Why I Believe the Canon is Theoretically Open (and Am Fine With It)

The term “canon” refers to the accepted books of the Bible. The Protestant canon contains 66 books; other Christian traditions vary, adding a few books often referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or the “Apocrypha.” A commonly accepted understanding among most Christians of all traditions is that the books that belong in the Bible cannot be added to. In other words, the canon is “closed.”

While in one sense I believe the canon is closed, in some ways I do not believe that to be necessarily true. Let me explain.

In order to maintain that the canon is closed, most Christians would refer the the first few centuries of the church. In particular, councils such as Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, as well as Athanasius’ Easter Letter, are pointed to as evidence that the canon of the New Testament had closed by the time they took place. The Old Testament, according to most, was already established and closed by the time of Christ. For this, reference could be made to the New Testament itself, the testimonies of Josephus and Philo, and some of the intertestamental works.

My contention with this assumption is that saying that the canon is “closed” needs to be understood more in an observational way rather than as an authoritative pronouncement. “Closed” might not be the best word, since it implies a necessary finality concerning the contents of Scripture.  I don’t believe we can say this (in the way we usually mean it) for two primary reasons:

1. Scripture itself does not limit the canon to 66 books. No matter how hard you look, you would be hard pressed to find a place that definitely “closes” the canon. Revelation 22:18-19 is often referred to as evidence:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.

The problem with using this passage is that it is specific to the book of Revelation. Just because the book of Revelation occurs last in our canon does not mean this warning applies to the entire Bible. It is meant to communicate a general statement about those who would be tempted to add to or take away from God’s word in general, and to the book of Revelation specifically. Yet the same warning is given in the books of Deuteronomy and Proverbs:

Deuteronomy 4:2: You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.

Proverbs 30:6: Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.

Does this mean that once Deuteronomy or Proverbs were complete, no one was supposed to add any other books? I don’t know anyone who would make that argument.

2. The canon is self-regulating. The word “canon” is simply a way of expressing those books that are from God, authoritative, intentional toward a specific purpose and, therefore, part of Scripture. There is no reason to ever close it, if by “close” you mean it is not possible for God to add to it. I know people are simply trying to say that other people cannot add to it, but I think in doing so we have philosophically overstepped our bounds. In other words, we don’t close anything. God simply stops adding to it. We have no right to say God cannot add to it because it is “closed.” Only God regulates His own revelation.

In short, the argument I am making is that the canon is closed only to the degree that God is no longer adding to it. But it is not closed in the sense that God cannot add to it were He to make an unforeseen movement in the history of revelation. The primary reason we have not added anything to the canon in the last two thousand years is that God has not used an authenticated apostle or prophet to speak His word and add to it in that timeframe. Only in this sense is the canon “closed.”

Now, to be clear, I don’t think God will ever add anything to the canon and I am not meaning to suggest otherwise. I believe the Bible’s primary purpose is to communicate the history of redemption, and I think we have good reason to claim this history is complete. Listen to the writer of Hebrews:

Hebrews 1:1-2: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

“In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” contrasts the former means of revelation (“by the prophets”). It suggests finality. God is no longer speaking to us through a mediator who is unlike Him, but rather through His genetic equal—His Son! What more do we need? Therefore, I think we are safe in believing that God’s revelation is complete, even if we cannot be overly dogmatic about this.

When communicating the doctrine of canonicity, we can say it seems that the Scriptures are complete for two reasons: 1) God has not added to it through an authenticated spokesperson in two thousand years, and 2) the purpose of Scripture is completed with the advent of Christ and the communication of the Gospel.

I know that the idea of a theoretically open canon will not sit well with many people, especially Christian apologists who combat Mormonism as well as cessationists who combat modern-day prophets. Yet there is really no issue with either. We understand that Mormonism falls due to its inability to authenticate Joseph Smith as a prophet and its contradiction with previous revelation. Concerning modern-day prophets, I don’t have an issue. I don’t believe we have seen a prophet since the time of the apostles, but this does not mean that God cannot send one. As well, even if he does, there is no reason why his pronouncements should be added to the canon. In their inspired roles, prophets and apostles said plenty that was never written down. The canon is not every inspired word ever written. It is a collection of inspired and authoritative words that were part of redemptive history.

In short, God can do whatever He desires. Our theological constructs and definitions of a “closed canon” do not lock Him out of our room. If He wants to add to the canon or speak through a prophet, He can do so. Neither you, nor I, nor a church council, nor a Pope can put a “do not enter” on the door of canonical revelation.

I don’t mind saying the canon is closed so long as we qualify it. The canon is “closed” to the degree that God is no longer adding to it.

To be fair, this proposition is not quite as provocative as it might seem. While this might irk Roman Catholics who believe that the Church itself closed the canon, Protestants have historically believed that the church simply recognizes the canon, but does not have the authority to close it.

29 Responses to “Why I Believe the Canon is Theoretically Open (and Am Fine With It)”

  1. Wow, I just love the clear thinking and level headedness that you guys have. Being orthodox in your teaching yet still challenging assumptions we have. That’s why I love you guys! I don’t know how you got to this level. May God continue to bless your work!

  2. This is an example of one the “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. The canon is considered closed, however this does not cause the Christian faith to rise or fall according to this doctrine. The big debate comes when polemic arguments arise which attempt to hinge the Christian faith on this instance. It is not about later day prophets or the possibility of the existence of later revelation, but if God chooses to do so, it is every Christians duty to not accept it with blind faith. Scripture demands that we put that revelation to the test, to determine if what is revealed is true. The danger lies in accepting that which fails to be true, or looks close enough to have merit, but fails all other tests of historical church tradition. We must be careful to test what is accepted in the canon against these new or later revelations. There is a huge difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To this day the debate is between the revelation of Jesus Christ and the practice of that revelation. Historically this is the reason for the reformation movement in the first place. The conflict arises when the tradition of man attempts to augment or contradict the very teachings of Jesus Christ with an overtly legalistic construct. What Jesus came to convey is simple. We at times make the revelation of Christ a very unnecessarily complicated institution. It was Christ that battled the religious institution of His day, and He came not to establish religion, rather to serve, save, and bring hope to a sin filled world.

  3. Staircaseghost May 20, 2013 at 6:34 am

    “God has not used an authenticated apostle or prophet to speak His word and add to it in two-thousand years.”

    What is the correct method for determining this, and from what source did you learn this method?

    In what sense are (for example) the pseudepigraha of “Paul” or The Song of Solomon “authenticated”?

  4. Actually, the Catholic Church hasn’t officially “closed” the canon. Trent was an inclusive list, not an exclusive list.
    (Now, the chances of something being added to the canon would be ever so slim because-
    1) It has already been revealed that public revelation ended with the age of the Apostles. As a result, messages the Church believes to be authentic, such as the words of St Michael and St Mary at Fatima, and the diary of St Faustina, still could not be added to the canon. So at least in the Catholic Church, there would not be some new prophet or apparition that could become included in the canon. Theoretically, it would have to be an old book from the apostolic age.
    2). Even if a new “old” book was discovered, there would almost have to be new criteria used to determine its inspiration. One reason the other books of the canon were recognized as apostolic was because they were traditionally held to be apostolic. And of course, any newly discovered “old” books would not have that history.
    Don’t ask me what this means for the extra books of the Orthodox canon and reunification? I wonder if there is a little window of possibility there? But that question is over my head. )

    My question about this original post would be , “What criteria do you suppose, theoretically, would be used to authenticate the book in question?” Would it be the same or different than the criteria used to judge the rest of the Protestant canon? And why or why not? Does anyone have authority to change the criteria? It seems like consistency in judgement would be an issue.

  5. I very much like this quote from Martin Luther (who knew a bit about Scripture – he memorized, basically, just about the entire Bible):

    “All upright sacred books agree on one thing, that they all collectively preach and promote Christ. Likewise, the true criterion for criticizing all books is to see whether they promote Christ or not, since all scripture manifests Christ. Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter and Paul should teach it. On the other hand, whatever preaches Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod should do it!”


  6. Hi theoldadam,

    I understand what you mean, as a way to determine that a book is NOT inspired. But how would you determine that a book IS inspired? For example, if something was found and appeared to be a long lost letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and by your standards it taught Christ, should it be “canonized” by the Protestant church? (I know that it doesn’t really do that, but you know what I mean.)

  7. Re: “Does this mean that once Deuteronomy or Proverbs were complete that no one was supposed to add any other books? I don’t know anyone who would make that argument.”

    I believe that’s actually one of the proofs Samaritans use for only accepting the Torah!

  8. Irene,

    If it drives Christ, or not.

  9. No sir, the Canon is definitely closed. Jude 3, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

    “once for all” not continuing until today. After the first century the Canon was closed. To say that it is even theoretically still open is some dangerous ground you are on. Usually, I like this blog, but today this is some garbage.

  10. “The whole world couldn’t contain all that could’ve been written about Christ Jesus. But these things are written that you may come to believe that He is the Christ.” (paraphrased)

  11. Michael, by your own criteria, we don’t need the book of Revelation or any of Paul’s epistles, because they came after the “perfect revelation” of Jesus Christ.

    “But” you say “those were simply EXPLAINING that perfect revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    OK, fine… and who is to say the “explaining” of that perfect revelation of Jesus Christ ended with Paul? What basis do you have for saying Paul was enough and we don’t need anyone else to declare Jesus to the world anew?

  12. Oldadam,

    Ok, but if driving Christ/preaching the true gospel is how we recognize Scripture, then shouldn’t parts of Luther’s writings also be recognized as Scripture? And parts of St. Augustine’s and C. F. W. Walther’s, etc.? It would seem that your canon would indeed be open indefinitely, as long as truth about Christ and his gospel was being preached.
    That was also my question to CMP –how would you recognize additional Scripture? and distinguish it from just good, reliable teaching?

    I suppose, in fairness, I should admit that one need not be ABLE to recognize additional Scripture in order to say that the canon is not officially closed. [that does raise the question, though, of how anything got into the canon in the first place, if we are not able to recognize it]. I think this concept may be another way of saying “a fallible canon of infallible books”.

  13. Irene,

    It could be. When you speak of Christ to someone, the Holy Spirit uses your words for His purposes.

    Whatever drives Christ COULD become Holy Scripture. That we have enough in the Book, already, is another matter.

    But the mission is to spread the gospel. So the Word is utilized in many forms.

  14. David L-

    Was that faith “once for all” not the core message of the faith, rather than a list of books? Was it the Rule of Faith or the list of NT books? Cannot a newly discovered book/letter contain that same Rule of Faith?

  15. One of the criteria, as I said, is that of an authenticated apostle or prophet endorsing the work or writing it. And the criteria for such is laid out clearly enough in Deut 13 and 18. I have not heard of such a one since the apostles. Claims to such have been made, but their criteria has always failed. I suppose that no one could find anyone who 1) performed extraordinary miracles 2) did them publicly, 3) agreed with previous revelation, 4) claimed or approved a new work as canonical.

    High standards. Bit that is why there have been no books since the apostles. It is just like God to protect him word in such a way.

  16. CMP-

    The real question of the day is whether you/Credo House has been impacted by the storms?

  17. So Michael, it has to end with the original apostles?

    Where on earth did that criteria come from?

    And anyway, doesn’t this just beg the question of why shouldn’t we still have apostles?

  18. I never said that it had to end. I just said that there has not been anyone who fits the criteria since. That is the point of the post. The canon is theoretically open, but seems to be actually closed.

  19. Well, I’ll leave it there then. Thanks for the response.

  20. CMP,
    Over all, I agree with you in this article, but I disagree with your use of Hebrews 1.

    You make the statement ‘God is no longer speaking to us through a mediator who is unlike Him, but through His genetic equal—His Son! What more do we need?’ However, this seems to ignore the fact that the New Testament isn’t written by Jesus, but by Apostles and Prophets who were after Jesus. How then can that be an argument for the finality of what was written?

  21. @David L. On the position of NT Canon I agree with you!

    Btw, let me recommend a nice book by Michael Kruger (Dean at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC), ‘Canon Revisited, Establishing The Origins And Authority of the New Testament Books, (Crossway, 2012). Both Mike Horton and John Frame have written on the back of the book in its support!

    Yes, I have read it, and a very good piece, and as Frame says: “This is the definitive work on the subject for our time.”

  22. Problem is that you do not take into consideration that Ephesians 2:20 informs us that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.” If the apostles and prophets were the foundation of the church, are we still building the foundation? Hebrews 6:1-3 encourages us to move on from the foundation. Although Jesus Christ is most definitely active in the church today, His role as the cornerstone of the church was completed with His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. If the work of the cornerstone is, in that sense, complete, so must the work of the apostles and prophets, who were the foundation, be complete. Thus we can say in the words of Scripture that even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! Galatians 1:8; and if it is not another Gospel, then must adhere to the principle of sola scriptura. Right?

  23. Todd McCauley July 9, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Mr.Patton this line of reasoning is a slippery slope. Provocation for provocation’s sake is no virtue. The weight of history rests in a”closed canon”. What practical use is a “theoretically open” canon. Sir you need a part time job. Too much time on your hand.

  24. If the canon is theoretically open, this undermines the sufficiency of our existing canon. If the man of God is “fully equipped” with the current scriptures, what basis would there be for any additions? Thanks for helping to promote mysticism in the church, where people expect direct encounters from God and have no regard for the sufficiency of scripture. Let me guess, you would have no problem with “Heaven is for real”.

  25. Kyle Peters,
    Where do you get the idea the man of God is “fully equipped” [by the scriptures?] ? Are you referring to 2nd Peter 1:3? If so, why is 2nd Peter and Revelation also included in the canon?

    • 2 Timothy 3
      16. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
      17. That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

  26. Yes, and I’m sure all scripture God provides us in the future will also be given by inspiration of God, be profitable and stuff, and help us be perfect along with the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

  27. Some commenters above seem to confuse the “canon of Scripture” with the “deposit of faith.” Jude’s “faith once for all delivered” is the revelation of the word and work of Christ that was witnessed by His own apostles, and entrusted by them to those they trained and ordained in the churches. Nothing is properly called Christian revelation which is not within that, nor Christian teaching which does not unfold from that. The Scriptures are the definitive written form of that testimony–that is, the New Testament scriptures and the Hebrew Scriptures that Christ and His Apostles used. Now, the “canon of Scripture” lists the extent of those books which can be read liturgically and treated as part of that deposit (and even within those, “deuterocanonical” books are treated as somewhat reliant on more universally attested “primary canon” books). But the “rule” or “canon” of Scripture does not by itself restrict revelation; revelation for dogmatic purposes ends with what Christ taught His Apostles, and revelation for spiritual formation purposes has never been limited to any particular list of texts. The “canon of Scripture” defines what we must not reject, and what we may be required to attend to as from God; it does not restrict God at all.

    Nevertheless, there can be no new *New Testament books* in the sense that the originals were received; and there can be no *Hebrew Scriptures* in the sense that the originals were received; there is therefore no possibility that the Scriptures as we know them can be “added to.” While it is technically correct to reject the *logic* of certain “closed canon” arguments, to argue that the canon is “open” might actually reflect the same flawed understanding of what the “rule” of Scripture meant all along.


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