Finding a Definition of “Canon”

BibleUse of the term “canon” has long been subject to debate within the study of early Christianity, as scholars often discuss precisely when the Christian New Testament canon came into existence. Among modern scholars three primary perspectives have emerged as to the meaning of canon. This post outlines these schools of thought.

First is the perspective that many of the foundational writings of the New Testament were regarded very early on as sacred writings and authoritative, and thus can be understood as a canon of scripture. Such is the position of Theodor Zahn, who undertook this perspective based on his readings of the Church Fathers and their methods of citation from the writings of the New Testament.[1] Scholars who adhere to this perspective argue that an early canon of the New Testament can be argued for based on the authoritative inferences from the writings of Paul and words of Jesus in manuscripts such as First Clement, indicating the use of a practical canon as early as the end of first century of the Common Era.

Adolf von Harnack
Adolf von Harnack

A second perspective is that of scholars such as Adolph Harnack which takes a more fluid view of the creation of the canon. Arguing that while the texts included in scripture where written early on in the Christian tradition, they were not regarded as authoritative scripture until several decades or even centuries later.[2] A variation of this second perspective is offered by James A. Sanders, who argues that while the writings now included in the New Testament were long recognized as scriptural, they took on a different level of authority once they were formally canonized.[3]

A third school of thought relies heavily upon the rigid definition of the term ‘canon.’ A.C. Sundburg maintained that the term ‘scripture’ refers to books commonly accepted as holy and authoritative, whereas the term ‘canon’ refers to an authoritative list of such books.[4] David L. Dungan writes that, “A canon results when someone seeks to impose a strict boundary around a smaller subset of writings or teachings within the larger, slowly evolving ‘cloud of sacred texts.'”[5] Thus for this view, while the writings of what is now called the Christian New Testament could be referred to fairly early on as ‘scripture,’ the term ‘canon’ cannot be used until the fourth century,[6] when church officials sanctioned by the Roman Empire created rigid boundaries around lists of approved texts, distinguished them from the larger conglomeration of sacred texts.[7]

Bruce M. Metzger
Bruce M. Metzger

Clearly such a battle over the definition of ‘canon’ is by-and-large a question of semantics, which while historically important, ultimately clouds the considerations of canonical criticism and the need for a working definition in this paper. Bruce Metzger notes the importance of precise semantics in distinguishing the differences between a list of authoritative books and an authoritative list of books.[8] Due in large part to the work of Metzger, much of canonical scholarship recognized the importance of a distinction between the ‘formal canon,’ in Metzger’s words an “authoritative list of books,” and a ‘practical canon,’ a grouping of authoritative books or writings. It thus seems most appropriate to draw distinctions between different types of canon, especially the “practical canon” and “formal canon”, as this sort of definitional clarity can alleviate at least some of the disagreements which exist surrounding the development of the New Testament canon.

Which school of thought do you adhere to? How do you define “canon”? What resources would you suggest for examining this query further?


[1] Theodore Zahn. Geschichte des neutestementlichen Kanons. Leipzig, 1888-1892. Cited in John Barton. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997. 2-4. [2] Adolf Von Harnack. The Origin of the New Testament and the Most Important Consequences of the New Creation. London, 1925. Cited: Barton, 4-8. [3] James A. Sanders. From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1987. 3-4. [4] John Barton. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997. 9. [5] David L. Dungan. Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2007. 3. [6] Barton, 9. [7] Dungan, 3. [9] Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1992. 282.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

5 thoughts on “Finding a Definition of “Canon”

  1. I finally got a chance to read this today. I want to suggest a fourth perspective. My perspective would be that second century Christians considered the apostles inspired, not just particular writings. Thus, from the beginning, there was a “canon.” It was apostolic tradition, anything that could legitimately be said to have orginated with the apostles.

    Here’s some quotes for that

    We have learned from no one else the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they proclaimed at one time in public, then, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” … For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:1:1, c. AD 185)

    If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics. (ibid. III:1:2)

    Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, [our rule is] that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for ‘no one knows the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son wishes to reveal him’ [Matt. 11:27]. Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach. (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 21. c. AD 210)

    Earlier, but not quite as clear:

    The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ, therefore, was sent by God, and the apostles by Christ. (1 Clement 42. AD 95-96)

    Study … to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles (Ignatius. Letter to the Magnesians 13. AD 107-116)

    So my theory four is that the “canon” or “rule” was anything that could reasonably be established as coming from the apostles or their companions. As Scripture was gathered, and especially as time passed, Scripture became more reliable than at least some tradition, and slowly it became “the rule” or “the canon.” Time makes oral tradition less reliable, while it has very little effect on the reliability of what is written.

    All of this does not address the fact that every church had its own “rule,” which we would call a statement of faith. They were all quite similar to the apostles creed. I’m using “rule” a bit differently, equating it with “canon” rather than the rule of faith which each church had and which each Christian learned at baptism.

    Do you see any validity in this? Am I wording this so it is understandable? I have a longer video with many more early Christian quotes and a discussion of the importance of the apostles on YouTube. I’m not going to link that unless you ask.

    1. Paul,
      Thanks for your comment (and I’m sorry for the slow response). My quick response to your perspective is “Yes, I (and others) do see your basic perspective as valid.” Scholars such as Metzger, Michael Kruger, and Larry Hurtado seem to embody as “canon as apostolic rule” position. My own position would also affirm that statement, though in the context of this post, I think we might be talking past one another a little bit. I would view the “apostolic canon” view as a possibility within the “practical canon”/”functional canon” distinction that Metzger came to embody (and I think think fits in this discussion best as a part of the third school of thought).
      My master’s thesis was–in fact–all about a facet of this discussion,namely, the supreme authority of Jesus for the early Church and how all appeals to other authorities–apostolic, oral, written, scriptural, canonical, or otherwise–are mediated through the authority of the Lord Jesus (and then subsequently through his apostles, and then their writings).
      I hope that’s clarifying. Please don’t hesitate to push me or follow up.
      Blessings, JJP

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