Answering the most often asked questions:
How was it decided which books belong in the Bible?
In a previous article in The Forerunner (“Is the Bible Authentic?” October 1991), we studied the divine inspiration of the Bible. Inspiration is the means by which the Bible received its authority; this article will deal with how the books of the Bible came to be canonized. Canonization is the process by which the books of the Bible received their final acceptance.
The people of God have played a crucial role in the process of canonization through the centuries. In order to fulfill this role they had to look for certain earmarks of divine authority. How would one recognize an inspired book if he saw it? What are the characteristics which distinguish a divine declaration from a purely human one? Several criteria were involved in this recognition process.
The Principles for Discovering Canonicity
False books and false writings were not scarce. Their ever-present threat made it necessary for the people of God to carefully review their sacred collection. Even books accepted by other believers or in earlier days were subsequently brought into question by the church.
Operating in the whole process are some five basic criteria:
1. Is the book authoritative? Does it claim to be of God?
2. Is it prophetic? Was it written by a servant of God?
3. Is it authentic? Does it tell the truth about God, man, etc.?
4. Is the book dynamic? Does it possess life transforming power?
5. Is this book received or accepted by the people for whom it was originally written? Is it recognized as being from God?
The Authority of a Book
Each book in the Bible bears the claim of divine authority. Often the explicit “thus says the Lord” is present. Sometimes the tone and exhortations reveal its divine origin. Always there is divine pronouncement. In the more didactic (teaching) literature there is divine pronouncement about what believers should do.
In the historical books the exhortations are more implied and the authoritative pronouncements are more about what God has done in the history of His people (which is “His story”). If a book lacked the authority of God, it was not considered canonical and was rejected from the canon.
Let us illustrate this principle of authority as it relates to the canon. The books of the prophets were easily recognized by this principle of authority. The repeated, “And the Lord said unto me,” or “The word of the Lord came to me,” is abundant evidence of their claim to divine authority.
Some books lacked the claim to be divine and were thereby rejected as noncanonical. Perhaps this was the case with the book of Jasher and the Book of the Wars of the Lord. Still other books were questioned and challenged as to their divine authority but finally accepted into the canon, such as Esther.
Not until it was obvious to all that the protection and therefore the pronouncements of God on His people were unquestionably present in Esther was this book accorded a permanent place in the Jewish canon. Indeed, the very fact some canonical books were called into question provides assurance that the believers were discriminating. Unless they were convinced of the divine authority of the book it was rejected.
The Prophetic Authorship of a Book
Inspired books come only through Spirit-moved men known as prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Word of God is given to His people only through His prophets. Every biblical author had a prophetic gift or function, even if he was not a prophet by occupation (Hebrews 1:1).
Paul argued in Galatians that his book should be accepted because he was an apostle, “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1). His book was to be accepted because it was apostolic – it was from a God-appointed spokesman or prophet. Books were to be rejected if they did not come from prophets of God, as is evident from Paul’s warnings not to accept a book from someone falsely claiming to be an apostle (2 Thessalonians 2:2) and from the warning in 2 Corinthians about false prophets (11:13).
John’s warnings about false messiahs and trying the spirits would fall into the same category (1 John 2:18-19; and 4:1-3). It was because of this prophetic principle that 2 Peter was disputed by some in the early church. Until the fathers were convinced that it was not a forgery but that it really came from Peter the apostle as it claimed (1:1), it was not accorded a permanent place in the Christian canon.
The Authenticity of a Book
Another hallmark of inspiration is authenticity. Any book with factual or doctrinal errors (judged by previous revelations) could not be inspired of God. God cannot lie; His word must be true and consistent.
In view of this principle, the Bereans accepted Paul’s teachings and searched the Scriptures to see whether or not what Paul taught them was really in accord with God’s revelation in the Old Testament (Acts 17:11). Simple agreement with previous revelation would not ipso facto make a teaching inspired. But contradiction of a previous revelation would clearly indicate that a teaching was not inspired.
Much of the Apocrypha was rejected because of the principle of authenticity. Their historical anomalies and theological heresies made it impossible to accept them as from God despite their authoritative format. They could not be from God and contain error at the same time.
Some canonical books were questioned on the basis of this same principle. Could the letter of James be inspired if it contradicted Paul’s teaching on justification by faith and not by works? Until their essential compatibility was seen, James was questioned by some. Others questioned Jude because of its citation of inauthentic Pseudepigraphal books (vv. 9, 14). Once it was understood that Jude’s quotations granted no more authority to those books than Paul’s quotes from the non-Christian poets (see also Acts 17: 28 and Titus 1:12), then there remained no reason to reject Jude.
The Dynamic Nature of a Book
A fourth test for canonicity, at times less explicit than some of the others, was the life-transforming ability of the writing “The word of God is alive and powerful” (Hebrews 4:12). As a result it can be used “for teaching, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The apostle Paul revealed that the dynamic ability of inspired writings was involved in the acceptance of all Scripture as 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 indicates. He said to Timothy, “The holy scriptures … are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (v. 15, KJV). Elsewhere, Peter speaks of the edifying and evangelizing power of the Word (1 Peter 1:23; 2:2).
Other messages and books were rejected because they held out false hope (1 Kings 22:6-8) or rang a false alarm (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Thus, they were not conducive to building up the believer in the truth of Christ. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). False teaching never liberates; only the truth has emancipating power.
Some biblical books, such as Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, were questioned because they were thought by some to lack this dynamic edifying power. Once they were convinced that the Song was not sensual but deeply spiritual and that Ecclesiastes was not skeptical and pessimistic but positive and edifying (e.g., 12:9-10), then there remained little doubt as to their canonicity.
The Acceptance of a Book
The final trademark of an authoritative writing is its recognition by the people of God to whom it was initially given. God’s Word given through His prophet and with His truth must be recognized by His people. Later generations of believers sought to verify this fact. For if the book was received, collected, and used as God’s work by those to whom it was originally given, then its canonicity was established.
Communication and transportation being what it was in ancient times, it sometimes took much time and effort on the part of late church Fathers to determine this recognition. For this reason the full and final recognition by the whole church of the sixty-six books of the canon took many, many years.
The books of Moses were immediately accepted by the people of God. They were collected, quoted, preserved, and even imposed on future generations. Paul’s epistles were immediately received by the churches to whom they were addressed (1 Thess. 2:13) and even by other apostles (2 Peter 3:16). Some writings were immediately rejected by the people of God as lacking divine authority (2 Thessalonians 2:2). False prophets (Matthew 7:21-23) and lying spirits were to be tested and rejected (1 John 4:1-3), as indicated in many instances within the Bible itself (Jeremiah 5:2; 14:14).
This principle of acceptance led some to question for a time certain biblical books such as 2 and 3 John. Their private nature and limited circulation being what it was, it is understandable that there would be some reluctance to accept them until they were assured that the books were received by the first-century people of God as from the apostle John.
It is almost needless to add that not everyone gave even initial recognition to a prophet’s message. God vindicated His prophets against those who rejected them (e.g., 1 Kings 22:1-38) and, when challenged, He designated who His people were. When the authority of Moses was challenged by Korah and others, the earth opened and swallowed them alive (Numbers 16). The role of the people of God was decisive in the recognition of the Word of God. God determined the authority of the books of the canon, but the people of God were called upon to discover which books were authoritative and which were not. To assist them in this discovery were these five tests of canonicity.
The Procedure for Discovering Canonicity
We should not imagine a committee of church Fathers with a large pile of books and these five guiding principles before them when we speak of the process of canonization. The process was far more natural and dynamic. Some principles are only implicit in the process.
Although all five characteristics are present in each inspired writing, not all of the rules of recognition are apparent in the decision on each canonical book. It was not always immediately obvious to the early people of God that some historical books were “dynamic” or “authoritative.” More obvious to them was the fact certain books were “prophetic” and “accepted.”
One can easily see how the implied “thus says the Lord” played a most significant role in the discovery of the canonical books which reveal God’s overall redemptive plan. Nevertheless, the reverse is sometimes true; namely, the power and authority of the book are more apparent than its authorship (e.g., Hebrews). In any event, all five characteristics were involved in discovering each canonical book, although some were used only implicitly.
Some principles operate negatively in the process. Some of the rules for recognition operate more negatively than others. For instance, the principles of authenticity would more readily eliminate noncanonical books than indicate which books are canonical. There are no false teachings which are canonical, but there are many true writings which are not inspired. Likewise many books which edify or have a dynamic are not canonic, even though no canonical book is without significance in the saving plan of God.
Similarly, a book may claim to be authoritative without being inspired, as may of the apocryphal writings indicate, but no book can be canonical unless it is really authoritative. In other words, if the book lacks authority it cannot be from God. But the simple fact that a book claims authority does not make it ipso facto inspired. The principle acceptance has a primarily negative function. Even the fact that a book is received by some of the people of God is not a proof of inspiration.
In later generations some Christians, not thoroughly informed about the acceptance or rejection by the people of God to whom it was originally addressed, gave local and temporal recognition to books which are not canonical (e.g., some apocryphal books).
Simply because a book was received somewhere by some believers is far from proof of its inspiration. The initial reception by the people of God who were in the best position to test the prophetic authority of the book is crucial. It took some time for all segments of subsequent generation to be fully informed about the original circumstances. Thus, their acceptance is important but supportive in nature.
The most essential principle supersedes all others. Beneath the whole process of recognition lay one fundamental principle – the prophetic nature of the book. If a book were written by an accredited prophet of God, claiming to give an authoritative pronouncement from God, then there was no need to ask the other questions. Of course the people of God recognized the book as powerful and true when it was given to them by a prophet of God.
When there were no directly available confirmations of the prophet’s call (as there often were, cf. Exodus 4:1-9), then the authenticity, dynamic ability, and reception of a book by the original believing community would be essential to its later recognition. On the other hand, simply establishing the book as prophetic was sufficient in itself to confirm the canonicity of the book.
The question as to whether inauthenticity would disconfirm a prophetic book is purely hypothetical. No book given by God can by false. If a book claiming to be prophetic seems to have indisputable falsehood, then the prophetic credentials must be re-examined. God cannot lie. In this way the other four principles serve as a check on the prophetic character of the books of the canon.