How and when was the canon of Scripture established, and by whom?

Stephen Nichols & Steven Lawson
2 Min Read

NICHOLS: We must distinguish between recognition and establishment because they are two different categories that separate Protestants from Catholics on this issue. The church recognizes that which is canonical; it does not establish the canon. So, when we talk about the canon in church history, we need to make that distinction.

A book is canonical because it has been recognized by the church. For the church’s sake, a book is canonical because it is the Word of God and declared to be the Word of God. When you look at this process in the New Testament, it’s a little confusing. There are two myths out there. One is that as soon as John finished writing Revelation, or whichever was the last book of the Bible, a nicely bound black leather Reformation Study Bible dropped out of heaven into every church member’s lap. On the other hand, some people get the impression that the early church did not know which books were canonical and that it took three centuries before they agreed on the canon.

The truth is we have the New Testament reflecting on the canon itself. For example, Peter referenced Paul’s epistles as Scripture, which is significant because he was Paul’s contemporary (2 Pet. 3:15–16). So, the New Testament reflects on itself as canonical, as Scripture, and we need to recognize that in the church.

The church reached a consensus that the Gospels and Paul’s letters, a huge part of the New Testament, were canonical as early as AD 90. It was not until later that the canonical list of the twenty-seven books was published because a few of them proved challenging. There were also a few on the list that would later be recognized as deuterocanonical books.

Be careful to avoid the trap of thinking that the canon plopped down and that the church recognized a sixty-six book Bible in AD 90. It also isn’t true that the canon was up for grabs until the 300s. The truth is more complex than that. As we look at this issue, however, we must make the distinction between establishing and recognizing the canon.

By the way, the ​​list of twenty-seven books I mentioned before was Athanasius’ “Paschal Letter,” which was published in the 300s. We have lists prior to that containing most of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. However, Athanasius not only helped the church write the Nicene Creed but helped recognize the canon list as well.

LAWSON: I want to add that the Council of Carthage in AD 397 officially agreed on the twenty-seven books of our New Testament.

This is a transcript of Stephen Nichols’ and Steven Lawson’s answers given during our A Continuing Reformation: Pittsburgh 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.