The term “canon” refers to the accepted books of the Bible. The Protestant canon contains 66 books; other Christian traditions vary, adding a few books often referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or the “Apocrypha.” A commonly accepted understanding among most Christians of all traditions is that the books that belong in the Bible cannot be added to. In other words, the canon is “closed.”
While in one sense I believe the canon is closed, in some ways I do not believe that to be necessarily true. Let me explain.
In order to maintain that the canon is closed, most Christians would refer the the first few centuries of the church. In particular, councils such as Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, as well as Athanasius’ Easter Letter, are pointed to as evidence that the canon of the New Testament had closed by the time they took place. The Old Testament, according to most, was already established and closed by the time of Christ. For this, reference could be made to the New Testament itself, the testimonies of Josephus and Philo, and some of the intertestamental works.
My contention with this assumption is that saying that the canon is “closed” needs to be understood more in an observational way rather than as an authoritative pronouncement. “Closed” might not be the best word, since it implies a necessary finality concerning the contents of Scripture. I don’t believe we can say this (in the way we usually mean it) for two primary reasons:
1. Scripture itself does not limit the canon to 66 books. No matter how hard you look, you would be hard pressed to find a place that definitely “closes” the canon. Revelation 22:18-19 is often referred to as evidence:
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
The problem with using this passage is that it is specific to the book of Revelation. Just because the book of Revelation occurs last in our canon does not mean this warning applies to the entire Bible. It is meant to communicate a general statement about those who would be tempted to add to or take away from God’s word in general, and to the book of Revelation specifically. Yet the same warning is given in the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs:
Deuteronomy 4:2: You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.
Proverbs 30:6: Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.
Does this mean that once Deuteronomy or Proverbs were complete, no one was supposed to add any other books? I don’t know anyone who would make that argument.
2. The canon is self-regulating. The word “canon” is simply a way of expressing those books that are from God, authoritative, intentional toward a specific purpose and, therefore, part of Scripture. There is no reason to ever close it, if by “close” you mean it is not possible for God to add to it. I know people are simply trying to say that other people cannot add to it, but I think in doing so we have philosophically overstepped our bounds. In other words, we don’t close anything. God simply stops adding to it. We have no right to say God cannot add to it because it is “closed.” Only God regulates His own revelation.
In short, the argument I am making is that the canon is closed only to the degree that God is no longer adding to it. But it is not closed in the sense that God cannot add to it were He to make an unforeseen movement in the history of revelation. The primary reason we have not added anything to the canon in the last two thousand years is that God has not used an authenticated apostle or prophet to speak His word and add to it in that timeframe. Only in this sense is the canon “closed.”
Now, to be clear, I don’t think God will ever add anything to the canon and I am not meaning to suggest otherwise. I believe the Bible’s primary purpose is to communicate the history of redemption, and I think we have good reason to claim this history is complete. Listen to the writer of Hebrews:
Hebrews 1:1-2: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
“In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” contrasts the former means of revelation (“by the prophets”). It suggests finality. God is no longer speaking to us through a mediator who is unlike Him, but rather through His genetic equal—His Son! What more do we need? Therefore, I think we are safe in believing that God’s revelation is complete, even if we cannot be overly dogmatic about this.
When communicating the doctrine of canonicity, we can say it seems that the Scriptures are complete for two reasons: 1) God has not added to it through an authenticated spokesperson in two thousand years, and 2) the purpose of Scripture is completed with the advent of Christ and the communication of the Gospel.
I know that the idea of a theoretically open canon will not sit well with many people, especially Christian apologists who combat Mormonism as well as cessationists who combat modern-day prophets. Yet there is really no issue with either. We understand that Mormonism falls due to its inability to authenticate Joseph Smith as a prophet and its contradiction with previous revelation. Concerning modern-day prophets, I don’t have an issue. I don’t believe we have seen a prophet since the time of the apostles, but this does not mean that God cannot send one. As well, even if he does, there is no reason why his pronouncements should be added to the canon. In their inspired roles, prophets and apostles said plenty that was never written down. The canon is not every inspired word ever written. It is a collection of inspired and authoritative words that were part of redemptive history.
In short, God can do whatever He desires. Our theological constructs and definitions of a “closed canon” do not lock Him out of our room. If He wants to add to the canon or speak through a prophet, He can do so. Neither you, nor I, nor a church council, nor a Pope can put a “do not enter” on the door of canonical revelation.
I don’t mind saying the canon is closed so long as we qualify it. The canon is “closed” to the degree that God is no longer adding to it.
To be fair, this proposition is not quite as provocative as it might seem. While this might irk Roman Catholics who believe that the Church itself closed the canon, Protestants have historically believed that the church simply recognizes the canon, but does not have the authority to close it.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]