There is something infinitely regressive about “why” questions, and particularly so when it comes to the 66 books of the Bible. For implicit within the question is a skepticism which says that if there are 66 books, and God and man have not changed, then why cannot there be additional books that are equal to, or on a par with, those currently recognized. And before long the “why” question regresses backward to the point where the Bible not only loses its identity, but its distinct authority as the Word of God. God’s revelation, in other words, becomes more of a relativistic hodge-podge of loose-ended opinion making than the divine product of a providentially led people reacting to the heretical attack upon Scripture, whereby if the attack was not countered, the Bible would have lost its identity.
Hence the question of “why” really amounts to a question about criteria. What were the criteria used by the early Christians to discern and/or recognize which books belonged in the Bible, and which ones did not? For by answering the criteria question, contemporary readers of the Bible will not only better understand what it was that set the current biblical books comprising the Bible apart from those competing with it, they will also better understand why claims for extra-biblical writings like the Book of Mormon or the Urantia book, or the utterings of modern-day prophets, mystics, and spiritists, are not from God and are not be included in the biblical canon.
Several authors have written on the subject of the biblical criteria for canonization. Typically, critics of the biblical canon attempt to demonize the process, sometimes even asserting that there was some kind of Nicean conspiracy that took place between some apostates of the Christian church and the Roman Catholic Church in or around the year 325 A.D. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Furthermore, the criteria and process for canonization is much less sensational. Central to the concept of canonization, and why there are only 66 books in the biblical canon, is the concept of inspiration. 1 Simply put, if a book or letter was not recognized by the Church to be inspired, then it was rejected. Yet, aside from inspiration, what aided the early Christians to determine which books were canonical? The later biblical scholar F. F. Bruce probably gives the clearest list of criteria which aided in that recognition, starting with Apostolic Authority, Antiquity, Orthodoxy, Catholicity, Traditional Use, and Inspiration. Of course Bruce was writing specifically about the New Testament, since Old Testament canonization had long since been settled by the time New Testament Christians had gathered to decide which letters and books they considered to be canonical. Nevertheless, his list proves extremely valuable when answering the criteria/canon “why” question.
Apostolic Authority merely means that a particular book or letter had been discerned to have been written by an apostle, as opposed to those pseudonymous writings claimed to be written by apostles, and were not. It also included, however, knowing that the anonymously written books had been influenced by an apostle, such as the Gospel of Mark (Peter) and the Gospel of Luke (Paul), and hence they carried the same weight of apostolic authority as if an apostle had actually written it. The reason why apostolic authority is a primary criterion for canonical inclusion is essentially twofold. First, as Wayne Grudem contends, “It is primarily the apostles who are given the ability from the Holy Spirit to recall accurately the words and deeds of Jesus and to interpret them rightly for subsequent generations.” 2 Second, “…those who have the office of apostle in the early church are seen to claim an authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets, an authority to speak and write words that are God’s very words.” 3 Relevance at this point does not permit an elaboration on apostolic qualifications, except to point out that since the last of the apostles have passed from human existence, inspired, written revelation has ceased.
Antiquity is the principle, or criterion, which discriminates against those spurious writings that came along too late to be considered authentic Christian writings. This is not to say that there were not inauthentic writings during the days of Jesus and his apostles (see 2 Thess. 2:2), but that a great majority of the books and letters that came into existence to compete with earlier apostolic books and letters considered to be canonical have a later date for their authorship which precludes them from being authentic. Generally, those books are known as Apocryphal or Pseudepigraphical. The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, after listing the books that the early Church considered as “true, genuine, and recognized,” proceeds to distinguish those apocryphal or pseudepigraphical books as those “put forward by heretics”—namely The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Thomas, and The Gospel of Matthias, even though there were numerous other writings floating around during Eusebius’ day that were of a similar vein—that “They ought, therefore, to be reckoned not even among spurious books but shunned as altogether wicked and impious.”4 The point is that just because a book might have claimed apostolic authorship or authority did not necessarily mean that it indeed was such, and all one had to do to refute the claim was check the publication date. Apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings came much later than those admitted into the canonical body.
Orthodoxy 5 deals with that which is true, specifically in the sense of whether or not a writing expressed the truth. More specifically, “What does it teach about the person and work of Christ? Does it maintain the apostolic witness to him as the historical Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and raised from the dead, divinely exalted as Lord over all?” 6 Geisler and Nix vary the question by asking, “Did the message tell the truth about God…and his world as known from previous revelations?” 7 In the former instance Bruce alludes to the presence of Docetic and Gnostic groups that were espousing contrary views concerning the person of Jesus, some of which their teachings were recorded in written form (i.e., The Gospel of Peter). In the latter instance, there were false prophets and teachers present who espoused theologies that were inconsistent with the directives found in Deuteronomy 13:1-3 and 18:21-22 which warned against following after “other gods.” The implication in both instances is that there was not only a standard by which to judge the veracity of foreign writings and beliefs (i.e., the accepted writing of the apostles), but that there was a fundamental hermeneutical principle by which one could interpret the meaning of a given writing for consistency (i.e., the apostolic faith). If a document failed the test of orthodoxy, then it was refused admission into the biblical canon.
Catholicity refers to the general universal acceptance by the Church body of certain texts and writings that were considered inspired. This of course does not imply that there was unanimous agreement at first concerning every book or letter that one currently sees in the biblical corpus. Some books took longer to be accepted than others. Nevertheless, it was the universal acceptance of the local churches at first, and then abroad, that eventually decided upon which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. And while some have postulated that it was the church councils that ultimately decided, for nefarious reasons, which books were included and which were rejected, as Geisler and Nix point out, that was not so.
Once they were convinced by the evidence that the books were written by an accredited spokesman for God, then the books were accepted by the church universal. But the decisions of church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries did not determine the canon, nor did they even first discover or recognize it. In no sense was the authority of the canonical books contingent upon the later church councils. All those councils did was to give later, broader, and final recognition to what was already a fact, namely, that God had inspired them and that the people of God had accepted them in the first century. 8
This is why religious books like the Book of Mormon, the Koran, and the Urantia Book, among others, will never be included into, or be equated with, the Bible. Because the Church body, as a whole, ultimately is the one that recognizes and gives approval to a particular religious writing’s inclusion alongside that of the Bible. Biblical canonicity is not the product of an isolated individual or religious group’s opining that they have discovered some revelation from God apart from the Body of Christ. It is the result of the careful and prayerful consideration by the church universal over what it believes has been revealed by God under His inspiration. And if a book fails to garner universal acceptance by the Christian church body as a whole, it cannot be considered a work of God’s.
Traditional Use is descriptive of the attitude of early Christians who saw and recognized that certain writings were more consistent and representative of the Christian faith than others who merely purported to be, yet were deficient or inaccurate in certain aspects of either history or doctrine. Traditional use does not imply that Christian understanding of biblical doctrine has been exhaustively understood or revealed. What it does imply is that that which has been revealed and accepted is complete and sufficient for matters of faith and practice. Therefore, as Bruce points out,
If any church leader came along in the third or fourth century with a previously unknown book, recommending it as genuinely apostolic, he would have found great difficulty in gaining acceptance for it; his fellow-Christians would simply have said, ‘But no one has ever heard of it!…Or, even if the book had been known for some generations, but had never been treated as holy scripture, it would have been very difficult to win recognition for it as such. 9
Inspiration has been dealt with elsewhere. Nevertheless, in summation, inspiration has to do with God “breathing out”—which is a figure of speech meaning “to talk” or “to communicate”—that which He has sanctioned to be received in matters of faith and practice. Included in God’s revelation are allusions to scientific and historical principles and facts, even though the Bible is not a scientific or historical book, per se, as one might encounter in more specified writings dealing with such subjects. Inspiration ultimately deals with God’s authorship (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21) of a book that He intended for mankind to use to understand not only humanity’s place in creation history, but God’s redemptive effort to save humanity from the perils and plight of sin that humanity had fallen into since the earliest days of creation. Ultimately, God’s inspired revelation is seen in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, who the writer to the Hebrews says that God has spoken through (Heb. 1:2), meaning that any further written revelation has ceased.
Therefore, why is it that we have only 66 books in the Bible? It is because those 66 books are the ones that met the criteria of Apostolic Authority (it written by an apostle, or had apostolic influence), Antiquity (the writing fit within the time-frame of apostle’s lives), Orthodoxy (it taught what was true about God, Jesus, and creation), Catholicity (the writing was universally accepted by the Church body), Traditional Use (the book or letter did not contradict previously accepted beliefs and practices), and Inspiration (the evidence led the Church to believe it was “God breathed”). Conversely, the multitude of competing writings, letters, and books of the apocryphal or pseudepigraphical nature were rejected on the same grounds. It is the same standard that all genuine Christians should consider and use the next time they are confronted by some prophet or mystic claiming special insight into the things of God, and presents his evidence in the form of an alleged direct revelation from Him.
1 Milton Fisher argues, “Whether we think of the prophets of Old Testament times or the apostles and their God-given associates of the New, the recognition at the very time of their writing that they were authentic spokesmen for God is what determines the intrinsic canonicity of their writing. It is altogether God’s Word only if it is God-breathed” [emphasis added]. Philip Wesley Comfort, ed., The Origin of the Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1992), 66. See also the article, “What Does Inspiration of the Bible Mean?”
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 60.
4 Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History, 2 vols., trans. by Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, reprint 1953), 1:259.
5 Orthodox is actually a compound Greek word, stemming from orthos (ovrqw/j), meaning “correctly, rightly,” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:531) or “standing straight up” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5:449), and dokein (dokei/n) meaning to “think, believe, appear” (EDNT, 1:340; TDNT 2:232). Although the actual word “orthodox” or “orthodoxy” does not appear in either the NT or LXX, the overriding understanding of either is to correctly or rightly think or believe in a manner consistent with the truth of God, as opposed to error.
6 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988), 260.
7 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 226.
8 Ibid., 231.
9 Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 263.