Is the Canon of Scripture Open or Closed?
Question; Critically Evaluate the Argument the Canon is Closed. Discuss
the strengths and weaknesses of a Closed Canon for Evangelism.
It is the task of this essay to try to evaluate the argument
that the Canon is closed. It will in the process try and point out that the
evolution of both the Old Testament and finally the canon of Scripture we have
today called the New Testament was not a cut and dried task. Many scholars
still debate this with articulated arguments that have equal weight. The arguments
are so vast that it would be impossible to cover them in depth in an essay of
this length and as such only, the major points will be covered here. Some
scholars see the Scriptures as a unity provided by God, complete in all ways
with respect to his redemptive work through Jesus Christ and thus extricate
themselves from the debate over tradition and the authority of the church being
the main criteria for inclusion in the canon. This allows for the position of a
closed canon while at the same time recognising that those scholars who hold to
an open canon also have a valid argument and should not be dismissed out of
Before looking at the issue of whether the canon is open or
closed it is essential to define exactly what the Canon of Scripture is. The
word canon has a Semitic origin which means "reed," but has come to
mean, "measuring rod." Hence a rule or
standard or as Carson,Moo and Morris state a closed collection of documents that constitute
It is important to note there is no scriptural instruction to be found that
would have told the early church to form a Canon (the word does not appear in
Therefore the forming of the canon must have came about
because of the influence of the Holy Spirit who was wanting the church to
preserve the teaching of Christ and his apostles, which was seen by the early
church as a fulfilment of the Old Testament and a new revelation in God's
redemptive plan for humankind.
The historical evidence of the Canons of both the Old
Testament and New Testament must be examined to see how the early church came
to accept and recognise them in the form we have today.
The first to hint at a closed Jewish canon is Ben Sira in
who spoke about the foundational books falling into three categories.
Whether or not Ben Sira conceived of a canon in its strictest sense is of
course open to debate, but it cannot be ignored that the concept of a closed
canon had indeed been formulated and the present limits defined.
The earliest evidence to a closed Hebrew canon comes from 2
Esdras 14:38-46 where it talks about 24 works to be made public and other works
to read by the wise.
Josephus is the first historian to distinguish explicitly that there was such a
thing as canonical works and non canonical works. F.F. Bruce in his book "The
Scripture of Canon" sees as not unreasonable the idea that the Old
Testament canon came into existence in three stages.
It appears then the majority of scholars are happy with the
concept of the Old Testament Canon being closed, with the main area that debate
continues is the date of its closing.
For many the Old Testament came as a closed canon received from the Jewish
church having been closed sometime in the 1st Century B.C. While for others it
took its final form during the council of Jamnia A.D.90.
It must be noted that Albert Sundberg Jr has bought
into sharp focus the argument over this dating,
by attempting to dispel the Alexandrian Canon hypothesis. He goes into great
depth to impress upon his readers that in fact the church did not receive a
closed canon from Judaism.
Sundberg also in raising the issue has posed the problem of whether or not
Jesus used an open canon.
Jesus himself attests to the canonical standing of the Old
in such statements as Luke 24:44-45 and Matthew 23:34-35. He then made his own
words and deeds equally authoritative
and promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of his
ministry and its significance.
The canon of the New Testament then is the authoritative record and
interpretation of God's revelation of himself through Jesus Christ.
Secondly there is the issue of how the New Testament Canon
came into existence. A brief look at history points out that the process of
forming the New Testament canon was a long drawn out affair. The official
recognition of the New Testament in the form we know today did not take place
until 397 A.D., and this, in a list preserved by Athanasius.
Part of this process had been the acceptance of materials by the church in its
different locations which saw the coming together of a distinct thread of
letters and gospels that were seen as authoritative. However there was some
material such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, over which there was
and is continuing debate. This over it appropriateness of
being included in the canon. It could be said that the churches had
individually came to a general consensus as to which material was classed as
Scripture and worthy of inclusion and which was not.
According to Gundry church councils of the fourth and fifth century merely
formalised existing belief and practice concerning the New Testament canon.
Many feel the formation of the New Testament canon was
spurred on by Marcion and the release of his Gnostic canon,
which forced the church to define what up to that time had been
generally accepted as Scripture in a more formal way. There was of course some
disagreement over which books should or should not be included in the canon
just as with the Old Testament canon. Such New Testament writings as the
Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache as well as the Apocryphal books were the
subject of much disagreement and it is here combined with Luther's selective
use of canonical books that the possibility of a closed or open canon can find
There appears to be several basic positions on the New
1. The New Testament is a human anthology of divinely
inspired writings. According to Gaffin however this view denies that God is the
author of Scripture. The collective entity being the product of fallible human
beings, hence what we have in Scripture is the "whole counsel of man"
and not of God. This view casts a shadow over all Scripture and sets the door
ajar for an open canon.
2. Another view is that the New Testament is, relatively speaking;
a complete entity shaped by God, but is continually being updated by new
revelation, the living prophetic voices of the church. This view however in one
way or another makes distinctions between completed, canonical revelation for
the whole church and ongoing private revelation to individuals. This view goes
beyond the bible and specifically addresses individual life situations.
This view like the first lays open the way for a open canon.
3. Lastly there is the view that the New Testament is a
complete entity which along with the Old Testament, gives God's word and brings
his authority to expression, without restriction, in a definite and absolute
way. Within this view there are several
groups who hold differing emphasis on the criteria for canonicity and who would
argue against the other two views from a different prospective.
F.F Bruce looks closely at the criteria for Canonicity
and like Gamble
sees the early church fathers using these criteria to establish the canon. This
would be disputed by Gaffin who sees the criteria issue as an after the fact
attempt to define what had already taken place.
There are those who argue that because the Canon came to us
through church councils such as the Council of Trent
(which went as far as including the Apocrypha) and that to hold the position of
a closed canon is to lock one's self into tradition being the key to canonicity.
It is the reformation principle of the 'soul of Scripture' and Luther's
dividing of the canon into those he deemed as homologoumena and antilegomena,
combined with the chequered history of disagreement between the church fathers
and others down through history which has caused many to question if the canon
Donald Robinson makes the point that for Luther many books failed to meet those criteria,
particularly "Apostolic Authority". This taken with the view that all
the churches were equally inspired
and as such any one could claim their writing to be inspired has caused many to
look at the canon as an open and changing revelation.
Stemming from Luther's use of selective Scripture and other
historical uses of Scripture there is a debate over a "canon within a
which proposes that all groups use only selective portions of Scripture that
speak to them.
This they claim has been historical and as such sets the precedent that the
canon should be abolished.
Richard Gaffin along with other scholars sees the key marker
for canonicity is "redemption history"
and its history through revelation. For them the issue is, God has given the
Canon and as such has overseen its establishment to give a complete picture in
relation to his provision for us in Christ Jesus. This is shown in the history
of the Old Testament Canon with the close of prophetic utterance and the close
of the canon. With the coming of Christ the Old Testament was fulfilled and a
new canon was needed. Also Gaffin contends that with the closing of the New
Testament canon comes the end of the apostolic utterances
and thus there is no need for further revelation until Christ comes again to
fulfil the covenant. Gaffin explains that times of inactivity in the history of
redemption are, correlatively, times of silence in the history of revelation.
Click to Enlarge this Image.
Herman Ridderbos sees three distinguishing elements of the redemptive-historical idea of Canon.
1. That of exclusive authority, according to the
authorisation of the apostles by Christ himself;
2. That of a qualitatively closed unity, according to the
unrepeatable and unique character of the apostolic witness;
3. That of fixation and stabilisation, according to its
destination as foundation and depositum custodi of the church.
Thus for these authors any further discoveries which in the
unlikely event they could be proved as being canonical would precipitate the
formation of a new canon not the extending of the existing one.
What then would be the strengths and weaknesses of a closed
canon for Evangelism?
Some of the strengths of a closed canon are:
1. a closed canon avoids the
conflict over whether any new writing should have been included in the Canon,
and gives a unifying and stable position against those who want to exclude some
particular books because it disagrees with their personal theology from doing
so. This is no better pointed out than by such articles as "Extending the
Canon: Some Implications of a Hindu Argument about Scripture" by Francis
X. Clooney in which he outlines the arguments made by Srivaisnava theologians
as to why many Hindu writings which are not inconsistent with Christian
principles should be included into a hitherto closed, but now reopened canon.
.2. By accepting a closed Canon it means that we accept all
Scripture contained in its covers and forces the reader to deal with all of Scripture
and hopefully to not suffer selective blindness, thus giving unity to
3. It gives the evangelist the confidence that what he is
preaching from is the total story in God's redemptive plan for humankind.
Some weaknesses of a closed canon are that:
1. it fails to give liberty of conscience in determining
what is canon.(The view of Luther)This was a reformation principle and many who
we evangelise know this and as such will try to point out the inconsistency;
2. It can lead to the accusation that it is bound by
tradition not the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, giving the impression of
equal status to Scripture and tradition. This is no different to any other
religious group who uses their own ecclesiastical authority to determine what
is or is not Scripture (Mormons, Jehovah Witness).
3. In a world searching for answers holding to a closed
canon can shut the church off from continuing revelation which helps keep the
church relevant to the society to which it witnesses.
4. lastly it can give the
impression of the infallibility of those church councils, again this could be a
stumbling block to those who have a Cult background.
In conclusion then the issue remains, is the canon closed or
open? There is enough weight of evidence on both sides to make it impossible to
be dogmatic over the issue. Robinson and others have been able give valid
arguments for a open canon while Ridderbos and others can argue just as
strongly that the canon is closed. It would be the conclusion of this author
that at this point in his assessing of the information available that the
closed canon approach of Gaffin et al is the most logical. However to hold to the
position of an open canon as held by Donald Robinson is also not without
The Scripture of Canon. (Ilinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
Carson, D.A. et al An Introduction to
the New Testament. (Grand Rapids; Zondervan,
Clooney, Francis. X,
"Extending the Canon: Some Implications of a Hindu Argument about Scripture"
Harvard Theological Review. Vol 85:2 1992 197-215.
Dunn, James. D.G,
Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. (London:
SCM Press, 1977).
Fuller, Daniel P,
The Unity of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
Gaffin, Richard B,
"The New Testament as Canon." Inerrancy
and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate.
(ed. Harvie M. Conn; Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1988) 165-183.
Gamble, Harry Y,arry ,
The New Testament Canon. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).
Gundry, Robert H.
A Survey of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1981).
Robert B. "The Problem of the Canon
in the Contemporary Church" Foundations. Vol 10 1967 314-330.
"The Canon of the New Testament." Revelation and The Bible. (ed. Carl F. Henry: London; Tyndale Press,
Faith's Framework. (Sydney: Albatross Books Pty Ltd,
C. Jr, "The Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration" Interpretation.
Vol 29 1975 352-371.
C. Jr, "The Old Testament of the Early Church" Harvard Theological
Review. Vol 51 1958 205-226.
Sundberg, Albert C. Jr, "Canon Muratori: A Fourth Century List" Harvard
Theological Review. Vol 66 1973 1-41.
Frank, "The New Testament
Canon: Its Basis for Authority" Westminster Theological Journal.
Vol 45 1983 400-410.
"The Process: How we got our Bible." Christianity
Today. Vol 32 February 1988 24.
D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 487.
James D.G. Dunn, Unity and
Diversity in the New Testament.
(London: SCM Press, 1977) 371f.
Ronald Youngblood, "The Process: How we got our
Bible." Christianity Today. 32 February 1988 24.
3. "The Law itself
and the Prophecies and the rest of the Books."
F.F. Bruce, The
Scripture of Canon. (Ilinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
36f. "The Law was first canonised (early in the period after the
return from the Babylonian exile), the prophets next(Late
in the third century B.C.). When these two collections were closed, everything
else that was recognised as holy Scripture had to go
into the third division, The Writings remained open until the end of the first
century AD, when it was closed at Jamnia."
Albert C. Sundberg Jr, "The
Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration" Interpretation. 29 1975 355.
Albert C. Sundberg Jr, "The
Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration" Interpretation. Vol 29 1975 352-371; "The Old
Testament of the Early Church" Harvard Theological Review.
Vol 51 1958 205-226; "Canon Muratori: A Fourth
Century List" Harvard Theological Review. Vol 66 1973 1-41.
Sundberg, "The Bible Canon and
the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration" 356f. Sundberg claims "the church was forced to define
the content of her Old Testament for herself."
Frank Thielman, "The
New Testament Canon: Its Basis for Authority" Westminster
Theological Journal. Vol 45 1983 404.
Richard B Gaffin, "The New Testament as
Canon." Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A
Challenge, A Debate. (ed. Harvie
M. Conn; Grand Rapids:
Baker Bookhouse, 1988) 167.
See for example, statements like "You have heard
that it was said to the men of old,(followed by an Old
Testament quotation)...But I say to you..." and in the Sermon on the mount
Matt 5:21, 27, 31. Also Mark 1:22,27.
Robert H. Gundry, A
Survey of The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
Donald Robinson, Faith's Framework. (Sydney: Albatross Books Pty Ltd, 1985) 43.
Bruce, 255ff. Here Bruce outlines the criteria: 1 Apostolic
Authority; 2. Antiquity; 3. Orthodoxy; 4. Catholicity; 5. Traditional Usage; 6.
Harry Y. Gamble, The
New Testament Canon. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985)
Herman Ridderbos, "The Canon of the New
Testament." Revelation and The Bible. (ed. Carl F. Henry: London;
Tyndale Press, 1969) 190. "According to the Roman Catholic view, the Canon
viewed in itself (quoad se)
possesses undoubted authority. But as it concerns us (quoad
nos), the recognition of the Canon rests upon the authority
of the Church". "It is the Church which has established and fixed its
Sundberg, "The Bible Canon and the Christian
Doctrine of Inspiration.", 364.
Herman Ridderbos, "The Canon of the New
Testament." Revelation and The Bible. (ed. Carl F. Henry: London;
Tyndale Press, 1969) 189-201; Frank Thielman,
"The New Testament Canon: Its Basis for Authority" Westminster Theological Journal.
Vol 45 1983 400-410; Richard B Gaffin, "The New
Testament as Canon." Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate. (ed. Harvie M. Conn; Grand
Rapids: Baker Bookhouse,
Francis X. Clooney, "Extending the Canon: Some
Implications of a Hindu Argument about Scripture" Harvard Theological
Review. Vol 85:2 1992 197-215.