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Formation of the Canon

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Each time we pick up the Bible we pick up a predetermined collection of 66 books. None of us have ever had to try and discern what books should or should not be in the Bible. However, someone had to. The Bible was not hand delivered or airmailed, or dropboxed to Zondervan for publication. Instead, the Bible went through years of conversation and discernment before arriving at the 66 books we call the Bible today. We must remember that there were religious writings that did not make it in, and some books that are in right now were not in from the beginning.
The term we use for this is Canonization- the process of a text making the cut for the Bible. So, today we are going to do a 30 minutes birds-eye flyover of the canonization process and try to understand some of the foundations of how the Bible came to be.


If we are going to talk canonization we have to talk about a man named Eusebius. Eusebius was a Bishop in the 4th century and he produced the first official list of book to be considered “sacred texts” Eusebius said that he did this in order “ that we might be able to know both [the writings affirmed by the church] and also those which the heretics put forward under the name of the apostles”
This was all happening around 300AD so we are over 250 years since Jesus left this place for heaven. So, for 250 years there has been no formal collection of writings for the church. That does not mean that they had no guidance. The church had collections of Paul’s writings and the Gospels along with the “rules of faith” as they called them, developed by various church councils. However, Eusebius wanted something official, so that as the Christian movement grew there was a standard list.
So, Eusebius made 3 lists of books: NT books, disputed books, and spurious books. Remember, the OT- then called the Septuagint had long since been agreed upon and decided. And it seems that by 393 we have the first official canon list that contains all of the 66 books we have today.
John D. Barry and Rebecca Van Noord, “Canon, Timeline of Formation of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
So, lets talk about the qualifications for a book to make it into the canon. There were 5 questions that all needed a yes for a book to be considered for selection in the canon-
1- Was the book written by a prophet? In other words, was the author known to speak on behalf of God, and was their prophecy accepted by the church? It is important to remember that no one can appoint themselves a prophet. The title of prophet is given by God and the church. So, someone had to be previously recognized as a prophet before their book could be selected. In other words- the church identifying you as a prophet lead to Biblical selection; not getting a book in the Bible made you a prophet.
2- Was the author confirmed with miracles? There was still another qualification after the author was confirmed a prophet. Did a miracle of God confirmed their role as a prophet? There were certain people who the church saw as prophets, but their works did not make it in the Canon. This could partially be because they were not confirmed as prophets by a miracle. Consider Paul on the Damascus Road, or Peter and John healing a man in the Outer Courts. There were people like Enoch who were seen as a prophet who had something to say that would benefit the church, but they were not confirmed by a miracle and thus their works were not placed on the same level as prophets who were.
3- Does the Text tell the truth about God? One of the values that the early church held that we still claim today is that God cannot contradict himself. Or as Paul wrote in

Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? 18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No

If a text seemed to contradict what God had spoken in other parts of the Bible then that text could not be inspired, because God does not contradict himself. We find this value way back in Deuteronomy If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. []
We will talk for a moment about the Apocrypha in a few moments, most of these books were disputed because they contradicted what God had already spoken to us.
Norman L. Geisler, “Bible, Canonicity Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 82.
4- Did it come with the power of God? In other words, could the book produce the desired effect in people. As one author put it “the message of God always comes with the might of God.” Was the text merely devotional, or did it come with the transformation of the community. For example, when the Christians of Rome recieved Paul’s letter, did it bring change in the community. We know that it did- so it could be considered for inclusion in the cannon.
5- Was it accepted by the people of God? If the people of Colossae did not accept the letter of Paul, how could Christians everywhere accept it? The intended recipients of the letter had to take ownership of a principal in order for it to be considered for the Bible. Think of it this way, if I am doing marital counseling with a couple and I give them some advice, should that advice be accepted in my house? If it is not accepted by Jessica and I in our marriage then I probably should not be prescribing it to someone else.
It is important that we remember that the process was not a mathematical exercise, but a Spirit lead process. Just because a text checked all these 5 boxes did not mean it automatically made it in. These were just the 5 agreed principals that formed the first step in the discernment process. Eusebius and his predecessors saw themselves not as deciding on the canon, but DISCOVERING the canon God had already wrote and chosen.
So let’s talk briefly about some of the books that were questionable that eventually made it into the Bible:
Hebrews- This book was a tough sell because of authorship. There is no concrete proof that Paul wrote this book- even thought that is what the majority of scholars believe.
James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John and Jude were all disputed for various reasons related to authorship. In fact, 2 Peter and 2&3 John took longer than their partner books to make it into the Bible. This group of books is known as the Catholic Epistles. This does not mean that they were connected to the Catholic Church but that they were written for the general church audience, not just a group of people like Galatians or Ephesians.
James was also highly disputed because of content. James brings the idea of faith and works into his epistle which in some levels seems to contradict the notion that faith is a gift from God and cannot be earned. Many early church fathers believed this contradicted other Scripture. Also, James quotes from the books of Enoch which is not seen as sacred…this was a problem for some.
It is also worth noting that in traditional Church belief we stand for a closed canon- in other words, the 66 we have is what there is- no additions and no subtractions.
Of course, we have seen this come into question. The most notable was in 1830 when Joseph Smith wrote the book of Mormon.
As we wrap things up today, I want to end this study by thinking about the authority of the church vs the authority of the Bible

The church is determiner of the canon.

The church is discoverer of the canon.

The church is mother of the canon.

The church is child of the canon.

The church is magistrate of the canon.

The church is minister of the canon.

The church is regulator of the canon.

The church is recognizer of the canon.

The church is judge of the canon.

The church is witness of the canon.

The church is master of the canon.

The church is servant of the canon.

It is als
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