CanonHow You Can Know We Have the Right Books in the Bible Any study of the canon must eventually ask how Christians know which books belong and which don’t. Michael J. KrugerIllustrations by Peter Gurry. Photos from iStock and Insight of the KingNovember 7, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Even a brief reflection on the nature of the Bible reveals that it is not like most other books. Rather than being written at (generally) the same time, in the same place, and by a single author, the Bible presents us with a diverse collection of books, authors, time periods, cultures, languages, and theological emphases, all gathered into a single, unified volume. Such a unique book raises some unique questions. Why should we think these particular books are the right ones? Why these 66 and no others? And how could Christians even know such a thing? Is it just a blind leap of faith? Here we come to one of the most fundamental aspects of the study of the canon—and one that is often overlooked—namely, whether Christians have sufficient grounds for knowing which books belong and which books do not. Now, I say this is an “overlooked” question precisely because most studies of the canon tend to be concerned with other matters. Typically, such studies have dealt with what we might call historical questions about the canon: when books were received, how long the canonical process took, and when it was finalized. And these are all important questions in their own right. Even so, the epistemological questions cannot be ignored. Merely cataloging when and how the canon developed does not tell us whether we have the right books. And if we have no basis for knowing whether we have the right books, then our confidence in biblical authority can quickly be shaken. So, let us consider three complementary attributes that all canonical books share—attributes which tell us that these books are given by God. Divine Qualities If we want to ascertain whether a book is written by a particular human author, it would be natural to take what we know about that author—style, tendencies, personal characteristics—and look for those qualities in the text. We might say we are looking for the “marks” of that author. The same is true with a divine author. Theologians, from the earliest days of the Christian movement, have argued that God’s own qualities or “marks”—Latin indicia—should be evident in any book that ultimately comes from him. Examples of such qualities in God’s word would be beauty and excellency (Ps. 19:8; 119:103), power and efficacy (Ps. 119:50; Heb. 4:12–13), and unity and harmony (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2: Heb. 6:18). Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: John Murray makes this precise argument: “If . . . Scripture is divine in its origin, character, and authority, it must bear the marks or evidences of that divinity.”1John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” 22. In other words, through these divine qualities, Christians recognize the voice of their Lord in the Scriptures. As Jesus himself declared, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27). At this point someone might object that this whole scheme sounds awfully subjective. “I don’t see these divine qualities,” he might say. “And if these qualities are really there, then why do so many people reject the Bible?” “Didn’t early Christians disagree to some extent over which books had these qualities?” But, the objection overlooks the point that not everyone can reliably recognize these spiritual qualities due to the noetic effects of sin (Rom. 3:10–18). Theologians have argued, therefore, that one must have the help of the Holy Spirit—the testimonium spiritus sancti internum—to rightly see the word of God for what it is. Thus—and this is an important point—the divine qualities of Scripture are not just the subjective creation of our minds. No, these qualities are really, objectively in the Scriptures. It’s just that one must have their eyes opened to see them. By way of illustration, one might say that the unbeliever is spiritually tone deaf. He thinks he can hear whether something is “on key,” or “off key.” And when he listens to God’s word, he definitively rejects it as “off key.” But, when he does so, he assumes the problem lies with the Scriptures and not his own hearing. On the contrary, the Scriptures themselves say the opposite: “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God . . . he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Corporate Reception Even though a believer can ascertain whether a book is from God from the divine qualities of the book itself, that is not the only way to know whether a book belongs in the canon. We can also look to the way the church, as a whole, has responded to these books throughout the ages. Put differently, the testimony of the Holy Spirit doesn’t work just on an individual level, but primarily operates at a corporate level. And if the Spirit is at work among God’s people collectively, then we can look to the consensus of God’s people (both in the present and the past) as a reliable guide to which books are from him. As Herman Ridderbos argued, “Christ will establish and build his church by causing the church to accept just this canon and, by means of the assistance and witness of the Holy Spirit, to recognize it as his.”2Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1988), 37. Related Why Are Protestant and Catholic Bibles Different?John D. MeadeDid Nicaea Really Create the Bible?John D. MeadeThe Bible Jesus ReadJohn D. Meade Now, a couple of clarifications are in order. First, saying the consensus of the church is a reliable guide to which books are canonical does not mean the church is infallible. No, we are merely saying the church reliably responds to the divine qualities of these books by the help of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we might say that the divine qualities were so compelling, that, in some sense, these books imposed themselves on the church. Second, just because the Holy Spirit is at work in the church does not mean the church’s consensus around these books is instantaneous or absolute. Sometimes we have an overly “pristine” expectation about the way God works in the world, as if the Holy Spirit would produce immediate agreement around books within 72 hours of being written. But history is not typically so tidy. Just like any doctrine, sometimes there is disagreement. And it takes time to work things out. But, eventually, the church reached a consensus. By the first century, it seems there was a wide consensus on the Old Testament books, and by the fourth century, it seems there was a wide consensus on the New Testament books. Authoritative Authors The third attribute that all canonical books share is that they are authored by God’s authoritative agents. After all, not just anyone could write a book from God. That individual has to be empowered by God’s Spirit to be his mouthpiece. Generally speaking, the Old Testament was regarded as being written by “prophets,” and the New Testament was regarded as being written by “apostles.” In fact, we see these two divine agents—prophets and apostles—pop up in a number of early Christian texts. For example, Peter calls his audience to listen to precisely these two sources: “Remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). We have good historical evidence (which cannot be explored here) that the books in our Bible can be traced either directly to apostles/prophets or at least to a historical situation where that book could reasonably retain the teachings of an apostle/prophet. For example, we accept the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) as from God because we believe Moses was the author. Likewise, we accept books like Romans and Galatians because we think the apostle Paul was the author. And we even accept anonymous books like Hebrews because we have good reasons to think the author received his information directly from apostles (Heb. 2:3–4; 13:23). Conclusion There are multiple ways, therefore, to know a book is from God. Some people may know by apprehending the divine qualities within a book. Others may know by looking to the consensus of God’s people through the ages. And others may know by considering the identity of the human authors themselves. It should also be observed that these three attributes are complementary and mutually reinforcing. If a book has one attribute, then it will have all three. For example, if a book is composed by a divinely inspired prophet, then it will certainly contain divine “marks” within it and will also (in due time) be recognized and received by God’s people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, if we ever have doubts about one of these attributes (say, a book’s authorship), we have two other attributes that provide reassurance. In the end, we can have great confidence about the books in our biblical canon. Christians are not taking a blind leap of faith when we affirm that these are the right books. God has given us a way to know—indeed, multiple ways to know—that these books are from him. Michael J. Kruger Mike Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He is the author of numerous books including Canon Revisited, The Question of Canon and, most recently, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College. View all posts Notes1John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” 22.2Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1988), 37.