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Is the Bible Complete?

Christians today may have many questions about where our Bible came from. How do we know that the Canon of Scriptures is complete? How do we know that all of those 66 books constitute God's word? How do we know which books should be included as Scripture? How do we know that there are not other books which should have been included? How do we know which writings were divinely inspired? To begin to answer these questions, we will first examine the commonly accepted scholarly arguments for the Canon of scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament

Our Old Testament has 39 books, but the Jewish arrangement of that same Old Testament only has 22 books.  Both Old Testaments are exactly the same as far as the information they contain, but the books are just arranged differently. For example the Jewish Bible combines books such as 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, and some of the prophetic books. They are also arranged in a different order. The Jewish Old Testament begins with Genesis, but it ends with what we call 2 Chronicles. This brings us to the first scholarly argument, found in Matthew 23:35. Here, Jesus refers to a period of time from "the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah." The two events here seem to encompass the Jewish Old Testament, because the first one is found in Genesis, and the second one is found in our 2 Chronicles. Scholars frequently use this as proof that the true Old Testament is the 22-book Jewish Old Testament, which is our 39-book Old Testament.

The New Testament

History shows that it was certainly no easy task for the Church fathers to discern which books constituted the New Testament. We will review the criteria used, but as we do, we should remember that many of our 27 books were carefully questioned, and some of them had trouble making it into our New Testament. These include Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. In fact, it was not until 367 AD that our 27 books were first generally received as canonical. Finally, this was verified at the Council of Damascus in 383 AD, but the Council of Carthage still felt necessary to state it again in 419 AD.

The Apocrypha

Through the years, there have been some groups, such as Roman Catholics, who have believed that the Old Testament should include an additional set of 13 books known as the Apocrypha. These books cover the period of time between the last Old Testament Prophets to the time of John the Baptist. In 1545, at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church officially included the Apocrypha as part of the Canon, although history shows that this was part of a desperate attempt to save the Catholic Church in the midst of the Reformation. In fact, some reformers included the Apocrypha as a separate piece which was not divinely inspired, but which was useful as history.

Criteria

Now let's take a look at how scholars have dealt with the question of whether or not to include the Apocrypha in the Bible:

  1. Quotations: A major argument for verifying the authenticity of scripture through the years has involved examining which books were quoted by the canonical books.  For example, some will argue that since none of the books of the Apocrypha are quoted in our Bible, then that serves as proof that they do not belong in our Bible.


  2. Literature: Another closely related argument says that we need to study what other non-canonical literature claims about the Canon.  For example, the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, claims that the real Old Testament is the 22-book Jewish Old Testament like our 39-book Old Testament. This argument gains credibility because of the testimony of men who lived so close to Old Testament times.


  3. Divine Inspiration: Some scholars believe that no other books claim to be divinely inspired as they believe the Old Testament does, by 2 Timothy 3:16.


  4. Prophets: Scripture can only be recorded through the divine revelation from God.  Since there were no prophets during the period of the Apocrypha, how could it be divinely inspired?


  5. Errors: Many scholars have rejected the Apocrypha on the basis of the errors and contradictions found within it. In some cases, scholars have reason to believe that some of the moral and spiritual discrepancies are false doctrine rather than translation errors.  Some even cite what they call absurdities, or passages that are completely silly, and in no way could belong in the Bible.


  6. Style: Scholars also feel that they can identify canonical books by their style.


  7. Apostolic Authority: The most important criterion for the books of the New Testament was Apostolic Authority. This meant that a canonical book had to have been written by someone with the Gift of Apostle. This was sometimes difficult to verify because some of the books did not identify within themselves who the author was, and others were believed to be forgeries.


  8. Read in the churches: Another important test included verifying that each book had been read in the first century churches.  Obviously, this restriction also makes it necessary that the books were completed before the end of the first century.


  9. Quoted by leaders: The books had to have been quoted by early church leaders of the first century, in their writings. This is closely associated with 2) under Old Testament.


  10. Rule of Faith: The New Testament books had to be consistent with the Rule of Faith, or what the Apostles had orally taught.


  11. The Holy Spirit: As proof of divine revelation, the church fathers had to be convinced that each book was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


  12. Agreement: There had to be general agreement of the church fathers that each book was canonical.


  13. Quotations: The books were given credibility when they were proven to have quoted other canonical books, as well as when other books quoted them as being scripture. This is again like 1) and 2) under Old Testament.


  14. Claim Divine Inspiration: Church fathers said that each book had to claim divine inspiration, like 3) under Old Testament.


  15. Edification: The books had to edify the church.
Refuting the Scholars

Now we will give the arguments refuting each of the above criteria for canonization.  The objective here is to expose the subjectivity of the scholarly approach.

Quotations of Literature and Leaders (Items 1, 2, 9, and 13)

One of the major criterion for canonization is to determine what books were considered canonical at or near the time of their writings.  This is accomplished by learning all we can of all quotations made of other writings during that era.  There are many permutations of this argument.

The first way to exercise this argument is to say that a book must be referenced by other canonical books. This gives credibility to books such as Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, which are quoted by Matthew, Romans, and James. However, what about the books like Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Nahum, which, among others, are not quoted in any of our 66 books? This seems to be an inconsistent argument. Furthermore, what about all these books which are referenced in the Bible, but are not a part of our Canon:  Nathan and Gad in 1 Chronicles 29:29 and 2 Chronicles 9:29; Shemaiah and Iddo in 2 Chronicles 12:15; Hozai in 2 Chronicles 33:19; Jehu in 2 Chronicles 20:34; The Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia in Esther 10:2; the acts of Solomon in 1 Kings 11:41; Jashar in Joshua 10:13 and 1 Samuel 1:18; the Book of the Wars of the Lord in Numbers 21:14; the Letter to Laodecia in Colossians 4:16; and, the Book of Enoch in Jude 14? Furthermore, what is Ephesians 5:14 quoting (it's not 1 Thessalonians 5:6)? Also, what is Jesus quoting in Luke 24:46? Certainly this argument for canonicity is inconsistent, both in the canonical books that are not named by other canonical books, and in the non-canonical books which are named by canonical books.

The next permutation of this argument involves validating the scriptures from non-canonical books. This is done when we prove the Old Testament Canon from the testimony and writings of Josephus. This seems a very weak argument, to prove that God's word is true, based on writings that are clearly not God's inspired word. Suppose that archeology finds writings of other, and perhaps more credible, Jewish historians. Will we then be willing to discount what we currently believe about the Canon. Certainly not! This argument can add credibility to the Canon, but we must be careful not to rely too heavily upon it.

Scholars have even used writings of heretics to prove canonicity. The argument is that whatever the heretics attacked must be what was considered in that day to be the Canon. This is truly a weak argument, to rely upon the heretics to tell us what should be in our Bible.

We sometimes give credibility to what the early church leaders identified as canonical books. We can refute the 2nd and 3rd century church leaders in the same way we refute Josephus. We need to learn all we can from these men, but we must remember that they were capable of making mistakes.

Divine Inspiration and the Holy Spirit (Items 3, 11, and 14)

Exactly how do we proceed to prove that any book was written under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit? 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all of God's word is divinely inspired, but the whole issue here is to determine what is meant by "all of God's word." Can we simply say it means our 66 books since they are bound within the same cover? If this is true, then the Roman Catholics have the same argument about the Apocrypha. Furthermore, few of our 66 books explicitly claim divine inspiration, and there are some non-canonical books that do claim divine inspiration. Are we to accept the book of Mormon because it claims to be from God? Also, how do we know which authors were guided by the Holy Spirit? We can't even tell that about each other today, and we're not even sure who some of the authors were. Clearly this is a totally subjective argument.

Prophets (Item 4)

This is a strong argument against the Apocrypha. Other sources tell us that there were no prophets during the period between the Old and New Testaments. It is reasonable to think that God did not have prophets during this time, and thus no divine revelation was revealed to man in this era. However, unless the Bible explicitly says that there were no prophets during this period, we can't be sure. Just because we do not currently know about them, there still could have been some, and archeology could tell us this in the future. We should be careful not to put too much emphasis on this argument. If we should learn of prophets during this time, then does that change our Canon?

Errors and the Rule of Faith (Items 5 and 10)

This argument is weak from every angle.  First of all, modern-day liberals cite thousands of errors in our Bible, but we can rightfully explain them all. Some are misinterpretations, and others have been shown to be translation errors. Hundreds of years ago, one might have said that Job 26:7 was in error by suggesting that the earth is suspended in space. Science later proved this to be true, so what appeared to be an error, was just ignorance on the part of the accusers. We must be careful to distinguish between false doctrine and translation errors. In our search for the true Canon, we must use the same tests against non-canonical books as we do against the scriptures.

Perhaps what seems to be a contradiction in a non-canonical book is just ignorance, or a misinterpretation, or a translation error. Consider Exodus 33:11 which says that Moses spoke to God face to face, and Exodus 33:20 which says that nobody can see God's face and live. Shall we throw the book of Exodus out of the Canon because of what seems to be an error or a contradiction? If we were to throw out all books that seem to offer absurdities, we would have to look closely at 2 Samuel where David, a man after God's own heart, would butcher even the women and children of those he defeated in battle, and he would lame their animals. Those actions don't seem to be compatible with such a Godly man. What about the advice in Matthew to cut off our body parts that offend us? Couldn't one who misunderstands this passage call it an absurdity? What seems silly to us, could be truth that we just don't yet understand.

As far as considering the Rule of Faith goes, we are to test all books against what the apostles taught orally. The question here is, how do we know what the apostles taught orally? The most we can have is a written record.

Style (Item 6)

The question of style is a tricky one. If we throw out books that don't satisfy our rules of style, then what happens when we compare the book of Mark to the other gospels. Its short and choppy sentences and lack of elaboration make it seem inconsistent with the others. Yet, this is the beauty of having synoptic gospels. It paints the picture of Jesus for us, through the various viewpoints and writing styles of different men. Style remains as one of the most subjective criterion for canonicity.

Apostolic Authority (Item 7)

When we say that a New Testament book must have apostolic authority, haven't we taken liberties with our interpretation of apostolic authority? Clearly, apostolic authority should be that the author was an apostle. Yet, we have broadened this definition to include those who were close to the apostles. As far as we know, Mark, Luke, and James were not apostles in the sense that they had neither been with Jesus during His ministry on earth, nor seen the resurrected Christ. Yet we allow their books in the Canon because they were
"close" to some of the great apostles. The obvious question then is, "What about Barnabas?" Why is the Book of Barnabas not part of the Canon? Who is to say whether Barnabas or Mark were "closer" to Paul? We even have books in our Canon that we don't know for sure who their author was, such as Hebrews. How can we be sure of apostolic authority when we're not even sure of the author?

Read in the Churches (Item 8)

How do we know what was read in the first century churches? All we have are written records. Suppose we find out later that pagan rituals were conducted in the churches. Does this say we should do the same? What if the book of Barnabas was read in the churches? Should we then include it in the Canon?

Agreement (Item 12)

By now it is easy to see the weakness of the argument that the agreement of the early church leaders somehow proves canonicity. What if out of ignorance they agreed upon a lie? After all, they were only men, making human decisions.

Edification (Item 15)

Edification seems to be a solid criterion for canonicity, since the whole purpose of the church is to edify believers. However, due to the human decision-making involved, believers are not always in agreement as to what is edifying. For example, the Book of Mormon is edifying to 4 million Mormons.

Conclusions

By this time, the reader is probably expecting to hear a refuting of the 66-book Canon. Actually, the author believes that the completed word of God is the 66-book Bible that was agreed upon in the 4th century, i.e. our Bible of today. However, it is important to be able to confidently believe in God's word for reasons other than the fifteen mentioned above.

All of the reasons explained above are offered by men, human scholars who through intense study of ancient literature and archeology are to be commended for the evidence that has been brought forward to give credence to the 66-book Canon. However, this all simply a "best human effort." To really know what constitutes the Bible is learned from the Bible itself. God reveals His word to us in such a way that we each have an individual and personal relationship with Him. This is the beauty of Christianity, a personal God. God is the one who reveals His sovereign word to us. He decided what to reveal to Moses, and He decided what to reveal to us. Our job is to use the discernment He gives us, and believe whatever He chooses to reveal to us.

We live in an age of grace when we are to simply have faith enough to trust in His grace. In the same way we trust Him to take care of our sin problem for salvation, we must also trust Him to reveal His word to us through His grace. We must simply have faith that God has provided His word to us, in a form that is complete for us, at least complete to the extent of what he has decided to tell us. We believe that our 66-book Bible is the completed Canon of Scriptures because we have faith in God, and we can trust Him to provide both His word, and our discernment. This Bible has stood the test of time, and I am satisfied with it by my faith, but not by the scientific proof of human effort. Faith is believing in things unseen. If there ever were scientific "proof" of the Canon, then I would not be able to accept it, otherwise my faith would no longer be faith. It would then be believing in what we can see, and even an unbeliever can do that.

God went to great lengths to preserve His written word through the ages. Although we have none of the original autographs, the manuscripts we do possess have proven much more credible than most classical (non-biblical) documents. We must believe by faith that our Bible is the word of God. If we try to believe it by any other means, such as the fifteen reasons given above, we are only fooling ourselves, because each of these reasons are only subjective, superficial, and easily refuted. Our faith is objective and real. "The just shall live by faith." (Romans 1:17)

I would argue that the Holy Spirit did "command" the apostles to write the books of the New Testament, just as He did the prophets to write the books of the Old Testament. The apostles were compelled by the Spirit  (Acts 20:22, 1 Corinthians 9:16), and God is omnipotent (Matthew 19:26), so He was able to use men to record His word as He purposed.

2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." God inspired the writing of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures themselves claim to be inspired.  I believe that this claim of inspiration in a faultless book is a very powerful argument.

In addition, I believe that it's quite amazing that the Bible constitutes 66 book by 40 different authors, and yet it folds together into one complete book. The odds are staggering that the 40 authors of this large book agree with and complement each other even though most of them didn't know each other, and some lived some 1300 years apart from each other.

In addition to the arguments in the aforementioned article, I would cite Revelation 22:18 here: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book." Although some argue that this is only referring to the book of Revelation, I interpret it in light of all the scripture which had been inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe that God is omniscient (Psalms 147:4-5), and that he knew and foreordained His plan of providing us with His Word (Exodus 5:16, Romans 9:17ff, Philippians 2:12ff). He knew what would be scripture, and when the last book was completed, He put this ominous warning at the end of it.

Owen Weber 2009