Seven Principles For Recognizing Canonical Books

by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 2001 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Each of these principles must be fulfilled for a book to be recognized as canonical. A book for which canonicity is claimed must not skip or fail any of the principles. The principles are overlapping and interdependent. The early church (and the Jewish congregation before it) recognized those books that were the Word of God, they did not determine which books would be considered the Word of God.

  1. Is it authoritative? Did it come with the authority of God? This means that the book must demonstrate the authority of God in both proclamation and power. It must claim to be the word of God either explicitly (such as when the prophets say, “This is the word of the Lord”) or implicitly (such as when Moses directly quotes the Lord in a narrative sense). Its claim to be the word of God must be backed up by the power of the revelation itself to impact the Christian community and life.
  2. Is it prophetic? Was it written by a man of God? This means that the book must be written by or come from the community of those who have been attested to as representatives of God for the purposes of revelation. Their claims must meet the standards of right teaching, right practice, “two or three witnesses,” and “signs and wonders.” For example, the gospels were written by the original apostles and/or their associates, and the apostles were attested by Jesus Christ, their words, actions, and the miracles that followed them.
  3. Is it authentic? Did it tell the truth about God, man, etc.? This overlaps with principle number two. A book that claims to have been written by an apostle but actually was written several centuries later is not authentic. A book that claims to give us information about Jesus’ “lost years” but which contradicts what we know about his life from the authentic gospels cannot be authentic.
  4. Is it dynamic? Did it come with the life-transforming power of God? Although this is a somewhat nebulous concept, it is important. Something that is genuinely the Word of God will come with the power and the witness of the Holy Spirit such that those who study and apply it to their own lives will experience spiritual transformation. This is somewhat like what the apostles who encountered the risen Christ experienced on the road to Emmaus when Christ explained the scriptures concerning himself to them: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
  5. Was it received (i.e. collected, read, and used)? Was it accepted by the people of God? The scriptures of both the Old Testament and the New Testament were recognized by God’s people (Israel in the Old, the church in the New) immediately after composition. This overlaps other principles, but its emphasis is specific: The body (not individuals or small factions) is indwelt by the same Spirit who prompted the scriptures, and that recognition is essential. Therefore, a book never experienced by the church as a body is ineligible, and a book accepted by only a small part or faction, especially a heretical faction, is ineligible.
  6. Was it written by an authoritative writer, a founding stone of the church or an eyewitness to the events? (Eph. 4:5-11) Moses was attested to as a prophet of God by his words, works, the signs and wonders following him, and the peoples’ recognition of his calling. Therefore, when scripture came through him, it was recognized as God’s Word as well. Moses chose Joshua to be his successor and so the words God gave to Joshua were eligible to be considered as the Word of God by appeal to the other principles. In a similar manner, Luke (who wrote his gospel and the book of Acts) was Paul’s associate. When the apostles sought to replace Judas Iscariot, they knew a corollary to this principle, that is, that any replacement of an apostle must be someone who had followed Christ throughout his earthly ministry and was an eyewitness to his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22).
  7. Did the people who knew of the alleged events have the chance to falsify them? For the alleged words of scripture to be tested, the events described in them must be testable. To be testable, they must have occurred within the lifetime of those who are judging their authenticity. Therefore, someone who appears with a “new” gospel after the beginning of the second century (100s AD) could not have their gospel tested because the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection would not be alive to affirm or deny its claims. That is why Luke could begin his gospel affirming that he tested all that he heard (Luke 1:1-3), Paul could say that there were close to 500 witnesses to the resurrection in the mid 50s AD (1 Cor. 15:1-4), and Peter could affirm that “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).

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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26