How Do We Know the New Testament Canon? Part 1

The year was A.D. 350, and a group of Christian bishops had gathered in Ephesus for what became known as the Council of Fabrica. The goal of this council was to settle the issue of which books belonged in the New Testament. Of course, most of the New Testament books had long been widely recognized and used as sacred Scripture, but there were still questions about a few of the shorter books like Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. So the bishops got together to fast, pray, and seek God’s mind, asking God earnestly to show them whether these books truly belonged in the Bible.

Finally, after three days, something happened which not even these pious bishops were prepared for. Witnesses say that out of nowhere a hand appeared, writing on the wall (just like in the book of Daniel). The bishops looked on in amazement, as this miracle unfolded before their eyes. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, the hand disappeared. And written on the wall, they saw a shining list of twenty-seven books, including Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The bishops praised God for answering their prayers, and broke their fast with a love feast of celebration.

And that, my friends, is how the church came to know which books belonged in the New Testament.


The Desire for Certainty

Now if you’ve never heard the story of the Council of Fabrica, there’s a good reason for that. It’s because I made it up (fabricated it, to be precise). The only part that’s actually true is that it did take longer for small books like 2 and 3 John to be universally recognized as part of the New Testament than it did for books like the four Gospels and Paul’s epistles. But other than that, I concocted the story out of my imagination. That’s not how we arrived at our knowledge of the New Testament canon. There was no miraculous handwriting on the wall, no infallible church council, no inspired table of contents.

Still, this fable is valuable because I think it illustrates how many of us (myself included) often wish God had given us the canon. The inspiration of Scripture was undoubtedly a miracle. But after that providence took over, much to our chagrin. When it comes to issues like the canon of Scripture (which books belong in the Bible), the transmission of Scripture (how the Bible was copied and handed down through the centuries), and the translation of Scripture (how the Bible gets communicated into other languages), too often what we want is for God to work another miracle. Instead he chooses to work in mundane, providential ways. We want him to shout through a megaphone of infallible revelation, and instead he speaks in the still, small voice of evidence and reason.

Instead of being content with moral certainty (i.e. God giving us sufficient evidence, and then overcoming our sinful desire to suppress or ignore that evidence and enabling us to accept it while others reject it), we want the kind of mathematical certainty we have that 3 x 3 = 9. The kind of evidence that’s so unmistakable that no one would ever disagree about it. And when we don’t get that, we’re tempted to fabricate stories or theories in order to get the kind of certainty we think we need.


So How Do We Really Know? 

The issue I want to discuss in this series of blog posts is how we know the biblical canon; specifically the New Testament canon. Throughout this series I’ll be drawing freely and shamelessly on two books by Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited and The Question of Canon.  The terminology is his terminology, the arguments are (by and large) his arguments. I make no claim to originality, though I do take responsibility for any errors in reasoning or information.

Now most of you don’t need me to tell you which books make up the New Testament. You might already have the list memorized (or you could just google it). But you may have wondered why these books and not others? When was it decided that these books would make up the canon? And who decided? Was it some church council? Some pope? And how do we know? Can we be certain that we have the right books? And if so, how? If God didn’t write the table of contents on a wall with his own finger, then how exactly do we know which books are canonical?

You might say, “Well, we just know.” But I would suggest we have to do better than that. After all, our Mormon friends “just know” that the Book of Mormon belongs in the canon. And our Muslim friends “just know” that the Qur’an belongs in the canon. Surely there’s got to be more to it than a burning in our bosom.

But don’t mistake me. We’re going to see there is a subjective element involved in how God’s people recognize his Word. There is what we call “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” by which he enables us to recognize God’s voice. But it’s not only subjective. There has to be some rational, objective evidence that supports our view of the canon. Otherwise all we have is fideism.


What to Expect and What Not to Expect

That’s what we want to talk about in these posts. I can’t give you an answer that will satisfy every objection a skeptic might make. In fact, I’m not addressing skeptics in this series. I’m addressing believers seeking understanding. If you’re a skeptic, feel free to listen in, but be prepared to hear me make assertions without feeling the need to answer all your objections. 

Even if you’re a Christian, I can’t promise that I’ll answer all your questions. In fact I can promise you that I won’t. If you’re looking for absolute, mathematical certainty about which books belong in the New Testament canon, you’re going to be disappointed, because I can’t give it to you (and I don’t think anyone else can either). C.S. Lewis once said that “It’s the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had.” And I would suggest that the desire for mathematical certainty about the canon is a perverse desire. 

But if you’re looking for moral certainty—which is really the only kind of certainty that we can have about most things anyway—then I think you can find what you’re seeking. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I believe we can examine the evidence and know beyond any reasonable doubt which books are canonical. Because the God who speaks is able to make himself heard.


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