As noted above, “canon” can typically be defined in two ways: either as rule (or norm) or as a fixed list. In an influential article, Gerald Sheppard labelled these as canon 1 (norm) and canon 2 (fixed list) and demonstrated that both senses share an equally historical warrant. He demonstrates that the term was used in reference to a rule or norm (canon 1), that is, as an authoritative set of teachings that shaped the early Christian community. This canon or “rule of faith” functioned as a guiding principle for belief and practice (norma normans, “norming norm”) for early Christian communities. By contrast, the understanding of canon as a fixed list (canon 2) defines canon as an exclusive collection and places emphasis upon the delimitation of texts (norma normata, “normative norm”).
Canon as a fixed list or closed corpus by definition is a later phenomenon, which only comes at the end of a process of textual exclusion. Thus, the closed-corpus definition of canon demands that one foreclose any discussion of a New Testament canon until the late fourth century at the earliest. Geoffrey Hahneman’s comment, agreeing with Sundberg, is representative of this view:
To speak of a Christian “canon” of scriptures is an anachronism before the second half of the fourth century because it is only after that time that Christian writers begin to employ the word [canon]for a list of books counted as accepted scriptures.
The closed-corpus definition (canon 2) focuses on textual delimitation as the definitive moment in canon formation. This defining moment, as Eugene Ulrich explains, “represents a conscious, retrospective, official judgment.”
This official judgment marked the closing of the canon and took place as a result of the will and actions of certain individuals and institutions. As Gamble argues,
emphasis on the sharp distinctions furnished by lists tends to represent canonization more as a process of exclusion than of inclusion, thus emphasizing polemical and apologetic moves. This view also stresses the role of ecclesiastical authorities—bishops, synods, and councils—and downplays the importance of second- century controversies with heterodox movements.
Thus, the motivation for an official New Testament canon consisted mainly of apologetic and institutional pressures rather than a reception of these texts based upon an appreciation and understanding of their inner logic.
It is not clear to me that canon should be understood strictly as the closure of a fixed list of writings. In fact, one might argue that there never was a particular “conscious, retrospective, official judgment” regarding the closure of the New Testament canon. Stephen B. Chapman reasons that, rather than a “minor point, this concession actually goes to the heart of the method- ology employed, for why should one adopt as proper a definition of ‘canon’ that does not ever appear to have existed in reality?” In other words, if one cannot point to a “conscious, retrospective, official judgment” regarding the closing of the New Testament canon in reality, then why should one insist on the closed-corpus definition of canon? Perhaps the absence of such a definitive and official closure suggests that the closed-corpus definition is implausible. However, John Poirier disagrees with this conclusion. He insists that Chapman’s objection is guilty of category confusion, arguing that “if ‘canon’ denotes the idea of closure, then it does so regardless of whether everyone agrees when and where that closure is.” The fact that Catholics and Protestants do not agree on one specific closure of the canon is not evidence against the conviction of both Catholics and Protestants that the canon is in fact closed and that it should be defined that way.
Though one should heed Poirier’s concern, there is a further category confusion lurking here. According to Tomas Bokedal, there was a complex set of notions attached to canon. He suggests that the concept of canon as a definitive list arose in the Eastern church near the middle of the fourth century, yet when taken over in the Latin West, this meaning of canon quickly shifted. “A new meaning of the word arose, namely ‘canon’ as representing, not a list of authoritative books, but the biblical books themselves (canon as the book[s]of the Bible).” Bokedal continues,
The differences between the authoritative collection of New Testament writings of these early editions (canon as the Old and the New Testaments) as compared to the canon of the New Testament as defined in the latter half of the fourth century (canon as regional list of Old and New Testament writings) should not be exaggerated, as Eusebius’ and Origen’s notion of ἐνδιάθηκος [“canonical”] . . . indicates.
The use of “canonical” in Eusebius and Origen indicates that there was consciousness of a growing collection of Scripture before there ever was a closed list of twenty-seven New Testament texts. As a result, the exclusively closed-corpus definition of canon seems unlikely.
Furthermore, an insistence upon the closed-corpus definition of canon risks emphasizing the moment of definitive closure at the expense of the process of canonical development. That is, it has the tendency to stress the one, final, and official closure of the canon, while effectively obscuring the fact that several mini- or subclosures occurred earlier in the process of canonization. For example, well before there was a final twenty-seven-book New Testament, it is clear that the four Gospels circulated as an authoritative canonical subcollection. The same is true of a collection of Paul’s letters. The formation, circulation, and function of these subcollections demonstrates the early development of the New Testament canon (late first or early second century), while also suggesting that the concept of canon be understood as both a rule and norm as well as a definitive list (in this case, a list that fills out the subcollections). Thus, I find it more reasonable to take the broad view of canon and to understand that, though distinct, Scripture and canon constitute overlapping concepts. This does justice to the very early development of subcollections that eventually make up the New Testament canon and enables us to examine the entire sweep of canonical development from composition to canonization. Thus, in my estimation, Brevard Childs is correct in arguing that
the formation of the canon was not a late extrinsic validation of a corpus of writings, but involved a series of decisions deeply affecting the shape of the books. Although it is possible to distinguish different phases within the canonical process—the term canonization would then be reserved for the final fixing of the limits of scripture—the earlier decisions were not qualitatively different from the later.
The pressures that led to the formation of the Old and New Testaments were not exerted from the outside and were not manipulative of the texts themselves. The term “canon” cannot “be reserved for the final fixing of the limits of scripture.” What Childs is emphasizing here is that the texts themselves bore the characteristics of authority and canonical connection.
 Gerald T. Sheppard, “Canon,” in Encyclopaedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 3:62–69.
 Hagneman, “Muratorian Fragment,” 406.
 Eugene Ulrich, “Notion and Definition of Canon,” in The Canon Debate, eds. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 21–35 (32).
 Gamble, “New Testament Canon,” 271 (emphasis added).
 Stephen B. Chapman, “The Old Testament Canon and Its Authority for the Christian Church,” ExAud 19 (2003): 125–48 (136). Chapman argues that Ulrich is “forced to concede that an officially complete and absolute listing of the canon never really took place at all in either Jewish or Christian tradition” (emphasis original).
 John C. Poirier, “An Ontological Definition of ‘Canon’?” BBR 24 (2014): 457–66 (463).
 Tomas Bokedal, The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon: A Study in Text, Ritual and Interpretation (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 67.
 Bokedal, Formation and Significance, 67.
 Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 59.
This post is adapted from Five Views on the New Testament Canon edited by Stanley E. Porter & Benjamin P. Laird and is written by Darian R. Lockett If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
What historical, political, and ecclesial realities drove the canonization of the New Testament?
How are the doctrines of Early Christianity related to the formation of the New Testament?
As these questions demonstrate, the enduring influence of the New Testament does not lessen the dispute over the events and factors leading to its adoption. Five Views on the New Testament Canon presents five distinct ways of understanding how the New Testament came to be:
- A Conservative Evangelical Perspective — Darian R. Lockett
- A Progressive Evangelical Perspective — David R. Nienhuis
- A Liberal Protestant Perspective — Jason David BeDuhn
- A Roman Catholic Perspective — Ian Boxall
- An Orthodox Perspective — George L. Parsenios
Each contributor addresses historical, theological, and hermeneutical questions related to the New Testament canon, such as what factors precipitated the establishment and recognition of the New Testament canon; the basis of any authority the New Testament has; and what the canon means for reading and interpreting the New Testament. Contributors also include a chapter each responding to the other views presented in the volume. The result is a lively exchange suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students seeking to grasp the best canon scholarship in biblical studies.