Books Doctrine Preaching Theology

How We Got Our Bible

So, how did the Bible get made? From where did it come? I heard a comedian once say, “Christians are so funny. They believe that God wrote a book, threw it from heaven and somebody found it in a field.” Not only is this inaccurate and insulting, it’s also a bit naïve. As Christians we believe that God moved holy men to write specific things in order to communicate to mankind (II Peter 1:19-21). We call this process inspiration (II Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit of God spoke to specific men and gave them specific messages to specific people for a specific purpose. These men wrote down the very words they heard from God. We also believe in preservation (Psalm 12:6-7). We believe that God will preserve the words that He chose to inspire. The reason we still have the Torah (Gen-Deut.) is because of preservation. The reason we have the book of Joshua in the Old Testament and not the book of Jasher is because God inspired the book of Joshua and subsequently preserved it. That leads us to canonicity.

1. Understanding the Canon
“The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek κανων, meaning ‘list,’ ‘rule,’ or ‘standard’.”[1] Like a measuring rod or a plumb line the canon speaks to a standard with which to measure up. In relation to the study of the Bible it refers to the collection of books, letters, poems and songs see as authoritative, inspired and preserved. There are 66 books in the Christian canon. The Bible, as we know it, did not originally come in a neatly, leather-bound book. However, it did eventually become this through the process of canonicity.

2. The Necessity of the Canon
By AD 100 the vast majority of churches began to accept and speak of the four gospels, the book of Acts, and the writings of Paul as the authoritative and inspired Word of God.[2] However, there were some who questioned the veracity of some of the smaller books (2 John, 3 John) and the recently written book of Revelation. In the decades to come there were other Christian books that we being written, such as the popular Shepherd of Hermas, that some were suggesting might need to be viewed as Scripture. Moreover, there were heretical books being published by heretical groups (Marcionites, Montanists, Gnostics) that were beginning to slip into the worship services of the church. Certain books, such as the late Gospel of Thomas, didn’t appear on the scene until AD 150 challenged Christian theology and threatened the future of the church.[3] Therefore, early Christians felt the need to establish an authoritative list of Scripture.

3. The Process of Canonicity
Simple forms of canonicity began as simple lists produced by pastors for their congregations and students to see. Each of these lists appeared to be very similar. By the time of Origen (early 200’s) all seemed to validate the authenticity of the four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, Hebrews, I Peter, I John, and Revelation. In dispute were II and II John, II Peter, James, and Jude. [4] It was the pastor of Alexandria, a man named Athanasius, who wrote in AD 367 of the authenticity of the twenty-seven books that we now have in our New Testament. These views were ratified at the Council of Hippo (AD 393) and the Council of Carthage (AD 397).[5]

The greatest misunderstanding of canonicity is that the early church leaders “picked” the books of the Bible. This is incorrect. Instead we would postulate that the early church leaders merely recognized those writings that were truly inspired and divinely preserved. They identified the correct books through a three-fold process. First, apostolicity is the ability to link the book to a specific an apostle or an intimate associate of an apostle. Second, orthodoxy is the ability of the text to remain true in doctrine without contradicting other known Scripture. Third, catholicity identifies the book in question as widely received by the early church. It asks the question, was this book almost universally recognized as inspired Scripture?[6] Though I believe all three of these elements to be important in the process of canonization, I would say the most important would be orthodoxy. To have Scriptures that are in contradiction to one another would leave our faith open to horrific possibilities. In addition, if each were truly inspired, how is it that God could ever contradict Himself? I would say the least important element of canonization would be apostolicity. Though it is nice to know that each of the writers were close to the Lord Jesus, I believe that God could have used anyone to write any of the Bible.

4. The Completed Canon
So, will there be any sequels? Will there be “another gospel” produced or found in the years to come. The answer is simply no. The canon is closed. Through there are still sects and offshoots of Christianity that believe in progressive revelation and the possibility of new books being added to the Scripture, this is likely not going to occur. For any writing to be accepted into the canon of Scripture these books would have to be written by an apostle or close associate. This would be difficult because they have been dead for nearly two thousand years. The writing would have to be orthodox and not contradict any Scripture that is currently in the canon. Lastly, the book would have to be universally accepted by the church, which would be a miracle. Therefore, orthodox Christianity has considered the canon closed since the writing of the book of Revelation.

Share your thoughts and comments below
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[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 103.
[2] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 448-9.
[3] Ibid., 449.
[4] Ibid., 449-50.
[5] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 112.
[6] Ibid., 115-6.

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  • Reply
    Alan
    March 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Very nice right up on the early bible, but even today many are trying to change, add to , and takeaway from the Holy Word of God. That is why I only hold one bible in its English translation to be in its complete inspiration of Gods Holy Word. KJV. Many versions today weaken the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. watered down and even left out many words, verses, and even chapters. I just gave our family KJ. bible to my son from the 1800s it was a beautiful large bible 12 by 14 by 5 to 6 in. thick. hard back with pictures of art and letters almost as big as my key board. But it was time for me to pass it on. I remember how my great grandmother and grandmother read from it. How dear these words are to me today, for they hold true to my heart and they do not ever change.

  • Reply
    Chris Armer
    March 14, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    The Canonicity of the Bible is the Evangelical’s achilles heel. Although we may inductively establish a criteria now that we have our canon, the process was not as easy as just recognizing a book as meeting certain criteria. Some books in our canon fail the criteria. For example, the author of Hebrews is unknown. So that would fail the apostolicity test (which I happen to consider the most compelling criteria). And then to assume that there was a criteria of orthodoxy outside ecclesiastical authority is intellectually dishonest. And that’s the big issue right there. Who determined whether something is orthodox or not. Established Christian orthodoxy was a process. For example, there are other branches of Christianity (Ex. Eastern Orthodox) who have larger canons because they felt that more books were orthodox and helpful for the faith. Orthodoxy is subjective unless it is grounded in an authority. Some want to then assume that the authority for orthodoxy was the OT. But whose interpretation of it? The Jews certainly wouldn’t have considered the Christian interpretation to be orthodox. So in the end, orthodoxy was tied to ecclesiastical authority. Like I said, canonicity is the achilles heel of Evangelicalism. I believe honest epistemology on this subject leads one to acknowledge that the canon wasn’t just “recognized” according to a particular set of criteria that were independent of ecclesiastical authority, that were independent of the Church having the final say. There were many church leaders who “recognized” some books that didn’t make it in. And there were some church leaders who refused to recognize certain books that did indeed make it in. It was certainly a process that didn’t resolve itself on its own for many years. Thanks for the article. Certainly something important to think through and about. Keep up the good work.

  • Reply
    Nancy
    March 15, 2014 at 12:42 am

    I am not a theologian nor a Bible scholar so I hesitate to enter this fray. But I believe John 3:16 and I believe Psalms 23. I believe Jesus when he said, “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself and on this hang all the law and the prophets. That is enough for me. When I see Him I shall ask Him what should have been deleted and what should have been included. Until then I am content with knowing the Shepherd.

  • Reply
    Dave Jaspers
    March 15, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    I enjoyed reading your treatment of this important subject. I would certainly not be one who would bury my head in the sand and claim, “Just give me the KJV.” But I would never consider the issue of the cannon to be the Christian’s achilles heel. There is an important aspect of this subject that needs to be amplified in your treatment. Jesus identified special authority for the Apostles to not only write the New Testament but also to identify (canonize) the New Testament. In John 14:26 Jesus delegated authority to the Apostles to create a written record of Jesus’ life and ministry. He declared that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and would cause them to remember all things. In John 16:13-14 Jesus further promised that he, through the Holy Spirit, would guide them to all the truth. In other words, no necessary truth related to the testimony of Jesus Christ would be lost. In John 16:12 Jesus indicated that further revelation would be given the Apostles. Based on these key teachings, Jesus Christ gave authority to the Apostles to both write the record of the New Testament and to identify those writings that belong as a part of the record of the New Testament. This helps us understand that the Apostles did not need to write every book included in the New Testament but they needed to be a part of recognizing which writings belonged in the collection. During the lifetime of the Apostle John all the writings that we now recognize as the New Testament were circulated among the churches and accepted as being of the character that distinguishes them as being Scripture. This would include the book of Hebrews. While we grant that the authorship of Hebrews is unknown (I certainly don’t think the Apostle Paul wrote it) the content of the book was recognized as clearly being Scripture. The consistent witness to the divine character of Jesus as well as the faithful representation of the history of the Old Testament distinguished the book in the minds of the first generation of Christians.

    • Reply
      Chris Armer
      March 17, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      Dave,

      You said, “During the lifetime of the Apostle John all the writings that we now recognize as the New Testament were circulated among the churches and accepted as being of the character that distinguishes them as being Scripture.”

      What proof do you have for that assertion? Can you cite your source?

  • Reply
    Josh Teis
    March 17, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I appreciate the conversation here. I especially agree with Dave Jasper’s and his comment regarding the surety of the canon. I too believe that God authorized the apostles and the early church recognized these books as inspired. Great conversation y’all and thank you to each and every person who contributed. This challenges my thinking and allows our church members to expand their knowledge of the subject matter. Thanks

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