How Were the Books of the New Testament Chosen? from the series “Questions People Are Asking”

Someone once shared with me their theory on how we got the Bible: “aliens delivered a book of rules they knew we would need.” Biggest problem with this theory is not that the existence of intelligent aliens has yet to be proven, but that if you read through the Bible from cover to cover, you just know that this theory is not workable. The Bible as a book is really a collection of many books, written by many authors, responding to many different situations, over many years, using many genres. If aliens had wanted to leave us a book of rules, they could have done so much more simply! So how did we get the Bible? And why does it seem so convoluted and complicated? The New Testament itself is so obviously not one book, but many, so how were they brought together?

Let us especially consider the New Testament for some are claiming or at least thinking that the process was a conspiracy by the top dogs of the church, thanks to Dan Brown and “The Davinci Code.” So which books were cherished by the early Christians? Perhaps you have noted that I have used the word cherished rather than chosen, this is deliberate for it is a much more accurate way of describing the process. First, the earliest Christians cherished those works that were either from apostles directly, or from someone quite intimate with an apostle. This ensured that the writings were from the perspective and knowledge of eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. Secondly, the earliest Christians could only, out of necessity, cherish those works that were available to them in their time and place. So in the very earliest days the people of Asia Minor might have had, for example, Paul’s letters we know of as Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians, but not Romans or Corinthians. Those cities were at a greater distance! And so it did take some time for the process of Christians networking together to agree on which writings would be cherished by all Christians across all regions, what we now call the canon. It took a few hundred years for that whole process to be finalised, but we should note that most of the main works of the New Testament, which themselves contain most of the main doctrines, were agreed upon quite early. Third, the early Christians were more apt to cherish those works that fit in with the rest of cherished scripture and with the beliefs they held in community. So while some today will argue that the so-called gnostic gospels might have been in the Bible were it not for a church meeting or two, that simply is not so. Any Apple loving iPhone user would know a Chinese knock-off running Android instantly. The Christian community knew authentic Christianity.

Now there are two things we want to think about, first we want to consider the Biblical assertion that the scriptures are “God breathed” (2nd Timothy 3:16). We ought not to think of the Bible being written by people in a trance whose very fingers are taken over by God to do the writing, neither should we think of the Bible as being written by people without the hand of God upon them. Rather, the Bible displays a wonderful working together of the sovereignty of God and human choice. Now we can get too narrow in the way we normally conceive of God inspiring the Bible, for many think of God’s hand being upon the writing only. Consider that God’s hand was upon the scripture writers as they were called to be in relationship with and to serve Him. His hand was also upon them as they experienced Him and matured in their relationship with Him. God’s hand can also be seen involved in the situations that called for the writers to write. God’s hand was involved in the words conceived in the writer’s minds and hearts. God’s hand was involved in the recording of those words. God’s hand was also involved in the collecting and editing of the works that preserve those words. And God’s hand was involved in the collecting and cherishing of each and every work that makes up the Bible today. Yes, humans were involved deeply in the writing and cherishing of the scriptures. But so was God in every aspect. This is a wonderful mystery and coming together of God’s sovereignty and human choice. Some will wince at the mention of mystery, I marvel. We do well to remember that we see the hand of God involved, not just in the writing of the scriptures where the words are the very words God desired, but also in the process of cherishing and preserving as scripture the very works God would use to lead us to truth and to Himself. God’s Holy Spirit moves in far more people than just the writers of the scriptures, but in the community that has cherished them, and the very minds and hearts informed by them today.

Next, we want to point out that for the legitimacy of a faith perspective, having many books collected into one is much preferable to having just one in the first place. Why? Because religions that base their teaching on just one work end up really needing trust in just one person. One can think of the Koran which in comparison to the Bible is a very simple and unified work. But to trust that the Koran is more true than the Bible means trusting one man’s profession of an experience of God, namely Muhammad’s. The Bible, on the other hand, comes from a multiplicity of authors, all of whom testify in different places, times, and ways to an experience of God, and the remarkable thing is the unity in their testimony. This unified testimony is clearly seen in the New Testament, where in “historian speak” we have multiple primary sources which point to the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If there was just one person claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, you could easily dismiss that one person as being deluded. But when we have an entire community of persons giving testimony, well that is not quite so easy to dismiss.

As a concluding thought we might point to the fact that the Bible has been a bestseller for a very long time. But God was not looking to release a bestseller, so much as He is looking to release you from sin, freeing you to love Him and know Him just, just as you are loved and known by Him. And to love Him and know Him, you’ll need a Bible. Thank the Lord, one has been provided.

For a much deeper perspective on issues of canon, visit the blog “Canon Fodder” at, particularly here, and here.


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