The Canon Is Closed
from General Introduction to the Bible
Dr. Norman Geisler
Dr. William Nix
This statement raises an interesting question: What if a truly prophetic or apostolic book were found today: would it belong in the canon? Of course, the question is only hypothetical, and so the answer is only hypothetical, too. But it is an interesting question, and it does focus an important issue not yet stressed: the providence of God. It seems highly unlikely that God would have inspired a book He did not preserve. Why should He give a revelation for the church but not provide for the preservation of it? It is understandable that God might give special guidance to certain individuals, which He did not deem necessary to do for the broader body of believers. But to provide instruction in the Christian faith by way of a revelation He did not preserve for others is another matter altogether. Perhaps the question could be rephrased this way: Is the biblical canon closed? To this one should respond that the canon is closed theologically and historically, and is open only hypothetically.
Theologically the canon is closed. God has inspired only so many books and they were all completed by the end of the apostolic period (first century A.D.). God used to speak through the prophets of the Old Testament, but in the “last days” he spoke through Christ (Heb. 1:1) and the apostles whom He empowered with special signs “(miracles). But because the apostolic age ended with the death of the apostles (Acts 1:22), and because no one since apostolic times has had the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12) whereby they can raise the dead (Acts 20:10–12) and perform other unique supernatural events (Acts 3:1–10; 28:8–9), it may be concluded that God’s “last day” revelation is complete (see Acts 2:16–18). This does not mean that God’s visitations are over, because there are many other things yet to be fulfilled (see Acts 2:19–20). Nor does it mean that there will be no new understanding of God’s truth after the first century. It simply means that there is no new revelation for the church. Indeed, this does not necessarily imply that there have been no miracles since the first century. Supernatural acts will be possible as long as there is a Supernatural Being (God). It is not the fact of miracles that ceased with the apostles but the special gift of miracles possessed by a prophet or apostle who could claim, like Moses, Elijah, Peter, or Paul, to have a new revelation from God. Such a prophet or apostle could back up his claim by dividing a sea, bringing down fire from heaven, or raising the dead. These were special gifts bestowed on prophets (apostles), and they are not possessed by those who are not the recipients of new revelation (Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3–4).
Historically the canon is closed. For there is no evidence that any such special gift of miracles has existed since the death of the apostles. The immediate successors of the apostles did not claim new revelation, nor did they claim these special confirmatory gifts. In fact, they looked on the apostolic revelation as full and final (see chaps. 6, 16, and 17). When new cults have arisen since the time of the apostles, their leaders have claimed to be apostles in order that their books could gain recognition. Historically, the canon is closed with the twenty-seven books written in the apostolic period. They alone are and have been the books of the canon through all the intervening centuries. No other non-apostolic books have been accepted since the earliest centuries, and no new books written by the apostles have come to light. In His providence, God has guided the church in the preservation of all the canonical books.
The canonical books are those necessary for faith and practice of believers of all generations. It seems highly unlikely that God would inspire a book in the first century that is necessary for faith and practice and then allow it to be lost for nearly two thousand years. From a providential and historical stand-point the canon has been closed for nearly two thousand years.
Hypothetically the canon could be open. It is theoretically possible that some book written by an accredited apostle or prophet from the first century will yet be found. And what if such a prophetic book were found? The answer to this question will depend on whether or not all prophetic books are canonic. If they are, as has been argued, then this newly discovered prophetic book should be added to the canon. But that is unlikely for two reasons. First, it is historically unlikely that such a new book intended for the faith and practice of all believers, but unknown to them for two thousand years, will suddenly come to light. Second, it is providentially improbable that God would have inspired but left unpreserved for two millennia what is necessary for the instruction of believers of all generations.
Summary and Conclusion
The history of the word canon indicates a development from a literal rod or ruler to the concept of a standard for something. Subsequently the word was applied to the rule of faith, that is, the normative writings or authoritative Scriptures, which were the standard of faith and practice. Just how that standard or canon was determined is the subject of some misunderstanding. With that in view, the present chapter has discussed that which determined canonicity. Several insufficient views have been suggested, for example, (1) age decided the issue; (2) Hebrew language determined it; (3) agreement with the Torah did; (4) religious value determined whether or not a book was canonical; or (5) the religious community determines canonicity. However, all those views share one common weakness: they fail to distinguish between the determination of canonicity (a work of God) and the recognition of canonicity (a work of men). The biblical view is that inspiration determines canonicity; a book is valuable because it is inspired, and not inspired because men found it to be valuable.
So canonicity is determined by God, not by the people of God. The simple answer to the question “Why are there only these books in the Bible?” is that God inspired only these and no more. If God had given more books through more prophets, then there would be a larger canon. But, because propheticity determines canonicity, only the prophetic books can be canonical. Furthermore, it is probable that in God’s providence He has preserved all the prophetic books. If so, then not only all canonical books are prophetic, but all prophetic books are canonical.