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The Canonical or Biblical Exclusion

by Stephen E. Robinson

The Greek word kanon means, first of all, a "ruler" or a "straightedge" and, secondarily, a "standard" or "norm." From this second meaning comes the English word canon, which means, when referring to the scriptures, "the list of books recognized as authoritative." The canon of scripture, then, is the standard collection of texts accepted by Christians as the word of God, or as authoritative. If a book is said to be canonical or one of the "standard works" (the LDS equivalent of "canonical"), that means it is on the list of approved and accepted scriptural books. For non-Mormons the canon is the list of books that make up the Bible.

It is well known that Latter-day Saints have an expanded canon of scripture compared to the rest of the Christian world. In addition to the Bible, they recognize the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as the word of God. These four collections of inspired writings constitute the standard works, or canon of scripture, of the LDS church. In its simplest form the canonical exclusion, as applied to the Latter-day Saints, maintains that since Mormons have a different canon than the Christian canon, since they add books of scripture to the Christian Bible, Mormons cannot be Christians.

Adding to the Scriptures

One of the arguments that have been offered in support of this exclusion is that the Bible itself forbids any departure from the Christian canon either by addition or subtraction. The passage usually cited in support of this position is Revelation 22:18-19: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

Since the above passage comes at the end of the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, the naive reader might naturally assume that the phrase "the book of this prophecy" refers to the entire Bible, and thus that the scriptures themselves declare the canon closed. This, however, is not the case. First of all, there is no way to know whether Revelation was the last book of the New Testament to be written. Most scholars date its composition at around A.D. 94-95, but most scholars would also date James, I and 2 Peter, Jude, the three Epistles of John, and the Gospel of John at about the same time, or even later. 1 If Revelation was not the last book of the New Testament to be written, then obviously Revelation 22:18-19 cannot be understood as a decree closing the canon of scripture. (See Adding to the Bible Rev. 22:18-9)

But it doesn't really matter whether Revelation was written last or not, for the "book" that John was writing when he issued his warning was certainly not the whole Bible, but just the book of Revelation. When John wrote Revelation, the Bible as we know it-- standard collection of inspired texts bound all together in one volume--simply did not yet exist. For centuries after John produced his writings, the individual books of the Bible were in circulation singly or in combination with several others, but never as a complete Bible. Of the 362 biblical manuscripts known to have been produced before the tenth century A.D., only one has a complete New Testament, and none contains the whole Bible.2 Of the entire corpus of 5,366 known Greek biblical manuscripts, only thirty-four contain the whole Bible, and all thirty-four were written after A.D. 1000.3 The Bible, as we know and use it in the Christian world today, is one of the blessings of the age of printing; complete Bibles were virtually unknown before Gutenberg. Thus, when John wrote about "the prophecy of this book," he was not referring to the collection of books bound together in one volume and known as the Bible, but to the book he was then writing, the book of Revelation. Since the Latter-day Saints neither add to nor take away from the text of the book of Revelation, the passage at 22: 18-19 does not apply to their acceptance of extrabiblical scriptures.

This, by the way, is the same reason why Christians and Jews need not worry, in a canonical sense, about the commandment found in Deuteronomy 4:1-2: "Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." (Emphasis added.) If Moses' words were understood to have universal application, then Jews, who accept the later prophets and writings, and Christians, who add the New Testament to the Sinai revelation, would be in clear violation of the commandment of God. But obviously Moses was referring here to the specific revelation then being recorded, and did not intend his warning to close the canon of scripture for all time. Like John, Moses applied a local restriction against tampering with what he had just written, not a universal restriction against ever receiving further scripture from God.

Prophets Always Add to the Scriptures

In fact every one of the Old Testament prophets "added" to the words of his predecessors and to the word of God. Any student of the Bible knows that the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles rewrote material already contained in the books of Kings and Samuel, often quoting them verbatim, and that in his revised account he both added to and subtracted from those earlier books.

New Testament Christians, as we have already pointed out, "added" to the scriptures accepted by Jews. Even within the New Testament itself it appears that Matthew and Luke both "added to" and "took away from" the words written by Mark, for according to current biblical scholarship both Matthew and Luke were written after Mark and used Mark as a base text from which to write their own Gospels (that is, it is believed that they added their own material to Mark's and subtracted from his what they didn't want to use).4 For example, to what was written in Mark's Gospel, Matthew added the story of the Wise Men, the flight to Egypt, and the Sermon on the Mount; he deleted, among other things, the healing of the Capernaum demoniac in Mark 1:23-28. Among the material Luke added to Mark are the birth of John the Baptist and the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son: Luke, the Gentile, usually deleted passages that might offend Gentiles, such as Mark 7:26-27 (compare Matthew 15:22-26), and passages that showed Christians in conflict with civil authorities (this may be why Luke omits the trouble with King Herod at the birth of Jesus).

Yet even if the view of biblical scholars is wrong and Mark did not write first, the fact that the three synoptic Gospels are different but literarily interdependent mares it certain that at least two of the three writers were adding to and/or deleting from the story as told by one of the others --in whatever order they may have written.

If Matthew, Luke, and John can add to the Jewish scriptures with their own books and, in the process, add to the story contained in the Christian Gospel of Mark, and can still be Christians, then, at least in theory, so can Joseph Smith. For the issue in this case is clearly not whether one adds to the canon of scripture--all the biblical Apostles and prophets did that--but whether the one who does so has been authorized and commanded by God. It is not necessary to prove here that the scriptures received by Joseph Smith are genuine. To invalidate the canonical exclusion it is only necessary to show that in other circumstances other Apostles and prophets have added to the canon of scripture without ceasing to be Christians. Since there is no biblical statement closing the canon or prohibiting additional revelation, and since Apostles and prophets have in the past added to the canon--even to the Christian canon--without offending God, the canonical exclusion must be invalid. The logic can be expressed like this:

1. No one who adds to the canon of Christian scripture is a Christian.

2. Joseph Smith adds to the canon of Christian scripture.

3. Therefore Joseph Smith is not a Christian.

But, on the other hand,

4. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul also

added to the canon of Christian scripture.

5. Yet we know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul are Christians.

6. Therefore premise number 1 (the canonical exclusion) is false.

The question is not whether Joseph Smith, like the New Testament authors, added to the Christian canon, but whether Joseph Smith, like the New Testament authors, had apostolic authority. If he did, then what he added to the biblical scriptures is Christian. Now, one could object that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and did not hold apostolic authority, but that is still abandoning the canonical exclusion and retreating to a different argument.

One hidden motivation behind the canonical exclusion is the firm conviction among most non-Mormons that there will never be any more Apostles and prophets. If that conviction were true, then it would follow that there could be no additional scriptures, for no one would have the apostolic authority to write them. Latter-day Saints simply deny that the conviction is true, for no biblical warrant can be found for it.

Mormons and Biblical Inerrancy

Another motivation behind the canonical exclusion is the conviction of the excluders that the Bible alone is enough, that the present canon is so perfect, so complete, that it cannot possibly be improved upon. This is an extreme form of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which insists that the Bible is perfect and without error, that it is complete, and that it answers all theological questions with clarity. With such perfection in the Bible, inerrantists argue, any further scriptural revelation would be superfluous and redundant. Often Latter-day Saints are confronted with some version of the following inerrantist logic:

1. All religious truth is found in the Bible.

2. The revelations of Joseph Smith are not found in the Bible.

3. Therefore the revelations of Joseph Smith are not religious truth.

But to this I would add the following:

4. Premise number 1 is not found in the Bible, either.

5. Therefore premise number 1 is not religious truth.

6. And if premise number 1 is not religious truth, then neither is conclusion 3, which is based upon it.

Extreme inerrantists will hotly dispute premise number 4; nevertheless it is true. There is not a single passage in the Bible that mentions the Bible --Bible is not a biblical word.

The greatest weakness of the extreme inerrantist position is that it accepts as its fundamental working principles propositions which are not themselves found in the Bible --for example, "the Bible is sufficient for salvation," "the Bible is inerrant," "the Bible answers all our religious questions," "the Bible gives us authority to speak and act for God," or "there will never be any more scriptures from God than the Bible." None of these propositions are themselves biblical, yet they are accepted as fundamental religious principles by people who claim to reject all nonbiblical religious principles.

The passage appealed to most often by extreme inerrantists is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." But this passage, as used by the inerrantists for their claims, merely begs the question, for it does not mention the Bible or describe what books should be in the Bible; it merely states that "all scripture" is "profitable." Indeed the Latter-day Saints would agree heartily that all scripture is profitable, including the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The passage in 2 Timothy offers no criteria for determining what the canon of scripture ought to include. And even if it did, it does not say that the canon is closed or that the canon of scripture is sufficient, in errant, or incapable of improvement; it merely states that all scripture is profitable. If I want to drive my car, it is profitable to have the keys, but just having the car keys is not enough if there is no gas in the tank or air in the tires. A thing can be profitable, or even necessary, without being sufficient. Paul's statement to Timothy clearly teaches that the man of God cannot be perfect without the scriptures, but it does not say that the scriptures alone make him perfect.5 Any religious propositions as important as "all religious truth is found in the Bible," or "the Bible alone is sufficient," or "there can never be additions to the Bible," to be self-consistent, ought to be set forth in the Bible in clear, unmistakable terms, yet they are entirely missing.

Now, some conservative Protestants would argue that if Latter-day Saints don't accept this extreme form of biblical inerrancy, then by definition we are not Christians. But there are many Christians in the world--most, in fact--who do not believe that the Bible alone is sufficient for salvation, or that it is absolutely and literally perfect in every word, or that it answers every possible religious question with clarity. If all of these people --virtually every Christian in history except modern, conservative Protestants--are excluded from being Christians because they deny the extreme form of the doctrine of inerrancy, then the exclusion is nothing more than the religious imperialism of a sectarian minority and another example of a special definition for Christian (see chapter 1 herein). On the other hand, if Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants are not excluded for rejecting this type of inerrancy, but Latter-day Saints are, then we are clearly dealing with a theological double standard.

Which Is the "Christian" Bible?

The real Achilles' heel of the canonical exclusion, however, lies elsewhere. It lies in the idea that there is one single Christian canon or one single Christian Bible, for historically there has not been one Christian canon or one Christian Bible, but many. For example, just before A.D. 200 someone in the Christian church at Rome wrote a list of the books that were accepted as canonical by the Roman church at that time. A copy of this canon list was discovered in 1740 by Lodovico Muratori in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, and for this reason it is called the Muratorian Canon.6 According to it, the Roman church at the end of the second century did not consider Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, or 2 Peter to be scripture, and they accepted only two of the letters of John, although we cannot be sure which two. They did accept as canonical, however, two works now considered to be outside the New Testament, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. Clearly their canon of scripture was different from that of modern Christians, but does that mean that the second- and third-century Roman church was not Christian? Remember that these were the same people who were dying in the arenas for the sake of Christ. Can anyone seriously argue that they weren't Christians just because their canon was different?

The famous church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, writing about A.D. 300, proposed another canon.7 He listed only twenty-one books as "recognized," and listed Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation as questionable or spurious. 8 Was the "Father of Church History" not a Christian? After all, his canon, his Bible, was not the modern "Christian" Bible. As Bruce M. Metzger summarizes, "The Eastern Church, as reported by Eusebius about A.D. 325, was in considerable doubt concerning the authority of most of the Catholic Epistles as well as the Apocalypse."9

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus rejected the book of Revelation in his fourth-century canon list, which was ratified three centuries later in 692 by the Trullan Synod. Even though Revelation was not included on his list, Gregory insisted, "You have all. If there is any besides these, it is not among the genuine [books].'' 10 Were both the saint and the synod non-Christian because they deleted Revelation from the "Christian" Bible?

One of the most important of the Greek New Testament manuscripts, known as D or Codex Claromontanus, contains a canon list for both the Old and New Testaments. The manuscript itself is a product of the sixth century, but most scholars believe the canon list originated in the Alexandrian church in the fourth century. 11 This canon omits Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Hebrews, but includes the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul (not our Acts), and, like the Muratorian Canon, the Apocalypse of Peter.

The first indication of a canon like that of modern Christians does not come until well into the fourth century, when Saint Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, recommended a list of acceptable books to his churches in his Thirty-ninth Festal Letter (A.D. 367). But Athanasius' canon did not become official until over a thousand years afterward.

Before the fifth century the Syrian Christian canon included 3 Corinthians and Tatian's Diatessaron, but excluded the four Gospels, Philemon, the seven general Epistles, and the book of Revelation. Syrian Christians from the fifth century on accepted the Syriac Peshitta version of the Bible, which included the four Gospels in place of the Diatessaron and excluded 3 Corinthians, but recognized only twenty-two books in all as canonical: the four Gospels, the book of Acts, the fourteen letters of Paul, James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. To this day both the Syrian Orthodox church and the Chaldean Syrian church recognize only these twenty-two books, rejecting 2 Peter, 2 and 3 3ohn, Jude, and the book of Revelation.12 It is also interesting to note that the Greek Orthodox church has never included the book of Revelation in its official lectionary. 13

The Georgian and Armenian churches followed the Syrian churches in not accepting the book of Revelation until the tenth and twelfth centuries, respectively. The Abyssinian Orthodox church has in its canon the twenty-seven books of the modern New Testament, but adds the Synodos and Qalementos (both attributed to Clement of Rome), the Book of the Covenant (which includes a post-resurrection discourse of the Savior), and the Ethiopic Didascalia. To the Old Testament the Abyssinian canon adds the book of Enoch (cited as prophetic by the canonical book of Jude) and the Ascension of Isaiah.

The point of all this is not to suggest that any of the New Testament books are spurious, for Latter-day Saints accept all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It is merely to show that there have been and still are Christians who differ from one another on the issue of canon and yet remain Christians. The idea that there is a single, fixed canon accepted by all Christians from the beginning of the Christian church is a myth. In fact the canon of scripture was not finally fixed authoritatively for Roman Catholics until 1546 at the Council of Trent. For most Protestant denominations the canon was officially fixed even later than this. 14

Among Protestants, Martin Luther suggested that the New Testament books were of varying worth and divided them up into three separate ranks. In the prefaces of his early editions of the New Testament, Luther denied that the lowest rank (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation) belonged among "the true and noblest books of the New Testament," and went so far as to call the Epistle of James "a letter of straw." He complained that Hebrews contradicted Paul by teaching that there was no repentance after baptism; that James contradicted Paul in teaching justification by works; that Jude merely copied from 2 Peter and from apocryphal books; and that Revelation dealt with material inappropriate for an Apostle, it didn't teach enough about Christ, and its author had too high an opinion of himself. 15 As a direct result of Luther's judgment, some subsequent Lutheran editions of the Bible separated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the rest of the New Testament, and even went so far as to label them "apocryphal" and "noncanonical." As Bruce Metzget points out: "Thus we have a threefold division of the New Testament: 'Gospels and Acts', 'Epistles and Holy Apostles', and 'Apocryphal New Testament' --an arrangement that persisted for nearly a century in half a dozen or more printings.''16

John Oecolampadius, the Reformation preacher at Basle, wrote in 1536 that "we do not consider the [book of] Revelation, together with the Epistles of James and Jude, and 2 Peter, and the last two Epistles of John, to be on a par with the rest [of the New Testament]." 17

Once again let me say that the point of all this data is not to attack the modern Christian canon, but merely to show that many Christians--both Catholic and Protestant, both ancient and modern --have disagreed over what belonged in the canon and what did not. To allow them to diverge from a single, monolithic canon and remain Christians while calling Latter-day Saints non-Christians for doing the same thing is logically inconsistent, and constitutes another example of the theological double standard.

The Catholic Bible vs. the Protestant Bible

Finally, it should be understood that there is still no single Christian canon or Bible, for Protestants and Catholics disagree on whether the "deuterocanonical books" (what Protestants call the Apocrypha) are scripture. At the Council of Trent in 1546, Roman Catholics officially adopted a canon of scripture that included the Apocrypha as fully inspired and fully the word of God. Consequently these twelve books are found in modern Catholic editions of the Bible. The collection of books includes Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, additions to Esther, and additions to Daniel (comprised of the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna and the Elders, and Bel and the Dragon).

These books were part of the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, which was in use in Egypt as early as the second century B.C. The Septuagint was also the version of the Old Testament used by the early Christian church, and so had passed into the Latin Vulgate of the Roman church, and is still the version used by the Greek Orthodox. The conciliar decree De Canonicis Scripturis, issued on 8 April 1546, declared that all who did not accept these deuterocanonical books (the Apocrypha) as Christian scripture were anathema (accursed).

On the other hand, most Protestants broke with the centuries-old tradition of accepting the Septuagint and all its contents, and preferred the version of the Old Testament which had been preserved in Hebrew by the Jews. These medieval copies of the Hebrew Old Testament did not have the Apocrypha in them as the Greek Septuagint translation did, and consequently the books of the Apocrypha are not generally accepted as scripture by Protestants. Thus the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Bible is around twelve books, or approximately 230 pages, longer than the usual Protestant Bible, and for this canonical shortcoming Protestants fall under the anathema of the Council of Trent. Yet Protestants and Catholics continue to call each other Christians, even though one or the other of them has added to or deleted from the "Christian" canon. If the Catholics and Orthodox can have twelve more books in their Bibles than Protestants do and still be considered Christians, then why can't Mormons add the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price? What's fair for one is fair for all.

In fact, in the interests of Christian unity Protestants and Catholics have "agreed to disagree" among themselves on the issue of canon. Each party feels that it is right and that the other is wrong; but they both feel that the issue of whose canon is correct is not serious enough to justify calling one another "non-Christian." This is why it is so unfair when this same issue is raised against the Latter-day Saints. If there is a single Christian canon and a single Christian Bible which Mormons must adopt in order to be Christians, then which one is it? Is the "Christian" Bible the one published by Catholics or the one published by Protestants? And if Protestants and Catholics cannot agree on this issue, yet both remain Christian, then how can the issue consistently be used to exclude Mormons from the family of Christian churches? This is to apply an exclusion to the Latter-day Saints that the other churches do not apply among themselves.


It is true that the Latter-day Saints have an expanded canon of scripture. But the Christian canon of scripture was not closed either by biblical or apostolic declaration, nor were its contents fixed or agreed upon in the apostolic period. The perception that the canon was closed grew up in later periods, though no single canon of scripture, or even of the New Testament books, has ever been agreed to by all Christian denominations. When revelation ceased after the death of the Apostles, the church was forced to draw one of two conclusions: Either revelation had ceased because God had said everything he wanted to say, and the church didn't need any more revelation; or revelation had ceased because there were no more Apostles and prophets to receive it, and the church was lacking one of its necessary components. Traditional Christians accept the former explanation; Latter-day Saints accept the latter.

The Bible as we know it in the modern period is a product of the Christian church, rather than the other way around. Since it is clear that there were Christians before the New Testament was written, it cannot be maintained that the Bible is what makes one a Christian. Latter-day Saints reject this and all other enthusiastic claims about the Bible that cannot be found in the Bible.

To this day Christians disagree on which books are the word of God--that is, which books belong in a "Christian" Bible. During the Christian era there has been a variety of disagreements over which books should be part of the New Testament canon. Moreover, Catholics have added (or have Protestants deleted?) a large collection of books found in the ancient Greek manuscripts of the early Christian church and used by some Christians for centuries. The truth is that traditional Christendom has never been unanimous on the issues of canon and the Bible. If the modern churches can strongly disagree among themselves as to what the canon of Christian scripture is, and yet continue to accept each other as Christians, then it is logically inconsistent and manifestly unfair to deny the Latter-day Saints the same privilege.

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1. For a scholarly discussion of the dates, see Feine, Behrn, and Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966).

2. It is estimated that four of these 362 were at one time complete Bibles, though none of the four (Sinaiticus, A, B, and C) has survived intact.

3. See Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Paleography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 54-55.

4. See, for example, R. Spivey and M. Smith, Anatomy of the New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 62-66, or Frederick Gast, "Synoptic Problem," in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:1-6, for Protestant and Catholic treatments, respectively.

5. The Greek word teleios, translated in 2 Timothy 3: 17 as "perfect," more often means "complete," "whole," "ripe," "ready," or "initiated" than it does "unimprovable."

6. See Hennecke, Schneemelcher, and Wilson, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963-66), 1:42-45.

7. Eusebius, History of the Church, 3.25.1-7.

8. The total comes to twenty-eight because Eusebius listed Revelation as both recognized and spurious, "as it seems right" to the reader.

9. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 209.

10. Quoted in Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, p. 313.

11. See Hennecke, Schneemelcher, and Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha 1:45-46.

12. See the discussion in Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, pp. 218-23.

13. A lectionary is the official list of scriptures appointed and authorized to be read. in public worship services.

14. For example, the Church of England made its canon official in The Thirty-nine Articles (Article 6) in 1563.

15. See W. G. K/immel, "The Continuing Significance of Luther's Prefaces to the New Testament," Concordia Theological Monthly 37 (1966): 573-81.

16. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, p. 245, but see his entire discussion on pp. 241-46.

17. John Oecolampadius, Epistolarum libri quattuor (Basle, 1536).

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