Is the Biblical Canon Closed?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

Before answering the question, it is best to define just what it meant by the term “closed.”  For there are those critics of biblical inerrancy who seem to think that God is still revealing himself through the written page, and that such is a necessity.  Otherwise they further conclude that God is no longer actively communicating to humanity, and the Bible is nothing more than a static 1 document that is either limited or irrelevant to meets the needs of contemporary humanity.  Therefore, what is meant by the term “closed” is merely that the Bible is complete.  There are no more inspired documents that are to be included in the biblical canon, and there will not be in future.  Such a declaration makes some religious and “spiritual” 2 zealots cringe, usually more out of hostility than anything, since such a pronouncement also immediately passes judgment upon the specious offerings of their favorite prophet or guru who have claimed to be an authoritative mouthpiece for God.  Nevertheless, those hostilities put aside, there are a few very good reasons for believing that God no longer makes prophetic revelations of the canonical variety, and why what is currently seen in the biblical text known as the Bible is final.  Those reasons are the coming of Jesus, the sending of the Spirit, the finalization of doctrine, the cessation of the apostolic office, and the tradition of the Christian Church.

The Coming of Jesus, as a reason to show that the biblical canon is closed, is explicitly seen in the comment to the Hebrews that, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).  Here the writer is telling the reader not only how God communicated to mankind in the past, but how that communication came to a head in the person of Jesus himself.  In fact, Greek grammarian A. T. Robertson points out that the contrast between the Old Testament prophets and Jesus is “sharp,” and that the revelation in Jesus is a “final and full revelation.” 3 Why?  Because of the qualitative difference 4 between the person of Jesus and the prophets themselves, and their partial revelations that they gave in contrast to the complete revelation and fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for mankind as expressed in the “Word made flesh, and dwelt among us” who was “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  Since we know through the providential activity of God who recorded the events of the coming of Jesus, and how he completed the salvific requirements of God for the benefit of humanity, there is no longer any additional written revelation needed, nor necessary, to add to what Jesus has communicated.

The sending of the Spirit is clearly a revealed prophecy of Jesus found in John’s Gospel, and is another indication that subsequent written revelation has been suspended.  Just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion he promised that upon his departure, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (Jn. 14:25).  Jesus continued later by saying, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatsoever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.  He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you” (Jn. 16:13-14).  Finally, we read in one of John’s epistles, “And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him” (1 Jn. 2:27).  The point of all of these statements is that when the Holy Spirit came and set up residence in all those whom God chose to believe, the Spirit then set forth to carry out the ministry of teaching and informing the elect those things that Jesus said and did.  As Morris points out, “He is not originating something radically new, but leading people in accordance with the teaching already given from the Father and the Son.” 5  That teaching is seen in the inspired writings given by the Father and the Son, which, once again, is a primary key in understanding the nature of divine revelation in written form.  If it was not deemed “God-breathed,” then it was not from God.

The finalization of doctrine alludes to the fact that with the coming of Jesus Christ, that which is necessary for the building of “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6; Tit. 1:9; 2:1) is complete.  That does not mean that an exhaustive and infinite understanding of the basic doctrines which comprise the Christian faith will be arrived at by anyone.  What it means is that which God has provided through the divinely inspired revelation provided in the biblical text concerning the Bible, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Humanity, Sin, Salvation, the Church, Angels, and Last Things is complete and adequate in matters of faith and practice.  Furthermore, it means that whatever subsequent “prophecies,” teachings and revelations that fail to echo biblical revelation on any particular doctrine, or in fact contradicts it, and causes division and strife among believing Christians is not from God, and is to be rejected.  In fact, the apostle Paul warned about such activity when he wrote, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17).  John Stott comments that, “He [Paul] takes it for granted, even thus early in the church’s history, that there is a doctrinal and ethical norm which the Romans must follow, not contradict; it is preserved for us in the New Testament.” 6

The cessation of the apostolic office clearly indicates that the biblical canon is closed, simply because the apostles, and those whom they influenced, were the divinely appointed messengers selected to receive and write inspired Scripture.  And with the passing of the last apostle from the earthly scene, written revelation has come to an end.  Of course, there were those shortly after the days of the apostles who attempted to impose their writings on the church, usually pseudonymously, and there are those today who would like everyone to believe that they are genuine apostles, or that they are following those who have been called after the order of apostolic succession.  Yet, such posturing is without credibility.  For as Robinson explains, “In most of the approximately eighty cases in which the word ‘apostle’ occurs in the NT, it refers to the Twelve or to Paul.  Their unique place is based upon the resurrected Jesus’ having appeared to them and having commissioned them to proclaim the gospel as the eschatological action of God in Christ.” 7 No one since that last genuine apostle left the earth in death has seen the risen Jesus, nor has anyone fulfilled the ministry of an apostle in the same manner as those who were apostles, in respect to writing inspired Scripture, or the performing of signs and wonders to validate their office.  Typically, what has been seen by those claiming to be apostles, and are not, are egotistical boasts that either draw attention to themselves, and not the biblical Jesus, or to those with even bigger egos than they, who propagate doctrines and teachings that are clearly antithetical to those held by biblically orthodox Christians.  Therefore, with the cessation of the apostolic office, we have another clear indication that the biblical canon is closed.

Finally, there is the tradition of the Christian Church.  Now, by this it is simply meant that the standards and doctrines of the Church have been established and have been intact since the day that Jesus initially ordained it. 8 Of course, not every doctrine was fully developed in the beginning, but has grown with understanding as the Spirit moved human minds with divine illumination from the Scriptures to understand the infinite mind of God.  It is because of this tradition, that if anyone outside the Church came along and claimed to have found some document that should be considered to be included in the biblical corpus, unless the teachings found within that document were consistent with what has already been taught for millennia, and supported and validated Scripture that has already been received as inspired, then the document was be rejected as spurious.  Presently there have been some documents that seem to keep recycling themselves for canonical consideration, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas.  Yet because of their either strange teachings or fragmentary commentary, which leaves one to wonder just why anyone would consider them to be inspired in the first place, 9 they are consistently rejected as unequal to the biblical texts.

Therefore, the biblical canon is closed.  Some have postulated that “Hypothetically the canon could be open,” 10 but given the preceding, that kind of speculation is extremely gracious, if not fleeting.  Besides, given the general overall ignorance of the Bible by so many, if God did manage to pass along additional written revelation for humans to use as a guide to life, both spiritual and physical, then just what would God be hoping to accomplish?  Obviously, since many humans are not willing to read what has already been written, then why would they necessarily be interested in anything else God had to say?  Some might answer that contemporary revelation is fresh, exciting, and relevant to modern man, which implies that the living Word of God, given by the living God, is stale, boring, and irrelevant, further meaning that in order for God to communicate to man, He must communicate to him on his terms, and under his conditions, otherwise God’s effort at revealing Himself is at best impotent.  Plainly, such notions are more of an indication of man dictating to God what God should be like, rather than humbly acknowledging what man is like, as God has already indicated, long ago, in the Scriptures, that such arrogant men ignore as stale, boring, and irrelevant.  No, the biblical canon is closed because of Jesus’ coming, the sending of the Spirit, the finalization of doctrine, the cessation of the apostolic office, and the tradition of the Christian Church, and only a hardened skeptic of the Bible would disagree otherwise.

Notes:

  1. Old Testament scholar, Edward J. Young makes a poignant rebuttal regarding the charge of the biblical text being “static,” when he retorts, “Is it, however, static?  As this word is used, it is used in a derogatory sense.  Is the connotation of the word, however, always derogatory?  If by ‘static’ we merely mean that the truth of the Bible does not change, then, of course, the Bible is a static revelation.  There are times, however, when one may indeed be thankful that some things are static.”  Thy Word Is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 222.  I could not agree more.  Can you just imagine that if the truth about God was not “static,” or, how about the person of Jesus?  Not only would the Christian have no reason to believe anything the Bible had to say about anything, he could never know from one moment to the next whether or not what he was doing was God-honoring or the most heinous sin committed against God.  Obviously, the whole “static” argument presented by those who either disdain the Bible, or find it personally dissatisfying and inadequate, is irrational from the outset.
  2. I use “spiritual” in the sense of those hypocrites and double-minded persons who on the one hand want to develop and promote their own brand of “spirituality,” while on the other hand are devoid of the truth, because of their rejection of what God has not only revealed about Himself, but about the Book He has chosen to record that revelation.  Much of this kind of hypocrisy is seen not only among avowed pagans and nature worshipers, but also among many so-called “Christians” involved in Postmodernism.  They’re all “spiritual” alright; just in wrong way.
  3. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), 5:334-35.
  4. In commenting on Hebrews 1:2 Daniel Wallace argues that, “Although this should probably be translated “a Son” (there is no decent way to express this compactly in English), the force is clearly qualitative (though, of course, on the continuum it would be closer to the indefinite than the definite category).  The point is that God, in his final revelation, has spoken to us in one who has the characteristics of a son.  His credentials are vastly different from the credentials of the prophets (or from the angels, as the following context indicates).”  Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 245.
  5. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 621.
  6. John Stott, Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 400.
  7. W. C. Robinson, “Apostle,” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:193.
  8. Absent from this definition are those things with allude to praxis and methodology, which some choose to confuse with doctrine in an attempt to show how divided the Christian body is.  There is a difference, though, between the basic doctrines, and the diverse methods of Christian practice, as is seen in the various Christian denominations.  Since this is a discussion about Bibliology, rather than Ecclesiology, further comments about faith and practice will be reserved.
  9. One of my favorite statements stemming from the Gospel of Thomas is this one from Saying 113: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life.’  Jesus said, ‘Behold, I shall guide her so as to make her male, that she too may become a living spirit like you men.  For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels, trans. by Marvin W. Meyer (New York: Random House, 1984), 38.
  10. Norm Geisler and William Nix make this statement, alluding to the possible theory that some first century book might be found, and then conclude, “But that is unlikely for two reasons: First, it is historically unlikely that such a new book intended for the faith and practice of all believers, but unknown to them for two thousand years, will suddenly come to light.  Second, it is providentially improbable that God would have inspired but left unpreserved for two millennia what is necessary for the instruction of all generations.”  Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 218.