The Canon of Scripture (Bruce)

Bruce, F. F.  The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove,IL:  InterVarsityPress, 1988.

The canon of Scripture is one of the most important questions of Christian theology.  It is directly related to the most important question of Christian theology:  the question of authority.  One’s position on the canon either justifies or undercuts one’s ultimate authority.   Bruce’s book on the canon is not remarkable:  he does not say anything that was not already said by Bruce Metzger of Lee McDonald.   That is not say the book is useless—on the contrary.  Bruce represents the finest of conservative, evangelical theology and his conclusions and methods are always sane and judicious.   This review will briefly highlight Bruce’s method (which is more of a historical survey) and reflect upon Bruce’s conclusions:  how strong they are, whether they actually follow, and what this entails for Evangelical theology.

Bruce gives a brief survey of the meaning of the word “Canon” and the different senses it was used in church history.  Canon did not mean list of books in the Scriptures but the rule of faith by which one determines other aspects of the faith (Bruce 1988:  18).  In other words, canon meant “tradition.”

Bruce has a section on the Old Testament development of the canon.   Here he follows the standard evangelical line that the Old Testament canon was definably formed by the end of 400 B.C.   He makes this claim on the basis that the church appealed to a set of Scriptures (29).  Like other Evangelicals, he appeals to Josephus’ claim that the unbroken succession of prophets ended around 400 B.C.   He ends the chapter with an interesting (and I think accurate) suggestion that the practice of the worshipping community recognized the canon (42).  In other words, liturgy shaped the canon.

While there was some controversy in delineating the New Testament canons, the areas of concern were always clearly noted, and the discussion is somewhat simpler by comparison.   The Gospels and the Pauline epistles did not have trouble getting into the canon.   The Apocalypse was problematic because heretical groups appealed to it.   Bruce gives a survey of Church Fathers on the Canon from Clement of Rome to Athanasius.

There is some repetition in Bruce’s narrative.  For example, in the development of the New Testament canon he discusses Athanasius and Tertullian.    Later on he has chapters on Athanasius and Tertuallian which say the same thing.

The most important questions about the canon are the ones at the end:  what are the criteria for canonicity and who gets to make that decision?   Bruce lists the criteria: apostolic authority, antiquity, orthodoxy, and catholicity (pp. 256-262).  He lists other sub-criteria as inspiration and widespread use, but I will focus on these four.[i]

Conclusion and Response

While it is true that the Church appealed to a set of Scriptures commonly known as the Old Testament, it nowhere identified the contents of those writings in a systematic form.  In other words, there was an Old Testament canon, but there is no proof that it had hard, fixed boundaries, appeals to Josephus notwithstanding.   Appeals to Deuteronomy’s warning not “to add to this book” do not help, since those who claim a fixed OT canon apply Deuteronomy’s warning to the whole OT canon (which deligitimizes most of the OT—and Moses was simply applying that to the Torah).   If one says the Jewish community did not define the OT canon because everyone already knew what was in it, this is a huge argument from silence and assumes what one is trying to prove.

Yes, there was an “Old Testament” and most of the books in this “Old Testament” were similar, but the “Jamnia” canon and the LXX differed in content per the Apocrypha—and it is the LXX that the early church followed.   (Another important point is that the Jamnia council to which many Evangelicals appeal, was radically anti-Christian in its orientation.)

Criteria for the Canon.

In conclusion I will look at Bruce’s criteria for the canon.  His criteria is helpful but raises more questions than solves:

  • Apostolic authority:   Was it written by an apostle?   This is problematic because Mark, Luke, Acts, and probably Hebrews were not written by apostles.   Bruce is aware of this and softens the argument that they were written under the aegis of an apostle (Mark-Peter; Luke-Paul).  Bruce notes that all four gospels are anonymous, so how do we know who wrote what (which is important for the “apostolic authority” argument)?  His unspoken answer:  because tradition says so.
  • Orthodoxy:  This next criterion was important because many false gospels under the names “Peter” and “Thomas” were circulating, so it became obvious that “apostolic authorship” was not enough (nor was it self-authenticating).   Did the gospel teach the apostolic faith?   The interesting question is that the apostolic faith is defined, not as Scripture alone, but the prior teaching of the church (150).  Reflect on that statement for a while:  we know something is Scripture because it agrees with church tradition.  Corollary:  church tradition determines the horizon of Scripture.    Bruce hints at this but is not explicit about it.
  • Antiquity:  this was to rule out literature that may have been edifying, but was not part of the original Christian writings, namely The Shepherd of Hermas.
  • Catholicity:  If the church is one, holy, and apostolic church, then it cannot have numerous canons for an indefinite period of time.


Bruce did a fine job in this book.  He offers a number of helpful meditations on various Scriptures and wades through a minefield of difficult issues.    Bruce is aware of many problems relating interpretation to canonicity, and hints at a few solutions, but ultimately pulls back.  Nevertheless, this book is rightly known as the standard on the canon.

One other corollary:  Greg Bahnsen made one argument popular:  we know it is the bible because God’s word is self-authenticating.  Never mind the Mormon, Muslim, and JW can make the same claim (it begs the obvious question:  self-authenticating to whom), the historical truth of the matter is that the earliest Christians, who much closer to the situation and more familiar with the issues, either did not think the text was self-authenticating, or were horribly deluded if they did

Another problem with the above claim:   if I say Tobit is self-authenticating, and the Reformed presuppositionalist says it isn’t, who gets to make the call?

[i] Lee MacDonald gives the same list as Bruce, although MacDonald is more aware of the problems in this list and offers a much fuller and more satisfying discussion.   The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1995).

4 comments on “The Canon of Scripture (Bruce)

  1. Vincent says:

    Another problem is that 2 Billion Christians accept the deuterocanonical books as Scripture, far outnumbering the evangelical opinions. How can the Canon be catholic if a tiny minority is right? And only extremely recently so, in Church history …

  2. V says:

    I’m rather fond of Tobit, what with the angels, demons and fish ball incense.

  3. Ansgar Olav says:

    agreed. The Deuteronocanon is superb literature by anyone’s standards.

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