On April 28, 2013, I blogged on the dangers of “red letter Christianity”. By that, I mean those who choose to live by Jesus’ actual words, but have doubts about the accuracy or authority of the rest of the Bible. Today, I’d like to summarize very briefly why Christians have always believed all of scripture to be true. Hopefully this summary will be helpful to you as you teach them to your family or those you mentor.
The Books for a New Testament
By the end of the first century, contemporary witnesses to the message of Jesus and the apostles were mostly gone. The oral traditions became corrupt and conflicting, and believers wanted a body of Scripture that would spell out the authoritative message of the apostles.
It seems that almost from the time of their composition, the four Gospels and Acts were accepted as divinely inspired accounts of the life of Christ and the development of the early church. Various churches to which Paul addressed his epistles accepted his word to them as coming from the mouth of God. And gradually nearby churches came to feel that letters sent to sister churches were of value for them too; so they made copies. In this way the Pauline epistles began to circulate individually and by the end of the second century as a collection. However, there were other various letters and writings circulating that were obviously not on a par with these writings, but very close to the New Testament message.
The Diocletian persecution in 303 AD called for the burning of all sacred books and the punishment of those who possessed them. Preservation of Scripture in the face of such determined imperial opposition required great effort and endangered the lives of those who hid or copied it. Therefore, one wanted to be sure he was risking his life to disseminate, or protect a genuine work. It was time to separate the wheat from the chaff. So, here’s how the early church went about the process.
Tests of Canonicity
By the way, the term cannon, simply means, “a rule or a standard.” And the early church wanted a standard that all churches could accept. Conservatives have long held that all the New Testament books were written by about the end of the first century, in spite of liberal claims to the contrary. And archaeological evidence now quite effectively confirms the conservative position.
From the time of Irenaeus (c. 175), there was general consensus on the same books that appear in our New Testament today, though there were continuing disputes over some inclusions. The eminent Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) seemed to recognize all the New Testament books. His greater student, Origen (c. 250), divided the books into categories of universally accepted works and disputed works. In the former he put the four Gospels, the thirteen epistles of Paul, I Peter, I John, Acts and Revelation. In the latter he put Hebrews, 2 Peter and 3 John, James, Jude and four other works, not now part of the New Testament. However, by the end of his life, He himself seems to have accepted nearly all the books now included in the New Testament.
Hebrews was disputed, not because of its content, but because its authorship was uncertain; 2 Peter, because it differed in style and vocabulary from I Peter; James and Jude, because they represented themselves as servants rather than apostles of Christ; 2 and 3 John because the author called himself an elder rather than an apostle.
The Official List: The Councils of Carthage
At a local council in 393 at Hippo, where St. Augustine was bishop, this issue was debated, but with strong support, the contents of the New Testament were spelled out officially as our current twenty-seven books for the first time. Their recommendations were affirmed at the Third Council of Carthage, a provincial council, in 397, with the proviso that no other books were to be used in the churches as authoritative Scripture. Christians have always believed that not only were scriptures inspired, but God moved even in the selection of those books. The Old Testament books were never in dispute for some of the reasons I’ll identify in the following section.
We have the following testimony of Jesus regarding the Old Testament.
1. He recognized the whole Old Testament as Scripture (Jn. 5:39; Lk. 24:44-46, Mk. 7:8-13; Mt. 13:13-14; Jn. 10:34-35).
2. In his recorded utterances there are references to fourteen Old Testament books: Genesis (Mk. 10:6-8), Exodus (Lk. 18:20), Numbers (Jn. 3:14), Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Lk. 10:26-28), I Samuel (Mk. 2:25), I Kings (Mt. 12:42), Psalms (Mk. 12:10), Isaiah (Lk. 4:17-21), Daniel (Mt. 24:15), Hosea (Mt. 9:13), Jonah (Mt. 12:40), Zechariah (Mt. 26:31), and Malachi (Mt. 11:10).
3. He believed the historicity of biblical persons and events such as: Abel (Lk. 11:51), Noah and the flood (Mt. 24:37-39), Moses (Jn. 3:14), David (Lk. 20:41), Jonah and the fish (Mt. 12:40), man’s creation and the divine institution of marriage (Mt. 19:4-7), and Daniel (Mt. 24:15).
4. He readily submitted himself to the authority of the Old Testament (Mt. 5:17; 26:54; Lk. 18:31). Although he broke Jewish traditional law when it conflicted with the Father’s will (Jn. 9:16), he never violated God’s law as given in the Old Testament (Mt. 3:17; 5:17; 17:5; Jn. 8:29).
5. He had complete trust in the teachings of the Old Testament. This is indicated by his quoting from the Old Testament when he was tempted (Mt. 4:4, 7, 10), his reference to God’s statement regarding marriage (Mt. 19:4-6), and his reference to the doctrine of the resurrection (Mt. 22:29-32).
6. He declared that Scripture cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35). In context, the Lord said that Scripture, which he identified as the Word of God, cannot be annulled as though its declarations were untrue.
In summary, if Jesus, being the Son of God believed the Old Testament books were true, the early church and we should never doubt it!
We have the testimony of the New Testament writers themselves, about the Old Testament books.
1. They quoted from or allude to all of the Old Testament books except the Song of Solomon.
2. They called the Old Testament “Scripture” (Lk. 24:27, 44-45; Acts 17:11; 18:24; Rom. 1:2), even declaring that it is “God-breathed” (II Tim. 3:16).
3. They referred to each section of the Old Testament as being God’s Word: the Law (Rom. 10:5-7, 17), the Prophets (Rom. 9:25; Heb. 10:15), and the Writings (Acts 1:15-16; 4:24-26).
We have the testimony of the Israelites. Millions of Israelites were witness to God giving Moses the Law, the voice of God himself from Mount Sinai, and all the events of the exodus. For Moses to write something millions of Israelites knew to be false would have been impossible.
We have the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are a testimony to the accuracy of the Old Testament we have today. These 2000-year-old scrolls contain eighteen partial books of the Old Testament and almost all of the chapters of Isaiah. (Google Dead Sea Scrolls to learn more.)
Why do we have so much confidence in the New Testament books?
The Council of Cartage chose the twenty-six books of the New Testament we have today, out of hundreds of letters and writings, because they all met the following tests;
1. Every New Testament book was written by someone who heard Jesus speak personally, or was a biographer for such a person, during their lifetime. This means although Mark was Peter’s biographer or writer, Peter was alive to affirm the accuracy of Mark’s writing. Therefore, it was as if Peter himself had written it. The accusation that the New Testament books were written two or three generations later is false. All New Testament writers were eye or ear witnesses to Jesus’ teachings.
2. Every New Testament book was accepted by the very early church as being true. When a Christian could be put to death for possessing Christian writings, no one would take that risk unless they had a high degree of confidence in the trustworthiness of those writings. In this Darwinian process, questionable writings were rejected and those written by the apostles were preserved, which is why we still have thousands of fragments of scripture dating back to the first few centuries of the church.
3. Every New Testament book agreed with each other and were never refuted by any other apostle. For example, Peter himself says in II Peter 3:15; “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.”
In Gal. 1-3, Paul went to Jerusalem to check with the other apostles just to make sure everything he was teaching in writing agreed with their own understanding. “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Gal. 1:3
Some other writings did not have these critical checks and balances and; therefore, were rejected.
What true Christians have historically believed about all scripture?
The Scriptures are the infallible Word of God (in their original writings) and are the believer’s highest and final authority for faith and life.
Please consider how you can use these proofs to help your children or grandchildren to have greater confidence in this amazing gift – the word and revelation of God in all of scripture!
Following Jesus in Real Life