Canon(s) or Canonical?

Terminology related to the canon of the Bible’s books is rife with confusion. The usage of “canon” itself to refer to a collection of books is only of eighteenth century vintage. The general usage anciently and to the present of canon or κανων was in reference to a rule, either literal or metaphorical, that is, either a measuring stick of some kind or a set of beliefs held as an authoritative code for one’s behavior. Yet these days, in discussing various books of the Bible, people will often speak of whether a book is canonical or non-canonical, by which they simply mean whether it is or is not considered a book of the Bible, or the “Biblical canon” by which they mean that list of books in the Bible. This usage is likely to only generate more confusion, because it is then assumed that there is some single official list of books that belong to the Bible, which there is not. Different faith traditions have different Bibles. Among Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholics and Orthodox each have an increasing number of different books included in their Bibles, with the latter having several different lists of such books (from the Eastern Orthodox, the Russian and Greek traditions differ by including one book each which the other doesn’t; among the Oriental Orthodox, the Coptic Church and Ethiopic Churches include even more books than the Eastern Orthodox, while some of the Syrian Orthodox have five fewer books in their New Testament through excluding the books of 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse). As is also well known, the Jewish Bible includes the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, though traditionally arranging the books in a different order than they do. So, there is no “the” canon at all, but several canons, depending upon various traditions, which situation becomes even more complex if one looks at historical documentation concerning which books various ancient writers thought should be considered part of the Bible. Let us leave this confusion to the side for now.

There is a better way to discuss these books, by simply using “canonical” with the older connotation in mind. That is, these books are canonical to particular groups because they were considered to reflect their regula fidei or κανων πιστεως. By using this approach, we not only come to an immediate understanding of precisely why certain traditions include the various books in their Bibles, but also enter into a greater continuity with past reflection on and usage of the the word and concept of “canon,” thus returning to an understanding that these books didn’t just happen to be in a certain collection divorced from all interaction with people as though by an inevitable physical process which has yet to be discovered, but rather through a process in which they were recognized as reflective of the values and mores, the “canons,” of those groups which mindfully and prayerfully included them in their Bibles. Likewise, other books were prayerfully and mindfully excluded, as they were not considered to reflect the rule of faith or tradition.

Thus, rather than saying, “This is the Eastern Orthdox Biblical Canon,” it is better to say, “These are the canonical books of the Bible in the Eastern Orthodox Church.” The difference in usage is subtle, but important. “Canonical” connotes a relationship to a tradition’s rule of faith as canon, while “canon” would attempt to substitute a set of mute books for that living tradition. It is a kind of bibliolatry to place the books of the Bible in the position of the Rule of Faith. They are certainly a part of it, along with other elements, but they are not the Rule of Faith itself. Our language should reflect that reality.

It is important to remember that, as some wag put it, “The Church wrote the Bible; the Bible didn’t create the Church.”