theology

Where Did the Biblical Canon Come From? A Conversation

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What is the biblical canon? How did we get the Jewish and Christian canon? Why do some Christian traditions have different canons than our own?

Drs. John Meade, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, Scott Kellum, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Seminary, Steve McKinion, Associate Professor of Theology and Patristic Studies at Southeastern Seminary, and Dougald McLaurin, Reference Coordinator at The Library at Southeastern Seminary, discuss the early church, their canon lists, and the formation of the Christian canon during a recent Library Talk.

Watch their conversation above, or read key excerpts below (edited for clarity).


Dr. Scott Kellum on various perspectives for defining the canon.

  1. A Closed List
  2. A Functional Canon
  3. An Ontological Canon
    “There is this idea of the ontological nature of the Christian canon — that it comes from God. And if that’s the case, and if inspiration is the defining part of this, then our job is to recognize the canon. I think most of the discussion that happens from that standpoint is trying to understand the discussion and disputes.”

Dr. Steve McKinion on Irenaeus’ notion of the canon.

“In terms of defining what the canon is, there are two major ways to look at it. One beginning about 1768 is that canon was a list of authoritative books. And then there is in ancient Christianity where a canon is like a rule, or a plumb line, a straight line by which all other lines become judged to see whether they’re straight or not….

“For Irenaeus, the canon of truth or the rule of faith, the canon is the confession of faith we have that we make in our baptism. It’s Matthew 28:19-20. We see the same thing with Athanasius in the fourth century. This is the scopos, or the hypothesis of scripture. Meaning that you have the body of truth, which is the scriptures themselves, this collection of books. And you have the canon of truth, which is the plumb line which helps us to know which of these books are in or out. So the canon is really the judge for what goes in, and it only later becomes descriptive of the collection itself, beginning about 1768 is probably the first time you find it used in that particular way. [This] is the way we mostly use it, even in this discussion already, and certainly biblical scholars would use it in that way as opposed to canon being the rule.”

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