The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 4

Una Baptist_Nashville

This continues a series on Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. This post, part 4, deals with the authority issue: “How can you know that the present canon is the Word of God?”

See part 1 (intro), part 2, and part 3

“The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament” is the title of chapter 10, excerpted below. In the preceding chapters, Lecerf has been clearing the way, dealing with preliminary issues/objections that may arise: the attitude of rebellion vs. submission, the apostolic character of the Reformation, the inspired nature of scripture, etc. Now he offers a formal proposal for considering the authority of the canon, against subjectivist Liberalism and infallibilist Romanism. The preceding chapter ended with the question, “How can you know that the present canon is precisely this Word of God which you need and who guarantees to you its authority?”


To the question which concludes the preceding chapter, Calvin, followed by the confessions of La Rochelle, the Netherlands and the Waldensians, replies, “Without doubt, by the unanimous voice of the Church, but especially, in the final and supreme analysis, by the testimony and inner persuasion of the Holy Ghost.”

It is the unanimous consent of the Church which informs us of the fact that there is a canon of Scripture to which she submits, and it is the Holy Spirit who seals this affirmation of the Church in the hearts of the faithful by His creative testimony of faith.

“This is the principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, namely, that we know that God has spoken to us and are certainly assured that the prophets have not spoken of themselves but as organs and instruments of the Holy Spirit; that they have merely declared what they received from on high. Whoever therefore would profit by the Holy Scriptures, let him decide in the first place that the Law and the Prophets have no doctrine at all which has been given by the will or desire of men but only that which has been dictated by the Holy Spirit. If it is asked how we can know this, I reply that to doctors as well as to disciples God declares and manifests that he is their author by the revelation of the same Spirit.” [Calvin, Com. on 2 Tim., iii, 16]

This reply has been criticized. We are told that Calvin must have confused the religious fact of Christian experience, which hears the voice of God here and there in Scripture, with purely scientific questions arising from history and criticism, such as the integrity of the texts and the conditions under which the canon was decided.

This criticism is only possible if one loses sight of the double signification of the term “canon.” Empirically, and abstracting from all question of principle, by the term “canon of the Bible” is understood the list of books of which it is composed. It is thus that there are two canons of the Old Testament: the Hebrew canon received by Protestants and the canon called Alexandrian received by Catholics. This means that certain writings of the Old Testament which figure in the Alexandrian list are absent from the Hebrew list. Thus, if we ignore the canons of certain heretical Oriental Churches of no importance and lacking any spiritual insight, it may be said that there is one canon of the New Testament for Christendom.

On the other hand, the term “canon” may be invested with a dogmatic significance. If the Bible be regarded as divinely inspired, its canon will possess a normative authority. From this it follows that the term canonical is susceptible of two different meanings. It may signify divine and normative, as in the Confession of La Rochelle, and it may signify transmitted by the Church and recognized by her as forming part of the list of the authentic writings of the Bible.

In the second acceptation, it is perfectly evident that the testimony of the Holy Spirit does not inform us what constittues this list, nor the number, title, authenticity and extent of the works which compose it. In this sense Bavinck admits that the Holy Spirit does not pronounce on canonicity of such and such a document. [Geref. Dog., I, p. 642, s. I54]

Here we have a purely historical question which must be resolved according to the methods of critical science. In order to ascertain what books a Church recognizes as canonical, we must ask, in the first place, not the Holy Spirit but the Church.

Theologians of the 17th century like Quenstedt and du Moulin willingly admit that the catalogue of canonical books — the canon in the second acceptation of the term — is not “an article of faith superadded to the others which are contained in Scripture.” One may have saving faith while not knowing distinctly the number of the canonical books, or not accepting them in their entirety. It would be absurd to suggest that the Nestorians will all be damned for this reason.

When, therefore, it is a question of determining canonicity in the scientific sense, there is no other way except by experimental enquiry and the internal and external critique, in the literary sense. This is the process which Calvin employs in his commentaries on the antilegomena of the New Testament (the writings whose authenticity identified with canonicity was disputed in the churches and by the doctors of the first centuries of our era). In this matter he makes use of critical liberty, apart from which there can be no scientific knowlege, and he is obliged to observe that the writings of these books cannot always be attributed to the authors which tradition assigns to them, or at least that this attribution may be uncertain.

But it is none the less true that Calvin and the Reformers accepted the canon of the New Testament as the Councils of Hippo Regius and of Carthage had received it and as the medieval Church which they were engaged in reforming has transmitted it to them. Did they thus show themselves to be slaves of tradition which might be rightly regarded as merely some wretched product of the human mind? It is here that, in Reformed dogmatics, the function of the testimony of the Holy Spirit makes its appearance, being applied to the canonicity of the sacred books in the purely religious sense. The subject of the present chapter and of the two following is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

This inspired Scripture which orthodox Protestantism makes the external principle of its theology is divided into two parts called the Old and New Testaments. Each of these parts consists of a body of writings composed by different secondary authors at different times and originally independent of each other. Not until long after they were written were they included in a single list called the canon. It was thus that the Jewish canon first made its appearance; then the canon of the books of the New Testament.

We will now discuss these two canons separately, because their authority is not established in the same way, for the Christian; the testimony of the Holy Spirit reaching us more immediately in the one case than in the other.

[Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 319-321]

to be continued…



  1. Regarding the question, “How can you know that the present canon is the Word of God?”, can you lead me to a resource, perhaps it’s even on a post on your own website, that explains how the Bible is the Word of God? Jesus is the Word of God, that I surely understand, but I can find no place within the Bible where it declares itself to be the Word of God. It seems to refer to itself as the Scriptures.

  2. You should check-out the P. T. Forsyth posts that I linked in the first part of the series:

    Also, chapter 3, “Holy Scripture,” of Concise Reformed Dogmatics is available for free: click here and click on the link for chapter 3. This is a very good presentation of the classical Protestant position, with contemporary concerns in mind. I think Barth is more congenial to the classical position than the authors think, but, otherwise, they do a solid job.

    The difficulty in the whole issue is that, yes, Jesus Christ is the one true Word of God, but, this Word is known by the Bible. The Bible as an authoritative witness to this Word, thus, becomes a part of the Word’s revelation. In God’s providence, the chroniclers of his Word are truly part of this Word’s revelation to all subsequent generations of the Church.

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