The biblical canon


The 'canon' as we know it now consists of those books that measured up to the rule or standard expected of genuine revelations from God,[1] others did not. Even so there are now two Bibles, as the Roman Catholics recognise a different and longer list of books for the Old Testament, the extra parts being known as the 'Apocrypha'.[2] The difference between the two versions relates back to three points in church history, firstly where the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and some extra writings were added, these are those included in the Roman Catholic Bible. Secondly after the destruction of Jerusalem the Rabbis decided that they would use the original Hebrew version to emphasise their Jewish background and finally during the Reformation Luther decided that he agreed with the Rabbis in declaring that only the books in the Hebrew language constituted the Old Testament and so the protestant Bible does not include the additional Greek writings.

Not just fragments but the whole

It is important that we study each text in the light of the whole biblical canon and recognise that some New Testament texts refer back to passages from the Old Testament. In biblical theology we need to be careful not to look at small fragments of text, as each piece of scripture not only comes with a literary context but with an historical context as well and it is only possible to discover its meaning when viewed as part of the whole canon of scripture. It has often been said that Scripture has Jesus at its heart and so we can look back to the Old Testament and forward towards the New Testament, especially to the fulfilment of prophesy shown in Jesus' life, death, resurrection and coming again.

It is therefore not a good idea to take an issue and try to find all the texts that relate to it, sometimes called 'proof texting', a much better method is to immerse ourselves in the whole Bible in a effort to gain its world view and to then examine the issue from that viewpoint. Using the example of marriage, we need to see it from the angle of 'Christ and his Church' as showing the ideal marriage, the relationship between a man and his wife can then be compared to this and any advice given can reflect this as the ideal for our own marriages.

The Literature of the Bible

Pettit states that, 'K.J Vanhoozer encourages us to think of the various biblical genres (prophecy, songs, narrative, law, etc) as different kinds of maps.'[3] Like maps, each genre has its own way of showing us different things about God and his interaction with humanity. He goes on to say that, 'biblical law maps out God's will for human behaviour; biblical prophecy maps out the responsibilities of god's covenant people,'[4] Using biblical theology helps us overcome any problems that might occur if we just looked at one genre, a particular topic might appear in a range of places in the bible and thus in books of a variety genre. So taking the example of sin, references to this can be found in narrative, psalms, prophets, wisdom and apocalyptic literature, as well as the epistles. By looking at all of these from the canon we can gain a better perspective of the subject.

Despite the variety of different historical contexts that can be found in scripture, a unity can still be found and Pettit citing Goldingay's views suggests that 'this allows the breadth of the canon to stand and allows texts to speak for themselves without being artificially assimilated to other texts.'[5] Using the example of the exile, different writings show that there were a variety of responses to the exile and that these depended in some part on the situation in the authors of the pieces found themselves and the time at which they were writing.

The importance of Trajectory

The concept of trajectory is a helpful model suggested by Goldingay and other scholars 'which enables us to speak of movements of thought within the Bible.'[6] What one does is to identify a major theme and its associated sub-themes and then trace them through the Old and New Testament. This can provide a succession of historical contexts and by studying them all, it is possible to ensure that all the relevant Biblical material has been examined. A good example is that of the people of God, starting with the covenant God made with Abraham, then moving to his covenant with the nation of Israel, through the history of the Kings, then on to the breaking of the covenant and finally the promise of the renewal of the covenant through Jesus' redemptive action on the cross.

New Testament references to the Old Testament

Osborne suggests that 'the Old testament canon was fairly complete by the time of Jesus'[7] and was divided into three parts or four if you include the hymns. There is often reference made in the New Testament to scriptures from the Old Testament and this pattern occurs in many of the gospels and other writings. It is worth looking at this phenomena in relation to Matthew's gospel, which refers to Old Testament texts eighty times, as Osborne says, it 'contains sixty quotations, numerous allusions and echoes'[8] perhaps this is because 'Matthew sees all three sections of the Old Testament - the Law, the Writings and the Prophets - fulfilled in Jesus.'[9]

Of course one has to be aware that the cultural world of the Old Testament was very different from that of the New Testament, also that the meaning of words can change over time, so that something said in the Old Testament might have a very different meaning when used hundreds of years later. We must therefore be aware that the way the word is currently used, as we read it two thousand years later may have changed yet again, which could lead to a misinterpretation of that particular passage of scripture.

Dangers to avoid

It is also very important that we are careful to place any text in the correct position on the Biblical timeline, or we might be tempted to try to make it say things that are not appropriate to that period in history. In the Bible we have a progressive revelation of God's actions in relation to his people throughout history; this can help us cope with the differences between the rather violent way God seemed to deal with sin in the Old Testament and the more loving way that he provided his son as an atonement for sin in the New Testament.

Another warning of something to avoid mentioned by Osborne comes from writings by Dunn who suggested that 'all Christians have operated with a canon within a canon'[10], this could occur when a strong church leader or group of Christians relied more heavily on proof texts rather than on the whole of scripture. They might have chosen to emphasise the importance of certain parts of the Bible over others, or prefer some books of the Bible and use them more to preach and teach from than others. It is said that Luther did this with Romans 1:17, it is also not unusual within denominations that one tradition might emphasise certain biblical truths more than others.


Using the whole canon of scripture can help one avoid the dangers of building a doctrine or practice out of isolated verses. As Osborne says, 'the canon must be taken as a whole; it demands a perspective on the unity of Scripture that allows neither community nor scholar to predominate over the canonical text itself.'[11]

It is even more important that leaders do not follow the bad practice of trying to impose things on the whole church, which have only been mentioned once in a specific context. Doctrine and practice should always be based on an understanding of numerous references that have been found across the whole canon of scripture.


  • Huggett, D. Introducing Christian Doctrine, Middlesex: LST, 2004
  • Osborne, Grant R., The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2006
  • Pettit, J. Scripture and Hermeneutics, Middlesex: LST, 2009
  • Pinnock, Clark H., The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006
  1. Huggett, D. Introducing Christian Doctrine, P20
  2. Huggett, D. Introducing Christian Doctrine, P21
  3. Pettit, J. Scripture and Hermeneutics, p49
  4. Ibid.
  5. Pettit, J. Scripture and Hermeneutics, p50
  6. Pettit, J. Scripture and Hermeneutics, p52
  7. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p323
  8. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p333
  9. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p334
  10. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p360
  11. Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral, p361

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