Over the past few months I’ve outlined a robust argument showing the Bible is inerrant, due to it being written by those commissioned by God to accurately communicate His Word (prophets for the Old Testament and apostles for the New Testament). However, a number of alleged writings of apostles didn’t “make the cut” and are not included in the New Testament (such as the Gospel of Thomas). Some cry “foul” and accuse the early church of picking and choosing what they wanted to include in the Bible. Is this true? How did the early church come to conclude which books should be included in the New Testament and which to leave out?
From the very beginning believers in Christ understood the unique commissioning Jesus gave the apostles to communicate the Word of God. For this reason, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42). Their faith was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.“ (Ephesians 2:20)
From the late first century though the mid second century the test of apostolic authorship (or authorship by an apostle’s scribe, known as his “emanuansis”) led to a growing number of books being identified as part of God’s revelation. Early church leaders clearly state in their writings that the apostles had this special commissioning, and this was the basis for accepting their writings as the Word of God (“canonical”).
Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 95) refers to at least eight New Testament books in his writings. Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 115) identified seven New Testament books as authoritative. Polycarp (John’s disciple, c. A.D. 108) cites 15 New Testament letters as canonical.
By the mid-second century all current books of the New Testament were identified as authoritative except eight (those still in question were Luke, Revelation, Colossians, Philemon, II Peter, II and III John and Jude). As W.C. Van Unnik summarizes,
. . . round about 140-150 a collection of writings was know at Rome and accepted as authoritative which was virtually identical with our New Testament. (W. C. van Unnik, “The Gospel of Truth and the New Testament,” in The Jung Codex, p. 124).
In the late second and third centuries there continues to be much thought given to which books should and should not be included in the New Testament. As a result of these deliberations, Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) identified 21 books as meeting the criteria to be included in the New Testament. Hippolytus (A.D. 170-235) identified 22 books. Finally, the Muratorian Canon (A.D. 170) identified 23 books as clearly meeting the criteria necessary to be included. Only five books were in question at this time: Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, and III John.
The fact that these were still in question, due to lack of sufficient evidence at the time to make a definitive decision, is an indication of how careful the early church was to ensure only those books passing the stringent test of apostolic authorship be included in the New Testament.
By the fourth century questions concerning the remaining few books were answered, and the final list of 27 New Testament books was in place. This is recorded by Athanasius in A.D. 367, at the Council of Hippo in A.D. 393, and at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397.
It is important to note that these councils were not “deciding” which books to include in the New Testament. Rather, they were simply recognizing which books were already widely accepted as meeting the necessary criteria to be included as part of God’s authoritative revelation.
Throughout this process a number of books were also rejected due to not meeting this stringent criteria . Some were not written by apostles. Others allegedly were, but were shown to be forgeries. The books which did not meet the criteria and thus were not included in the New Testament as finally affirmed at the Council of Carthage included:
The Gospel of Thomas
Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabus (ca A.D. 70-79)
Epistle to the Corinthians (ca A.D. 96)
Ancient Homily/Second Epistle of Clement (ca A.D. 120-40)
Shepherd of Hermas (ca A.D. 115-40)
Didache, Teaching of the Twelve (ca A.D. 100-120)
Apocalypse of Peter (ca A.D. 150)
The Acts of Paul and Thecla (A.D. 170)
Epistle to the Laodiceans (4th century?)
The Gospel According to the Hebrews (A.D. 65-100)
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (ca A.D. 108)
The Seven Epistles of Ignatius (ca A.D. 100)
With this our argument for inerrancy is complete. We have seen that each of the premises of the argument is true:
Premise 1: The four gospels are historically accurate documents.
Premise 2: The central figure of these historical documents (Jesus) claimed to be and proved to be God in the flesh.
Premise 3: As God he would not lie or mislead; therefore all he said is true.
Premise 4: He said the Old Testament is inspired by God and assumed its inerrancy.
Premise 5: He said the New Testament would be written by God through the apostles and would be without error.
From these premises the conclusion follows:
Conclusion: Therefore we have good reason to believe the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are inerrant.
I began this series by quoting a very influential pastor of a larger church, who claims the Bible contain God’s revelation, but is mixed with errors due to its human authors. Therefore he has concluded the Bible is nothing more than the musings of God’s people as they try to understand their experience of God within their cultural contexts. My hope is that the evidence I’ve discussed, and the conclusion the evidence points to, corrects this erroneous view of the Bible.
But this is not only true news. It is also good news. For the person who chooses to live believing the Bible is God’s Word, without error, he or she will be
like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)
May this be so for you as the New Year begins!
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading see Jonathan Morrow’s Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority