I occasionally try and answer a question that I’ve received. Today’s question is:
“What reason do we have to recognize the authority of the books of the Bible over those that weren’t canonized?”
Fantastic question, and one that really gets at the source of inspiration and wisdom!
I would love to be able to say that “The Gospel of Mark is included in the Bible, while the Gospel of Thomas is not, because we have absolute proof that Mark is right and Thomas isn’t.” But unfortunately, that’s not really how it works.
Remember that for centuries, the stories that we can read today in the Bible weren’t even written down at all. They were spoken. The stories of our faith began in the oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation…told at the fire while families or tribes ate their meals together.
Eventually, these stories were written down, to preserve them. And these different accounts of the stories of the people of God, the stories of Jesus and the stories of the church became “books” of the Bible, recognized as “Canon,” or authoritative.
So how were some books placed in the canon and others not?
Dr. Craig Koester is one of my favorite professors from seminary (and one of the smartest people I have met). He wrote in his great book, A Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Bible, that “The books of the Bible were not chosen by a committee or imposed on Christians or Jews by their leaders. The writings included in the Bible are those that were actually used by the people of God in generation after generation. The selection of these writings…reflects the collective wisdom of the community of faith. They identified a group of writings that bore faithful witness to God and set a standard for authentic Christian teaching and preaching.” (A Beginner’s Guide to the Reading the Bible; Augsburg Publishing, 1991; p. 64.)
So what is included in the Bible? Books that have stood the test of time in meaning and truth; books that speak of God’s truth in ways that bring meaning and purpose to the lives of God’s people; books that are “backed up” by other historical and Biblical accounts.
In short, there wasn’t a single process, or system for how the scripture texts were collected, and for which texts were excluded. Rather, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit has been at work, over time, in the lives of God’s people collecting the stories of how God has (and will continue to) work in the world.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17.