Post Author: Bill Pratt
There is a misconception, popularized by books like The Da Vinci Code, that the way the books of the Bible were chosen consisted of politically infused church councils voting on the books they liked, and voting out the books they didn’t like. However, a careful reading of church history totally disproves this misconception.
As noted in a previous post, the church understood its role as recognizing what books God, himself, had inspired. This job of recognition was something the early church took very seriously, but how did they go about doing it? What were the criteria they used?
We know that propheticity was a necessary condition for canonicity, but sometimes church fathers who were trying to assess propheticity of a book were removed by decades, or even centuries, from the original composition of the books. So what did they do?
Norman Geisler and William Nix, in their book A General Introduction to the Bible, describe the criteria that were actually employed by the early church in this process.
- Was the book written by a prophet of God? This was the most fundamental criteria. Once this was established, the book’s inspiration was recognized.
- Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? If there were doubts about the author’s being a true prophet of God, miracles served as divine confirmation.
- Did the message tell the truth about God? According to Geisler and Nix, “Any teaching about God contrary to what His people already knew to be true was to be rejected. Furthermore, any predictions made about the world which failed to come true indicated that a prophet’s words should be rejected.”
- Does it come with the power of God? Geisler and Nix explain, “Another test for canonicity was the edifying effect of a book. Does it have the power of God? The Fathers believed the Word of God is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), and consequently ought to have a transforming force for edification (2 Tim. 3:17) and evangelization (1 Peter 1:23).”
- Was it accepted by the people of God? Geisler and Nix point out that “the initial acceptance of a book by the people to whom it was addressed is crucial. Paul said of the Thessalonians, “We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). For whatever subsequent debate there may have been about a book’s place in the canon, the people in the best position to know its prophetic credentials were those who knew the prophet who wrote it. Hence, despite all later debate about the canonicity of some books, the definitive evidence is that which attests to its original acceptance by the contemporary believers.”
Geisler and Nix summarize:
The most important distinction to be made at this point is between the determination and the discovery of canonicity. God is solely responsible for the first, and man is responsible merely for the last. That a book is canonical is due to divine inspiration. How that is known to be true is the process of human recognition. How men discovered what God had determined was by looking for the “earmarks of inspiration.”
It was asked whether the book (1) was written by a man of God, (2) who was confirmed by an act of God, (3) told the truth about God, man, and so on, (4) came with the power of God, and (5) was accepted by the people of God. If a book clearly had the first earmark, the remainder were often assumed. Of course the contemporaries of the prophet (apostle) knew his credentials and accepted his book immediately. But later church Fathers sorted out the profusion of religious literature, discovered, and gave official recognition to the books that, by virtue of their divine inspiration, had been determined by God as canonical and originally recognized by the contemporary believing community to which they were presented.