The Term “Canon” Applied to Writings

This is a subsidiary post of The Study of Canon and the Etymology of Certain Terms.

The term “canon” can be found in the Bible, but it is never used to describe a set of writings.  That meaning would arise subsequent to the biblical era.

More to follow.


Dempster, Stephen G.  “Canons on the Right and Canons on the Left: Finding a Resolution in the Canon Debate” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society  52/1 (March 2009) 47-77.  See p. 50-51 and 77 where Dempster discusses several proposals for clarifying the meaning of “canon.”

The late Gerald Sheppard makes a helpful distinction here describing canon as a final closed list as “Canon 2” and canon as a norm, an open-ended word of God as it were, “Canon 1.”  A similar point is made by theologian William A. Graham, who has been followed by many others.20 Graham calls Sheppard’s Canon 1 “Scripture” and Canon 2 “Canon.” Recently, Eugene Ulrich has pleaded for clarification arguing that the word “canon” should only be used for canons in the sense of Canon 2 and not Canon 1. Canon only exists when there is a closed list.21 Thus Ulrich argues that this will clarify matters and scholars will not use the word anachronistically, speaking of canonical books when there are no such things at all until a much later period of time. Thus, for Ulrich, the idea of an “open canon” is by definition an oxymoron.

Kruger, Michael J.  The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.  IVP Academic, 2013.  Kruger devotes the first chapter of this book (p. 27-46) to saying that one definition of canon causes too much confusion; instead, he suggests three:  “exclusive,” “functional,” and “ontological.”

McDonald, Lee M.  The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed.  T & T Clark, 2011.  At Kindle location 20-212, McDonald writes of “canon 1” as referring to a “flexible” or “fluid” and “canon 2” as referring to a “final fixed stage.”

Winzig, Tim L.  New Testament Canon and the Creeds: Why Was the Authority of Scripture Left Out of the Christian Creeds?.  Amazon Digital Services, 2012, 24 pages.  The author reports that David R. Nienhuis proposes a distinction between “a conceptual canon” and “the formal canon of Scripture” (Kindle loc 446).

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