The Canon of the Bible
“His [Paul’s] 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” (v. 16b).
- 2 Peter 3:10-18
The English Bible is composed of 66 books. How do we know that these books and no others are the infallible and inerrant Word of God? The basic answer to this question is that when men wrote these books, they came to be aware that they had written the Word of God. Right away, the community of the faithful recognized that these books were the Word of God because the Spirit of God caused them to recognize the Master’s voice. Thus, right away, each new book was added to the collection that Moses had begun. This process went on during the Old Testament times and continued in the New Testament. We see this process in action in 2 Peter 3:16, where Peter refers to Paul’s letters as already part of the canon (list) of Scripture.
Still, how do we know today that some books have not been lost? How do we answer those who claim that the canon of the Bible did not come into existence until the fourth century a.d.? To answer these questions we must look at the early days of church history.
During the second century a.d., the heretic Marcion produced a list of his approved books of the Bible. Marcion held that the Old Testament God was an evil god of wrath, so he eliminated the Old Testament and those places in the New Testament that favorably referred to the God of the Old Testament. To answer Marcion, the church formulated once and for all the list of true books of the Bible.
For the most part, the church simply listed the books that had always been recognized as the Word of God. Questions were raised about a few short New Testament books, like Jude and the letters of John, but the church determined that these were truly Scripture because they had always been recognized as apostolic, and because there was nothing suspicious about their content. A couple of other books, such as the First Letter of Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, were proposed for inclusion, but the church did not include them because the authors of these books themselves indicate a clear difference between their authority and the authority of the apostles. None of the other books in circulation were seriously considered because they were obvious frauds.
While the church has had some disputes over exactly which books belonged in the Canon, it always agreed that the Canon was closed with the death of the last apostle. While no Christian today seeks to add to the Canon, there are those within the visible church who claim to have new, direct, binding words from God. Beware of this dangerous heresy in the modern church.
Passages for Further Study
- 1 Corinthians 2:1–10
- Hebrews 1:1–3
- Revelation 22:18–19