How were the books of the Bible selected and compiled, and how were the decisions made as to what would be distributed as the Word of God?

Even though we think of the Bible as being one book, it’s actually a collection of sixty-six books, and we realize that there was a historical process by which those particular books were gathered together and placed in one volume that we now know as the Bible. In fact, we call the Bible the canon of sacred Scripture. Canon is taken from the Greek word canon, which means “measuring rod.” That means it is the standard of truth by which all other truth is to be judged in the Christian life.

There have been many different theories set forth over the history of the church as to exactly how God’s hand was involved in this selection process. Skeptics have pointed out that over three thousand books were candidates for inclusion in the New Testament canon alone, and only a handful (twenty-some books) were selected. Doesn’t that raise some serious questions? Isn’t it possible that certain books that are in the Bible should not be there and others that were excluded by human evaluation and human judgment should have been included? We need to keep in mind, however, that of those not included in the last analysis, there were at the most three or four that were given serious consideration. So to speak in terms of two or three thousand being boiled down to twenty-seven or something like that is a distortion of historical reality.

Some people take the position that the church is a higher authority than the Bible because the only reason the Bible has any authority is that the church declared what books the Bible would contain. Most Protestants, however, take a different view of the matter and point out that when the decision was made as to what books were canonical, they used the Latin term recipemus, which means “we receive.” What the church said is that we receive these particular books as being canonical, as being apostolic in authority and in origin, and therefore we submit to their authority. It’s one thing to make something authoritative, and it’s another thing to recognize something that already is authoritative. Those human decisions did not make something that was not authoritative suddenly authoritative, but rather the church was bowing, acquiescing to that which they recognized to be sacred Scripture. We cannot avoid the reality that though God’s invisible hand of providence was certainly at work in the process, there was a historical sifting process and human judgments were made that could have been mistaken. But I don’t think this was the case.

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©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.