Can You Prove What Books Belong In The Biblical Canon?

By Phillip G. Kayser · 9/28/2015

    It is my thesis that the Bible should be the axiomatic[1] starting point and ending point for all Christian doctrine,[2] including the doctrine of canon.[3] This volume will seek to prove the Protestant doctrine that “only God can identify His word.”[4] This is the historic Protestant approach to canon. The Westminster Confession of Faith declared that the Bible is “the only rule of faith and obedience.”[5] Consistent Protestants have applied this rigid criterion to the doctrine of canon as well as textual criticism.[6] This means that the Scriptures must be self-authenticating in some way, not canonized by the church. This is the fundamental difference between the Reformation Churches on the one hand and both the Roman Catholic Church[7] and the Eastern Orthodox Church[8] on the other hand. Rome and the Eastern Orthodox say that the church determines the canon of Scripture and that the church has authority over Scripture. But as J.I. Packer responded, “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir IsaacNewton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation,and similarly He gave the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual booksthat make it up.”[9] There can be no higher authority by which Scripture is judged or the Scripture would cease to be the highest authority.

    But while Protestants hold to this viewpoint theoretically, many are at a loss about how to defend the Protestant canon of 66 books presuppositionally.[10] The moment they begin to appeal to evidence that is outside the Bible to demonstrate that a book belongs in the Bible, they are inconsistently acting as if there is a higher standard by which that book can be judged. We Protestants believe that the 39 books of the Jewish Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament are the only books that belong in the Bible. We reject the apocrypha and claim that this official list of 66 Biblical books is our completed “canon.”

    To those who object that this book is engaged in circular reasoning, we would make two observations: First, ultimate authority is always circular by nature or it ceases to be the ultimate authority. As Hebrews 6:13 says, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself.” God’s swearing by Himself is a form of circularity, but it is an unavoidable characteristic of any claim to ultimate authority. Second, to make an argument for canon that implicitly makes the creature the ultimate authority is not only self-defeating, but also irrational. It is self-defeating in that it is seeking to prove that a canon of Scripture is the ultimate authority while appealing to another source of authority as more ultimate. It is irrational not only because of the inconsistency of the previous point, but also because it jettisons the consistency of a coherent “circle.” This is the difference between arguing in a coherent circle and arguing in a vicious circle.[11] Thus, to fully appreciate the significance of this volume, it is helpful to study Presuppositional Apologetics.[12]

    The preceding paragraphs are the first paragraphs in volume one of my book on Canon. To see if I can actually make the case for canon on a purely presuppositional level, read the full book at: The Canon of Scripture: Biblical Presuppositions

    1. The New Testament word for “presuppositions” is stoiceia. This word was used in classical Greek and by the Church fathers to mean the elementary or fundamental principles. In Geometry it was used for axioms, and in philosophy for elements of proof or the prwtoi sullogismoiv of general reasoning (Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. ). Obviously both of these definitions are synonyms with “presuppositions.” The New Testament teaches that the stoiceia are the “foundation” upon which our faith and practice rests (Heb. 5:12-6:3). We find our stoiceia in the Word of God (Heb. 5:12) and most specifically in the person of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:8-10; Heb. 6:1) revealed in them. The stoiceia of the world are the foundation of the non-Christian “philosophy” (Col. 2:8) and are diametrically opposed to the stoiceia of Christ the God-Man (Col 2:8-10). Our thoughts and actions are a logical outworking of these stoiceia in everyday life (Col. 2:20ff). We must recognize that the superstructure of our world-and-life view is antithetical to the superstructure of the heathen’s world-and-life view, not because the superstructures do not have any things in common, but because of the way in which these superstructures are completely committed to their foundation or presuppositions. Paul gives us an example of this concept when he vigorously opposed the Galatians’ succumbing to pressure to be circumcised and observe “days and months and times and years” (Gal. 4:10). Though the physical act of circumcision was not wrong (cf. 1 Cor. 7:19; Acts 16:3), the idea that lay behind it was destructive and led to syncretism, a denial of their presuppositions and an unintentional reversion to weak and pathetic presuppositions (Gal. 4:9). The study of canon is not a neutral subject. It either flows from a faithful commitment to the Bible’s total authority or it of necessity substitutes another competing authority (such as Tradition, Councils, Pope, Koran, imam, personal opinion, etc) with disastrous consequences.

    2. As the Westminster Confession of Faith words it, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (WCF I.ix-x). As we will see, this is just as true of the doctrine of canonicity as it is any other doctrine.

    3. “Canon” is a term that refers either 1) to a rule of faith and truth or 2) to the list of books which are considered to be part of Holy Scripture. In this book I will be using the latter definition. The canon of Scripture is the authoritative list of books that are considered to be Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith insists that God alone can determine canon. Otherwise man is the judge of God’s revelation. While there are many circumstantial evidences that God has orchestrated, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (I.v). It is God who determines the canon of Scripture.

    4. Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Concept and Importance of Canonicity,” an unpublished paper given to the author by Greg. L. Bahnsen. This seminal paper triggered a desire in me to be totally consistent with my presuppositional starting point of Scripture . Bahnsen has also applied this presuppositional approach to the question of whether the Bible is inerrant in, Greg. L. Bahnsen, “Inductivism, Inerrancy, and Presuppositionalism,” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, volume 20, 1997. This is a brilliant response to opponents of inerrancy.

    5. Westminster Larger Catechism #3, emphasis mine.

    6. For a presuppositional approach to textual criticism, see my book, “Has God Indeed Said?: The Preservation of the Text of Scripture, available for free download from

    7. Karl Keating represents Roman Catholicism when he says that “an infallible authority is needed if we are to know what belongs in the Bible and what does not. Without such an authority, we are left to our own prejudices, and we cannot tell if our prejudices lead us in the right direction… [The authority needed is] an infallible, teaching Church… The same Church that authenticates the Bible, that establishes inspiration, is the authority set up by Christ to interpret his word.” Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 132,133.

    8. Bishop Kallistos (Timothy Ware) states the Eastern Orthodoxy position this way: “It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture.” Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 199.

    9. James Packer, God Speaks to Man: Revelation and the Bible, Christian Foundations, 6 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p.81

    10. For example, conservative scholar, Roland Kenneth Harrison, in his excellent book, Introduction to the Old Testament, wrongly states, “While the Bible legitimately ought to be allowed to define and describe canonicity, it has in point of fact almost nothing to say about the manner in which holy writings were assembled, or the personages who exercised an influence over the corpus during the diverse stages of its growth.” See Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), p. 262. He says this despite the fact that he agrees with the Protestant principle that the Scriptures are “self-authenticating” and “do not derive their authority either from individual human beings or from corporate ecclesiastical pronouncements” (p. 263). He rightly rejects the Roman Catholic assumption that the church is the “mother of the Bible” and has authority to determine the canon by asserting that “[h]istorical investigation is no more fruitful in uncovering significant information about the activities of synods or other authoritative bodies with regard to the formation of the Old Testament canon than any other form of study” (p. 262). But his position is weak, leaving us with a presupposition about the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures, but a failure to pull that presupposition from the Scripture itself. It is the intent of this book to show that the Bible is full of information speaking to the issue of canonicity.

    11. Greg L. Bahnsen says, “The ‘circularity’ of a transcendental argument is not at all the same as the fallacious ‘circularity’ of an argument in which the conclusion is a restatement (in one form or another) of one of its premises. Rather, it is the circularity involved in a coherent theory (where all the parts are consistent with or assume each other) and which is required when one reasons about a precondition for reasoning. Because autonomous philosophy does not provide the preconditions for rationality or reasoning, its ‘circles’ are destructive of human thought – i.e., ‘vicious’ and futile endeavors.” Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetics: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998), 518.

    12. There are two forms of Presuppositional Apologetics that (while competing with each other) have both offered very helpful insights about the nature of presuppositional reasoning. An excellent introduction to Van Tillian apologetics can be found in Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996). The second form of presuppositionalism can be found in the brilliant writings of Gordon H. Clark. An excellent and brief introduction to Clarkianism can be found in Gary W. Crampton, The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1999). This book contains a comprehensive bibliography of all of Dr. Clark’s writings.