The canon is both history and theology.
The New Testament canon of Scripture is a subject that is too little understood by believers. As a topic most often left to specialists and scholars, the Christian very frequently has an inadequate understanding of how we got our Bible. But the importance of understanding this has grown, rather than diminished, over time. That is, as scholarship has advanced through centuries it has both sharpened our knowledge, while at the same time increased opposition to the idea and content of the New Testament canon. Canon means rule, or measuring rod, and the idea of the canon of Scripture is that it is the rule against which teaching and doctrine are measured. It is the norma normans non normata, or the standard over which no standard exists, but can believers explain exactly why? As scholars such as Bart Ehrman produce books and research that putatively debunks Scripture and the canon, it is vital that Christians – all Christians, not just scholars – be able to articulate the reasons for believing the canon of Scripture is God’s record. There are a couple of points where believers often get tripped up.
“The Church gave us the Bible.”
The idea that we wouldn’t have the books of the Bible if the church didn’t give them to us appears logical at first, but when the question is more thoroughly examined, it falls apart. This is in fact reversing the order of things. God’s word produces God’s people, not the other way around. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18), and “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23). We as God’s people were created, formed as the Church, by the word of God. We do not form God’s word. The church indeed receives the word from God, but she is not the source of it. As Michael Kruger has commented, “the role of the church is like a thermometer, not a thermostat. Both instruments provide information about the temperature in the room—but one determines it and one reflects it.”
Some will point to various councils that seem to ratify the canonical list of books, and say that this represents the church “giving” us the Bible. But this is to confuse reception with authority. John Barton comments, “When fourth-century Fathers and councils attempted to regulate the ‘canon’, they were doing little more than codifying what was already almost universally accepted.”  With this, James J. O’Donnell agrees, saying “Before translocal hierarchies of bishops and eventual popes and patriarchs ever evolved to have any doctrinal authority, Christians had come to agree, without noticing it, without debate, without anybody planning it, that scriptural texts, gathered in collections of apostolic authority, would prevail.” Neither the church through some grand decision, nor through conciliar agreement gave us the Scriptures. Rather, the books of the New Testament are self-authenticating, and possess innate and inherent authority. To suggest otherwise is to confuse authority with canonicity. The church recognized these books as authoritative, and the decision to “canonize” them is but an acknowledgement of this divine and inherent authority that belongs to these books.
There were many writings extant during the apostolic era, but our 27 books have prevailed while others have not. And to refer to any such writing as apocryphal is not really correct. Apocryphal means hidden, and these books were by no means hidden or underground. They simply did not contain God’s truth and the believing community did not regard them as Scripture. There is no evidence for the idea that a bunch of bishops sat around and by a show of hands said yea or nay to including the Gospel of Thomas. If indeed the Word of God is living and active, what God has inspired to be written is able to vindicate itself as his authoritative writing.
“There are so many manuscripts, what about the differences?”
This is perhaps more a question of textual criticism, but it is so closely allied with the questions surrounding the canon that it is important to note. Some have fancied that the plethora of manuscripts has somehow made it more difficult to determine the true words of Scripture, but quite the opposite is the case. Consider for a moment an event where there is but one witness. What that witness says must be regarded as the truth, because there is no one to contradict him. Now imagine there are two witnesses and their stories differ. This presents a problem of knowing which of the two is correct. But if we have hundreds of witnesses, and the vast majority of those witnesses agree, there is far more confidence that one has gotten the correct version of events due to the bulk of evidence from so many voices. There are approximately 5000 manuscripts containing the whole or part of the New Testament. This evidence dwarfs that of other ancient writings. For example, Metzger points out that “Among the tragedians the witness to Euripides are the most abundant: his extant works are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, almost all of the latter dating from the Byzantine period.”
The bounty of manuscripts for the New Testament allows us to have more confidence, not less, that we have the Word of God. By comparing manuscript with manuscript – engaging in textual criticism – this provides an exceedingly high degree of assurance about the accuracy of our Bible. Centuries of manuscript sleuthing has produced ever more evidence for the 27 books we know as the New Testament. Believers should have confidence that weight of evidence keeps pointing in the same direction.
Is the canon really that important?
I believe having at least a working knowledge of the New Testament canon is exceedingly important. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus based on the apostolic records left to us. We are admonished in the New Testament to desire the pure milk of the word, to show ourselves approved, rightly handling the word, and to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Without the canon of Scripture, none of these are possible. To have an understanding of how those books came to be, why we believe that we indeed have the right books – the books God wants us to have – these are not ancillary concerns. Further, as opposition to biblical faith increases, believers need to have confidence in God’s book, and to be able to explain why we hold to the canon we have. The canon is not the same as inspiration, but it is an allied doctrine. In short, Christians believe that the God who was able to raise Jesus from the dead was also perfectly capable of getting it right at the printer.
For those wanting to delve more into the topic, the following are some recommendations for further reading:
- Michael J. Kruger. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books If you have limited time and can only read one book on the canon, you cannot go wrong with this one. Kruger is a top-notch scholar who presents a defense of the intrinsic authority of the New Testament books. Kruger’s blog, Canon Fodder is also a great resource.
- Michael J. Kruger. Lectures on the Canon. If you prefer listening to reading, these podcast lectures are an excellent way to become familiar with the origins of the New Testament canon.
- F.F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable? A brief work on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Still valuable.
- F.F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture. A longer work than the previous, but full of interesting history and insight.
- Bruce M. Metzger. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. A more technical work, and for years a standard of scholarship. It is still profitable for anyone wanting to know more about the New Testament manuscripts.
 Michael J. Kruger (2012-04-05). Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 2772-2773). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p.15
 James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York, Harper Collins,2005), p. 277.
 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 34.