How did the Christian Bible come to be? How did each of the sixty-six books it contains come to be included as scripture? Who made these decisions and when? The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce seeks to answer these questions in a complete treatise on the subject. Bruce explores the history behind the formation of the Bible and unfolds a very complex, lengthy process: the formation of the canon of scripture. This review will not cover all the ground the author does, but instead will briefly summarize the overall process.
Bruce sets out chronologically and shows the formation of the Old Testament. Of course, for Christians today, one main element giving authority to the Old Testament is Jesus’ use of the Old Testament in his ministry. Jesus considered the Old Testament as inspired scripture; the Word of God. However, at the time of Christ, the Old Testament had for the most part already been formed and accepted as authoritative.
The author describes at length the formation and collection of the Old Testament writings. He shows that at the time of the writings of the Old Testament, they were immediately received as authoritative words from God. The Old Testament was extremely well preserved and copied. By the time of Christ, the law, prophets, and writings were well received and used as the Jewish scriptures. By the time of the early church, Christians realized that the scriptures bore witness to Christ Himself, and the Old Testament became accepted as a book about Christ among early believers.
Bruce takes care to fully detail each step along the way from the earliest canonical lists of books to the time of the reformation – showing how the writings of the Old Testament became a complete and closed book. This was not a process of deciding what was authoritative; rather, it was a process of recognition and acknowledgement of authority. A sort of closing of the canon was not arbitrary but natural.
Moving on to the New Testament, Bruce has even more recorded history to work with. Because the writings of the apostles were considered on par with scripture and equally authoritative, they were immediately accepted as such. The author shows that most of the New Testament writings were undisputed in their authority; there was no question of ‘canonicity’ in the minds of their readers. In fact, Bruce shows that canonicity was more of an afterthought centuries later when heretical writings began to proliferate.
The four Gospels were authoritative because they preserved the words of Jesus – the highest authority. Paul’s writings carried authority because of his apostleship to the Gentiles. Tying these together was the book of Luke, a sort of natural bridge between the Gospel narratives and the writings of the apostle. This was an initial shell of the New Testament to which was added the other authoritative apostolic writings.
Not only does Bruce thoroughly detail the process of acceptance of the New Testament writings, he also shows how conflicts and tensions within the early church seemed to force a canon of scripture to be formed. Heretical teachings and Gnostic writings started to abound. The church was under persecution. How was a Christian to know what writings were authoritative? It was pressures such as these that caused the formation of a definitive list to be recognized and affirmed.
The criteria of canonicity, as summarized by Bruce, were apostolic authority, antiquity (early writing), orthodoxy, wide acceptance, traditional use and inspiration. However, these are factors that are shown to be the case after the fact; they were not rules to be followed at the time. Rather, these factors all played a role in the acknowledgement of New Testament scripture.
This review admittedly only skims the surface of the canon of scripture, as it is a multifaceted study. Much credit must be given to Bruce for covering such an intricate and extensive subject in a very readable book. The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce is highly recommended for a good overall understanding of the topic.