It is safe to assume that God would want to ensure we got only and all the books He wants us to have, and I mentioned three ways we can have confidence that we have the right books – Exposure, Attributes and Recognition. Having dealt with Exposure in the last article, let’s look at Attributes and Recognition in this one.
The writings point to a divine source
When Christ spoke, “people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28b-29); they “marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (Luke 4:22); they said, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Luke 4:36); and they said, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (John 7:46). His words had attributes that marked them out as being God’s words. The same is true with the Bible. There is an authoritative, gracious, powerful, unique message found in the Bible that shows that although it came through men, it didn’t come from them, it came from God. As one ancient writer put it:
“If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings [i.e. Scripture] . . . it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God.”1
If people say they’ve read the Bible and aren’t impressed, that doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t God’s Word – it means they’ve no sight to see the glory and no appetite to appreciate the sweetness. And this is precisely what the Bible says:
“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The reason why we know this to be true is because once we saw nothing glorious and tasted nothing special in the Bible, but then everything changed. Christians know the Bible is a revelation from God because in reading it we have encountered a revelation of God. The message contained in Scripture has transformed our lives, and resulted in us finding beauty and glory in this book that once held no appeal to us at all. We look through the books of the Bible and see the beauty of Christ and the glory of the gospel presented. These books link up in ways that defy human ingenuity, they present a unified message that matches reality, provides comfort, speaks to my needs, and brings fruitfulness and joy when obeyed. The divine qualities of these books make it clear they are God’s books. The Westminster Confession of Faith put it like this:
“The heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God” (1:5).
The writers point to a divine source
When the Lord Jesus left this world, He left behind apostles, and indicated that they would receive new revelation through the Spirit. These apostles received and preached this new revelation, and performed miracles in confirmation of their status as channels of divine revelation. The message spread and the apostles couldn’t be everywhere, and the years advanced and the apostles couldn’t be around forever, so it necessitated this apostolic doctrine being written for all saints and for all time. As Michael Kruger has said: “Thus, the New Testament canon is not so much a collection of writings by apostles, but a collection of apostolic writings – writings that bear the authoritative message of the apostles and derive from the foundational apostolic era (even if not directly from their hands)”.2 So, a book couldn’t be recognised as New Testament Scripture if it didn’t bear apostolic authority. The books we have in the New Testament either came from apostles or came from apostolic associates who communicated the apostolic message.
When we look at the writings of those who came after the apostles, they all recognised that their writings could never be put on the same level as the writings of the apostles and those who were with them. The authority of the apostles remains with the church, not in the appointment of new apostles, but in the writings they left behind for the church.
The Lord Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Those who belong to Christ can hear His voice in Scripture – they recognise the Shepherd in the books He has given, and that is why and how the body of Christ came to unanimous agreement on what books should be regarded as Scripture.
Those who have been born again have received the Spirit of God and share the life of God. We have been brought to know God, and so we can recognise His voice. The previous quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith went on to say, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts”.
There are myths propagated that there were endless power struggles and political shenanigans involved in getting agreement on which books should be regarded as Scripture. This is so far from the truth. The books, in a way, chose themselves. If they came from apostles (directly or through their associates while the apostles were present), then they were taken as authoritative. Most of our twenty-seven books were held as the Word of God from the commencement of their circulation, so that in the New Testament itself we find Paul referring to Luke’s Gospel as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18), and Peter referring to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Some books had to be tested, just as Paul exhorted in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good”. The question was whether they were genuinely apostolic or not. These books would be examined to see if they did bear those divine qualities we spoke about – did they agree with apostolic doctrine, did they bear evidence of inspiration? After testing the writings that claimed prophetic authority, the body of Christ held fast to what was good – the twenty-seven books of our New Testament.
- Origen, De Principiis, 4.1.6.
- Kruger, Canon Revisited, loc. 2629.