Are the 66 Truly Inspired?

This week I received an email from a young theologian in our church who has been dealing with a friend over the authenticity of Scripture. The friend wanted to know how we as Christians can simply accept the 66 books of the Bible as truly God’s inspired words. So, I issued my response and am posting it here for your consideration…

How can we trust that the 66 books of the Bible are truly the Word of God?

 

The question of “can we trust the canon of Scripture?” must be answered in the light of another question: “do we truly believe that God is sovereign?” I have made it no secret throughout my pastoral ministry that I am, by nature, a skeptic. Granted, the Holy Spirit is dealing death blows to my unbelief on a routine basis, but left to myself I would undoubtedly attempt to debunk doctrines which my mind cannot reconcile such as the deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice, the Trinity, and others. The problem, from my perspective, is that these doctrines are not completely factual. Now this does not mean that there is no proof for validity surrounding these truths, but rather that the evidence for them does not render them fact. Therefore, they must be taken on faith. One of these such doctrinal dilemmas for many is the canonization of the Bible. Can we truly trust that the 66 books of the Bible are actual God-breathed, inspired Scripture? 

Before I can journey into what canonization is, I must begin with the above stated query: do we truly believe that God is sovereign (that He rules and reigns fulfilling His decreed purpose for His glory)? If we answer no to this inquiry, then we have redefined the Divine, and trusting the authority of the Bible becomes just one of a plethora of suffocating theological issues. Obviously, one who does not believe that God is actually sovereign will logically be driven to take issue with the preservation of the Biblical texts, because after all, the very concept of preservation depends not upon man “getting it right” but rather upon the Sovereign Lord upholding His truth. To this question I – and scores of other Christians – would rise up to declare that, yes, our Lord is sovereign, and this is the primary reason why we can trust that the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles are actually sacred writ. As the prophet writes in Isaiah 40:8, The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. How is this possible? It is possible because the God of the word is the sovereign One who causes kingdoms to rise and fall, marks out our days before we draw breath, and preserves His Word for His people as He has promised to do. There are legitimate questions that intellectually faithful students of the Word will ask, but whenever there is bitter opposition raised agains the legitimacy of Scripture, make no mistake, at the root there is a bitter opposition to the God of Scripture.

 

Since we have established the sovereignty of our God, by which He is capable of actually preserving His word, I’ll shift to the actual idea of the canon. There is very little debate over the canon of the Old Testament Scriptures, and most who raise objections to the collection of Biblical books reserve their derision for the New Testament, so my response will be targeted more in defense of the gospels and epistles rather than the Bible as a whole. Of course, the ideas I will seek to establish apply not only to the New Testament but also to the Old.

 

Throughout the first few centuries of Christianity the church was constantly under assault. The Roman empire – prior to becoming the head of the church under Constantine – actually was the primary proponent of snuffing out early Christianity. Heresies frequently arose within the church, false teachers paraded ornate fallacies, Judaism called for merits in salvation, while paganism screamed for liberty from any law. With all of these voices surrounding the pockets of believers scattered throughout the world of that time, the idea of hearing and obeying the actual voice of God was always stressed by the faithful. With the closing strokes of the Apostle John’s pen in the book of Revelation came the completion of God’s written Word. As time passed though, other texts began to surface and it became increasingly apparent that the church needed to take careful steps in determining what was in fact Scripture. 

 

Councils and synods began to gather by the end of the first century debating various writings and investigating the authenticity of any claiming to be Divinely inspired. It is important to keep in mind that though the canon of New Testament writings was not officially stated until the mid-third century, the church had for the first three and a half centuries been pouring over and following the epistles of the apostles believing that these manuscripts were in fact inspired.  The first Council of Nicaea gathered in AD 325 in an effort to settle what, in fact, were those fundamental truths to the Christian faith. Included in the examination of the assembly was the Trinitarian issue of the nature of Jesus as Divine and the promulgation of the laws of canonicity. Though it would not be until later that century that the actual canon of Scripture was finalized, Nicaea gave rise to the establishment of what were the tests of Scriptural authenticity. The finalization of the canon came at the Council of Carthage under St. Augustine in AD 397. At this time the Council accepted all 27 books of the New Testament, but this acceptance was not based on personal preference or opinion, as some would like to indicate. Instead, the inclusion of the 27 books as canonical had to pass the tests that had been birthed out of the Council of Nicaea. Though laid out in written form following Nicaea, these tests had actually been passed down from teacher to student since the apostolic era. The rules for inspiration were:

 

1. The gospel or epistle must have been written by an apostle who actually knew Christ, or a close associate of an apostle. Of course of the New Testament writers Peter, John, Matthew, and Paul were apostles who knew Christ (Paul met Christ post ascension on the road to Damascus); James and Jude knew Jesus (tradition tells us that they were both His half-brother) and they were intimately acquainted with the apostles; and Luke, as well as John Mark were students of and closely connected to the apostles as well.

2. The message of each gospel/epistle had to implicitly agree with the statements, theology, and content of the Old Testament. It also had to agree with the teaching of the apostles in regard to who Jesus Christ was and what He had accomplished.

3. The book had to be widely circulated in the churches and regarded as a sacred manuscript from the time of its writing to the present time at the close of the 4th century. This was a test of of Divine preservation.

4. Finally, the manuscript had to contain a spiritual character that set it apart as truly God-breathed.

 

The Council of Carthage agreed (and the Council of Hippo some 30 years later confirmed) that the 27 New Testament letters did in fact meet the criteria of canon law. Therefore, even though these inspired texts had been around since mid to late 1st century, we believe that God chose to bring them together at these Councils, under these men, in the late 4th century and the Bible (literally meaning “library of books”) as we know it came to be. 

 

Since this time many objections have been raised to the inspiration, inerrancy, validity, and completeness of the Bible, but the Word of God has passed all tests against all opposition and stands as perfect in all archeological, scientific, historical, or prophetic fields. As I stated from the outset, there is a level of faith that must accompany any Biblical or theological understanding, but my prayer is that these rules of canonicity, the diligent prayer and scholarly study that went in to determining the New Testament, and the reminder that we serve a sovereign God who can and has preserved His Word will help to answer some of the questions your friend is having.