Why Are the Books in the Bible, in the Bible?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The collection of 66 books, which constitute the Christian Bible, are recognized by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox as being inspired by God, and therefore belonging to the canon of Scripture.  Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox recognize an additional dozen or so books (depending on how you count them), which are called the deuterocanonical (second canon) books, but Protestants do not recognize those books (neither do Jews).  I do not intend to treat the deuterocanonical books in this post, however, as that is a subject for another day.

One of the most fundamental questions we can ask about these books is why they are in the Bible.  Why are they canonical?  The first thing we need to distinguish is the difference between what determines a book to be canonical versus how a book is recognized as canonical.

Norman Geisler and William Nix explain the difference in their volume A General Introduction to the Bible:

Canonicity is determined by God –  Actually, a canonical book is valuable and true because God inspired it. That is, canonicity is determined or fixed conclusively by authority, and authority was given to the individual books by God through inspiration. The real question is not where a book received its divine authority, for that can only come from God; but how did men recognize that authority?

Canonicity is recognized by men of God –  Inspiration determines canonicity. If a book was authoritative, it was so because God breathed it and made it so. How a book received authority, then, is determined by God. How men recognize that authority is another matter altogether.  As J. I. Packer notes, “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.”

How did ancient Jews and Christians, then, recognize that a book was inspired by God?  In the simplest terms, a book was recognized as inspired by God if it was written by a prophet of God.  Note that this is a necessary, but not sufficient condition; at a minimum, propheticity of a book is needed.  Geisler and Nix explain:

In brief, a book is canonical if it is prophetic, that is, if it was written by a prophet of God. In other words, propheticity determines canonicity. Of course one did not have to belong to the school of the prophets begun by Samuel (1 Sam. 19:20) or to be a disciple (“son”) of a prophet (2 Kings 2:3). All one needed was a prophetic gift as Amos (7:14) or Daniel (7:1) possessed. A prophet was a mouthpiece of God. He was one to whom God spoke in visions, dreams, and sundry ways. Even kings such as David (2 Sam. 23:1–2) and Solomon (1 Kings 9:2) were prophets in this sense. It was necessary to have prophetic gifts in order to write canonical Scripture, because all inspired writing is “prophetic” (Heb. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:19–20).

Again, God determines canonicity by inspiring a book to be written by a prophet of God.  The people of God’s job was to recognize whether a true prophet of God actually wrote the book.

  • Actually, the Eastern Orthodox do accept the book of Revelation as canonical Scripture. As I understand it, they just do not read it in their liturgy—and they caution their people on its misuse.

    The Book of Revelation is included in the Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson, p. 1711ff.) and it is covered in the following article on the Orthodox Wiki: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Book_of_Revelation.

  • Ron, thank you very much for this information. You are the second person to point out this error, and I have now edited the original blog post to delete the comment I made.