Who Decided What Books to Include in the Bible? 5 Principles

How was it decided what books would become part of the Bible? This question relates to canonicity. The word canon comes from the root word reed. The reed was used as a measuring rod and came to mean “standard.” Canon thus refers to the officially accepted list of biblical books.

We are going to briefly consider five guiding principles for canonization from the updated Evidence that Demands A Verdict. But first, realize that the church did not create the canon; it did not determine which books would be called Scripture. Instead it recognized, or discovered, which books had been inspired from their inception.

1. Was the book written by a prophet of God? If it was written by a spokesman for God, or commissioned by an apostle, then it was considered the Word of God.

2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? Miracles frequently separate true prophets from false ones. Moses performed miracles as proof of his divine calling (Exodus 4:1-9). Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Jesus performed many miracles as confirmation of his divine mission (Acts 2:22).

3. Did the message tell the truth about God? God cannot contradict Himself (2 Corinthians 1:17-18). And God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). Thus, Church Fathers rejected any book with false statements about God. In fact, according to Geisler and Nix, they maintained the policy, “If in doubt, throw it out.”[1]

4. Does it come with the power of God? Church fathers believed the Bible was “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and thus should have transforming power for edification (2 Timothy 3:17), sanctification, and evangelism (1 Peter 1:23). Thus, if a book did not have the power to change a life, then it was not divinely inspired. The presence of God’s transforming power was a strong indication that a given book had His stamp of approval.

5. Was it accepted by the people of God? In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul said, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” Church Fathers considered whether or not a book was accepted by the first believers as Scripture. If so, then it was regarded as canonical. This practice was seen in the Bible itself. One instance is when the apostle Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as Scripture on par with the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).

Discussions about what books to include in the canon are complex, of course, and go beyond the scope of this blog. Some books were accepted in the canon much earlier than others. Orthodox, Protestant and Catholics differ over a few books too. Nevertheless, these five principles help clarify that the process of deciding what books were in the Bible was not left up to chance or happenstance. The Church Fathers were very intentional about what books they recognized as divinely inspired, and the common ground across Christian traditions far outweigh the differences.

[1] Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 228.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.


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