The Canon of Scripture Identical with the Received Texts

Why Most Modern Bible Versions Must be Rejected

If the title confuses you, don’t be alarmed. You’re not alone. The subject of the Canon of Scripture is widely misunderstood, and that is why I wrote this piece.

What is the Canon? Canon is the Latinization of the Greek word for rule or standard. In the Latin, it can also mean a list, but this is a secondary usage, which rests on the fact that some lists represent a rule or standard. In the Greek, there are many words for a list or catalogue; and kanonis is not among them. The Canon of Scripture is therefore holy Scripture, considered as the rule or standard of faith and practice. And to say that a book is canonical is to say that it is inspired and authoritative, that is, a part of the complete rule of faith and practice.

And why is it important to know? Because the Canon is the collection of the books of holy Scripture, and not merely the list of those books. The list is merely a designation of which books are canonical — it is not the canon. The word implies a certain definite form of the text which the church received from the Apostles and other authors, and from which faithful, authentic copies had been made.

If a manuscript of a book of the Bible has been mutilated, but has the same name as an incorrupt copy of a canonical book, it may seem that it belongs in the list, for it has the right name. Scholars will regard it as a certain form of the text naturally produced by the course of its evolution; and will give it legitimacy as such. Its readings, especially those which do not agree with the Received text will be studied, and some of them will be added to the list of possibly correct variants.

But if we thought properly about the canon, we would reject the whole thing as spurious, a counterfeit — not a “form” of the text. The text, I repeat, is what is canonical; and this quality can only belong to the one true form of the text.

Unbelieving Textual Criticism a Dead End

It must be understood that the science of textual criticism professedly started out to be a search for a better New Testament text than the Received text. Older manuscripts had been found that disagreed with the Received text in many places, and it was erroneously assumed that the older texts must be better. (This is because the the critics did not reckon on the promises of God, which guaranteed that He would preserve the true text. By His special providence, a line of accurate copies always remained in the hands of the Greek church; and most of the copies found all over the world agreed with these.) They assumed that the text had been seriously corrupted over time; and that the newer manuscripts must therefore represent an unreliable text.

So they set out to recover the true text by studying every scrap of paper with part of a Bible verse on it, wherever they could find them. They estimated the date for each one, and catalogued it. This included some manuscripts that are very old; but which disagree with each other more than they agree. Obviously, the older manuscripts were not better, for on their hypothesis, they would have been in near perfect agreement. The manuscripts of the Received text, of which there are hundreds, are in very close (about 99%) agreement. Allowing for natural copyist’s mistakes, most of them spelling differences, which occur in every copy, the manuscripts may be said to be virtually identical. They are not the oldest manuscripts, because manuscripts that are used and copied do not last long. The oldest were rejected as useless to make copies from, were laid aside, and were preserved in the dry air of Egypt and such places.

But instead of abandoning their falsified assumption that the older manuscripts are the best, the text critics concluded that the true text can never be recovered with any degree of certainty. Thus we see that unbelieving scholarship must needs leads to un-biblical conclusions.

But there is nothing theoretical or doubtful about the canon: in other words, it does not mean anything but the actual original-language texts in the hands of the church; generally known as the “Received” texts. Hence the title of this paper, “The Canon of Scripture Identical with the Received Texts”

The Fixity of the Text

All conservative Bible scholars, those who confess the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture, recognize that there must be a definite set of books which comprise the inspired word of God.

Consider the following statement:

“Biblical theology demands as its presupposition a fixed extent of biblical literature… Our understanding of inspiration requires, then …that we fix the text of scripture…”

So begins an article in The New Bible Dictionary, called the “Canon of the New Testament”, by J. N. Birdsall, Ph.D. Apart from the notion that “we” must “fix the text of Scripture”, I regard the statement as sound. The fixity of the Canon is conventionally indicated by the term, “closed”. The Canon is closed, and it was closed when the last canonical book was written, at the end of the apostolic era. The supreme authority once wielded by the holy prophets and apostles is now resident in their canonical writings, the foundation of the church. The last chapter of the last book of the New Testament demands that we respect the final closure of the Canon when it says:

“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev. 22:18-19)

Some object to the application of this warning to the whole New Testament; but surely it might have been given with equal propriety in any inspired book. How could it be anything but fearful impiety to presume to alter an inspired text, once given? The principle applies to every word of God. But it is most appropriate that it be given in the closing words of the last book written, and by the last surviving Apostle.

For without this express provision, revelation would have been incomplete; for it would always be possible for someone to escape the force of a pronouncement of Scripture by casting doubt upon the authenticity of that part of revelation, or by citing a new revelation in opposition to it. Hence, it is correct for Birdsall to say that, for those who believe that Scripture is inspired by God, and that it lays down the truth for all time, the presupposition of a closed Canon is a theological necessity. The Christian religion stands or falls with the finality of the Apostolic revelation and the fixity of the texts.

Did the Church give Authority to the Canon?

The authority of the Hebrew Canon cannot be doubted, for Jesus plainly used it as the final authority in controversies, was willing to have his own claims judged by it, and endorsed it as the infallible word of God. (John 10:35)

The complete New Testament was not published or circulated as a unit immediately, but in a relatively short time every canonical book was universally recognized as such, and the whole New Testament as we know it today became generally available in book form. The Eastern church gave its official testimony to the church’s consensus on the whole Canon in 367 A.D., and the Western church in 397.

But the word of God did not wait for the church’s official recognition before it could work its powerful work in the hearts of men. Nor did any inspired Scripture lack for authority until the whole church was persuaded of it. Objectively speaking, the canonicity of each book was settled the day it was written, for it possessed Divine authority. The subjective judgment of men in its favor added nothing to it. Hence, much or most discussion of canonicity — what criteria the church used to judge it, how and when each book came to be recognized, etc.– is irrelevant. The point is not to attempt to reconstruct the proceedings of ancient church courts, who knew much better than we the history of each document; but rather to properly acknowledge the canonical writings by believing and then obeying them! To question the authority of any book of the Bible is to fail to recognize the sacred character and inviolability of the Canon of Scripture.

Canonicity is a concept that came to the fore during the Reformation; when it was necessary to distinguish those sacred writings or Scriptures which have authority to bind the conscience and those which do not. Remember that the word, “canonical” means exactly the same thing as “authoritative”.

It was not the authority of the list that referenced the canonical books, as if the presence or absence of any book from that list determined their canonicity; but the authority of the books themselves that was meant when the word was chosen.

There were two major concerns: first, the Papists claimed that the church was superior to Scripture because the church had determined what was to be received as canonical Scripture; and second, the Romanists’ version of the Canon included the Apocrypha — books that supported certain of the false teachings that are vital to the continuance of the Roman system. On the first point, Calvin remarks:

“A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed; viz., that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, ‘Who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God?’ ‘Who [can] guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times?’ ‘Who [can] persuade us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list, did not the Church regulate all these things with certainty?’ ‘On the determination of the Church, therefore,’ it is said, ‘depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture, and the books which are to be admitted into the Canon.’ Thus profane men, seeking, under the pretext of the Church, to introduce unbridled tyranny, care not in what absurdities they entangle themselves and others, provided they extort from the simple this one acknowledgement, viz., that there is nothing which the Church cannot do.” (1:7:1)

“Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist.

Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from thence, it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the apostles and prophets, until her judgement is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed.

Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:7:2)

“The law of Moses has been wonderfully preserved, more by divine providence than by human care; and though, owing to the negligence of the priests, it lay for a short time buried – from the time when it was found by good King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chronicles 34:15) – it has continued in the hands of men, and been transmitted in unbroken succession from generation to generation.

Nor, indeed, when Josiah brought it forth, was it as a book unknown or new, but one which had always been matter of notoriety, and was then in full remembrance. The original writing had been deposited in the temple, and a copy taken from it had been deposited in the royal archives (Deuteronomy 17:18,19); the only thing which had occurred was, that the priests had ceased to publish the law itself in due form, and the people also had neglected the wonted reading of it. I may add, that scarcely an age passed during which its authority was not confirmed and renewed. Were the books of Moses unknown to those who had the Psalms of David in their hands?

To sum up the whole in one word, it is certain beyond dispute, that these writings passed down, if I may so express it, from hand to hand, being transmitted in an unbroken series from the fathers, who either with their own ears heard them spoken, or learned them from those who had, while the remembrance of them was fresh. “(Ibid, 1:8:9)

Thus Calvin alleges that the church “received” the Canon: it did not create it! In modern times, Canonicity is still a vital concept: and many modern errors are related to the perversion or rejection of the ancient doctrine of the Canon.

A Subtle, but Crucial Mistake

The idea that the designation “the Canon of Scripture” means 1“the list of titles of books that are recognized as Scripture” is a modern one; just as the 2speculation about “marks on the scale” that we meet with in some writers is modern. Charles Hodge, writing as recently as the late nineteenth century, does not define the Canon as a list of books; but rather as “the rule of faith and practice” (Systematic Theology, Vol.1: Ch.6: Sec.1). Modernists in general, who denied the inspiration of Scripture, first revised the definition of the word to mean “the list”, then 3advocated an “open” Canon.

More importantly, to define the Canon as a list or catalogue is inaccurate. Admittedly, the contents of the Canon being books, which have titles, the titles can be listed. And a definite, fixed list of titles is implied in the term. But the Canon is not a list – it is the totality of the actual texts pointed to by the list. The old writers meant by “the Canon of Scripture” nothing other than the Received Texts (Hebrew and Greek) of the Old and New Testaments that are the Canon (rule or standard) of faith and practice. When the Belgic Confession speaks of “The canonical Scriptures, against which nothing can be alleged”, it means that the Scriptures –the Received Texts which were in the church’s possession — are incorrupt and infallible.

Most importantly, this erroneous definition tends to support the views of both Romanists, who deny that Scripture is self-attesting and self-authenticating; and Modernists, who deny the Divine origin, inspiration, and preservation of Scripture.

For example, when the old writers and the confessions of the church are interpreted with this modern notion in mind, we tend to think that the list is what the authors had in mind, and miss the fact that the subject is the Divine authority of the Christian Canon. This is reflected in the language of the Westminster Confession’s paragraph on the content of Scripture in 1:2 “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament, which are these…” after which these books are listed by name. The word, “Canon” is not used of the list here, as it would be if a modern Reformed theologian had written the statement.

When the Westminster uses the phrase, “the Canon of Scripture” in 1:3, it means “the Canon, which is Scripture”. The books which carry the titles previously listed make up a Canon or standard. The Canon is not the list, but the collection of actual written texts named in the list. In this statement, the concept of the Canon involves Divine inspiration and authority — aspects of Scripture which distinguish it from the Apocryphal books, which are merely human writings.

The Bona Fides of the Received Text

Hence, it is proper to speak of a canonical text or texts. Canonicity applies only to the specific Hebrew text preserved and used by the Jews, and the Greek text faithfully copied and used in the Greek church. This text was passed on to the West after the fall of Constantinople to the Moslems, which forced Christians to flee for their lives. After Erasmus published his printed edition of the Greek New Testament, the Reformers translated into the various European languages. A. H. Strong argues for the reasonable presumption of the genuineness of the Scriptures:

Documents apparently ancient, not bearing upon their face the marks of forgery, and found in proper custody, are presumed to be genuine… The New Testament documents, since they are found in the custody of the church, their natural and legitimate depository, must by this rule be presumed to be genuine… Copies of ancient documents, made by those most interested in their faithfulness [i.e. to the originals, HDK], are presumed to correspond with the originals, even though these originals no longer exist. Since it was the church’s interest to have faithful copies, the burden of proof rests upon the objector to the Christian documents. (Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 141)

These remarks are sufficient to silence those who wish to discredit the Scriptures on the allegation of counterfeiting or corruption of the text, since they are the kind of arguments used in courts of law; in which the highest possible certainty is required, in cases of past events of which there is no reliable record or living witness available. The history of transmission of a document falls in this category. [But our conviction of the authenticity of the texts of holy Scripture rests on more than a reasonable presumption — it rests upon the promises of God. HDK]

It must be appreciated that the conditions described by Strong in the above quotation are only met by the Received Texts – not by the synthetic texts of Modern critical scholars. In other words, the presumption of genuineness only applies to the texts actually found in the custody of the churchnot to the modern critical texts that originated outside the church, fabricated by editors who were not always ordained officers of the church, from sources not formally or universally acknowledged by the church!

This last point is crucial to the debate about texts and versions of the Bible. If we understand that the Christian Canon is the defined collection of texts always received by the church as Divinely-inspired and supremely authoritative, then we should see that the attempt to improve on the texts already received as holy Scripture is in vain, not to mention presumptuous. To replace them with the fabricated texts of unbelieving scholarship is even worse.

This means that no version of the Bible that is translated from conjectural revisions or reconstructions of the Canonical or Received texts (as most versions are) can be authoritative for Christians. We can do no better than to receive in humility and faith the original-language texts, as they have been faithfully handed down to us by the Hebrews and the Greeks, and printed in the days of the Protestant Reformation – and the versions faithfully translated from them.

ENDNOTES

1 c.f. “Canon is here the Latinization of the Greek canon, “a reed” …Canon is the list of books which the Church uses in public worship. Canon also means rule or standard: hence a secondary meaning of Canon is the list of books which the church acknowledges as inspired scripture, normative for faith and practice.” , The New Bible Dictionary, “Canon of the New Testament”, J. N. Birdsall.

2 c.f. “Now the straight rod used for measuring would be marked with a scale, and this seems to have influenced the subsequent history of the word. It came to be used of a list (like the successive marks?)” , Encyclopedia of Christianity , “Canon of the New Testament”, Leon Morris. [If the reader will refer to the recorded uses of the measuring reed in Scripture, he will see that the whole length of the reed (or rod) is the unit of measure; and the use of subdividing marks is not in evidence. Morris gives no sources: he is merely speculating. HDK]

3 c.f. “If the previous epistle alluded to in I Corinthians 5:9 should be discovered and be universally judged authentic, it could be placed with Paul’s other letters and could form part of the Canon, even though it has been lost for 1800 years”, A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 145 [Revelation 22:18-19 to the contrary. HDK] Again, “Abstractly, the Canon is an open question. It can never be anything else on the principles of Protestantism which forbid us to accept the decisions of church councils, whether ancient or modern, as final. But practically the question of the Canon is closed. (Bruce, Apologetics, p. 321) [Bruce shows by these words that he misunderstands the nature and the grounds of Protestantism’s final commitment to the Canon. HDK]

Howard Douglas King

Revised December 6, 2019