How’d we Arrive at the Biblical Canon?

No, not that kind of cannon!

I had a lot of question about the collection of books we call the Holy Bible. The Bible is supposed to be inspired, so why did men decide which books to include? Who exactly decided this anyway? And why are the Catholic and Protestant Bibles different? So I did some research and found a lot of answers.

A canon, to begin with, is an authoritative collection of literature. In this case, the biblical canon includes books and letters widely regarded as the revelation of God’s ultimate truth. It is held by Christians as the living, unchanging and final Word of God, inspired and preserved by God himself and applicable for all situations and all time. I don’t have any trouble believing that God could have orchestrated such a collection. He is God, after all. But I needed solid reasoning behind why these books are acceptable and others are not. So I did some research of my own, and I am pleased to have found that inclusion was based on very logical grounds.

Who decided which books would be included in the Bible?

Early Christian leaders were actually Jewish rabbis. Jesus Christ was Jewish, and this new religion was born out of the ancient one. It wasn’t really a new religion at all, if you understand the correlation between Old and New Testaments, rather a fulfilling of the old. But as many Jews didn’t agree that Christ was truly the Messiah, Judaism and Christianity are today held as two separate religions. Nevertheless, the first church authorities were Jews, the men who walked and talked with and learned under Jesus. These were the men who heard his words, recorded them, and taught them to others. Their combined message was incredibly consistent. It was this consistency and first-hand experience that prompted their books and letters to be universally regarded as the authority among early leaders. Theirs was, in essence, the message preached by Christ.

As time passed, the church grew and spread and Gentiles took up leadership in their own congregations, heresies began to arise. There came into existence documents claiming new revelation, new doctrine. The need for a cohesive, authoritative collection (canon) became apparent. So a variety of councils were held in the first four centuries after Christ to decide which literature should be included.

What criteria were used to determine inclusion?

At the time these leaders met, the Old Testament scriptures were firmly established and widely accepted. It was primarily the New Testament collection they were debating. A variety of factors were used to decide which documents could be considered authoritative of church doctrine and added to biblical canon and which could not. Was the book written by an apostle or someone with a close association to them? (In other words, did they a have proper first-hand witness?) Were they consistent in their message? Did they contain high moral and spiritual values? Were they widely accepted by the early church? Did they contain errors?

This process of evaluation is very mindful of the methods scholars use today to determine the authenticity of historical literature, or even how testimony is evaluated in a legal case. New Testament scripture was held to a high standard, and if any document could not pass muster, it was discarded. In essence, this process whittled down the selection to only the books that were consistent with the message of Jesus Christ. As I’m already fully convinced of his deity, I’d say that’s a pretty reliable basis.

But what about the Old Testament? Just because they were already established, do we simply takes those books on faith? Not at all. They had to meet similar criteria. Were the authors prophets or known men of God? Are their words without error? Have prophecies been confirmed? Have miraculous events verified the authors? Are they consistent in their messages?  The Old Testament books were reaffirmed by the early church councils. In fact, the Old Testament has been tested and reaffirmed much longer than the New Testament!

So why do Catholic and Protestant Bibles differ?

The answer to this question is quite simple and even political in nature. The books in question are called the Apocrypha. Though they are highly regarded, these books contain historical errors and inconsistencies in doctrine.

Over time the church grew in political power and added to its beliefs, traditions and doctrines. We’re all familiar with Calvin and Luther and the Protestant Reformation that took place in the 1500′s to combat this drift. As a direct result of the Reformation, the Catholic Church officially canonized the Apocrypha because it supports Catholic beliefs and practices that are not in agreement with the original canon (like praying to saints, giving alms as atonement, etc.). But the books of the Apocrypha do not measure up to a stringent evaluation process. A whole study could be done on the their shortcomings. My examination wasn’t as thorough as the ones done by fourth century councils who originally rejected them, but I gleaned enough to agree, they don’t jive with the most reliable recordings of the teachings of Christ.

Is the Protestant canon free of debate?

No. As you’ve already seen, opinions are split on the Apocrypha. Others have debated Esther and Song of Solomon. Luther himself wanted to remove Hebrews from the canon. The debates will probably endure as long as the text, and I think that’s a good thing. Yet the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments have been consistently reaffirmed by the majority of scholars despite rigorous testing by generation after generation. Yes, the canon has been assembled by men, but the consistent message they preach originated with God. It’s almost like men discovered the canon.

I have been reassured by my study, as unscholarly and brief as it may seem to others who have gone before me, that the books of the biblical canon are reliable. And I’m convinced that God intended that we use our brains to discover what literature is consistent, accurate and authoritative. And I think God had his hand inspiring and guiding all of it.


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