Who decided what books are in the Bible?
Many have heard the term “Canonicity” used with this topic—what does it mean?
Did the Church make the decision of what’s in the Bible? How did they or whoever was responsible, decide?
These are incredibly important questions for us to answer because if the books that make up our Bibles, the “canon” of Scripture are merely the result of human effort and decision, it doesn’t matter if we read them or what we do with them.
However, if they are from God Himself, given to us through human authors, they are authoritative for our beliefs and how we should live.
The process of canonicity is how the church decided these important issues and that’s what our lesson talks about. Below are links to the podcast, video, and notes, plus a PDF download of the Easter Letter of Athanasius that first listed the 27 books of the New Testament and is also an excellent summary of some of the important points of canonicity.
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Links to the podcast, video, PDF of the Easter Letter of Athanasius, and the NOTES/Transcript of the class follow—
Who decided what books are in the Bible?
• Many have heard the term “Canonicity” used with this topic—what does it mean?
• Did the Church make the decision of what’s in the Bible?
• How did they decide?
• These questions and more we’ll answer in our lesson today…..
Canonicity, the Bible, and Us
How we discover, not determine, God’s will
Teacher, Yvon Prehn, Bible805
Our plan today in our series on How we got our Bibles
• Review: We’ve been looking at how we got these parts of our Bibles by evaluating the oral history, the documentary evidence, number of manuscripts, when they were written and associated historical facts for each of these areas:
• Old Testament
• New Testament
• Gnostic Gospels
• Today: Canonicity—why we have the books we have in the Bible
What the word Canonicity means
• The English word canon comes from the Greek κανών kanōn, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”.
• Canonicity means a yardstick, a standard.
• In this instance the books that measure up to the Canon of Scripture, it qualifies them to be included in the inspired Word of God; if not they are not.
What it doesn’t mean
• A vague and often stated idea “the church” whatever and whoever that might mean that might mean . . . .
• Arbitrarily made a sort of back-room decision as to what books should be included and which ones left out.
• If that happened it would make the books of the Bible the result of human decision, not necessarily the word of God as it is.
• What did happen and why is what our lesson is about.
THE key, foundational point as we begin—
• Canonicity (what is inspired and truly God’s Word) is NOT a decision BY the church
• Canonicity is established by God and merely discovered by God’s people the church.
• “We are careful to say that God determined the canon, and the church discovered the canon. The canon of Scripture was not created by the church; rather, the church discovered or recognized it. In other words, God’s Word was inspired and authoritative from its inception–it “stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89)–and the church simply recognized that fact and accepted it.”
Another way to put it
“In this [canonicity], then, the Church is a servant and not a mistress; a depository and not a judge.
She exercises the office of a minister, not of a magistrate.. . . . She delivers a testimony and not a judicial sentence. She discerns the canon of the Scriptures, she does not make it; she has recognized their authenticity, she has not given it. . . . The authority of the Scriptures is not founded, then, on the authority of the church: It is the church that is founded on the authority of the Scriptures.”
L. Gaussen, Theopnesustia, 1840 a defense of plenary inspiration, full, complete, all parts of the Bible inspired
Why this process was necessary
• When OT and NT were written, other books were written also at the same time and not necessarily bad or heretical ones.
• OT refers to them, Chronicles of the Kings, Book of Ido the Seer and similar histories the various biblical books.
• NT: Shepherd of Hermes, Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, were written in addition to the heretical and Gnostic Gospels.
• Most written in the second century by early church leaders.
• They were widely distributed in the church and some very were very beneficial, similar to Christian books today.
• But as truly useful and edifying as some books might be, they are not God’s Word.
• Canonicity is the process that the finally determined what books were and which ones were not.
But as truly useful and edifying as some books might be
• Many were not determined to be God’s Word.
• Very important that we have the correct collection because if a book is truly inspired by God, “God-breathed,” if it is the very words of God, it is then authoritative for the people of God.
• Our eternity and earthly life are dependent on the words in it, so we’d better get it right.
So how was canonicity discovered?
Though God did it all, He expects His people to use their minds in affirming/understanding His process by asking: The FIVE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS used to determine if a book is canonical (and valuable).
1. Was the book written by a prophet or apostle of God?
2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
3. Does the message tell the truth about God?
4. Did it come with the power of God?
5. Was it accepted by the people of God?
#1 Was the book written
by a prophet of God?
• Characteristic OT words: “And the word of the Lord came to the prophet” “the Lord said unto” “God spoke”
• Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— Gal. 1:1
• Books either explicitly declare authorship by prophet or apostle or one close to them.
• e.g. Mark a close associate of Peter; Luke of Paul.
• How do we know who wrote what?
How do we know who wrote what?
• OT authorship comes from stated authorship in most books or traditional in Jewish scholarship.
• Gospels attributed to apostolic writers from earliest church histories; the church community recognized authorship of letters from earliest days.
• “If substantiated these claims of inspiration are so clear that it was hardly necessary to discuss whether some books were divine in origin. In most cases it was simply a matter of establishing the authorship of the book.” Norm Geisler
• E.g. if Moses wrote it=canonical; if Paul wrote it=canonical.
• This is also why the anonymous books are rejected—if we don’t know who truly wrote it, no claim can be made they were truly a prophet or apostle.
#2 Was the writer confirmed in his position as a prophet or apostle by acts of God?
• “There were true and false prophets, so it was necessary to have divine confirmation of the true ones.” N. Geisler
• Miracles given to show God’s empowering and the miracle should ultimately glorify God.
• Moses given miraculous powers (Ex. 4 & following)
• Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)
• Jesus many miracles (all the Gospels), as did the founders of the church, Paul and Peter.
New Testament recognition of the purpose of miracles
• This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. Heb. 2:3,4
• The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance. 2 Cor. 12:12
#3 Does the message in the book under consideration tell the consistent truth about God?
• God is consistent in his message:
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? Nu.23:19
• Therefore, the message in the Scriptures should be consistent with the rest of scripture for it to come from God.
• ALL the cults and religions that came after Christianity all claim “new revelation,” e.g. Islam and Mormon Church and offer different “truth.”
• Messages in Koran, Book of Mormon, writings of many other religions inconsistent with the rest of the Bible—as were the writings in the Gnostic Gospels (look back at that lesson).
Application: any message contrary to what is already revealed, is false
• If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. Deut.13:1-3
• Miracles alone are never evidence of divine approval. Satan can work miracles.
• They must be consistent with purpose and words of scripture—e.g. healing, feeding, never for show—to show God’s intervention in human life.
• Miracles, signs, and wonders always confirm God’s Message, NEVER contradict it or are simply to promote a person if they are from God.
Application: For inconsistency to be discovered
• You have to know the Word!
• “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts17:11
• ALWAYS check out what you hear!
• Be very careful of a system of interpretation that is placed on top of the Bible or “new.”
• Sola Scriptura***if you don’t understand a passage, cross reference , do word studies, read the context of paragraph, chapter, book, the whole Bible.
#4 Did it come with the
power of God?
• To change lives, give us salvation, help us grow as disciples.
• Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
• 1 Peter 1:23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
• 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
• This is one thing that separates canonical books from historical (Maccabees) and devotional, edifying (Gospel of Barnabas)—though they have value, they lack POWER.
• Clearly seen in Gnostic gospels—secret “knowledge”, no power—and often confusion.
#5 Was it accepted by the people of God?
• Both when first written and continuing.
• Moses, writings immediately accepted.
• Joshua, Joshua 24:26 And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God.
• All the OT Prophets, e.g. Kings asking advice and a prophet answers, for example:
• 2 Kings 19:20 Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent a message to Hezekiah: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says:”
• 1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.
• From earliest days, false or merely historical or pastoral writings were often labeled as such or simply ignored.
How New Testament Canonicity is internally verified
• Paul’s endorsement of OT and NT:
1 Timothy 5:18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,”[a]and “The worker deserves his wages.”[b]
• Footnotes:[a] Deut. 25:4 [b] Luke 10:7** One quote is from the Old Testament and the other from the New Testament and in this verse Paul labels both as Scripture.
• 2 Pet 3: 15-16….Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures to their own destruction.
Church Councils that
formalized the Canon
• OT: Council of Jamia is the traditional meeting in 90AD, that codified the Old Testament canon; they used the same list as Josephus had earlier. Doubt on council, not the results.
• NT: Athanasius of Alexandra first to formally list the 27 books of NT as we have them today in his Easter Letter 367—many collections prior to that, but that left out one or two books. See copy of this with the notes.
• The Synod of Hippo 393 and Synod of Carthage 397 again repeated list.
• Remember, the CANON—the exact books that make up our Bibles had been accepted by the people of God long before Councils formally stated they were the Scriptures.
• They did not determine it—they merely ratified existing consensus.
Summary of Canonicity
• Though books written through the centuries.
• God decided the writers and content.
• As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, All scripture is God-breathed. . . .
• Humanity’s job is
• To recognize what God did
• To read & study it
• To obey and apply …. So then….
Application, what can we learn from the process of canonicity as we direct our lives?
• Instead of always deciding ahead and then asking God to make things turn our how we want, consider when faced with decisions, what does God’s Word tell us?
• Look at specifics about a certain area. E.g. if you have a question about money—look at verses on money.
• Don’t always trust circumstances, events, “miracles,” if they don’t line up with the Bible.
• Knowing the Bible, is your decision in line with how people were told to act in the Bible?
• WWJD? Not just a saying, something to truly think about—
• Does your decision bring show you belong to God? Are you “canonical” in your actions?
What we believe about the Bible, more than any argument should be evident in our lives
• The Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6
• For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. The teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.
• They live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
• They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives, they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life.
• I would say that is a canonical lifestyle—one that measures up to the standards of our God and His Word—my prayer is that we all live that way.