Meaning of "Canon"


The term canon comes from the Greek word kanon which means rule [1].  Some may say that it is a measuring stick because by the canon is how we get our doctrine.  It is through the canon that we not only get our doctrine, but the rules and norms on how Christians should conduct their lives [2].  The canon that we have today consists of the 66 books of the Bible and is the supreme authority of our faith and was written over a period of over 1,500 years.  Through the canon God chose almost every mode of communication to get his message across [3].  The books included in the canon are authoritative and inspired by God and are profitable for the study of the faith [4].

The books of the New Testament were still being written during the rapid expansion of the early church.  From AD 49-95, the New Testament scriptures were being produced and copies were most likely not keeping up with the new conversions [5].  By AD 100 the four Gospels had gained universal acceptance, as did Acts, the epistles of Paul, but others such as Revelation, Hebrews, and 2 and 3 John, were only partially accepted as they were written later in the century.  The early church needed to establish an authoritative canon to combat the other heretical writing that were out there confusing Christians.  The gnostics were prolific writers who were using the names of the Apostles to con people into reading their material.  Marcion also published his “canon” which contained very little of the New Testament we see today.  The early church saw the need for the canon, and had to act to protect the flock. To determine the canonicity of a book the early church used the following three principles:  apostlicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity (universal) [6].  All of the writings of the New Testament had an apostolic connection.  They may not have been written by the Apostles themselves, but they had a close connection with them.  The books themselves lined up with the shared theology, or orthodoxy, or the rest of the Christian world [7].  Thirdly the books had been very useful for the churches since the earliest Christians.

In my opinion the most important criteria of canonicity is the apostolic connection.  Using this element we connect ourselves with the first followers of Christ, and those whom He gave the Great Commission to.  They saw Jesus, lived with him, or had personal encounters with him that they could write down.  These earliest Christians allow us to read about the faith from its infancy without development of traditions.  If it does not have an apostolic connection there is a possibility that it is not orthodox, and it most likely will not be accepted by the worldwide church.  That lack of acceptance would make it fail the catholicity test.  The least important element in my opinion is that of catholicity.  In the beginning some books of the New Testament were not accepted universally.  Revelation and Hebrews are good examples of this.  They were accepted in some parts of the world and rejected in others.  Yet they are still believed to have an Apostolic affiliation, with the exception of Hebrews, and came to be accepted.  I believe this third criteria is dependent on the other two and thus the least important.

What should we say to someone who thinks the canon is open?  In a loving way the three principles of canonicty and what the early church did would have to be discussed.  The three criteria for something to be included in the canon has no way of being met.  The work will not have an apostolic connection for the simple reason that the apostles died long ago.  If they do not have that apostolic connection then they would not meet the orthodoxy requirement.  Thirdly the new revelation would not be accepted by the universal church, and because of that it would fail the catholicity test.

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive summary of the meaning of the canon (After all it isn’t even 1,000 words), but a brief summary.  This is becoming a very important theological topic as many groups are now calling the canon into question.  May we be diligent in doing our research and growing in our understanding of the Christian faith.


1.  William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 114.

2.  J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 446.

3.  Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 22.

4.  Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 446.

5.  Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 448.

6.  Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 115.

7.  Ibid, 116.


1.  Duvall, Scott J. and Hays, J. Daniels, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

2,  Fee, Gordon D. and Stuart, Douglas, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

3.  Klein, William W., Blomberg, Craig L., Hubbard Jr. ,  Robert L., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004

3 thoughts on “Meaning of "Canon"

Add yours

  1. CLear, concise, and to the point. Very easily understood which makes it easy to teach.
    Will be using this. I hope U don’t mind.


  2. Thanks, William – other elements were: in the persecutions, in the demand to hand over Christian sacred texts, there needed to be clarity which were OK to hand over, and which would have been apostacy; also, with the invention of the codex (binding sheets into the book format we are so used to – rather than simply collecting scrolls) decisions needed to be made which scrolls to combine and which to leave out.



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