Is the NT Canon a Fallible Collection?

This post was originally published on January 14, 2009. It is the second blog post I published.

We have an amazing collection of 66 books in the Bible (at least in the Protestant version), but have you ever wondered how that collection ever got assembled? It can be an important question as the Catholic Bible contains additional books (Apocrypha) and there have been a series of critical views (from the DaVinci Code to various books by Ehrman) suggesting that the collection we have is incomplete or inaccurate. Many question 2 Peter is old enough to be written by the Apostle Peter others suggest that the “lost” gospels like Thomas or Judas were wrongly left out. So how do we know which books belong in the Bible? Can we accept the Table of Contents (ToC) in the front of our Bible as infallible?

As a starting point we would have to start by defining the Bible as a collection of books that are inspired by God. In order to be included in the collection a book must be inspired.

In stating that the ToC is infallible we would be asserting more than that there are no errors in the list (since I would agree that we have the right books and only the right books), but that there is no possibility of error in the list.

Since the Bible is a collection of inspired books, Geisler and Nix in their book “An Introduction to the Bible” rightly state that:

  • God determines which books are in the canon.
  • Man discovers which books are in the canon.

We should have no problem stating that the contents (at least in the autograph) of a particular inspired book (for example Ephesians) would have authority and infallibility because God was involved in the writing (determining). The authority of the book comes from God. The recognition of the authority of that book is done by man.

In order for there to be no possibility of error in the ToC, God would have to be equally involved in the discovery process as He is in the writing process to insure that was the case. However, we first have to acknowledge that there is no “list of books” in any of the books that are accepted as inspired. There are quotes and acknowledgments of other books as being inspired, for example Paul states that Scripture is inspired (2 Tim 3:16) and Peter affirms the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), but we could not be certain what books are included in the Scriptures Paul refers to or which writings are part of the Pauline corpus that Peter mentions.

Second when one looks at the history of the discovery of the NT canon there is no evidence for a unified NT until the 4th century. The first evidence that we see the NT Canon containing the 27 books we have today and only the 27 books that we accept today is in 367 AD (Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter). This list is confirmed in a series of councils starting with Canon 36 of the Council of Hippo in 393 AD. This is well after the Apostolic era when it is generally regarded that the inspired books are written.

Finally we must acknowledge that man is fallible. To describe any of the councils where the canon was debated and where the discovery phase was concluded (for all practical purposes) as infallible would be conferring the capability of being inerrant to people where only God possesses this ability. Since man is fallible it seems logical that the discovery phase was also a fallible process. There were no signs and wonders that confirm the process (2 Cor 12:12). Since it is these councils where we find the discovery phase completed, to acknowledge the NT ToC as infallible would also invite the possibility other proclamations made in these councils can be too. Why would the NT listed in Canon 36 of Hippo be considered infallible yet not the rest of Canon 36 which includes the OT and Apocrypha? What about another Canon by the same council? We have as much basis for concluding that Canon 1-35 are infallible as we do Canon 36.

For another view on the fallibility of the NT Canon check out Michael Patton’s post. He deals with the Catholic claim for an infallible list of infallible books based on the infallible authority of the church. For a contrasting view check out this post.

11 thoughts on “Is the NT Canon a Fallible Collection?

  1. I would say that our recognition of the canon is fallible only to the degree we fail to recognize the witness of the Scripture. BTW the Catholic Church didn’t canonize the Apocrypha until the Council of Trent (1546). Seems they needed more Scriptural ammo because they were getting schooled by the Protestant reformers in debates.

    Westminster Confession (1647): “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our heart.” (I.5)

    • Parallax

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      I know the RCC did not “officially” canonize the Apocrypha until Trent, but they do have some historical lists of canonical books to lean on from the early church. That said I don’t recognize the Apocrypha. Maybe “the why” would make a good topic for another post.

      “I would say that our recognition of the canon is fallible only to the degree we fail to recognize the witness of the [Spirit].”

      I understand this argument, but at the same time have trouble with it. The argument would suggest that the early church struggled to settle the canon throughout its early days because they did not recognize the witness of the Spirit. Yet they were closest to those who wrote the books (at least for the NT). The historical record shows that there were always a few books that were in “dispute”.

      I also have trouble with this as it relates to people claiming that the Spirit helped them undertand a passage and come to accept theology X. However many brothers and sisters disagree, throughout history and up to today, about various theological matters.

    • Paralax Perspective,

      Your assertion that the Catholic Church did not include the Apocrypha (we call it the deuterocanonicals) until the Council of Trent is a common mistake but a mistake nonetheless. They were considered to be canonical in the 4th century but, if an individual disagreed, they were free to reject them. That is what changed at Trent. They were no longer an option. To reject them was to now be excommunicated.

  2. Pingback: What’s in your Canon? « Dead Heroes Don't Save

  3. I’m not sure that I follow your logic, Mike. On one hand, you seem to have faith that the authors of Scripture were inspired by God. On the other hand, you seem to lack faith that God can then superintend and preserve the transmission of what He calls Scripture.

    That there is disagreement about canonization isn’t a surprise. The question is whether God’s message – that which we truly need to know – has been obscured because we’re fallible discoverers. Another way to ask the same question is whether God’s purpose for inspiring men to write has been thwarted by mankind’s limitations.

    • Tony

      My starting point is that faith should never be blind. It should be based on the direct promises of God.

      Inspiration and Canonization are related but I do see a distinction.
      So I do have faith that God inspired writings because He said so. Jesus use of the OT and Paul’s affirmation to Timothy are good starting points to this.

      In many cases the inspiration of a book (or at least the author) was affirmed by the writer being a prophet or able to work signs and wonders. For a better development of this idea see today’s post which examines 1 Corinthians.

      How do I know that the list of books we have today and call the Bible is the right and only set of books? And how certain can I be regarding that list? That is what I am exploring. The conclusion I walk away with is it is difficult to assert with absolute certainty that we have an infallible list.

      A goal of canonization is to affirm which books were inspired. I trust that the church did the hard work of exploring and researching these books as questions arose. However, during this process there are multiple lists that differ in one way or another. There are no lists that we can point back to and say this is the one God inspired. See “What’s In Your Canon?” for details.


  4. Your assertion is too clever by half: If men cannot be infallible, even by the grace of God, then neither were the prophets infallible when they recorded the Scriptures. This is an intolerable position, both at odds with Scripture “no prophecy is given to private interpretation,” and contrary to reason, as it makes God out to be impotent. The infallibility of the Scriptures is contingent on the Holy Spirit making the prophets infallible while prophesying. Thus, affirming the infallibility of Scripture implies that God can and does make men infallible according to His will.

    • Welcome to DHDS and thanks for commenting.

      I am differentiating between the process of writing and the process of putting together the collection of writings.

      The authors of the Scriptures were moved along by the Spirit to write the message God intended. We have the testimony of Scripture and the witness of signs and wonders to affirm this process.

      However history shows us that the identification of which books are to be considered Scripture is fallible. We see this in the early writings and debates of the early church in which their are disputes over which books belonged in the NT. These debates testify that the early church had differences in their canon over the first 400 years of its existence. We also find that the early church readily included deuterocanonical books that Protestants would reject today.

      I don’t think that these historic facts “make God out to be impotent”. It just means that he left the process and responsibility to his church, just as 2 Tim 2:2 suggests.

      How can you be sure that the list of books you think comprise the Scriptures is correct when there are different lists containing different books that Christians have affirmed over the history of the church?

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