Tag Archives: How We Got the Bible

How We Got the Bible (Part 3)

The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”
J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed.

“We should not imagine a committee of church fathers with a large pile of books and these five guiding principles before them when we speak of the process of canonization. No ecumenical committee was commissioned to canonize the Bible.”
Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible

One of the great misconceptions about Christianity involves the canonization of the Bible (that is, deciding which books comprise the whole, inspired, holy Scripture). For whatever reasons, people tend to imagine some sort of ecumenical process—dragging out over several centuries—where well respected officials in the early and medieval church came together and decided which books were in and which books were out. But as we can see from the quotes above from three of the most conservative Bible scholars, church councils did not produce the Bible.

Ecumenical Councils

Conservative Christian scholarship disallows any notion that ecumenical councils somehow selected the Bible from a list of candidate documents. But there were ecumenical councils, lots of them, so what role did the councils play in the canonization of the Bible?

First, recognize that church councils were necessary for the governance and order of the church. The precedent was set at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, attended by the apostles themselves. There were heresies and challenges to Christian doctrine. There were matters of church discipline and orderly worship that had to be addressed. There was confusion about Gnostic teaching and guidelines for living. Later there would be questions about which books and letters belonged in the canon of Scripture—and which did not.

Shortly after the legalization and state patronage of Christianity within the Roman Empire, the church began to hold ecumenical councils. The first was called by Constantine the Great on May 20, 325 at the Royal Palace in Nicaea. The focus of the Nicene Council was the divinity of Jesus and the clarification of the Trinity. It produced the Nicene Creed, which was later amended to be close to the Apostles Creed. (Sidebar—Did Jesus descend into hell? Here’s a brief discussion about this controversy.) Contrary to modern misconceptions—perpetuated by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code—Constantine did not determine the New Testament canon and the First Council of Nicaea did not even address the topic of the canon of Scripture.

Over the following centuries, there would be many more ecumenical councils and synods, continuing through to the present day. Which meetings are recognized as ‘ecumenical‘ depends largely upon denominational perspective. 19th century church historian and theologian Philip Schaff documented the canons of Seven Ecumenical Councils between 325 and 787 CE (which he defined as “councils which have always, and still do, receive the unqualified acceptance of both East and West”):

  1. The First Council of Nicaea,
  2. The First Council of Constantinople,
  3. The Council of Ephesus,
  4. The Council of Chalcedon,
  5. The Second Council of Constantinople,
  6. The Third Council of Constantinople, and
  7. The Second Council of Nicaea.
Philip Schaff - Ecumenical Councils

Philip Schaff meticulously documented the canons of the historic ecumenical councils of the Christian church.

However, history is replete with other councils that are not accepted as ecumenical by the Eastern and Western churches (‘Eastern’ meaning Eastern Orthodox, and ‘Western’ meaning Roman Catholic and other denominations that developed in Europe). For example, the Synod of Hippo (393 CE) and 3rd Council of Carthage (397 CE) produced authoritative lists of the sacred scriptures. Later, the Council in Trullo (also called the “Quinisext Council,” 692 CE) ratified the canons of these councils—but did not specifically state the list of books considered to be divinely inspired. So why didn’t everyone accept the canons of Hippo and Carthage as ecumenical? As you might imagine, church politics had a lot to do with it—and still does. Hippo and Carthage did not have wide representation from the church as a whole and were heavily influenced by Augustine of Hippo, as later critics would argue.

Page 885 of Schaff’s text contains the list of canonical scriptures from the Council of Carthage. This list includes the Apocrypha in the Old Testament but clearly identifies the 27 books of the New Testament. (We’ll explore the Apocrypha in a future post.)

The canons of the ecumenical councils make for dry reading in parts, not unlike reading the formal minutes from a business meeting where much discussion is reduced to a few statements. Nevertheless, check out the canons of these councils as recorded in Schaff’s monumental work. In addition to the seven ecumenical councils, he also documented the records from other councils, including Hippo, Carthage, and Trullo. Much of what these clergymen dealt with is now irrelevant. Troublesome heretics have long ago died, many of the controversial theological and doctrinal problems have faded in time, and frankly no one cares about how to handle “him who persuades a slave to leave his master under pretence of religion.” When you read the canons, it becomes clear how challenged the Christian church was over matters large and small—and how pious many of these councils must have been.

‘Orthodox’ Christianity

Over the centuries since the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the church found more issues to debate, and more reasons to divide. Rather than serving to unite believers, later ecumenical councils proved to be dividing mechanisms by laying out denominational distinctions.

Church History Timeline (credit: http://www.stspyridons.org/timeline/)

Church History Timeline (credit: http://www.stspyridons.org/timeline/)

As shown in the timeline on the right, the Christian church remained essentially united through the early councils. Then, one word (Filioque) caused the Great Schism of 1054 and the ‘orthodox’ church began splitting into more and more denominations.

So…in all the deliberations of the historic synods and councils of the early and medieval Christian church, Christians cannot find agreement on the canon of Scripture. The scholars quoted at the beginning of this post seem to be justified in the strength of their statements. Church councils did not produce or canonize the Bible.

Think about it. Is it reasonable to believe that God would inspire holy Scripture and that it would then need to be ratified by church councils before being recognized as such?

If we rule out the deliberations of church councils as the deciding authority, how then can we know what books comprise the canon of holy Scripture? We’ll take that up in our next post on this topic…

Can We Trust the New Testament Canon?

…but in the meantime, here’s a brief interview with Dr. Michael Kruger that addresses that very important question.

HT: Philip Schaff, Norman Geisler, William Nix, Michael Kruger, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Additional Resources

From God To Us
The Ecumenical Council

How We Got the Bible (Part 2)

Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. In this post—the second in our series entitled “How We Got the Bible“—we will explore what biblical inspiration really entails (and what it does not entail). The Bible itself claims to be the inspired, special revelation of the one true God.

The Bible is completely unique. Not sure? OK, let’s make a list of all books that took over 1,500 years to complete. With parts dating back more than 3,500 years, in which the most recent contributions are 1,900 years old. Written by 40 or so authors who corroborate each other’s writings. Containing accurate historical accounts of ancient events that have shown up repeatedly in archaeology (don’t skip over the preceding hyperlink). Claiming to reveal the plan of a loving God for his creation. With massive amounts of self-deprecating text to condemn the authors. Predicting trouble and ostracism for those who live by its teaching. Containing specific prophecies, many of which have proven true over long periods of time. Dwarfing other ancient writings in terms of the number and quality of  surviving manuscripts.

How long is our list now?

Reliability of the New Testament

The Bible has no peers when it comes to the number and quality of surviving ancient manuscripts. (Infographic credit: Mark Berry, http://visualunit.me/)

When researching for this series I was primarily interested in focusing on how the biblical canon was developed—specifically how did we end up with the 66 books that comprise the Bible, what about the Apocrypha, why not other books, and so on. Biblical canon is an extremely interesting topic, but it rightfully fits in the context of a larger question:  How did we get the Bible? (We’ll get to the topic of biblical canon in forthcoming posts in this series—and by the way, there are lots of interesting, new publications on canonicity.)

Drs. Norman Geisler and William Nix wrote a comprehensive text entitled From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible that begins with the topic of inspiration. This post will follow that text, which should be required reading for every Christian and student of the Bible.

Whether you are died-in-the-wool biblicist or a Christian neophyte, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the implications of our understanding (or denial) of the inspiration of the Bible. Not just in terms of heaven or hell as an end result, but whether we can trust the Scripture. I just returned from the National Conference on Christian Apologetics, which included some strong rhetoric about the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible (and a fantastic session on the biblical canon). Clarke attended most of the same sessions, so I won’t turn this series into a discussion about inerrancy. He will no doubt address many of the nuances and implications of the “battle for the Bible” in future posts. But consider these two questions:

  • Is it even reasonable that an all-powerful and perfect God would inspire the writers of the Bible to produce a text containing errors?
  • If God did not inspire the writing of the Bible, isn’t it just the product of human writers, and if that is the case why should we submit to its authority, teaching, and claims?

There are lots of corollary questions, and your answers would reveal a great deal about your understanding of the Christian faith. But for now let’s take a cue from Geisler and Nix and start with the topic of biblical inspiration.

My notes from reading their text are presented below. For a more robust and authoritative treatment of the topic I highly recommend reading From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible. Words in quotes are directly from Geisler and Nix (except where Scripture is being quoted). Continue reading

How We Got the Bible (Part 1)

“We should not imagine a committee of church fathers with a large pile of books and these five guiding principles before them when we speak of the process of canonization. No ecumenical committee was commissioned to canonize the Bible.”

Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible

The Ecumenical Council

The Ecumenical Council by Salvador Dali, 1960


Our church’s Statement of Faith is pretty minimal. We only list eight core beliefs, the second of which states that we believe “in the inspiration of all the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit, and that they are the final authority for our faith and practice.”

“…final authority for our faith and practice?” Really?!

Our founders didn’t draft up this idea—it is delineated in the historic confessions of the Christian church. Consider the absolute implications of this statement. It means the Bible contains the foundations for Christian faith and practice, and that we are bound to it in all matters. We don’t get to impart our personal, alternative views. We don’t get to cherry pick which parts we like or which parts we would write differently. We don’t get to interpret what it says in ways that are contradictory to it. When we disagree with someone else’s view or interpretation, we submit to the final authority of the Bible. No appeals. We believe the Bible comprises God’s special revelation to us.

If you’ve been reading Veracity for any length of time, you know that we are big on personal discipleship—which we define as the process in which a believer or seeker takes personal responsibility for investigating the claims and content of the Bible. Personal Discipleship is based on the Bible.

Exactly how did we get the Bible?

Welcome to our latest Veracity series.  If you’re like me or Salvador Dali you may have developed some loose derivative notions such as:

  • God told a select group of human authors what to write,
  • Their writings were evaluated by committees of men in silly hats,
  • These ecumenical councils voted on which writings would be in “the Bible,” and
  • Later ecumenical councils clarified and solidified the final selection (and some modified it).

In fact, if you read what Wikipedia has to say about Ecumenical Councils it sounds like a pretty cut-and-dried historical process. But is that all there is to it? For that matter are these notions even correct? Are we to live our lives under the complete authority of documents that were assembled by ancient and medieval committees? How do we know that the Bible we hold in our hands today is what God intended for us to have? What if it was corrupted in its translations or transmission? How do we know that we have the right books, and why do we disagree along denominational lines about what should be included in the ‘Holy’ Bible?

In preparing for this series I read a lot of texts that come at these questions from a canonical perspective (focusing on how the official list of biblical texts was created and adopted). I must confess, that was originally my interest as well. But Drs. Norman Geisler and William Nix have a more comprehensive, full-orbed understanding, which they explain in From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible. So let’s dig in and see what these and other scholars have to bring to our understanding of how we got the Bible.


Over the course of this series we will look at the inspiration, canonization, transmission, and translation of the Bible. But before we dive into the topic of inspiration here’s a Mini Bible College audio clip from Dick Woodward to give us the big picture.

Dick did a masterful job summarizing the basics for us, and Geisler and Nix will delve more deeply into the details (particularly when we get to the process of canonization). We’ll go slowly and see what we can learn about the book that comprises the authoritative basis for our Christian faith and practice.

Additional Resources

From God To UsNorman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible.

Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.

Dick Woodward, Mini Bible College Audio Download.

Robert Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study.

Jack P. Lewis, Jamnia After Forty Years.

Brooke Foss Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament during the First Four Centuries.



Who Wrote the Bible? (Part 4)

Who Wrote The Bible

Who wrote the Bible?

Welcome back to our series on the authorship of the Bible. In this post we will explore evidence that points to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the writers of the four canonical gospels.

Setting aside for now discussions about canonicity, inerrancy, and textual criticism, how much confidence can we have that the four gospels were written by their traditionally-accepted authors?

Because none of the gospel writers identified themselves by name as the author of the text, these foundational books of the Christian faith remain technically anonymous. It is no surprise therefore that skeptics seek to discredit the claims of Christianity by questioning the traditional authorship of the gospels. Likewise it is no surprise that well-meaning proponents of the faith get in over their heads when it comes to defending the traditional authorship. As you can see from spirited discussions like this one (be sure to read the comments), the facts can easily become blurred by the voices entangled in debate. Our position on Veracity is that we’re all about the truth and that readers can decide for themselves without being told what to think. Personally, I think scholars give themselves too much credit for what they ‘know’−on both sides of the debate. Worldviews influence interpretation. Got it. Continue reading

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