I just noted, power over the canon is power over Scripture. Therefore, absent the Holy Spirit’s preserving one from error, to answer the Canon Question is to exercise power over Scripture, and to place one’s judgment over Scripture. So to answer the Canon Question is to violate the doctrine of sola scriptura by placing something over the Christian’s sole infallible authority. If Protestants see the Catholic Church as placing herself ‘over’ Scripture simply by articulating the canon of Scripture, so too they should see answers to the Canon Question culled from human reason or extra-Biblical evidence as being ‘over’ Scripture. Since Protestants see the former as violating sola scriptura, there is no principled reason not to see the latter as a violation of sola scriptura.

If I propose a test for determining the canon of Scripture, I must have some basis for the claim that my test is objectively true. Analogously, first-century Christians could not address the question “Is Jesus the Messiah?” without first knowing how, or by what measure, the Messiah would be recognized. And that measure had to have some foundation before it could be accepted. Indeed, this foundation for measuring whether a person was actually the Messiah was established through the revelation of prophets, who themselves had to be tested for reliability and accuracy.14 Likewise, the test that a given Christian community uses to define its canon of Scripture must have a reliable basis. The Catholic or Orthodox Christian will point to the work of the Holy Spirit in the visible Church as the basis for his articulation of the canon, which work is seen in sacred tradition. 15 But because the Protestant system rejects basing the canon of Scripture on tradition or any other authority, and rejects that the Holy Spirit works infallibly through the visible Church, it must find some other basis for whatever test or criterion leads to the 66-book canon. If the basis for the Protestant articulation of a canon test is man’s reasoning, then the canon produced is no more reliable than the fallible reasoning that is at its base.

R. C. Sproul has recognized this rationale. He famously has stated that the classical Protestant position does not see the Church as having infallibly defined the canon. According to Sproul, unlike the Catholic position, which maintains that we have an infallible collection of infallible books, and unlike the modern critical scholars’ position, which maintains that we have a fallible collection of fallible books, we actually have “a fallible collection of infallible books.” 16 He reasons that because the Church is fallible, “it’s possible that wrong books could have been selected,” but he doesn’t “believe for a minute that that’s the case.” 17

Sproul’s own personal confidence, the source of which he does not articulate, does not solve the fundamental problem his understanding of the “historic Protestant position” presents to spiritual descendants of the Protestant Reformation. If it is possible that wrong books were included in the canon, then it is also possible that right books could have been omitted. In this theological environment, our confidence in and obligation to submit to any scriptural text extends only as far as our confidence in the propriety of the text’s inclusion in the canon in the first place. In other words, we can have no more confidence in the infallibility of the content included than we have in the process by which it was included. But in the Protestant scheme, because the process which yielded the canon is fallible, Protestantism cannot have complete confidence in the content of its canon.

A fallible collection of infallible books cannot function as a binding authority, for “what can be more absurd than a probable infallibility, or a certainty resting on doubt?” 18 I am reminded of my recent purchase of a “1080″ pixel television. I learned that my old DVD player sends out something like 480 pixels. Just as my 480 pixel DVD player cannot yield a 1080 pixel image on my TV, so too my fallible collection of Bible books cannot yield infallible assurance. Again, the text of Scripture can be no more binding than is our conclusion of which texts are to be included. The irony is that the Protestant Reformation was originally premised on Scripture’s ultimate demand for submission, which submission was supposed to lead to certainty and orthodoxy.19

Like Sproul, Ridderbos rejects the Catholic view that the Church has the authority to define the canon. He attempts to maintain the fallibility of the Church without admitting to the fallibility of the canon as Sproul did. First, Ridderbos admits that “Catholic theology explicitly distinguishes the authority of the canon quoad se (“as to itself”) and quoad nos (“as to ourselves”), that is, the authority of Scripture in itself is not dependent on that of the church; only our acceptance of that authority, including recognition of the canon, is.” 20 The Catholic Church does not take merely pious texts and convert them to authoritative, divine texts, but rather it determines, in a way that is binding on the faithful, what is already of divine origin, and as such, authoritative. By recognizing the quoad se/quoad nos distinction early on, Ridderbos means fairly to avoid the false claim that the Catholic Church believes Scripture’s authority to be dependent on, and subsidiary to, the authority of the Church.

But what he admits with the one hand, he seems to take away with the other. His objection to Catholic theology is that “the church exceeds its competence by placing itself beside, if not above, the canon.” 21 He tells us that if we take Augustine’s famous quote, “I would not have believed the gospel, unless the authority of the Church had induced me,” to mean “that the recognition of the canon by believers rests on the authority of the church, then the church, in fact, usurps the place that properly belongs to the canon alone, thus, at the very least, equating its authority with that of the canon.” 22 But a believer’s confidence in the canon resting on the authority of the Church does not place the Church beside or above the canon any more than a believer’s confidence resting on his subjective reflection upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit in his heart places his heart beside, if not above, the canon. Therefore, if Ridderbos’s critique of the Catholic Church’s relationship to scripture is accurate, then his own view of canonics would be subject to the same critique.23

The Church does, with its authority, lead believers to accept the Bible, and this in no way places the Church’s authority ‘above’ the canon’s authority. If a mother explains to a child that he is to obey his father as head of the household, the mother has not thereby usurped her husband. If a captain of soldiers instructs his men to obey a particular order of their General, he has not thereby equated his own authority to the General’s authority. Likewise, if we believe the authority of Scripture on the basis of the Church’s authority, the Church has not thereby equated its authority to the Bible’s divine authority.

Returning now to the solution the Protestant must seek out, he must put forward an objective canon criterion having an authority above man as its foundation. The problem for Reformed theology with accepting that recognition of the canon rests on the authority of the Church flows from its preceding rejection of apostolic succession. As Ridderbos puts it:

The Roman Catholic idea is really that apostolic authority has been transmitted to the church and that the church is empowered by its head to make pronouncements about the canon, as well as tradition, that are themselves apostolic and canonical pronouncements. This notion we hold to be again in direct opposition to the history of redemption, in which apostolic power is entirely unique in character and is not capable of repetition or succession. 24

But this claim that apostolic power is incapable of repetition is unsubstantiated. The original Apostles shared the characteristics of having been instructed by Christ personally, and having been sent, or commissioned, by Christ. It is true that the group of people who personally were instructed by Christ cannot increase in size today. In that sense, the original Apostles were a unique group, not capable of succession as ‘original Apostles.’ But if this explains Ridderbos’s conclusion, that “apostolic power is entirely unique in character and not capable of repetition or succession,” then he has glossed the distinction between being an ‘original Apostle’ and possessing ‘apostolic power.’ The authority that flows from being sent by Christ is an authority capable of repetition or succession, and can be bestowed on those who were not immediate disciples of Christ. That this distinct apostolic power can be handed down is thoroughly supported by Scripture and the writings of the early Church Fathers, as shall be discussed here in great detail in subsequent articles.

The canon did not fall from the sky as one collection, of course. As I argued in section II, under sola scriptura, the canon could not be the product of criteria that rely upon evidence external to Scripture, for such evidence would thereby be placed over the canon. And even if the Reformed system could articulate a canon criterion that did not rely upon extra-Biblical evidence, the very process of articulating a canon criterion would violate sola scriptura by subordinating Scripture to an extra-Biblical criterion. The fundamental problem, then, for the sola scriptura position is that it is left without any way of determining the canon that is faithful to its own paradigm of authority.


Before Christians can ask the world to accept the Bible as God’s perfect revelation of truth, we must be able to answer the Canon Question: “By what criterion do we know what comprises the Bible?” But, as I have argued, Reformed theology is intrinsically incapable of answering this question. In spite of partially relying on a supposedly objective element–the self-attesting quality of true Scripture–the classical Reformed answer to the Canon Question ultimately depends upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of each believer to resolve disputes where the objective measure does not produce agreement. For this reason, given the classical Reformed answer to the Canon Question, it is the subjective inward testimony of the Holy Spirit that must ultimately give assurance of a text’s canonicity. But since any two Christians who enjoy the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, and who are new to Scripture, might not agree that a given text is canonical, this test is too subjective to be reliable. And because the inner-testimony criterion of Scripture is not reliable, it cannot be our final guide to determining the canon of Scripture.

In this article, I have considered a variety of proposals for reformulating the classical Reformed position to be more objective. But whether measuring Scripture by the ‘original’ Hebrew canon, by the books which are of Apostolic origin, or by those books which received widespread acceptance in the early Church, the criterion would necessarily rely upon extra-Scriptural evidence. I have also here examined Luther’s view that Scripture can be identified as that which preaches Christ; this criterion too necessarily relies upon extra-Scriptural evidence, namely, the individual determination of what preaches Christ. The Protestant critique of the Catholic Church’s view of its relationship to Scripture is that the Catholic Church effectively places itself ‘over’ Scripture by having the power to define the canon. But this critique would apply with equal force to any criterion that measures Scripture by extra-Biblical means. The means would be placed ‘over’ Scripture, and thus violate the doctrine of sola scriptura, which allows no other infallible authority besides Scripture itself.

Finally, the very process of answering the Canon Question violates sola scriptura. That doctrine permits no infallible authority in the Christian’s life save Scripture. But a person answering the Canon Question must employ fallible human judgment to craft the rule by which Scripture’s contents are to be selected. This judgment is extra-Biblical, and is placed over Scripture because it defines the canon. By placing this judgment above the sole permitted infallible authority, the process of answering the question violates sola scriptura.

A canon criterion that judges the canon based on Scripture’s internal attributes will always be of dubious reliability because it depends on subjective human judgment. A canon criterion that judges the canon based on evidence external to Scripture violates sola scriptura, or the Reformed assumption that necessarily accompanies sola scriptura that whatever authoritatively testifies to the canonicity of Scripture must be more authoritative than Scripture, by placing extra-Biblical evidence effectively above the Bible, which is to be the believer’s sole infallible authority. Therefore, every criterion available to Reformed theology to answer the Canon Question will either be of dubious reliability or in violation of sola scriptura (and hence not available to Reformed theology). The fundamental problem, then, for the sola scriptura position is that it is left without any way of determining the canon that is faithful to its own paradigm of authority.

I finish with a challenge, and one I offer with a heart longing for Christian unity. Approach your pastor, or the most knowledgeable Reformed teacher or theologian you know, and ask him how he is certain that the Protestant canon is correct. Ask him which answer to the Canon Question he follows, and why he chose that theory over the others. Wrestle together with him until you have found an answer that both yields the 66-book Protestant canon, and does not rely on subjective bosom-burning or extra-Biblical canon criteria. Let us pray to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit from the depth of our hearts for Christian unity.

2 Maccabees 12:45
45And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them.

Deuteronomy 18:21-22
21And if in silent thought thou answer: How shall I know the word that the Lord hath not spoken?

22Thou shalt have this sign: Whatsoever that same prophet foretelleth in the name of the Lord, and it cometh not to pass: that thing the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath forged it by the pride of his mind: and therefore thou shalt not fear him.

  1. Ridderbos, p. 3. See also Bruce, p. 102; Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 1966), p. 83.
  2. Bruce, p. 102.
  3. 2 Maccabees 12:45 ff.
  4. Bruce, p. 101, citations omitted.
  5. Id.
  6. Institutes, book I, ch. 7, sec. 2.
  7. Quoted in Bruce, p. 244.
  8. R. Laird Harris, pp. 57-58. This was said in the preface to his 1522 edition of the New Testament. Luther, comparing James to the ‘main’ books of the New Testament, said it was “really an espistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it.” Ridderbos, p. 3.
  9. Bruce, p. 243. Here Luther shows a favor for the what-preaches-Christ criterion of canonicity over the ‘widespread acceptance’ criterion, since he does not set off 2 Peter or 2 and 3 John in the same way. Bruce, p. 244.
  10. See Ridderbos, p. 4.
  11. Bruce, p. 244.
  12. Ridderbos, p. 5, quoting W. G. Kümmel, Notwendigkeit und Grenze des neutestamentlichen Kanons (ZTK, 1950), p. 312.
  13. Ridderbos, p. 7.
  14. Cf. Deuteronomy 18:21-22: “If you say to yourselves, ‘How can we recognize an oracle which the Lord has spoken?,’ know that, even though a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified, it is an oracle which the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you shall have no fear of him.”
  15. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1117.
  16. R. C. Sproul, Now That’s a Good Question! (Nelson, 1996), p. 81-82.
  17. Id.
  18. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (U. of Notre Dame Press, 1989), p. 80. As if responding directly to R. C. Sproul’s qualifying statement that he doesn’t “believe for a minute that” wrong books were selected, Cardinal Newman went on rhetorically: “I believe, because I am sure; and I am sure, because I think.”
  19. Here the words of Catholic convert Peter Burnett, California’s first governor, are worth noting:

But it did seem to me that those who reject Tradition, under the idea of attaining greater certainty, did, indeed, increase the uncertainty; not only by destroying a part of the law itself, but by attacking the credibility of the only proper and reliable witness to the inspiration and authenticity of the entire canon of Scripture. Peter Hardeman Burnett, The Path Which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church, p. 36.

  1. Ridderbos, p. 33. Id.  
  2. Id.  
  3. See also Neal Judisch, Calvin on ‘Self-Authentification’, Called to Communion.
  4. Ridderbos, p. 33-34, internal citations omitted.