How Do We Know the Bible Includes the Right Books?


Sean McDowell explains the process of how early Christians identified which books would be chosen as the New Testament of the Bible.

Did Roman Emperor Constantine (ca. A.D. 272-337) dictate which books were included in the NT, all in an attempt to forge political and religious power alliances? Popular books (e.g., The Da Vinci Code) say so. Or, as tradition says, were the books included in the NT because they accurately reported Jesus’ life and teachings? Which view best fits with the faith and preaching of the early church as represented in the NT? Do early Christian beliefs and practices seem devised for building political power structures and suppressing outsiders, or do they more naturally fit with the sorts of teachings one would expect of an explosive, hope-filled movement that drew adherents from every corner of society? New Testament scholar Darrell Bock points to three kinds of NT texts that show us what the earliest Christians believed.

  1. Schooling—We find doctrinal summaries which Christians would memorize and read alongside OT texts when they gathered for worship in house churches (e.g., Rom. 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 8:6; 15:1-5).
  2. Singing—They sang their theology in hymns, showing their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., Col. 1:15-20 & Phil. 2:5-11).
  3. Sacraments—Baptisms and the Lord’s Supper were regularly practiced. These pictured the basic elements of the salvation story as core theology (e.g., Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Eph. 4:4-6).

These verses (look them up!) reflect the earliest realities of Christianity, and it is clear that they do not fit with the cynical theory that Constantine teamed up with politicians and priests to invent Christianity.

With that in mind, by what process did early Christians identify which books should be included in the NT canon. First, books written by apostles or an associate of an apostle were accepted. Mark was accepted because he was an associate of Peter; Luke was accepted because of his relationship to Paul. If a book was written later than the first century it was not accepted because it could not be traced to the apostles who were taught and commissioned by Jesus. Second, to be acceptable, candidate books had to conform to the teachings of other accepted NT books. In some cases this helped non-apostolic books (like Hebrews) gain acceptance. Third, if a book was widely accepted early among churches that were spread throughout the region, they were likely to be accepted into the NT canon.

Early Christians believed the NT books held authority from God since they were inspired. Hence, they did not decide which books were Scripture so much as they recognized which books were Scripture. By the end of the 2nd century (long before Constantine), the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul were already recognized as authoritative and were being used as Scripture in the churches. Some of the other NT books were long debated by representatives of the Eastern and Western churches, but even these were widely embraced as Scripture in the churches. While there was no universal declaration concerning the final list of NT books, the canon was effectively closed by the time of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397.

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