Article 4 - The Canonical Books
THE CANONICAL BOOKS
We believe that the Holy Scriptures consist of two parts, namely, the Old and the New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These books are listed in the church of God as follows.
The books of the Old Testament: the five books of Moses, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The books of the New Testament: the four gospels, namely, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles; the thirteen letters of the apostle Paul, namely, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon; the letter to the Hebrews; the seven other letters, namely, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude; and the Revelation to the apostle John.
The word ‘canonical’ comes from the Latin word ‘canon’, and means rule, norm, standard. By calling the 66 Bible books canonical, deBres was confessing that these books contain the norm or standard determining the rights and wrongs for his life. This confession follows logically from the heavenly origin of the Bible as deBres had confessed it in Article 3. No one knows better how mankind is to live in this fallen world than the Creator and Redeemer of life. It is as Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” – in all areas of life. DeBres, then, humbly embraces the Word of God as normative for life.
These canonical books, coming as they do from holy God Himself, contain no mistakes. To appreciate that “nothing can be alleged” against them, we need to note two points:
- Communication involves a speaker and a hearer. Communication will not be effective if the speaker is unclear. Similarly, communication will fail if the hearer is deaf. When deBres confesses that nothing can be alleged against the Bible, he is confessing that the Speaker has communicated perfectly; what He says and how He says it is accurate, factual, and clear.
DeBres’ confession is not a comment on the qualities of the hearer. In point of fact, the hearer is a finite creature, made deaf through the fall into sin. As a result of our sinfulness we might detect (what we consider to be) inconsistencies in the Bible, or factual errors of history, geography, or biology, etc. However, where we perceive such errors, God’s identity as holy Speaker and our identity as fallen hearer compel us to acknowledge that the problem lies with the hearer and not with the Speaker. In humility we need to continue with careful reading, research and study, so that we come to understand what the Lord God is actually saying.
- In second place, the Lord God has spoken to man using man’s way of expressing himself. For example, people talk of the sun rising and going down, whereas in point of fact the sun is stationary while the earth is turning. When the Bible, then, says that the sun stood still in Aijalon (Joshua 10:12,13), the Lord is not giving us a lesson in how the solar system functions. The Lord God uses human language, and so employs phrases and terms built on human observation, in order to communicate His divine thoughts to us. The Bible is not a textbook on geology or biology; yet whatever it says about these subjects, properly read, is factual.
The fact that nothing can be alleged against the Bible is due to God’s care for us. His love for His people is such that He in no way wishes to lead us astray. Instead, He wants us to have and to know the truth as it really is – for our good and His glory. So His Word is trustworthy and reliable.
DeBres listed by name all 39 of the Old Testament books and all 27 of the New Testament books. It seems to us self-evident that these are the books of the Bible; to name them is superfluous. Yet it was not so in deBres’ day.
- The Church of Rome claimed that the Apocryphal Books (see Article 6) formed part of the Bible in addition to the Old and New Testaments.
- The Anabaptists insisted that the Old Testament presented God as a God of wrath, and that the New Testament superseded it, presenting God as a God of love. They effectively removed the Old Testament from the Bible.
- Luther claimed that the Bible contains both the Old and the New Testaments, but that the letter of James is merely a ‘straw epistle’ and therefore ought to be discarded.
In the face of these realities, deBres confessed that the Bible God gave His people contains the specific list of 66 books mentioned in Article 4. It is a confession still very relevant for us today, for the Church of Rome continues to include the Apocryphal books in their official Bible version, the Jerusalem Bible. Similarly, the Anabaptist notion with regard to the Old Testament is still very much alive today. Gideons International distribute New Testaments (plus the book of Psalms) because the Old Testament is seen as less than the New Testament. More sermons are today preached from New Testament texts than from the Old Testament – as if the Old Testament is somehow of lesser value for us today than the New Testament. In the face of these realities, we continue to confess that the Lord God gave His church a library of 66 books.
DID GOD GIVE THESE BOOKS?
Was it proper for deBres to confess that these 66 books come from God? To ‘confess’ is to repeat-after-God. Where did the Lord say that these 66 books come from Him? Why not include the prophecies of Nathan (1 Chronicles 29:29)? Or the letter of Paul to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16)? Or such early church writings as the Letters of Clement or the Shepherd of Hermes? How did the current 66 books end up in the Bible we have today?
THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Jews of Jesus’ days acknowledged all 39 books of the Old Testament as the Scripture. In Luke 11:51 Jesus gives an overview of Israel’s sins “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” The ‘blood of Abel’ catches the murder related in Genesis 4, while the ‘blood of Zechariah’ recalls the murder described in 2 Chronicles 24:20-24. The Jewish Old Testament lists the 39 books in a different order than we are accustomed to; for them the first book is Genesis and the last is Chronicles. (Even today Hebrew Old Testaments are printed with the Bible books in traditional Jewish order.) By mentioning the first and last books of the Old Testament, Jesus catches also all the books in between, and charges Israel with following in the sins of their fathers as described in all these books. The point relevant to the current argument is this: Jesus embraced the entire Old Testament as the Word of God, just as the Jews of His day did. That in turn is why Jesus (and the apostles also) repeatedly quoted from the books of the Old Testament as authoritative proof of what they were saying.
It would be interesting to know how the various books of the Old Testament Scripture came to be acknowledged as canonical. This process, however, is something we do not know. We know only that by Jesus’ day the 39 books we know as the Old Testament were commonly accepted as God’s holy Word. Through His providence the Lord God sovereignly and graciously gave these 39 books to His covenant people.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
As far as the New Testament is concerned, the early church appreciated the writings of Paul and John and Luke, etc, and so made copies for wider circulation. In his first letter to Timothy (one of his last writings), Paul says, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” The first quotation is from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4, while the second quote is from Luke 10:7. Notice: Paul accepts Luke’s work as ‘Scripture’, and places it on a level with the Old Testament! This is but one generation after Jesus’ ascension, and shortly after Luke wrote his gospel. Similarly, Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, makes reference in his second letter to the epistles of Paul “which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). With that last phrase –‘the rest of the Scriptures’ Peter is placing Paul’s epistles on a level with the Old Testament. As the Old Testament is ‘Scripture’ –God’s inspired writings so Paul’s letters are also ‘Scripture’. The lesson to draw from these examples is that early Christians understood very early that the Lord God was expanding the number of holy books from the 39 of the Old Testament. It did not take many decades for the New Testament books to be considered canonical.
Again, precisely what dynamics led to the New Testament having the specific 27 books now included is unknown. We cannot today look back and explain how it all came about. The fact of the matter is that the church recognized quickly that the Lord God gave His church specific canonical writings.
In fact, instead of seeking to look back from today’s perspective and attempting to reconstruct how the Bible came to be (and therefore why this book is included and not that one), we do better to follow and appreciate God’s way of giving His Word.
Before the fall into sin, God spoke to man in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8; 2:17). After the fall God continued to speak to man (Genesis 4:6; 7:1; 12:1, etc). It may well be that Adam or Noah or Abraham wrote down what the Lord said to them; we don’t know. Of special importance to our topic is the word God spoke after Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses’ position: “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” God’s answer was this: “Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face” (Numbers 12:6ff). So, when Moses spoke to the people, the people were meant to listen, simply because he was God’s spokesman among the people (see Exodus 20:19,21). To ignore or disobey Moses was to ignore or disobey God.
It follows that when Moses wrote down what God commanded (see Exodus 24:4) the people had to respect Moses’ written words as much as his spoken words – for they were God’s words. So Moses’ words – he wrote the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – had to be treasured in Israel; they received a place of honor in the Tabernacle beside the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24ff). The priests also had to teach this word of God through Moses to the people over the generations (Leviticus 10:11).
Once Moses died, Moses could no longer be God’s spokesman to His people. Does that mean that all revelation would cease? How would the people after Moses know whether God was speaking to them? Of course, the Lord could speak directly to the people (see Judges 2:1). But this was not the way the Lord was pleased to go; He would instead speak to the people through other men. Through Moses the Lord told the people how they could know whether a word of man was in fact a word from God.
- God moved Moses to tell the people: “And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:21f).
- God also had Moses tell the people: “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’ …, you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams…. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him…” (Deuteronomy 13:1ff).
The point of these two quotes is that any future message in Israel must conform to the contours of what the Lord had earlier said through Moses. If any man had a word for Israel that contradicted what Moses said, or did not conform to God’s revelation through Moses, that word was obviously not from God and was to be discarded. So when David wrote his psalms and Jeremiah wrote his prophecies, the people could know whether these men spoke God’s words or not by applying the test of Moses in Deuteronomy 13 & 18: do these words conform with God’s earlier revelation? If yes, the people had to receive it as a word from God; if no, the people had to reject it. That is why the faithful of Israel embraced the prophecies of Jeremiah and rejected the prophecies of Hananiah (Jeremiah 28). That is to say: the writings of Jeremiah received a place in their sacred library while possible writings of Hananiah did not.
The same line can be followed in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus Christ obviously spoke from God, for He was the prophet Moses had mentioned in Deuteronomy 17 (see John 7:16-19). That is why all men were obliged to accept Jesus and believe His word (Acts 2:22). Jesus in turn appointed apostles, whom the Holy Spirit would lead into all the truth (John 16:13), and who were charged to preach the word to all nations (Acts 1:8). To these apostles the Lord Jesus added the persecutor Saul; Saul “is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). As a result of this call, Saul (=Paul) knew he spoke God’s word, and not the word of men, and so he could say to the Thessalonians: “when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Obviously, it wasn’t just Paul’s spoken word that came from God, but his written word also. That is why the church appreciated Paul’s letters and made copies for circulation – as they also did with the writings of the other apostles. The church realized that these writings came from men specially equipped by God to write down His word. They realized too that these writings conformed fully to the books of Moses. So they were embraced, and added to the body of sacred writings.
The pattern that arises from the above material is that the Lord Himself gave these writings to the church. He specified criteria His people were to use to determine whether a prophecy or epistle or gospel was in fact His work, and He gave the people grace to recognize and receive His gifts. DeBres catches this notion neatly in Article 5, when he writes, “we receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” In an act of faith, DeBres and we with him simply receive what the Lord has put on our path.
At the same time we are to recognize that not every sacred letter or prophecy ever written necessarily ended up in the Bible. Paul, for example, wrote more to the Corinthians than the two letters in our Bible (see 1 Corinthians 5:9); he also wrote a letter to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16). Though the early church was to treasure those letters as having divine authority (as the two just mentioned texts make clear), the Lord has led circumstances in such a way that these letters have disappeared. In other words, God has removed them from the divine library He gave to His New Testament church. We are inclined to react with questions revolving around what we (think we) miss with the loss of these letters. Given that God has not preserved them for us and has preserved so much else, we do better to respond with questions revolving around what we have. More, we do well to marvel that God has left us not a meager four books but a full library of 66! Here is a wealth of resources; let us treasure and study what God gave, and not lament what He did not give.
From the above material it follows that the Bible is complete, the canon is closed. The apostles have all died, and it was only they of whom Jesus said that they would receive insight into all God’s truth (John 16:13). We live in a period wherein the Lord no longer reveals additional material. Again, that is not a negative, simply because this is the Lord’s doing, and He makes no mistakes. More, it is not a negative because He has given us 66 books with which to busy ourselves – and there is more comfort and admonition and instruction there than we shall ever be able to plunder before the Lord returns.
RELATION BETWEEN THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
Both the Old Testament and the New come from the Lord God Himself. Both testaments reveal who God is. They do so particularly by focusing on God’s relation with man, a relation made possible by the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Old Testament looks forward to the Christ who was still coming, while the New Testament looks back to the Christ who has come. In order to understand the New Testament and what it says concerning Christ’s work on the cross, one needs to read and appreciate what the Lord God earlier said in the Old Testament. Similarly, to appreciate the wealth buried in the Old Testament, one needs to appreciate God’s further disclosure of that wealth in the New Testament. The Old Testament directs us forward to the New Testament and the New Testament directs us back to the Old Testament. The two cannot be separated. The New Testament does not replace the Old Testament (cf Matthew 5:17). Both Testaments have the one and same message: who God is as manifested through Christ’s crucifixion for sinners. Hence all exposition of Scripture in the preaching, every effort to draw out who God is, must be ‘Christ-centered’. More, since one cannot understand the Old Testament without the New Testament, and vice versa, it is necessary to draw the lines from Old to New and from the New back to the Old. This Bible is one Word with one message, just as the God who gave the Word is one God.
This close connection between the Old and New Testaments should always be borne in mind when involving oneself in Bible study. Remember Christ when reading Chronicles and remember Leviticus when reading Galatians. It won’t do to forget the Old Testament when reading the New Testament, for the Bible is one entity. Just as it goes for any other book one reads, one must start at the beginning in order to understand what follows, and the end will make no sense if you have not read what came before.
Points for Discussion:
- DeBres uses the word ‘canonical’ to refer to the 66 books of the Bible. What did deBres mean with this word? Is it a fitting word for us to use regarding the Bible?
- Ought we to read the book of Leviticus or the Song of Solomon with the children at family devotions? Why or why not?
- Given that the Lord has given His Word for His people’s benefit, what role ought Children’s Bibles to have in family devotion?
- Discuss the merits or demerits of using a Teen Bible or a Woman’s Bible.
- Theological literature abounds today with statements like, “the New Testament teaches…,” as if either the Old Testament is irrelevant or taught something different.
What actually is the relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
- If we would today find the letter Paul wrote to the Laodiceans, should we add it to the Bible? Why or why not?