February 12, 2012 Q & A

What are the criteria for the Biblical Canon?


In my study of the canonization of Scripture I've read that the following are required to ensure publication of an inerrant and infallible Bible translation. What are your thoughts?

  1. Manuscripts
  2. Church Council
  3. Translators
  4. Nihil obstat: Latin, "Nothing hinders"; Church leader validates Bible translation without error.
  5. Imprimatur: Latin, "Let it be printed"; Church leader approval or license to print or publish.

If so, what English version meets these criteria?


Canon, as you likely know, refers to that which we receive as inspired of God and thus as infallible and inerrant. In the OPC, we believe that there are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament that evince inspiration and twenty-seven in the New. While there are a myriad of issues that could be discussed relevant to the canon question, what's particularly important to remember is that the church does not create the canon; rather, the canon creates the church. The church is what it is because of what the Bible says and not the reverse. The church, as the covenant people of God, receive and recognize the canon; the church does not create the canon.

We may look, in terms of the canonization process early on, at the Marcion heresy and the Murtarion Canon (ca. 180), as the church labors to receive the New Covenant Word, or, later, the first complete list that we have of the twenty-seven books of the NT canon in the Easter letter of Athanasius (367). Accompanying this acceptance of canon in the East--as reflected in Athanasius's correspondence--is that of the West in 382 at the Synod of Rome and then the recognition of such for the whole church (East and West) in 397 at the Synod of Carthage.

In the process of all this, various church leaders are looking at different manuscripts, meeting in council, and debating what bears the marks of inspiration. All of this is involved in addressing the question of canon and the receiving of the divine word of the Lord.

Translation is another matter from transmission (transmission having to do with what texts best preserve the very words of the original autographa). The Roman church decided that it wanted to exert control over translation and during the middle ages came to hold the Latin version (called the Vulgate) that Jerome had developed as authoritative. The Bible was not written, of course, in Latin so this put scholars at a remove from the original Hebrew and Greek. Rome wished to control the publication of all Christian literature (not simply the Bible) and developed the office of censor librorum (censor of books), who, together with other church officials, would issue the "nihil obstat" and the "imprimi potest" (or "imprimatur") authorizing the publication of materials.

Historic, confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches have not designated an English translation as authorized. In OP churches, you will find, largely, in the pulpit and pew the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, the NIV, and the ESV. The first two of these are based on the majority text (the transmission question) and employ a fairly literal translation theory. The last three are based on the eclectic text (again the transmission question), with the NASB employing as a translation theory what is called "formal correspondence," which is quite literal; the NIV using an approach called "dynamic equivalence," which is freer and more idiomatic in English; and the ESV, which would fall between the two, roughly.

What we can rejoice in is that God has given us His word and has preserved its transmission so that we can rest assured that our English Bibles, whatever the minor differences they may have due to transmission or translation theory, are God's Word, authoritative and infallible.

I hope that this proves useful in some measure, at least as an introduction to what is a rather involved subject.



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