Systematic Theology 3: The Canon of Scripture

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted. Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

“The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). The term canon means “rule” or “authority.” Therefore, the canon of Scripture describes the books of the Bible as the final rule for our lives. The question of canonicity is “What belongs in the Bible and what does not belong?” (Grudem, 54)

In ministry to South Asian Muslims, the term canon sounds similar to the Urdu word kanun. This word is commonly used to describe the law (Urdu kanun) of Moses. Both the English term canon and the Urdu kanunderived initially from the Semitic term kanun

  • Urdu. The term kanun came from Arabic to Urdu. 
  • English. The term kanun is a Greek word that occurs in the New Testament (Gal 6:16). It is most likely that this word came to Greek from a Semitic language from before Arabic. Latin derived the word canonfrom the Greek kanun. English then took the word canon from Latin. 

This lesson will discuss five historical tests of canonicity. These are five tests that help us to logically and clearly determine what should and should not be in the Bible. These five tests will then be applied to The Old Testament, The New Testament, the Apocrypha, and the Qur’an. 

Four Tests of Canonicity

  1. Is it from an Authoritative Source? The origin of Scripture is God. Therefore, the source of any book of Scripture must be an apostle or prophet or some authoritative source. 
    1. “Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:20-21
    1. “All Scripture is inspired by God…” 2 Timothy 3:16a
  2. Does it agree with Other Scripture? God does not change. Therefore, any new book from God must agree or coalesce with previous books from God. If a new book claiming to be Scripture disagrees with previously received Scripture, then the new book must be rejected as Scripture.
    1. “Because I, the LORD have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been destroyed.” Malachi 3:6
    1. “God is not a man, that He might lie, or a son of man, that He might change His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?” Numbers 23:19
  3. Is it Powerful? When we read Scripture, it produces a change in our lives. The Word of God is powerful! If a book lacks spiritual power, then it is not Scripture. The power test is very subjective and cannot be used to overrule the other tests.
    1. “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” Psalm 1:1-3
  4. Was it Received as Scripture? Regarding books from the Old Testament, was it received by the Jewish people and early followers of Jesus? Regarding books from the New Testament, was it received by early followers of Jesus? Regarding any other books, have they been received by followers of Jesus as Scripture? Why or why not?

The Canonicity of the Old Testament. “The collection of absolutely authoritative words from God grew in size throughout the time of Israel’s history” (Grudem, 55). In general, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament relate to our four tests as follows:

  1. Authoritative Source? Genesis to Deuteronomy are from Moses (Deut 31:24-26). Joshua is from Joshua (Josh 24:26). Jeremiah wrote his own book (Jer 30:2). While there are some books that we do not know the authorship of in the Old Testament, most were written by prophets.
  2. Agree with Other Scripture? Yes, the thirty-nine Old Testament books agree with one another despite being written by dozens of authors over a thousand years! 
  3. Powerful? Psalm 19:7-8 is a testimony to the power of the Old Testament:
    1. The instruction of the LORD is perfect, renewing one’s life; the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. The precepts of the LORD are right, making the heart glad; the command of the LORD is radiant, making the eyes light up.” Psalm 19:7-8
  4. Received? The Jewish people accepted the Old Testament as Scripture during the time of Jesus. Even more important, Jesus received the Old Testament as Scripture in Matthew 5:17-18. Since Jesus received the Old Testament as Scripture, followers of Jesus have not doubted the Old Testament. Followers of Jesus can confidently say that the Old Testament is true since Jesus said it was. 
    1. “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18

The Canonicity of the Apocrypha. In contrast, the Apocrypha do not pass the four tests of canonicity. The Apocrypha are books from between 400 BC and the birth of Jesus. These books contain useful historical information but are not Scripture. They are not considered Scripture because they fail the first and fourth tests of canonicity.

  • Authoritative Source? Books in the Apocrypha clearly state that a prophet did not produce them. For example, 1 Maccabees 1:46 clearly states that there was no prophet alive at the time of the book’s writing. In fact, none of the Apocrypha claim an authoritative source. Therefore, the Apocrypha is not Scripture.
  • Received? The Catholic church did not officially adopt the Apocrypha as Scripture until 1546 at the Council of Trent. Before that time, no one believed that these books were Scripture. Since they were not received as Scripture until 1,500 years later, they should not be accepted as Scripture today.[1]

The Canonicity of the Gospels

  • Authoritative Source? Each of the four Gospels is attached to an Apostle. Matthew and John were from the Twelve. Mark wrote his Gospel in cooperation with Peter. Luke wrote his Gospel with Paul.
  • Agree with Other Scripture? One of the great strengths of the four Gospels is their agreement with one another. These four Gospels stand as four witnesses that point to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. The way we should think about these four Gospels is as four witnesses in a court that all agree with one another. In court, the more witnesses that agree on a point, the stronger the case. So it is with the four Gospels.
  • Powerful? When we read the Gospels, we experience Jesus’ life in a powerful and transforming way.
  • Received? From the beginning of the church, all have agreed that all four Gospels are Scripture.

The Canonicity of Acts

  • Authoritative Source? Acts is a companion book of the Gospel of Luke. The same authority that was on the Gospel of Luke is in Acts. 
  • Agree with Other Scripture? Acts continues the story of Luke after Christ’s ascension and shows how He continued to work through His people. There is a great agreement with the Gospels.
  • Powerful? Acts is a strong challenge to followers of Jesus about how to follow Him! It is a picture of Jesus acting in and through His people.
  • Received? From the beginning of the church, there has been agreement about the inclusion of Acts in the canon.

The Canonicity of the Pauline Epistles

  • Authoritative Source? Paul, the apostle, wrote these books. Thus, they are from an authoritative source.
  • Agree with Other Scripture? Yes, Paul’s letters agree with the other books of Scripture.
  • Powerful? Paul’s letters are especially powerful in providing doctrine and meaning to the life and work of Christ. Throughout history, a study of Paul’s letters have led to many transformed lives.
  • Received? Almost all of Paull’s letters were accepted from the beginning without any question. Some early church fathers questioned 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. But early, all of Paul’s letters were received. 2 Peter 3:15-16 calls Paul’s Letters Scripture. Therefore, even the apostle Peter received his letters as Scripture.
    • “Also, regard the patience of the Lord as salvation, just as our dear brother Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him. He speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.” 2 Peter 3:15-16

The same four tests can be applied to the rest of the New Testament as well. It is clear that all of the New Testament books have passed these tests and are, therefore, received as Scripture. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament are Scripture. 

 Now, let us consider the same questions regarding the canonicity of the Qur’an.

The Canonicity of the Qur’an?

  • Authoritative Source? The Qur’an claims a divine source. The Qur’an claims to have given by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. However, followers of Jesus have never received Muhammad as a legitimate prophet.
  • Agree with Other Scripture? The Qur’an claims to have an agreement with the former books while having different teaching. Several verses of the Qur’an say that the Taurat, Zabur, and Injeel[2] are from God (Qur’an 5:46; 5:71; 7:156-157; 10:94). However, the Qur’an has certain verses that disagree with the Bible (Qur’an 4:157; 5:116). Therefore, the Qur’an not only disagrees with other Scripture, but it is also self-defeating.[3]
  • Powerful? Many Muslims claim that the Qur’an is a powerful book. In my personal reading of the Qur’an, I have never experienced it as a powerful book.
  • Received? Followers of Jesus have never accepted the Qur’an as Scripture.

The Qur’an, therefore, fails the tests of canonicity. Thus, the Qur’an has not and should not be received as Scripture. The reason is that no book should be accepted as Scripture that disagrees with other Scripture. God does not change.

This post is the second of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology.

  1. The Word of God: Five ways that the phrase “Word of God” is used in Scripture. Also, this lesson discusses three reasons that the Bible as the Word of God is the focus of theological study.
  2. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). 
  3. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. How do we know that the Bible is God’s Word? “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). To be posted on 28-September-2020.
  4. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91). To be posted on 5-October-2020.
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Grudem, 108). To be posted on 12-October-2020.
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). To be posted on 19-October-2020.
  7. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). To be posted on 26-October-2020.

[1] See Grudem 56-59 for significantly more historical information on the lack of reception of these books.

[2] Taurat, Zabur, and Injeel are Arabic terms that are used in the Qur’an to refer to biblical books. Most Muslims understand these terms. The Taurat is the Torah of Moses, meaning Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Zabur is the Psalms of David. The Injeel is the Gospel of Jesus, which probably was a reference to the New Testament. There is some confusion between Muslims and followers of Jesus regarding these terms because whoever wrote the Qur’an did not have significant knowledge about the Bible. 

[3] The Qur’an is self-defeating in this way. The Qur’an makes two contradictory claims: (1) the Injeel is true and (2) the Qur’an disagrees with the Injeel. The second statement means that Muslims must believe that either the Qur’an or Injeel is true. However, the Qur’an testifies that the Qur’an is true. Since the Qur’an testifies that the Injeel is both true and false, the Qur’an is self-defeating. Instead of accepting this evident fact, Muslims instead choose a third path. They claim that the Injeel was true but has become corrupted. Therefore, Muslims argue that the verses of the Qur’an that disagree with the Injeel are true and that the corresponding verses in the Injeel have been corrupted. In the study on the Inerrancy of Scripture, it will become clear from the manuscript evidence that it is impossible that the New Testament (Injeel) has changed in the way that Muslims claim. Therefore, the Qur’an is self-defeating.

 [ED1]Link to a table of contents



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