Why I Don’t Believe the Canon Is Closed

By: J. Daniel Spratlin The term “canon” refers to the accepted books of the Scriptures. The Protestant canon contains 66 books, while other Christian traditions will vary, adding a few books of the Apocrypha and some additions to other books. A commonly accepted understanding among most Christians of all traditions is that the books that belong in the Scripture cannot be added to. In other words, the canon is “closed.” While there is a sense in which I believe the canon is closed, there is also a sense in which I don’t believe the canon is closed. Allow me to explain. In order to maintain that the canon is closed, most Christians would refer to the first few centuries of the church. In particular, councils such as Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, as well as Athanasius’ Easter Letter will be referred to as evidence that the canon of the New Testament had closed. The Old Testament, according to most, was already established and closed by the time of Christ. For this, reference would be made to the New Testament itself, as well as the testimony of Josephus, Philo and some of the inter-testamental works. My contention with this assumption is that to say that the canon is “closed” needs to be understood more in an observational way rather than an authoritative pronouncement. The term “closed” might not be the best word since it implies a necessary finality concerning the contents of Scripture. This is something that I don’t believe we can say in the way that we often say it for two primary reasons: Scripture Itself is Silent Scripture itself does not limit the canon to 66 books. No matter how hard you look, one would be hard pressed to find a place that definitely “closes” the canon. Revelation 22:18-19 is often referred to as evidence: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described 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 that this warning serves as a bookend for 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 Page 1 of 3

in general, and to the book of Revelation in specific. Yet the same warning is given in the book of Deuteronomy and the 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 that no one was supposed to add any other books? I don’t know anyone who would make that argument. The Canon Is Self-Regulating. The idea of canon is simply a way of expressing those books that are from God, authoritative, 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 that 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.” This way, God regulates his own revelation. In short, the argument that 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 why we have not added anything to the canon in the last two thousand years is simply because God has not used an authenticated apostle or prophet to speak his word and add to it in two thousand years. Only in this sense is the canon “closed.” Now, to be clear, I don’t think that God will ever add anything to the canon and I am not meaning to suggest otherwise. I believe that the Bible’s primary purpose is to communicate the history of redemption and I believe that we have good reason to believe that 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 through the “prophets.” It suggests finality. God is no longer speaking to us through a mediator who is unlike him, Page 2 of 3

but through his genetic equal—his Son! What more do we need? Therefore, I think we are safe believing that God’s revelation is complete, even if we cannot be overly dogmatic about this. When communicating the doctrine of canonicity, I think this is as far as we can go: 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 when we realize that Mormonism fails 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 that we have seen a prophet since the time of the apostles, but this does not mean that God cannot send one. 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, a church council, a Pope, nor I can put a “do not enter” sign on the door of revelation. I don’t mind saying the canon is closed so long as we qualify this. 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 will 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.

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