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.”


  1. Kevin,

    I took it upon myself to take issue with the thrust of this post as I understand it in my latest to be found on my blog.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    on my blog I took another shot at describing the centrality of scripture as I see it in Jewish and Christian tradition.

    Paradoxical as it may sound, your beautiful expression of what is central to Holy Tradition – “It is God. It is only God’ – is unnecessarily reductive. It is God. But it is also God’s Word. Self-revelation, but also wisdom, enlightenment, an inexhaustible font of spiritual nourishment.

  3. Hi John, I’ll visit in a minute! It’s not unnecessarily reductive, but necessarily specific. The book itself has no power outside of God.

    What I mean by that is that the writings themselves are ONLY active and only God’s Word within a person’s life who is in active communion WITH GOD. Otherwise it is a dead word, just printed matter. If God the Holy Spirit is not active within a person’s reception of the Bible’s writings, making that Word to truly reflect the Word of God, then it is certainly not “self-revelation, wisdom, enlightenment, an inexhaustible font of spiritual nourishment” as you so nicely put it.

    Approaching the book as mere literature is not only possible, but common these days, particularly in academe. It’s not the same as approaching it as God’s Word. Literature is not the voice of God except in an extremely tenuous, neologistic fashion, and only for those who find artistic literary expression to be “inspired.” It’s not the same as insisting upon an inspiration by God of writings as understood in patristic and rabbinic tradition.

    Anyhow, more later!

  4. Hi. Thanks for all your work translating the prologues of St. Jerome. But looking at those prologues makes me question your statement that use of the word “canon” to mean a collection of books until the 18th century. In his preface to the book of Kings did he not indicate of some books of the Bible that “non sunt in canone”?

  5. Hi Rob. Yes, thanks. I was relying upon a date that I’d run across in McDonald’s The Biblical Canon. The quote is:

    The word canon was not regularly used in reference to a closed collection of writings until David Ruhnken used it this way in 1768. In his treatise Historia critica oratorum Graecorum, he employed the term canon for a selective list of literary writings. According to Pfeiffer, “his coinage met with worldwide and lasting success, as the term was found to be so convenient.”
    L.M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon, pp 51-2.

    So, the context of this (which continues), shows that this particular reference is to a selective list of general literary works, in this case ancient Greek authors, not the biblical canon itself. Prior to this, there is occasional usage among ancient Christian writers of canon in the sense of “list”, but it doesn’t generally bear the full connotation of a closed set of books until later. The primary meaning of canon was certainly that of “rule.” I suppose the meaning of “list” to have developed out of the majority meaning, perhaps in the sense of “an order of things to follow,” perhaps in the sense of a “to-do list.” That’s another subject, I suppose.

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