Why We Have the Bible We Have (An Answer That Actually Satisfies)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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Here, I’m going to answer this one question:

So, in other words—why do we believe in these 66 books in the first place?

Why Do We Believe the Bible Is Inspired?

Theologians sometimes refer to the Bible as “the canon.” The term canon (κανονιζόμενα kanonizomena) comes from the term that means “plumb line.” It was a straight line against which all errors were measured. It was the divine standard for truth. The Bible was canonized—formally and universally recognized as God’s standard for truth about God—in the 4th century.

But I never really understood the argument for why the Bible is God’s revelation. There are many ways of attacking the divine inspiration of Scripture, but the question that always bothered me is: “How did we come up with these 66 books?”

  • “Those important guys said it was.” (Councils): “We know that the Bible is God’s word because the councils gave them to us. In the 4th century, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave us a completed New Testament document, and it was ratified by the church.”

    • This argument sounds right, but it’s insufficient. We can’t argue that the Bible is God’s word because the councils and church fathers said it was the Bible. Then we would need to attribute inspiration to the councils. Then we’d have to ask: Why do we believe they are inspired? Then you have to appeal to another council. Before you know it, you’re Roman Catholic.

  • “The Bible is super old.” (Age of Textual Attestation): “We know that the Bible is God’s word because we have a full New Testament canon as the ancient document Codex Sinaiticus, which is from the 4th century.”

    • There are lots of ancient documents that attest to different versions of the canon. The fact that older lists testify to our 27 books doesn’t prove anything. Our earliest list is Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th century, but Marcion gave us the oldest list of New Testament books in the 2nd century, which included only 10 books, and Marcion was a heretic.

  • “There’s so much of it.” (Quantity of Textual Attestation): “We know that the Bible is God’s word because the New Testament is the most textually attested ancient document in history, with over 5,000 manuscripts, with very few variations among texts, that testify to the integrity of the documents we have today, more than the 2nd most attested document, which is Homer’s Odyssey at only 800 texts and far more variants.”

    • You can’t argue from quantity to truth. If 99% of the world believed flat earth theory, that wouldn’t make it true. Just because the Bible garnered massive textual attestation so close to its composition, that doesn’t mean its claims are true or that it is inspired by God.

  • “The Bible looks inspired.” (Literary Quality): “We know the Bible is God’s word because of the majesty of its style. As John Calvin said: ‘How admirably the system of divine wisdom contained in it is arranged—how perfectly free the doctrine is from every thing that savours of earth—how beautifully it harmonises in all its parts—and how rich it is in all the other qualities which give an air of majesty to composition.’”

    • This argument leads us away from logic altogether. People have different feelings about the Bible—some don’t find it majestic at all. Peter’s grammar wasn’t good. There isn’t much ancient Hebrew to compare the Bible against—maybe it wasn’t Ernest Hemingway level. Even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be an argument for or against its inspiration.

  • “It feels inspired.” (Emotion): “I know the Bible is God’s word because when I read it, I can feel that it is God’s word. When I do my quiet times, I know that the Bible is God’s word.”

    • This, of course, isn’t an argument at all. Many people have deep emotional experiences reading many different books—some of them claiming to be inspired. It doesn’t prove anything.

Here is one way of looking at all of these arguments: they are legitimate, but not sufficient. So, if the Bible were inspired, then God would certainly move in his church to recognize it in the councils. It would have great textual attestation. That attestation would be ancient. It would look inspired. It would feel inspired.

So, what are we left with? Why do we recognize the Bible as inspired? Let’s dive into that here.

The Structure of Biblical Authority

There are three concepts at the heart of how these 66 books of the Bible were stamped with the seal of canonization. 

  • Kerygma (proclamation) — preaching that truth to audiences

  • martyria (witness) — first-hand experience of that truth

  • didache (doctrine) — the truth itself

In Eden, kerygma, martyria, and didache were all self-contained in divine speech. God’s presence always accompanied his speech, and his speech was always true divine teaching—so, the three were always simultaneously experienced. When God appeared to Adam and Eve in Eden, he proclaimed truth to Adam— “be fruitful and multiply,” “the day you eat of the tree you will surely die,”—and he did it in person. The truth, the proclamation, and the embodied presence of God were all combined in a single act of divine revelation which Adam could experience.

After the fall, the connection between kerygma, martyria, and didache was detached and became more complicated. When God gave Moses the 10 commandments, the rest of Israel received the didache and the kerygma, but not the martyria. They were required to believe by faith Moses’s own witness of the events. So, as a sign of Moses’s genuine martyria—his credibility to give a first-hand account of God himself—God made Moses’s face shine. This was not just a cool little physics miracle God performed to be cool. It was God’s way of communicating to Israel: “The didache and kerygma this man carries are directly from me—what he tells you is genuine first-hand experience.” And this became the model for inspiration.

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites would have to take by faith the words of the prophets—to obey the didache of the Pentateuch, including the 10 commandments, the Shema, the threefold division of the law along the lines of its moral, ceremonial, and civil (judicial) commandments.

Eventually, God recreated an Edenic experience for Israel in the advent of Christ. Note that God did not merely manifest the birth of Christ, but sent angels to announce it to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds who witnessed the birth of Christ.

The text of Luke shows us the structure of biblical authority as it relates to readers. The angels proclaim to the shepherds:

““Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-13)

This is kerygma. Proclamation. And the angels follow this kerygma with a pure didache: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

So, now the shepherds have kerygma and didache. But what’s missing? _________. martyria. So Luke goes on:

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” (Luke 2:15-17)

We see this pattern repeated over and over again until the close of the New Testament canon. In the same way that God’s singular presence which embodied the perfect unification of kerygma, martyria, and didache kicked off the formation and close of the Old Testament canon, so also the advent of Christ represents the same unification of kerygma, martyria, and didache, which kicks off the formation and close of the New Testament canon.

So, we have this same pattern with the shepherds repeated everywhere throughout Scripture. We have it with the women who find the tomb empty and speak to Christ, bearing witness of his resurrection to the Apostles. We have it with those who experience Pentecost. And we have it with the Apostle Paul, whom Christ personally visits to deliver proclamation (kerygma) of the truth (didache) which is the foundation of Paul’s own witness (2 Cor. 12:2).

The Evolution of Biblical Authority

Kerygma is the dynamic force that pushes forward and confronts the world with his truth.

The didache is the residue of divine speech. Kerygma and martyria serve the preservation, articulation, and purity of the didache. The truth is the pretext of proclamation and witness. The truth is what is proclaimed, and the truth is what is borne witness to.

The Bible itself—the canon—is a combination of kerygma, martyria, and didache. The prophets and the epistles are more kerygmatic. Narrative literature is more marturic. And didache is often nestled within those forms. For example, Paul packs a lot of didache in his pastoral epistles. He says: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

The second clause—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—is pure didache. He’s not proclaiming it to Timothy—he’s giving Timothy something to proclaim to others. And then, he moves to a marturic statement: “of whom I am the foremost.” That’s his experience of Christ’s salvation.

Many people don’t understand why some Christians believe in the closing of the biblical canon with the Apostles. And it’s because they don’t understand the importance of martyria in the structure of biblical authority. Martyria is the sole guarantor of the privilege, the possibility, and the credibility to manifest inspired kerygma.

Nobody except for Moses could have delivered those 10 commandments to the Israelites, because God didn’t reveal himself to anyone else for that purpose. That’s one of the reasons why his face shown brightly—as a seal of his marturic credentials (Ex. 34:29-35); as proof that his witness of the divine presence was real, and that the tablets he carried were truly divine speech.

The same is true of the Apostles. They were the only the only ones with the marturic credentials to write inspired Scripture. This was always God’s vehicle of codifying his speech for his people. And when the Apostles wrote what God had ordained would be included in the canon—what was recognized by the early church as having the sufficient kerygma, martyria, and didache to qualify as Scripture—the canon was thereafter closed.

This is why Paul can say to the Thesselonians: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).

Responding to Objections Regarding Apostleship and Authorship

Let’s address a few objections to this argument.

The Identity of the 12th Apostle

Some argue that Matthias, not Paul, was the 12th Apostle, because Acts 1 clearly states that he was chosen to replace Judas. But the nature of the 12th Apostle actually proves the divine nature—and the special nature—of Apostleship. In Acts 1:4, Jesus commands his Apostles before his ascension: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.”

Then, they all gathered to Jerusalem with the 11 remaining disciples.

Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” So far, so good. What happens next?

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers.”

Not a great sign.

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers. (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” 18 (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ 21

“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us,”

Here, Peter gets one thing right and one thing wrong. He gets right that the next Apostle must be an eye-witness of the raised Christ. He understands the martyric credential for Apostleship and states it clearly here.

What he gets wrong is: “Therefore it is necessary to choose.” Wrong. God chooses Apostles. Jesus called the disciples, and that’s not changing for #12. So, what do the Apostles do?

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.”

Again, so far, so good. What happens next?

Acts 1:26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

They cast … lots.

Classic Peter. 

Matthias is never ever mentioned again. Several chapters later, in Acts 7, Paul is introduced as Saul, the persecutor of the church.

Matthias was never an Apostle. The Apostles thought he was an Apostle, but only God can appoint apostles.

Paul wrote letters that faithfully communicated God’s didache in the form of kerygma.

This threefold criteria of didache, martyria, and didache gives us a tool to explain why these 27 books are inspired.

What if there was a 4th or 5th Corinthians? Perhaps there was. But it wasn’t included in the canon because it didn’t contain sufficient or accurate didache. Paul himself—the person—was not inspired. Certain of his texts are inspired. He as a person bears martyric credibility, but doesn’t always accurately or sufficiently express didache or kerygma in everything he says, does, requests, and speaks. Only in those of his letters which were inspired did he sufficiently fulfill these criteria to write Scripture.

The Canonicity of The Book of Hebrews

There are still a few loose ends here.

What Luke/Acts, which was written by Luke, who was not an Apostle? And what about the book of Hebrews, which has no explicit author, and many scholars believe was not written by the Apostle Paul?

Let’s address those issues right now.

First, let’s address why the book of Hebrews is in the canon.

Hebrews is not an epistle. The audience is generic, which means that we need to reconceive its genre. There is no specific church or gathering it seeks to address. Hebrews has a general market audience. More than that, and this is the important part—the author of Hebrews is actually quite easy to discern, and it was most likely the same author as Luke/Acts: Luke himself. A fantastic book on this issue is David Allen’s book Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.

There is more overlap in vocabulary and verses cited between Hebrews and Luke-Acts than any other two books by different authors. The author of Hebrews was almost certainly Luke. Scholars believe Luke couldn’t have written Hebrews since Luke was a Greek name, and Hebrews was clearly written by a Jewish author. But Allen points out that, like the name “Paul,” which means “small” in Greek, “Luke” means “light,” which was most likely the Christian name given to a Hellenistic Jewish man within Paul’s ministry who served as a doctor.

Even the language in Hebrews is clinical language. For example, Hebrews 4 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Even this word translated “sword,” machaira, is actually the Greek word for scalpel. A macharia could be a sword, but was most commonly a one-sided sword. And it often only means “sword” in military contexts.

But what Luke is talking about here is more likely surgical, because the metaphor is straightforwardly surgical. So, the verse would be better translated: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged scalpel, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” David Allen’s book goes into much more evidence for this view, but it’s important to entertain the Lukan authorship of Hebrews as we put together our argument for the canonical legitimacy of Hebrews.

The Canonicity of Luke/Acts

In light of the Lukan authorship of Hebrews, let’s consider how Luke/Acts has canonical legitimacy even though Luke was not an eyewitness of Christ.

Luke was considered a product of the Apostle Paul’s apostolic ministry.

Even in the 1st century, Justin Martyr, a notable church father and defender of the faith, referred to the gospels as “the memoirs of the Apostles,” and regarded them as much Scripture as the Old Testament. The gospels had always been considered directly Apostolic in quality, and would not have been accepted as Scripture if they weren’t.

Luke 1:2 clearly implies he was not an eye-witness in Luke 1:1-4:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Three things to notice here:

  1. Luke-Acts was martyric in quality. While many have tried to draw up accounts, only Luke saw the need for excellence in investigative journalism. It aggregates first-hand accounts as a product of the ministry of The Apostle Paul. This was likely Luke’s primary role in Paul’s ministry—to write Luke/Acts.

  2. Luke expects Theophilus to have certainty because of the account he writes. Why would Theophilus have more certainty because of Luke’s account? Luke says in v. 1 that “the things that have been fulfilled among us … were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Theophilus already received first-hand accounts of the life of Christ, along with Luke. What makes Luke’s gospel a foundation for certainty is the same thing that made Paul’s letters a foundation for moral authority in the church—it was a product of his apostolic ministry.

Apostleship was the final modality by which biblical revelation would be crystalized, producing what we know today as the canon. But this carried with it a moral and theological authority that was verified by miracles. Paul himself defends his Apostleship in 2 Corinthians 12:11-13:

“I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!”

Paul gives two proofs of his apostleship here—one experiential and one personal:

There are no such things as super-apostles. There are no such things as Apostles, formally speaking, who were not one of the 12, other than Paul, who had a unique experience. Paul took it upon himself to prove his apostolic authority by doing something similar to Moses’s glowing face coming down from the mountain—performing “signs and wonders and mighty works.” This was his way of conveying derivative martyric knowledge to the Coronthians, as Moses did to the Israelites.

And Luke’s writing carried the authority of Paul’s martyric credibility, combined with the martyric credibility of his journalistic efforts as a direct ministry of the Apostle Paul to Theophilus.

The Nature of This Argument: Criteria vs. Traits

It’s important to understand how the argument for the canon works. You can’t prove (to Bart Ehrman, for example) to someone who doesn’t believe in God that the Bible is inspired by God. It’s a third-level conversation that requires several first-level conversations—what the philosophers called “First Things.”

But, as the apologist Cornelius Van Til is famous for saying, the best apologetic is a good systematic theology.

In this sense, what we have layed out here is not a proof, but a rationale. It shows that, on its own terms, there is a non-circular, non-mystical rationale for why we have these 66 books in the Bible.

Perhaps Paul wrote 5th and 6th Corinthians, but they didn’t contain sufficient Didache. Perhaps Mary wrote an excellent didache, but she wasn’t one of the 12. These three criteria for canonical inclusion—kerygma, martyria, and didache—draw a full circle exclusively around the books in our canon, excluding every good and admirable, terrible and heretical work.

We don’t have to appeal to the councils to know why we have the books we have. We don’t have to appeal to early church consensus (a shockingly popular and insufficient argument) for the Christian canon.

With regard to the arguments we conscript for defending our canon of Scripture, we must distinguish between criteria and traits. Traits serve as evidence of inspiration—their absence would raise red flags. But criteria themselves are the indispensable and non-negotiable properties of the canon. Far too often, theologians and lay people alike appeal to traits in defense of the books of Scripture—which fall flat on their face in their reasoning, and feel hollow to the listeners and speakers alike. The answer is in the machine God uses to manufacture revelation itself—God’s very technology for inspiration supplies the rationale. Kerygma, martyria, and didache are the tools behind the mouthpieces of inspired Scripture.

Before we can defend the canon by means of traits, we must first be able to explain the internal consistency of the concept of the canon—and its limits. The traits are evidences of the criteria, which must be intelligible in order to put on full display the consistency of Christianity on its own terms. Only then can we engage in the kind of apologetic engagement with those who don’t accept the premise of the canon, or even the concept of God.

This concept which we have unfolded here is most distinctly relevant for criticisms of Christianity that would cast doubt on its truthfulness by comparing it to other canons. Bart Ehrman is the most popular proponent of this view—that the concept of a single “Christianity” is a retelling of the early Christian story that takes sides against other, equally legitimate versions of Christianity like Arianism, which denies the divinity of Jesus. Many have refuted Ehrman’s historical points, but theologians have often failed to engage his more valid theological criticisms that the concept of a canon itself is arbitrary—what’s in and what’s out? Here, we have answered that question.

Conclusion

This argument seems to me to supply the most satisfying rationale for why we as Christians hold to the canon in its inherited form—the 66 books of the Christian canon: God’s Word.

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