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Canon

By H. A. (Buster) Dobbs


religion, articles, christianity

The big deal among liberals is the canon of the Bible. Much is being said about when the Bible assumed its present form-39 books of the Old Testament and 27 New Testament books for a total of 66 books in the Bible. Scholars are looking at this afresh to decide if the Bible, as we know it, is what it ought to be. Is the Bible incomplete? Is the complete Bible necessary?

Jesus did not give us a list of the 27 books of the New Testament, and some imply from this that we cannot be sure the Bible is the final and full will of God. They suggest that some inspired books may have been left out of our Bibles; some books in our Bibles may not belong in the sacred volume.

If what is being suggested by modern "scholars" is correct, we cannot depend on the Bible as authoritative and binding. Its composition was slipshod and may or may not be the will of God. It may have holes and serious flaws.

The new modernism, openly advocated by some in the church (see Carroll Osburn, The Peaceable Kingdom) claims that the Bible is a "pointer" to truth. It is a "witness" to the Word of God, not the very Word of God. Osburn, Shelly, Harris, Olbricht, and others advocating radical liberalism do not accept the verbal inspiration nor the literal truth of the Bible. Still, they do say the Bible is distinctive. They advocate "full" rather than "verbal" inspiration (The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 63). The idea of verbal inspiration is regarded by such liberals as hopelessly out­of­date and worthless. (We will have more on verbal inspiration in coming articles.)

This thinking makes the Bible unnecessary and impotent. Why cite book, chapter, and verse, if the Bible is anemic? No need to be bound by precept, if the Bible is a pale reflection of the divine will.

If the books of the Bible, officially accepted as God­breathed and, therefore, Holy Scriptures, are not the very words of God, we are in a vacuum. What makes the official list of books that belong in the Old and New Testaments? How do we decide which books are inspired and which are not inspired? These are critical questions and every Bible student should be vitally interested in the answers.

We will look first at the Old Testament. Why are the books of Ecclesisticus, Baruch, Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Tobias, and Wisdom excluded from the Old Testament? (We plan to have a special section on the books technically called pseudepigrapha in future articles.) Right now we are interested in why the 39 books of the Old Testament were accepted as inspired of God and worthy of a place in the Old Testament, and why other books were excluded.

Some teachers in the school of radical­liberalism say that the writers of the Old Testament did not claim to be inspired, nor that their every word came from God. What is the test of inspiration for Old Testament books? If a book is inspired of God, it belongs in the Bible. The question of which books should be in the Bible is unquestionably tied to the question of inspiration. If inspired, the book belongs; if not inspired, the book does not belong. It is that simple.

The proper test is not what a council of mere mortals may think, or a great synagogue may say, but in whether God spoke it and man recorded it. That is the test.

Moses claims to have written the first five books of the Bible. He was told to write in a book (Ex. 17:14; 34:27). Exodus 24:4 says that Moses "wrote all the words of the Lord." When the Old Testament claims Mosaic authorship for the opening five books of the Bible, it is obvious that he did not record his own death. That event had to be written by the hand of another, but the balance is said to have been written by Moses.

The authenticity of the writing of Moses was confirmed by a demonstration of divine might. The people were sanctified and assembled and God descended to the summit of Sinai with fire, the mountain turned black with smoke, it quaked greatly, the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, and the voice of God shook the earth (Ex. 19:17­19). A New Testament writer refers to this awesome event and says that it confirmed that the words of Moses were in fact the words of God (Heb. 12:18­21, 25­26). The message was confirmed by miracle. It is significant that the "law of Moses" is also called "the law of the Lord" (2 Chron.17:9; 23:18).

The law of Moses was authoritative because God spoke it through Moses. Ezra and Nehemiah say that God gave Moses the law (Ezra 7:6). David tells us that God "made known his ways unto Moses" (Psa. 103:7). Isaiah objects because the Jews "will not hear the law of the Lord" (Isa. 30:9). Jeremiah says the written law was disdained (Jer. 8:8). The list continues-Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, Zephaniah; Haggai, and Malachi make reference to Moses law and/or writings. Ancient Israel believed Moses wrote the books of law as a spokesman for God.

The books of Moses were not accepted by the Jews as the words of God because of their great age, or elegance of style and beauty of expression, or force of teaching, or superior morality, but because it came from God's great representative and was certified by supernatural display.

"Thus saith the Lord" appears many times in the books of the Old Testament. The work of a true prophet (there were many false prophets in the Old Testament as there are many false teachers today) is to speak all that God commands (Deut. 13:18). Men of God have always claimed to speak only what God told them to say. Micaiah said, "As the Lord liveth, what the Lord saith unto me that will I speak" (1 Kings 22:14). True prophets speak as God directs when it is popular and when it is unpopular. "Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak unto all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die" (Jer. 26:8). The threats of corrupt priests and false prophets to Jeremiah is not an unusual response to divine revelation.

The books of the Old Testament were accepted by Hebrew scholars because they could all be traced to a prophet of God. Notice the claim of prophet­written history: The acts of David were written in the books of the prophets Samuel, Nathan, and Gad (1 Chron. 29:29). The history of Solomon was written by Nathan, Ahijah, and Iddo (2 Chron. 9:29). Jehu the prophet wrote of the life and works of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:34). Hezekiah's acts were written by Isaiah (2 Chron.32:32). "Now the rest of the acts of Josiah, and his goodness, according to that which was written in the law of the LORD, and his deeds, first and last, behold, they are written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah" (2 Chron. 35:26­27). The books of Chronicles record a chain of writing prophets. The so­called "lost books of the Old Testament" maybe the books of Kings and Chronicles.

The list of books accepted as inspired of God grew as the prophets in succeeding ages added their divinely authorized and communicated words of the history of Israel to the words of the prophets who had come before them-all the way back to Moses. The Old Testament canon ceased with the book of Malachi when, as Josephus says, "The Holy Spirit ceased speaking through prophets in Israel."

The acid test of whether a book belonged in the Old Testament was whether it came from a true prophet who spoke the words of God. The books of false prophets who did not speak a word from Jehovah were excluded. That is why the apocrypha (14 books of the Septuagint included in the Vulgate) are considered uncanonical and not part of the Hebrew Scriptures. (The word, apocrypha, by the way, means: "writings or statements of questionable authorship or authenticity.")

The New Testament canon is, not surprisingly, decided-or should be decided-on the same basis as the books of the Old Testament. New Testament writers claim to record what God told them to say. What they wrote was confirmed by signs and miracles and mighty works. The church from the beginning accepted the books as God­breathed, authoritative, and binding. That is the story of New Testament canon "in a nutshell."

While Jesus did not list the 27 books of the New Testament (they had not yet been written), he did tell us who would reveal and record those books (John 16:13). Something written by an inspired man belongs in an inspired book.

Paul asserts that his words are authoritative because they are inspired. Let doubters carefully read and contemplate the following words of the great apostle:

Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you: But I beseech you, that I may not be bold when I am present with that confidence, wherewith I think to be bold against some, which think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled. Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that, as he is Christ's, even so are we Christ's. For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed: That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters. For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present. For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule which God hath distributed to us, a measure to reach even unto you (2 Cor. 10:1­13).

Paul speaks with authority. He condemns those who oppose him. He is not behind the chiefest apostle because, as the Corinthians knew, the signs of an apostle were done by him in miraculous power. He wrote as an apostle. He claims authority as an apostle. He wrote the "commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor 14:37).

Another key passage is:

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual (words) (1 Cor. 2:10­13).

Paul claims that a person must reveal his own thoughts to another, and says that the thoughts of God cannot be discovered by human reason, but are matters of revelation. A more emphatic claim of verbal inspiration could not be made than is made by the apostle Paul in this statement. The mark of a spiritual man was to accept the words of Paul as divine (1 Cor. 14:37). Paul commends the Thessalonians for accepting his words not as the words of man but as the words of God, which, he says, they truly are (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul spoke "by the word of the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:15). Peter puts the words of the apostles on the same level as the words of holy prophets (2 Pet. 3:2). Peter speaks of the words of Paul as comparable to "other scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16).

The words of the apostles, and those empowered by the Holy Spirit through the apostles, were confirmed by mighty acts of God, just as the law of Moses was confirmed by a shaking earth, rending rocks, trumpet sound, and the voice of God.

Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will? (Heb. 2:1­4).
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen (Mark 16:17­20).

Skeptics and unbelievers may scoff, but the world will be called to account one day. When Jesus comes again and his powerful voice calls from the dead both the good and bad, judgment will be on the basis of the revealed, confirmed Word.

He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.

The canon of the Bible is decided by who spoke and the supernatural confirmation of his words, and by nothing else. It is not decided by a gathering of weak and fallible mortals as they assemble in their meaningless synods to vainly attempt to determine what God has long ago revealed and ratified.

We must give the more earnest heed to the things that were heard and that were confirmed by signs from God. All else is arrogant, narcissistic, and pointless. Let scholars take notice and answer, if they can.


Published February 1996