The Bible as Canon

Last week, I discussed how we know the Bible came from God. This week I would like to ask, “how do we know we have the right books?” In other words, we know the Bible came from God, but how do we know the 66 books of the Bible are the right ones? Should there be more? Should there be less?

First, let me start by saying that the 66 books that Protestants are the inspired Word of God is called the canon. A canon is a standard by which something is measured. It is the list of books that are accepted as Scripture. It is the Scriptures that Christians regarded as normative for the church and which contained approved doctrine. For Protestants, we believe there are 66 books that comprise the canon. Catholics say there are 73 books that comprise the biblical canon. Their extra seven books are known as the “Apocrypha.” Other books, known as “Pseudipigripha,” were writings that were ascribed with the name of a false author that were being circulated in Jewish contexts and in the early church. For example, someone might write under the false name of Barnabas or Judas. 

So, how do we know we have the “right” books? And how did the list of inspired books come to be? A common misconception is that a group of Christians met in a council to “decide” which books would make “the cut” of being included in the canon. But this is not how the canon was comprised. For sure, there were councils, but these councils affirmed what writings the early church had already confirmed as Scripture many years prior to the councils.

Let me give you three ways we know that we have the right books:

1. The Testimony of the Bible

  • Jesus recognized the Old Testament canon as Scripture (Luke 24:44)

  • Peter recognized part of the New Testament canon (2 Peter 3:16). In this passage, Peter recognized Paul’s writings on par with “other Scriptures.” Think about that…as Peter was writing the epistle we know as 2 Peter, he was already affirming some of Paul’s letter as Scripture!

  • Paul recognized the equal inspiration of the Old and New Testaments in a single verse: 1 Timothy 5:18. It says, “For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer deserves his wages.” In that one verse, Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 from the Old Testament, and Luke 10:7 from the New Testament, and calls them both Scripture! (Students of Bible history believe that Luke’s gospel was written in A.D. 60 and that the book of 1 Timothy was written in A.D. 63. This means that the gospel of Luke was being recognized as Holy Scripture within only three years of its writing!)

2. The History of the Church

Books were included in the New Testament on the basis of three criteria:

(1) The authority of an apostle.

Each writing had to be connected with an apostle…either written by an apostle, or by someone the apostle had discipled.

For example:
Matthew was written by an apostle
Mark wrote Peter’s remembrances
Luke was a friend of the Apostle Paul
John was an apostle.

(2) The teaching of the truth

Church leaders often appealed to the agreement of the book with what they called “the rule of faith.” This meant that the teaching of the book followed the beliefs the church regarded as acceptable and correct (Thomas Lea, The New Testament).

(3) The confirmation of the church

As I said earlier, the misconception is that what gives these books authority is that they were “voted in” by a council of a few people. The opposite is true. What caused these books to be recognized as God’s Word is the fact that these books  had the authority of God behind them. The Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 did recognize the books of the NT, but that was after the church had been using these books for 300 years. The council formally recognized the books in response to false teachers who were trying to add books to the Bible.

3. The Power of God.

As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed…” Because the books are God-breathed, then they have the inspiration, power and authority of God behind them! As Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active…” The Bible is powerful and life-changing because it is the Word of God. It does not merely contain the word of God; it IS the Word of God!


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