Today, we charted the historically thick terrain of the Bible's canonization. The Bible isn't one book, but a collection of 66 books and, at some point, somebody had to decide which books were "in" and which ones were "out." Before we dive into history, let's set the context from Scripture.
As Jesus finishes his revelation to John, He leaves one stern caution:
"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. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book" [Revelation 22:18-19].
While I'm not sure exactly what the plagues would look like in an individual's life or what tree-of-life loss a person would experience, there is no question that this text warns against trifling with God's Word. We must be careful not to add or subtract from it. And, because the warning is intended to be obeyed, it must be possible to determine the outer limits of Scripture. Otherwise, how could someone add or subtract from an indefinite collection of writings?
Canonical limits were set by several important councils in church history [the word "canon" means "measurement" or "rule"]. In AD 90, the Council of Jamnia finally set the limits of the Old Testament canon. Throughout time, there had been little debate that the 39 books we presently have--the Law, the Writings and Wisdom literature--were recognized as canonical. Jamnia simply codified what was already understood and accepted.
It is significant to note that Jesus quoted from 24 of the OT books and the whole NT references 34 of the 39 OT books. Equally important is the fact the none of the NT writers refer to the Apocryphal writings. These writings, scribed between 400 BC and the birth of Jesus, reflect the ongoing history of God's people and the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah. But, neither Jewish rabbis or later church fathers recognized the apocryphal writings as having the same authority of Scripture. As such, these works are not considered a part of the Protestant canon and were added much later by the Catholic church at the Council of Trent in 1546.
The New Testament was written over 40-60 years and records the life and death of Jesus as well as the emergence of the early church. Like the Old Testament, the New testament writings faced very little controversy regarding their authority. Some questions were raised about Luke, Acts, Mark, Hebrews and Jude because of a lack of direct apostolic authorship. Second Peter also raised questions because it's style was noticeably different than Peter's first letter. But, concerns were in the minority and each of these books met all other strict criteria and were accepted into the canon. The tests for canonicity were:
1. Apostolic/prophetic authorship
2. Widespread acceptance among early churches
3. Internal consistency with other Scripture
4. Historical accuracy
5. Spiritual attestation to inspiration
Books which did not meet these criteria were rejected. For these reasons, the famous Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas and Secret Letter of Mark were not considered to be from God. These, any other writings, either lacked clear authorship, were not used in the early church, contradicted known Scripture, were historically inaccurate or promoted a political/philosophical/religious agenda rather than affirm the work of God. The Gospel of Mary, for example, made famous in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, promotes a heavy feminist agenda and was written between 150-200 AD--far too late to have really been written by Mary.
This academic study of the canon does lead to a few important points of personal application. First, we must submit ourselves to God's Word. Because the Bible is "rule" the moment it was spoken [not when councils decided it], it has the right to command my life and action. I must not live with the Bible under me or even beside me, negotiating with it and picking which parts I'll follow. Instead, I submit to it's law and discover all of the blessings that God has reserved for me in a life of spiritual surrender.
Second, I must be a steward of God's Word. While I'm not likely to write my own secret gospel and promote it later, I may misuse Scripture and "add" or "subtract: from it through misinterpretation or misapplication. Paul gives Timothy--and all of us--a strong caution: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" [2 Timothy 2:15]. I want to steward God's Word in such a way that I don't make it say more or less than what it really says. So, I work hard to interpret and apply it as God intended.
Finally, I resist other substitutes for God's Word. I love the writings of John Piper and Philip Yancey. I think CS Lewis is spectacular. I enjoyed reading the Left Behind series. But, as engaging as these authors are, none compare to the life-changing benefit of the Bible. I must be on guard not to let well-intentioned authors or media channels shape my opinion of truth and history without asking the question, "Where stands it written?" For there is no substitute for God's great Word!