An Old Bible -- Image: © christianchan/Fotolia

An Old Bible -- Image: © christianchan/Fotolia

Have you ever looked at your Bible and wondered, “How do we know that these 66 books, and no others, comprise the inspired Word of God?”

That is a critically important question, since there are many today who would deny that these 66 books truly make up the complete canon of Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, claims that the Apocryphal books which were written during the inter-testamental period (between the Old and New Testaments) ought to be included in the Bible. Cult groups like the Mormons want to add their own books to the Bible—things like the Book of Mormon, The Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. And then there are popular books and movies, like The Da Vinci Code from several years back, that claim later Christians (like Constantine) determined what was in the Bible centuries after these books were written.

So, how do we know that “all Scripture” consists of these 66 books? How do we know that the Bible we hold in our hands is the complete Word of God?

There are a number of ways we could answer such questions; in fact, we could spend weeks studying the doctrine of canonicity, carefully walking through all of the relevant biblical and historical details. And there are many wonderful books available that can guide you through that wealth of information.

But in this article, I would like to offer a simple answer that I hope will be helpful – because it gets to the heart of the whole matter.

It is this:

We believe in the 39 books of the Old Testament, because the Lord Jesus Christ affirmed the Old Testament. And we believe in the 27 books of the New Testament, because the Lord Jesus Christ authorized His apostles to write the New Testament.

The doctrine of canonicity ultimately comes back to the lordship of Jesus Christ. If we believe in Him and submit to His authority, then we will simultaneously believe in and submit to His Word. Because He affirmed the Old Testament canon, we also affirm it. Because He authorized His apostles to write the New Testament, we likewise embrace it as well.

It was not the Catholic church that determined the canon. Constantine did not determine the canon. Joseph Smith certainly did not determine the canon. No, it is the authority of Christ Himself, the Lord of the church and the incarnate Son of God, on which the canon of Scripture rests.

The Old Testament Canon

When it comes to the Old Testament, Jesus Christ affirmed the Jewish canon of His day—consisting of the very same content that is in our Old Testaments today.

A study of the gospels shows that, throughout His ministry, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament in its entirety (Matt. 5:17–18)—including its historical reliability (cf. Matt. 10:15; 19:3–5; 12:40; 24:38–39), prophetic accuracy (Matt. 26:54), sufficiency (Luke 16:31), unity (Luke 24:27, 44), inerrancy (Matt. 22:29; John 17:17), infallibility (John 10:35), and authority (Matt. 21:13, 16, 42).

He affirmed the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets and all that was written in them; clearly seeing the Old Testament Scriptures as the Word of God (Matt. 15:16; Mark 7:13; Luke 3:2; 5:1; etc.).

Significantly, the first century Jews did not consider the Apocryphal books to be canonical. And neither did Jesus. He accepted the canon of the Jews as being the complete Old Testament. He never affirmed or cited the Apocryphal books – and neither do any of the other writers of the New Testament.

(At this point, some may be wondering about Jude’s reference to the Book of Enoch. But the Book of Enoch is not part of the Roman Catholic Apocrypha. It was simply a well-known piece of Jewish literature at that time period, which Jude cited for the purpose of giving an illustration, much like Paul did when he quoted pagan poets on Mars Hill in Acts 17.)

For those who might wonder, “Why don’t Protestants accept the Apocrypha?” the ultimate answer is that Jesus never affirmed it as being part of Scripture. And neither did the apostles.

Many of the early church fathers did not regard the Apocryphal books as being canonical either. They considered them to be helpful for the edification of the church, but they did not see them as authoritative. Even the fifth-century scholar Jerome (who translated the Latin Vulgate — which became the standard Roman Catholic version of the Middle Ages) acknowledged that the Apocraphyl books were not to be regarded as either authoritative or canonical.

So we accept the canonicity of the Old Testament on the basis of our Lord’s authoritative affirmation of it. And we reject the canonicity of the Apocryphal books based on the absence of His affirmation of those inter-testamental writings.

The New Testament Canon

The same principle applies to the New Testament canon. Our Lord not only affirmed the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, He also promised that He would give additional revelation to His church through His authorized representatives—namely, the apostles.

Jesus made this point explicit in John 14–16. On the night before his death, Jesus said to His disciples:

John 14:25–26 –  “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

That last line is especially significant for the doctrine of canonicity. Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would help them remember all the things that He had said to them.

That is an amazing promise, the fulfillment of which is found in the four gospel accounts—where the things that our Lord did and said are perfectly recorded for us.

Two chapters later, in the same context, the Lord promised the apostles that He would give them additional revelation through the Holy Spirit:

John 16:12–15 – “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak of His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.”

Where is that additional revelation found? It is found in the New Testament epistles, wherein the Spirit of Christ guided the apostles to provide the church with inspired truth.

The New Testament, then, was pre-authenticated by Christ Himself, as He authorized the apostles to be His witnesses in the world (Matt. 28:18–19; Acts 1:8). We embrace and submit to the New Testament writings because they were penned by Christ’s authorized representatives, being inspired by the Holy Spirit in the same way as the Old Testament prophets (cf. 2 Pet. 3:19–21).

With that in mind we could go book-by-book through the New Testament, and we will find that it meets this criteria.

• The Gospels of Matthew & John were both written by apostles.

• The Gospel of Mark is a record of the memoirs of the Apostle Peter, written by Mark under Peter’s apostolic authority.

• The Gospel of Luke (and the book of Acts) were both the product of a careful investigation and eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:2), research that would have included apostolic sources. Moreover, as the companion of the Apostle Paul, Luke wrote under Paul’s apostolic oversight. (For instance, Paul affirmed Luke 10:7 as being part of the Scripture in 1 Tim. 5:18.)

• The Pauline Epistles (Romans–Philemon) were all written by the Apostle Paul.

• The authorship of Hebrews is unknown, but many in church history believed it to have been also written by Paul. If not penned by Paul himself, it was clearly written by someone closely associated with Paul’s ministry—and therefore, by extension, under his apostolic authority.

• The General Epistles (the letters of James, Peter, and John) were written by apostles. Peter also acknowledged Paul’s writings as being Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15–16.

• The epistle of Jude was written by the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3) who operated under the apostolic oversight of his brother James (cf. Jude 1).

• And finally, the book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John.

Every book of the New Testament was written under apostolic authority—either by an apostle or someone closely linked to their apostolic ministry. Thus, we submit to these books because they come from Christ’s authorized representatives. In submitting to them, we are submitting to the Lord Himself.

The reason the canon is closed is because there are no longer any apostles in the church today, and have not been since the end of the first century, when the foundation age of the church ended (cf. Eph. 2:20).

So … why these 66 books? Because God inspired them! They are His divine revelation. And Christ confirmed that fact. He affirmed the Old Testament canon, and He authorized the New Testament canon (cf. Heb. 1:1–2).

The authority of the Lord Jesus Himself, then, is the basis for our confidence in the fact that the Bible we hold in our hands is indeed “All Scripture.”

  • Great synopsis, Nate. Just had discussion with our leadership team about canonicity, and this overview will be a helpful supplement. Thank you.

  • Robyn Wallis

    You said “The General Epistles (the letters of James, Peter, and John) were written by apostles. Peter also acknowledged Paul’s writings as being Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15–16.”
    The epistle of Jude was written by the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55;Mark 6:3) who operated under the apostolic oversight of his brother James (cf. Jude 1).

    James the brother of Jesus was not an Apostle and the Apostle James was likely dead when the epistle of James was written, so I am not understanding the above quote. Could you clarify the above statements?

    • Rachel

      I think he’s saying that the Apostle James was the author of James. That’s the most widely accepted view (isn’t it?)

      • elainebitt

        Not exactly. All that I could find is that the Epistle of James was written by James the half brother of Jesus.
        MacArthur also states that in his study bible.

        Herod, who put The Apostle James to death, reigned from ad 37-44. The epistle of James is dated ad 44-49.

        • Rachel

          Thanks! I checked as well, and apparently the usual view is that it’s unlikely that either of the Apostle Jameses wrote it, so you’re right about that.

      • Peter Ngeny

        The book of James is actually The book of Ya’kubo, that is, Jacob. English translation changed it to James for reasons best known to them

    • Karl Heitman

      Nathan is not saying that James, son of Zebedee, one of the original 12, wrote the epistle of James. James, the brother of Jesus, was indeed an apostle (Gal 1:19) in the same sense that Paul was an apostle (2 Tim. 1:1), but not one of the original 12.

      • elainebitt

        Apostle with a small “a”, as MacArthur would put it.
        So, are we to understand that those apostles with small “a” have the same Apostolic authority as one of the 12?

        You can see how that would be a problem.

        • Karl Heitman

          Yes. For sure. Paul clearly distinguished himself as an apostle (Rom 1:1; 1-2 Cor; Gal 1:1; Col 1:1; Eph 1:1; 1-2 Tim; Tit 1:1). His encounter with the risen Christ qualified him to be one (Acts 9). Jesus also appeared to James (1 Cor 15:7) and later James held an equal level of authority with Peter in Acts 15.

  • Michael

    Please take this article with a grain of salt. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of logic will scoff at it. The argument made here is that the Old Testament is valid because Jesus accepted it in the writings of the New Testament. We’re okay so far: the OT is valid if the NT is valid. Then the argument is made that the NT is valid because Jesus authorized it. Problem. The citation for where Jesus said the NT is authorized is itself IN the NT. This is circular reasoning, and therefore fallacious.

    Logically speaking, you cannot use the source material to validate the source material. I could write a blog post that says “Jesus told me I’m authorized to write on his behalf.” and using the same logic as is applied here, you’d have to accept it as true.

    We need to accept that the things we hold as true are the result of faith, not logic. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when we try to explain things with logical constructs that are fallacious, we just look silly.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. Granted, this is a presuppositional argument that requires faith.

      However, insofar as we have believed in Jesus Christ and submitted ourselves to His lordship, we must likewise view His authority as absolute. There is no higher authority than His when it comes to establishing our own confidence in the biblical canon. Therefore, there is no higher court to which we can appeal than to Him.

      Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who makes the truth of Christianity (and of Jesus Christ) certain in the hearts of believers (1 Corinthians 2:12–13). He gives us absolute confidence both in God’s Word and God’s Son.

    • Tony Miano

      Michael,

      By what standard have you determined that faith is not logical?

      According to your worldview, how do you account for that which is immaterial, absolute, universal, eternal, immutable, impartial, and transcendent–namely, the laws of logic?

      Do you understand the difference between circular reasoning and viciously circular reasoning? Only one of the two is fallacious.

      How do you know your reasoning is valid?

      Lastly, can you be wrong about everything you think you know?

      Thank you.

      • Michael

        Tony,
        Thanks for your well-considered response.

        I don’t suppose I’m necessarily saying that faith and logic are mutually exclusive, only that we Christians often try to use logic to explain things when sometimes that’s not (for lack of a better word) appropriate. In some cases we’re better of avoiding the temptation to try to explain, as a shaky explanation can do more harm than good.

        I attribute the unchanging things in this world to God’s design.

        I will admit that I had to look up “vicious circular reasoning” as I had never heard the term before, and I only found limited results with my google-fu. From what I have read, I would argue that only one of the two is *always* fallacious, but that the other may *sometimes* be. Ultimately, however, I would argue that this is indeed viciously circular. The argument is “The New Testament is valid because Jesus said it is.” But because Jesus said it is valid IN the New Testament, the truth conditions for both the “if” and the “then” are the same. We must first presume that the New Testament is valid before can can conclude that Jesus said the New Testament is valid. So yes, that’s fallacious.

        I’m won’t be drawn into a debate about how I know my reasoning is valid, or how I can know anything because it’s ultimately irrelevant to the discussion. If you can show how those two questions are relevant, I’ll be glad to answer them. The logical “rules” are what they are, and by those rules, the statement “The New Testaments is valid because Jesus said so (in the New Testament)” is fallacious.

        • Tony Miano

          Michael,

          Asserting Scripture is true because Jesus Christ and the apostles said in the Scriptures that the Scriptures are true is not vicious circular reasoning. It is not fallacious. And it is not a fallacious appeal to authority. Simply put, God is true though every man is found to be a liar. When the Christian circularly reasons to the authority and authenticity of Scripture, based on Scripture’s own assertion that Scripture is the God-breathed Word of God, it is a legitimate appeal to authority because the Christian is not appealing to himself. He is appealing to an authority outside himself.

          God IS the authority. Everything God says in His Word is true, because God cannot lie. The only true appeal to authority is to the one who IS the authority and who IS, according to His very nature, the embodiment of truth.

          The Christian should never set aside His only authority (the Word of God), as so many evidentialist apologists do these days, simply because the opponent (the person who suppresses the truth they know about God by their unrighteousness–there are no atheists, skeptics, or agnostics) demands that he set it aside. The professed unbeliever constantly appeals to authorities that are simply non-authoritative. Professing to be wise they have become fools. They appeal to the authority of the creature, rather than the authority of the Creator.

          The laws of logic, as I accurately described them in my initial response, parallel the very character of God. God is immaterial, absolute, universal, eternal, immutable, impartial, and transcendent. It is always appropriate to reason logically and to use the Source of the laws of logic as a presuppositional counter-argument to any person who tries to argue from a position of logic, while denying the existence of God.

          The unbeliever must draw from the Christian worldview in order to make so much as a truth claim, let alone to take any position based on logic.

          As to my two questions regarding the validity of one’s reason or whether or not a person can be wrong about everything he thinks he knows: not knowing from what position you were arguing (Christian worldview or the absurdity of unbelief), I asked to try to determine from which worldview you were arguing.

          • Michael

            “When the Christian circularly reasons to the authority and authenticity of Scripture, based on Scripture’s own assertion that Scripture is the God-breathed Word of God, it is a legitimate appeal to authority because the Christian is not appealing to himself.”

            That’s a cop-out. Whatever the document is, if you say “the document is true because the document says it’s true” is fallacious. Let me give you an example to prove my point:

            Consider the following text: “God authorized me to write this on his behalf, and he says you should give me all of your money.”

            By your reasoning, you have to accept the above statement as wholly and completely true – the word of God. But you will not. The reason you will not is simple. Though I appealed to God’s authority with my sentence, you have no way to verify that I do, in fact, have God’s authorization to write.

            Likewise, while John (and others) write that Jesus “authorized” the New Testament, we have no way of knowing that their recording of that authorization is itself authorized. We must assume it, by faith.

            As for my worldview, the only relevant consideration is that in my worldview, arguing that a document is true, based solely on the document saying it’s true, is utterly terrible reasoning. There may be plenty of reasons that a document is true, but it’s self-contained claim to be so is not among them.

    • Kevin Gausselin

      Hey Michael, thanks for your thoughts but I am not sure that the article is circular. It seemed to me that Nathan Busenitz left circularity out of the discussion without being addressed. I do not think Dr Busenitz made the claim that the “OT is valid if the NT is valid.” It sounds like his argument is more in the vein of “we can know the OT is valid because Jesus thought the OT was valid.” You go on to say “Problem. The citation for where Jesus said the NT is authorized is itself IN the NT. This is circular reasoning…” It would be circular reasoning if the argument is – “we know the NT is valid because the NT is valid.” But that’s not the argument. Rather the argument is that we know the NT is valid because Jesus authorized it. At this point, if Dr Busentiz had said “…and we know that Jesus’ authorization is valid because the NT is valid” then his argument would indeed be circular. But that is exactly where Dr. Busentiz stops commenting. The question could be pursued of course – why believe Jesus? There are a number of answers that could be given – e.g. “I had a religious experience,” or “the Holy Spirit changed my life such that I now recognize Jesus as my authority,” or “I have looked at the NT as historical documents and find what they say about Jesus to be basically reliable,” or “Jesus’ worldview makes the best sense of the world,” etc. Dr Busentiz does not comment on what he thinks the answer is, so even if his personal opinion may be open to the charge of circular reasoning (I don’t know what he believes), it seems to me that his article is not open to such an accusation. I hope I’m making sense, let me know if I’m not or if I’m mistaking you on anything or even misreading the article. Thanks

      • Michael

        Thanks for your response, Kevin.

        Nathan didn’t explicitly say “OT is valid if the NT is valid”, you’re right about that. His position is that the OT is valid because Jesus said it is. My point is that because Jesus said the OT is valid in the NT, we must first establish the NT is valid. Nathan’s position is that the NT is valid because Jesus “authorized it”. The point I’m making is that the place where Jesus authorizes the writing of the NT is itself in the NT. In order to conclude that the NT is valid (based on Nathan’s argument), you must first presume that the NT is valid.

        I probably erred in bringing the OT into it, as you are correct that strictly speaking, that argument isn’t circular. The “OT is valid because Jesus said so in the NT” position, however, relies on the circular argument that the NT is valid because the NT says it’s valid.

        “Rather the argument is that we know the NT is valid because Jesus authorized it. At this point, if Dr Busentiz had said “…and we know that Jesus’ authorization is valid because the NT is valid” then his argument would indeed be circular.”

        He didn’t explicitly state it, but his position relies on it as a necessary condition. In order to accept that Jesus did in fact authorize the NT, you must accept the NT’s account of Jesus giving that authorization, that is to say in order to accept that Jesus authorized the NT, you must first accept the validity of the NT, and this whole article is about *establishing* the validity of the NT (and the OT). My point is that you can’t use the source material as your reference, when trying to establish the legitimacy of the source material.

        “The question could be pursued of course – why believe Jesus?”

        I don’t ask “why believe Jesus?” I ask “why believe John’s (or whoever’s) account of Jesus authorizing them to write on his behalf?” *Anyone* can write “then Jesus said ‘go and write stuff about me’.” I’m not saying you/we shouldn’t believe it – just that the explanation offered in this article doesn’t pass muster because it attempts to use the source material to prove the validity of the source material.

        I just want aspiring evangelicals to be careful about trying to use this framework to explain to a skeptic why the Bible is the truth, because the skeptic is going to laugh at their reasoning, and rightly so. The skeptic doesn’t understand our faith, and that the most compelling reason (in my opinion) to accept the Bible as valid is because we know in the core of our being that it is so. Sometimes, we have to be content with that explanation, rather than trying to employ reasoning where reasoning to a matter which by its very nature defies reason.

        • Kevin Gausselin

          Thank you too for the cordial interactions. It seems to me that we basically agree for the most part. I’m just going to maintain that Nathan left the question – why believe Jesus – out of his article while you think his argument answers it by assuming the validity of the NT. It seems to me however that he does not nor must someone understand it that way in order to make sense of the article. Here’s my thoughts in response to some of your comments:

          “In order to conclude that the NT is valid (based on Nathan’s argument), you must first presume that the NT is valid.”

          I don’t think so. If by “valid” you mean “canonical” in both uses then that would be circular. However, Nathan never says that (explicitly or implicitly imo). This sentence should rather read like this: “In order to conclude that the NT is canonical (based on Nathan’s argument), you must first presume that the NT is telling us correct things about Jesus.” Nathan’s argument, as far as I can tell, requires only that and that is perfectly coherent.

          “In order to accept that Jesus did in fact authorize the NT, you must accept the NT’s account of Jesus giving that authorization…”

          True

          “…that is to say in order to accept that Jesus authorized the NT, you must first accept the validity of the NT…”

          False. Again, if by “validity” are always mean “canonical” then you are correct that this would be circular, but Nathan doesn’t commit himself to that. The gospels only need to be as reliable as Julius Caesar’s autobiography or Thucydides’ History and not canonical nor must we even accept them as inspired in order to be able to say “Jesus said such and such about the canon.”

          “My point is you can’t use the source material as your reference, when trying to establish the legitimacy of the source material.”

          Hmm, why not? I think what you meant is that you can’t use the source material as canonical in order to establish them as canonical. Otherwise I don’t see the problem. But if that’s what you meant then that is simply incorrect, it seems to me at least.

          With that said, I do agree with you that presenting circular arguments for Christianity is giving the world a chance to scoff at Christianity and that we do need to be careful. We have a lot in common on that issue. What we are discussing here I imagine is mostly about understanding what Nathan is saying in the article (or not saying lol). But we definitely agree that we should not tell unbelievers that the NT is canonical because the NT is canonical or present similar viciously circular arguments. Thanks so much for the cordial response and interaction. I wasn’t looking to making this a super long exchange but I always appreciate a chance to discuss. I hope I haven’t been unfair in my response. Many thanks

          • Michael

            “In order to conclude that the NT is canonical (based on Nathan’s argument), you must first presume that the NT is telling us correct things about Jesus.”

            This is an outstanding point that I hadn’t considered.

  • Rachel

    Thanks for this article, Professor! I once heard you say something similar (in videos of your classes on YouTube), but this gives me a chance to ask you: how can you say “the first century Jews did not consider the Apocryphal books to be canonical”? As I understand it, there was no “canon of the Jews” in Jesus’ day. The OT was in flux and opinions ranged from the Sadducees who accepted only the Pentateuch, to the Pharisees who accepted much more, to the Hellenist Jews who used the entire Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament and included the seven books of the Apocrypha interspersed with the other books. I could be wrong (please correct me if I am), but I thought that no council in Christ’s time or before had defined a Jewish canon. Certainly there wasn’t one unified opinion among the Jews. But by one account that I saw, of 350 OT quotations in the NT, 300 favor the language of the Septuagint OT rather than the Hebrew scriptures. So if there’s any collection of books that can be considered approved as a whole by the NT writers, it’s the Septuagint, which brings the Apocrypha along with it. (It’s no good excluding books on the grounds that Jesus or the NT never quoted them, unless you kick out more than just the seven books of the Apocrypha.)

    You also mention that “Many of the early church fathers did not regard the Apocryphal books as being canonical either.” Since you’ve researched it, you must realize that many more fathers supported the Apocrypha, quoting from it in the same authoritative way that they quoted from the rest of the OT. And you probably know that the only church councils in those early years that addressed the question of the Biblical canon were the councils of Hippo and Carthage around A.D. 400, which included the Apocrypha in their lists of canonical scripture. I don’t think you accept church fathers or councils as authoritative, but since you mention the early church as evidence in support of your thesis, it would be sporting to present the contrary evidence as well.

  • Nelson Attwood

    Great article! One minor point that i found a bit weak was the discussion on Hebrews. While i certainly believe that it is canonical, i would be interested to see how you support the point that it was clearly written by someone associated with Paul’s ministry, and therefore by extension under his apostolic authority. All the same a very interesting read. God Bless, and thanks.

  • Michael

    Hi Nate,
    I saw your reply come across in email, but I don’t see it here to respond to it. I agree 100% that our faith need not be blind, and that there are plenty of reasons to believe Jesus was exactly who he said he was. But ultimately, that wasn’t the subject of this article. The subject of this article was “Why these 66 books”. It’s not a question of “is Jesus Lord”, it’s a question of whether or not we can reasonably say that the New Testament is valid using as our primary argument the fact that it says so.

    I’m not suggesting that the New Testament isn’t valid. I’m suggesting that “because the New Testament says it’s valid” is not a very good argument.

    I think that with questions like this, we’re better off sticking with faith as our justification as opposed to a shaky logical framework that is far too easily deconstructed. I don’t expect a lot of skeptics to be reading articles on this website, but wouldn’t want my fellow believers to try to use this logical framework in a discussion with a skeptic, then be caught off guard when the skeptic calls them out for using circular reasoning.

    • Josh Butler

      If the New Testament needs some external authority to validate its veracity, then it is no longer all we need for life and Godliness ( 2 Peter 1:3), we cannot be sure it is θεόπνευστος (2 Timothy 3:16), we cannot take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5)

  • Manuel Godinez Necoechea

    Excellent article brother Nathan, I will translate it into Spanish, if there is no problem with it, and I’ll share it in our church (Iglesia Sola Gracia) in Facebook page. God bless.