Time for a snap quiz! The correct meaning of the word ‘canon’ is:
(A) A kind of large artillery piece that was used in the Civil War
(B) A type of musical composition where the same theme repeats.
(C) The collection of books that make up the Bible.
(D) A regulation, rule, or decree.
As usual, our quiz is trying to trick you! B, C, and D are all legitimate meanings of the word ‘canon.’ (Choice A is pronounced the same, but is actually spelled ‘cannon.’)
The meaning we want to talk about is C: the accepted collection of books that form our Bible, and more particularly, to talk about how those books were chosen. You see, what is perhaps not appreciated is that there were lots of other religious writings that were not chosen. So, one could say that the process of canonization involved selecting the ‘big guns’ from all of the works of ‘lesser caliber’ (but that would be a really lame joke).
When a skeptic wants to challenge the legitimacy of the Christian faith (or the Jewish faith for that matter) a common tactic is to point to the ‘haphazard’ process by which the Bible was formed. Not only are there often questions about authorship, but the process by which the current canon was established is often unclear. The critic then sneers: “Why should one put one’s faith in a book that was so arbitrarily constructed?”
The critic has a legitimate point about the obscure processes by which our Bible was assembled. Unlike the Muslim Qur’an, for example, which was supposedly dictated to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel and claims to contain the very words of Allah, our Christian Scriptures are a collection of different types of writing, composed by a variety of humans over a very long span of time – and we often don’t know precisely who, when, or where they labored. And unlike the Qur’an there is not a single book of our Bible that claims to be a divine dictation (though God’s utterances are sometimes quoted), and there is not a single ‘authority’ (or even a committee) that vouches that all of the writings in our Bible are indeed divinely inspired. In fact, even such a committed Christian as Martin Luther had questions as to whether certain books really deserved to be in the Bible.
The process by which the Jews established the books of the Old Testament remains the subject of scholarly debate. But the Jewish canon of scripture was solidly established by the time of Christ, and Christians simply adopted it under the assumption that “what was good enough for Jesus is good enough for us.” The New Testament is another matter, since: (a) it was entirely composed after Jesus left this earth; and (b) we have enough of a historical record to know it was a pretty drawn out and contentious process.
Scholars generally agree that the books of the New Testament were all written between about 50 and 100 AD, but not all were uniformly accepted at first. There was also a considerable body of other Christian writings dating from this general period, some of which achieved wide popularity in parts of the church. In fact, it wasn’t until about 200 AD that a canon similar to our present New Testament appears, and it was another 200 years or so before our present list was mostly finalized (though still not universally agreed on — that took additional centuries). So it seems our sneering skeptic has a point; our canon of Holy Scripture came to us by a drawn-out and complicated human process – it wasn’t a divine ‘ZAP’ of revelation!
But the most important thing to recognize is that we do not put our faith in the Bible or the people who wrote or organized it, but rather in our loving and almighty God who speaks to us through these writings. We can endlessly debate as to why God didn’t make the process of giving us His Word neater – why He involved fallible humans in the process – but that’s the way He’s always done things! We trust that in this process He has told us all we need to know for our salvation. We don’t trust in God because we believe in scripture, we trust scripture because we believe in the loving God of which it testifies and whose divine will guided the way it has come to us.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16)