Formation of the Scriptural Canon

Following on from the posting about the book of Ecclesiasticus a few weeks ago, the bigger question that can be asked is how the Scriptural canon accepted by various churches came into being. This turns out to be surprisingly complex. The Old Testament is generally divisible into two parts, the protocanon and the deuterocanon, with the latter part being the seven books previously referred to which are only accepted by the churches listed in that post. The protocanon is accepted by practically all Christian churches, whereas the deuterocanon is accepted mostly by non-Protestant churches only. The protocanon consists of 39 books, which correspond to the 24 books in the Hebrew Bible. However, a few early church leaders rejected some parts of it.

The New Testament is a bit more involved. An early attempt to define the canon of NT scripture was made at the Council of Rome in 382 AD, however their list includes some of the Apocrypha that in this modern era are rejected by Protestant churches. There was a great deal of debate for centuries over which books should be considered canonical. In fact this was not fully confirmed until the Middle Ages. The actual sessions and dates which are generally considered authoritative for modern church practice are:

  • Roman Catholic: Council of Trent 1546
  • Calvinism: Gallic Confession of Faith 1559
  • Church of England: Thirty-Nine Articles 1563
  • Greek Orthodox: Synod of Jerusalem 1672

(Most of the above is adapted from Wikipedia)

The key question from here is how present day Pentecostal churches, for example, have arrived at their canon. From the above list the Westminster Confession of Faith was produced in 1646 and has been used or adapted by a number of lesser Protestant churches. However, few belief statements of modern churches go as far as to list which books are considered scriptural or canonical. Generally, such churches or denominations rely implicitly on preferred or reputable translations of the Bible and thus impute the selections of the compilers of those translations as authoritative. For example, the New International Version has been produced by Biblica (International Bible Society) and is widely accepted in many churches. Biblica’s own statement of faith affirms the “66 books”, as do the doctrinal statements of some denominations, without explicitly stating what they are.