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Volume 8, Issue 5: Hisoria

The Bible from History

Douglas Wilson

The Bible did not "just appear." In the words of the Westminster Confession, the Bible was inspired by God at the initial writing, and since that time has been preserved by His "singular care and providence." Although this supernatural book has come down to us by very natural means, as Christians we know that God is Governor of all things, and this necessarily includes those natural means and historical processes which placed His Word in your hands.

The Church of the Old Testament had the initial care of those books corresponding to them. The apostle Paul plainly says that the oracles of God were entrusted to the Jews. "What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:1-2). With regard to that trust, they did their duty well. The canonical books of the Old Testament are thirty-nine in number. Our Lord referred to this canonical range when He spoke of "the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar" (Matt. 23:35). Abel was killed in Genesis, the first book of the Jewish canon, and Zechariah was killed in 2 Chronicles, which was the last book as they arranged the canon. Christ is referring to all the martyrs throughout Scripture, from A to Z.
Thus our Lord excludes the books commonly called the Apocrypha. Although valuable for history and background, they had no part of the authoritative Hebrew canon. More liberal Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria allowed those books into the Greek Old Testament, but this was clearly not the view of the Jews who sat in Moses' seat, those to whom Christ bade us listen.
When the time of Messianic reformation came, the apostles of the Lord began to finalize the Scriptures. As they wrote, they fully expected that their words would be received and acknowledged by the church to be the Word of God. "For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe" (1 Thess. 2:13). Peter acknowledges that Paul's letters are Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16), and in this assumes a knowledge of the limits of Scripture with New Testament writings included. Paul does the same with the writing of Luke (1 Tim. 5:18). The word "Scriptures" is canonically defined, i.e. without a canon, the term is meaningless. Both 2 Peter and 1 Timothy were written when the canon was basically complete.
This common reception of the New Testament canon was not challenged until the middle of the second century when a heretic named Marcion began teaching that the Old Testament was not the Word of God. With the exception of Paul's letters, the New Testament was to be rejected as well. Now the Church had received the books of the New Testament since the first century but had made no authoritative list, or canon, of accepted booksat least that we know of. Marcion's heresy made that necessary, so the discussions began, and in 393 at Hippo and 397 at Carthage, the Church formally testified that the twenty-seven books which we have in the New Testament are to be received as apostolic.[*]
We receive these Scriptures on their own authority. They are the Word of God, and they speak to us as such. Nevertheless, God has given us an earthly testimony concerning them. Luther used the apt picture of Christ and John the Baptist. In no way did John bestow any authority upon Christ when he said "Behold, the Lamb of God." At the same time, John's witness was important.
In the same way, submissively and authoritatively, the Church points to the sixty-six books of the Bible. During the Christian aeon, the Church is responsible to keep and preserve the same kind of testimony concerning the entire Bible that we gave in our younger years, when we had been entrusted only with the Old Testament books.
When modern groups and sects point to other books than what God has given (e.g. Mormons point to the Book of Mormon, Romanists point to the Apocrypha, etc.), they are exhibiting more than just their unbelief. They are also showing their radical detachment from the ancient and historical Church.
This witness is not offered by the Church as "something to think about" or as a mere "suggestion." The testimony of the Church on this point is submissive to Scripture, but authoritative for the saints. For example, if an elder in a Christian church took it upon himself to add a book to the canon of Scripture, or sought to take away a book, the duty of his church would be to try him for heresy and remove him immediately. This disciplinary action is authoritative, taken in defense of an authoritative canonical settlement. This does not mean the Church is defending the Word of God; the Church is defending her witness to the Word. As the necessity of discipline makes plain, this witness is dogmatic and authoritative. It is not open for discussion. God does not intend for us to debate the canon of Scripture afresh every generation. We have already given our testimony; our duty now is to remain faithful to it.

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