The Canon of the New Testament

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I am a natural born skeptic.  When they say I should drink two glasses of water before breakfast, I wonder who they are.  When they say I should change my oil every 3000 miles, I wonder if they are engine experts or shills for the oil companies.  When they say I need eight hours of sleep a night, I wonder how they know that about me specifically.  I subscribe to the theory that my body will wake up when it has had enough sleep.  Is that too simple-minded?  Maybe I should ask they.

So what happens to my skepticism when they tell me that the 27 books of the Bible that make up my New Testament are God-inspired?  In short, it disappears.

And my skepticism disappears for two reasons.  First, the manuscript evidence supporting the authenticity of the New Testament is outstanding.  No, we don’t have the actual originals penned by the apostles.  But we do have documents from so close to the time of the originals, that to a trained archeologist, the gap is basically zero.

I like to think of it this way.  As a geophysicist, I make predictions about the subsurface of the earth from measurements taken at the earth’s surface.  And there is always a varying uncertainty as to what I am “seeing”.  (In fact, a large part of my job is quantifying that uncertainty.)  Sometimes the “picture” is fuzzy and the uncertainty is high and my interpretation is nothing more than an educated guess.  Other times, the “picture” is quite clear and the certainty is high and I have a 90% confidence in my prediction.  And 90% is close enough to 100% to move any project forward.

We can’t say with a 100% certainty that the manuscripts we have are authentic.  But we are so close that, in my mind, the leap of faith is not very large to get there.  But we all vary in our natural skepticism, so let me encourage you that whether you think the leap of faith to get there is large or small, it is your faith that will take you the rest of the way.  And given the manuscript evidence at hand, it is a reasonable faith.

Now the second reason my skepticism disappears is because there is no they in the Canon of the New Testament.  No church council said, “OK, here is a list of 50 books, let’s pick 27 and get this finished.”  While two church councils – in 393 and 397 A.D. – did indeed confirm the canon of the New Testament, the key word is “confirm” not decide.  The councils codified something that already existed; the books of the New Testament.

For over two and a half centuries, prior to the councils, the developing church had adopted the 27 books of the New Testament.  The early church, in its teaching and practice, had come to accept the Fourfold gospel, the letters of Paul, the book of Acts as the connection between them, and the letters of the other apostles as the authentic Canon of the New Testament.  So if there is a they, it is the church at large, listening to the voice of God over a large geographic area and over a long time.  (For a longer explanation see F. F. Bruce The Canon of Scripture in book form or 4 page pdf summary)

So now we can proceed with confidence that we are indeed exploring the God-inspired text as we return to two of the New Testament’s over-arching messages:  Jesus is the only way to heaven and a sinful lifestyle is not compatible with being a believer.  We will take up the first point next time.