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How was it determined which books would be in the Bible?

The Canon in New Testament Times

The word canon comes from a Greek word meaning measuring stick.

The word eventually came to be used metaphorically of books that were measured and therefore recognized as being God’s Word.

The canon of Scripture includes all the biblical books that collectively constitute God’s Word.

Many books written during the New Testament times were recognized as being the Word of God during the general time they were written.

In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul joined an Old and New Testament verse and called them both (collectively) Scripture (Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7).

For a New Testament book to be referred to as Scripture so soon after it was written says volumes about Paul’s view of the authority of contemporary New Testament books.

To be more specific, only three years had elapsed between the writing of Luke and 1 Timothy (Luke was written around 80 60; 1 Timothy was written around A.D. 63).

Yet Paul – himself a Hebrew of Hebrews – does not hesitate to place Luke on the same level of authority as the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.

Further, Peter referred to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Paul, of course, wrote most of the books in the New Testament.

Contrary to those who say no one knew what books belonged in the New Testament canon until a  counsel met centuries later, the Bible itself reveals that many of the New Testament books were already being recognized as belonging in the canon.


Five Tests for Canonicity

When the church formally  recognized what books belonged in the canon at the Counsel of Carthage in A D 397, it applied five primary tests:

1. Was the book written or backed by a prophet or apostle of God? The reasoning here is that the Word of God, which is inspired by the Spirit of God for the people of God, must be communicated through a man of God (Deuteronomy 18:18; 2 Peter 1:20 – 21).

2. Is the book authoritative? In other words, does it contain a  sense of, “Thus saith the Lord”?

3. Does the book tell the truth about God as it is already known by previous revelation? The Bereans searched the Old Testament Scriptures to see whether Paul’s teaching was true (Acts 17:11). They knew that if Paul’s teaching did not agree with the Old Testament canon , it cannot be of God. Agreement with all earlier revelation was essential.

4. Does the book give evidence of having the power of God? The reasoning here is that any writing that does not exhibit the transforming power of God in the lives of its readers could not have come from God (Hebrews 4:12).

 5. Was the book accepted by the people of God? The majority of God’s people (not merely a faction) will initially receive God’s Word as such (Deuteronomy 31:24 – 26; Josh 124:26; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Though God determines the canon, the church recognizes the canon as providentially guided by God.


In or Out? 

Hebrews’ canonicity  was doubted for some time because the books often was known. However, the book eventually came to be viewed as having apostolic authority if not apostolic authorship.

James was doubted because of its apparent conflict with Paul’s teaching about salvation by faith alone. The conflict was resolved by seeing the works James speaks of as an outgrowth of real faith.

Second Peter was doubted because it style differs from that of 1 Peter.

It seems clear, however, that Peter used a scribe to write 1 Peter (1 Peter 5:12).

Second and 3 John were doubted because the author of these books is called elder, not apostle. However, Peter (and apostle) is also called elder in 1 Peter 5:1. The same person can be both an elder and an apostle.

Jude was doubted because it refers to 2 noncanonical books – the Book of Enoch and the Assumption of Moses. This objection was eventually overcome because even Paul quoted from pagan poets (Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12).

Revelation was doubted because it teaches 1000 year reign of Christ. Since a local contemporary called talk the same, some people reasons that Revelation must not be true Scripture. However, because many of the earliest church fathers also believed in the thousand year reign of Christ, this objection was eventually seen as being without merit.

The same God who supernaturally inspired the Scriptures also providentially guided the selection of the correct books for admission into scriptural canon.

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