Christian scripture

Scripture derives from the Greek word graphe (pronounced gra•fā) and is a general term referring to something that has been written. In Christian or Hebrew writings, scripture is generally used as a shorthand for a more specific terms (especially Canonical Scripture and ecclesiastical scripture). Strictly speaking, however, scripture could refer to any of the writings of all the peoples in all the world, hence it is the least descriptive term one could use to refer to a class of writings or a particular work.

The Four Early Types of Scripture

Early Christians generally employed four categorizations of scripture: Orthodox scripture (which was an implicit rather than explicit category), ecclesiastical scripture, Canonical Scripture, and apocryphal scripture. These categories are apparent in multiple church fathers’ writings (like Athanasius, Cyril, and Jerome), but Rufinus is the one whose usage of these categories seems the most developed:[1]

But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not Canonical but ecclesiastical: that is to say, Wisdom, called the Wisdom of Solomon, and another Wisdom, called the Wisdom of the Son of Syrach, which [being] last-mentioned the Latins called by the general title Ecclesiasticus, designating not the author of the book, but the character of the writing. To the same class belong the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees. In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Shepherd of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways, or the Judgment of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine. [(This statement of Rufinus regarding the ecclesiastical writings is very close to that found in the Geneva Bible of 1560 concerning The Apocrypha.)] The other writings they have named apocrypha [(unreliable/untrue)]—these they would not have read in the churches. (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 36-38, ~ 400 AD)

The descriptions of the four categories of Christian scripture are as follows:

Orthodox Scripture

(from SWORD, pp. 1-2, with permission )

Orthodox is a term deriving from the Greek words orthos, meaning right or correct, and doxa, meaning glory or worship, hence Orthodox scripture is writing that does NOT conflict with a right or correct glorification or worship of God. More specifically, this category of writings can include fictitious works, commentaries on other works, analogies/parables, historical works, instructional books, etc, so long as those works do not teach anything contrary to what was considered to be an essentially correct view of the God of Christianity.[2]

Interestingly, most of the so-called lost books of the New Testament belong to this category in that many of them are Orthodox (they don’t teach anything outside of the set of accepted historical Christian beliefs). Some of these so-called lost books include many of the various Infancy Gospels, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Vision of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, etc. These Orthodox scriptures are not included in the New Testament because they are extrapolations and/or were composed after the New Testament time period; it is NOT the case that these particular books are excluded because they teach things which Christians necessarily oppose. In fact, some of the Traditional churches still use some of the Orthodox scriptures from time to time (such as the Greek Orthodox Church’s use of the Proto-Evangelion of James).[2]

As far as specificity is concerned, Orthodox scripture is the most general term a person can use to refer to writings which would be classified as Christian in some way, shape, or form.[2]

Ecclesiastical Scripture

(from SWORD, pp. 2-3, with permission )

Ecclesiastical derives from the Greek word ekklesia (pronounced ek•klā•zē•a), which means assembly. Accordingly, ecclesiastical scripture is that body of writing that is used by a particular assembly (or church/congregation) and may be referred to or taught during the services thereof. That is, ecclesiastical scripture is any writing that you may hear mentioned in a church setting as a means of learning more about the Christian life or Christianity in general. (All of the books generally referred to as The Apocrypha (or deuterocanonical) by Evangelicals are within the classification of ecclesiastical scripture—including Sirach, the Psalms of Solomon, the Odes, Tobit, etc.)

Since this category is defined by what a particular group uses, it can vary considerably from one group to another. For example, a modern church might regularly make use of C.S. Lewis’ works and those of Charles Spurgeon while another church could use the works of Ravi Zacharias and Dr. James White. These two groups are not necessarily at odds with one another —they might simply use different books to teach their congregations the same fundamentals. Similarly, many of the ancient codices (compilations of church books) vary from one another as to which books they include or do not include. For instance, while Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus contain the same books of the New Testament, Sinaiticus appends the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas while Alexandrinus appends I&II Clement—the essential doctrines of each set of appended works are the same, but their presentation and emphases are different.

Further, it is from ecclesiastical scripture that the term bible originated in that bible (from the Greek biblos or biblion) basically means written record (or record of records)—the record of what is used in an assembly. Subsequently, the term bible, as it was used historically, did not refer to those writings which guide the Faith but instead referred to those writings which are used in the meetings of the Faith. Most modern Biblical-Historical Christians, however, do NOT use Bible to refer to ecclesiastical scripture. Instead, modern Biblical-Historical Christians use the term Bible to refer to Canonical Scripture.

Canonical Scripture

(from SWORD, pp. 3-4, with permission )

Canonical derives from the Greek word canon (pronounced ca•nōn), which meant measuring rule or standard. Resultantly, Canonical Scripture is the body of writing which prescribes the Faith in that it acts as a standard of comparison as to what is within the Faith and what is not. As may be surmised, Canonical Scripture is the most restrictive collection of scripture in that it has the most limiting definition. Further, Canonical Scripture is that body of writings which is required for a Christian group to assess their doctrines. Some groups use Canonical Scripture as a emblem of Orthodoxy while others use it as a formal source of Orthodox doctrine and theology.

On a historical note, it is because of the fact that Canonical Scripture is required for evaluation (not Salvation, but evaluation) that Cyril of Jerusalem said, “For concerning the Divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement can be delivered without the Holy Scriptures” (Catechetical Lectures, Lecture IV, 17, 4th Cen.). Likewise, regarding the accepted correctness of Scriptural doctrines relative to those deriving from sources outside of Scripture, Basil of Caesarea said, “everything that is outside Inspired Scripture, being not of Faith, is sin” (The Morals, 4th Cen.). Similarly, modern Biblical-Historical Christians emphasize Canonical Scripture because they affirm that the ancients were right in saying that "we possess an exact balance, and square, and rule for all things—the declaration of the Divine laws [(i.e., Canonical Scripture)]. Wherefore [we] exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and [instead] inquire from the Scriptures all these things" (John Chrysostom, Homilies on II Corinthians, Homily XIII, 4th Cen.).

Apocryphal Scripture

(from SWORD, pp. 4-6, with permission )

Another description which can be applied to scripture is that it is apocryphal, a word deriving from the Greek word apokryphos (pronounced a•paw•crew•faws). Early on, apocryphal referred to something that had been kept secret or hidden, which was a concept that was most strongly associated with the Gnostics, a heretical group which believed that they possessed a “secret knowledge” which had either been passed down to them alone or had been revealed to them alone. Early Christians, however, rejected Gnosticism by affirming (1) that what the 12 Apostles had been preaching they had codified in the written records the Christians now possessed, and (2) that the result of the 12 Apostles’ preaching (the tradition which resulted from their instruction) was not at odds with nor necessary for understanding the substantial message of Scripture:

  1. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our Faith. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1, 2nd Cen.)
  2. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents but viva voce [(literally, with living voice)]... (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.2.1, 2nd Cen.)

The association of hidden things with Gnosticism seems to have had the effect of making Christians fairly suspicious of later-revealed, idiosyncratic teachings. This being the case, it is not surprising that, by the fourth century, apocryphal had become a pejorative term within Christianity which came to signify that something was untrue or unreliable. In particular, Jerome (4/5th Cen.) applied the term apocryphal to many books which had theretofore been accepted as ecclesiastical scripture—including the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Judith, and Tobit—since he could not find sufficient evidence for them in the Hebrew. Later, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, Jerome’s assessment of those books and his terminology (calling them apocryphal) became a critical aspect of the Protestant affirmation that these works are NOT Canonical Scripture: "And, generally, of all the books called Apocrypha, he [(Jerome)] says that men may read them to the edifying of the people, but not to confirm and strengthen the doctrine of the Church" (Matthew’s Bible, Prologue to the Apocrypha, 1537 AD). Nonetheless, even though Biblical-Historical Christians agree with Jerome (and a host of the early church fathers) in saying that such works are not Canonical Scripture, it should be noted that using the term The Apocrypha to describe them is somewhat imprecise and idiosyncratic. That is, most other early church fathers did not call these non-Canonical books apocryphal but instead would employ some other terminology—rejected yet used by ecclesiastical authors (Eusebius, 4th Cen.), instructive (Athanasius, 4th Cen.), ecclesiastical (Rufinus, 4/5th Cen.), not placed in the ark (John of Damascus, 8th Cen.)—and thus Jerome used terminology that was out of place in his time. This being the case, the Protestant who uses the term The Apocrypha must understand that such phrasing is vague and perhaps overly derogatory—this class is probably best referred to as ecclesiastical scripture.


  1. Johnson, John M. Jr. Sword: An Overview of the Transmission, Canonization, Contents, Doctrines, Textual Reliability, and Christ’s View of the Bible, pp. 1-6, 2015; 2nd Revised Edition. (with permission)
  2. 1 2 3 Johnson, John M. Jr. Sword: An Overview of the Transmission, Canonization, Contents, Doctrines, Textual Reliability, and Christ’s View of the Bible, pp. 1-2, 2015; 2nd Revised Edition. (with permission)
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