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Who Decided Which Books of the Bible to Include and Exclude?

Ask Pastor Alex, Ep. 9

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex.
Alright, welcome back to the Ask Pastor Alex podcast.
We’re here with another episode and another question.
And the question for this episode is, who decided which books of the Bible to include
and exclude?
Very good question.
That is a very good question because it has so many misconceptions today, right?
If you talk to a lot of people or ask people this question about how we actually got the
books of the Bible, how we knew which ones to include or exclude, there’s all sorts of
misconceptions on this.
In fact, you’ll often even see secular publications that’ll post articles and print magazines
and stuff that are giving their two cents about how it actually happened, and almost
none of them take into account the actual history, which is unfortunate.
So let’s get into a couple of them.
For instance, if you were to look at a couple common misconceptions, one of the most common
ones is that a certain council sat down together and there were a lot of men at these councils
and they had all these options about which books to include or exclude and they sorted
through them all and they were just basically picking and choosing their favorites.
And that’s how they decided which ones were going to make it in.
They sat down as a council and they just made a decision as an authoritative body.
Another popular idea is that there might have perhaps been a pope at some point, and the
pope issued a decree giving an official statement about which books to include and exclude.
And the same thing is also attributed to possibly an emperor.
Maybe an emperor at some point decided that he was going to take it upon himself to say
which books of the Bible were to be included and excluded based on basically his own personal
preferences and which ones he liked.
And you also see ideas in popular media such as like one that comes to mind is the Da Vinci
Code, right?
If you have read that book or possibly seen the movie, you know that the author Dan Brown
says that Constantine is the one who actually decided, the emperor Constantine decided which
books of the Bible were supposed to be included and which ones were supposed to be excluded.
And then what happens is people either read that book or they see that movie and they
think, oh, that must be what actually happened.
And so they start entertaining all of these ideas that aren’t founded and based in history.
And then they don’t really know what to believe.
They’re like, well, Christians are saying this, but people are saying this and I don’t
really know what to believe.
So there are a lot of misconceptions.
There’s a lot of confusion on this topic.
And so let’s break it down about what actually happened.
So almost all of the New Testament writers were apostles.
And I say almost all because we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, right?
Could have been Paul, could have been Luke, could have been someone else.
We don’t know.
God will let us know when we get to glory.
So almost all the writers of the New Testament were apostles.
And what happened is they wrote with God given authority and inspiration.
And remember that word inspiration, which we find in the Bible, it actually means breathed
out by God.
And what happened is they would write and then they would send their writings to the
churches and then the churches would receive those writings as authoritative or canonical.
So you’ll often hear people talk about the canon of the Bible, the canon of the New Testament.
The word canon simply means rule or standard.
And so the word of God, the Bible is our standard.
It is our rule for our lives.
And so the churches would receive these writings and immediately recognize them as authoritative
and canonical.
And even the apostles themselves recognized each other’s writings as authoritative and
from God.
In other words, what that means is when the apostles read each other’s writings, they
even considered each other’s writings to be scripture.
We see this very clearly in 2 Peter chapter 3 verse 16, when Peter refers to the writings
of Paul as scripture.
And so they are contemporaries of each other writing at the same time and immediately recognizing
that what they’re doing is writing scripture, meaning is coming from God.
And so by the end of the apostolic period, the churches had already started to copy the
books of the New Testament and send them around to other churches.
And they collected them as the standard for God’s people right alongside the Old Testament.
So they recognize the Old Testament as being scripture and from God.
And they were starting to do that as early as the apostolic period with the writings
of the apostles in the New Testament.
So you would have disciples of, for instance, like John or Paul, and they would use the
writings of the apostles to teach and preach in the churches.
And then the disciples of the apostles had disciples themselves.
And so you see this long line of people who were coming from the apostolic teaching and
authority and they’re able to recognize this, right?
So think about it like this, because the people who were teaching and preaching, collecting,
copying and distributing were either the disciples of the apostles or the direct successors
of the disciples of the apostles, they had a unique perspective to be able to tell which
books actually came from the God inspired apostles.
They would be able to recognize, yes, this is clearly from Paul.
This is clearly from John.
This is clearly someone who has been inspired of God.
And they would hold that to be authoritative and use it to teach and preach in the churches.
So therefore, as long as they knew that the books they had came from one of the God inspired
apostles, those books functioned as scripture in the church.
Now we do also know that there were many false writings as well, right?
I mean, if you look, we are aware of many false writings, people who were presenting
something and they would often attribute it to an apostle or a disciple of Jesus.
They would put the name of a disciple or a follower of Jesus on that false writing and
they were trying to pass it off as if it was scripture.
We know, for instance, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of
Judas, plenty more to go around.
But all of these were revealed to be forgeries and deceptively attributed to God inspired
apostolic authors.
And furthermore, none of these false gospels was ever universally received or accepted
by the church.
So listen, we’re not denying that those things existed.
We’re not saying there were never any competitors or any other writings out there.
We’re not denying that, but the proof is the fact that they were never universally received
or accepted by the church and they were quickly shown to be forgeries and false writings.
We also know that some books that we have in our New Testament today were doubted at
some point.
We know, for instance, books like Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3, John, Jude, and Revelation
were all doubted at some point.
People weren’t immediately sure whether or not these were apostolic writings and should
be used as scripture.
However, the doubts and the exclusion of these books was also never universal in the church.
And by the fourth century, the doubts and possible exclusions ceased.
In fact, here’s a really fun fact by the end of the patristic period, so patristic period,
referring to the period of the early church fathers, all churches throughout the world
shared the exact same New Testament canon with the exact same 27 books that we have
in our New Testament today.
So that’s really encouraging for everybody who wants to say that this wasn’t decided
until much later and that there’s still doubt and all this kind of stuff and people were
picking and choosing.
No, by the end of the patristic period, they had the exact same New Testament with all
the same books that we had today.
So listen, here’s the final word on this.
This means that no pope ever decided which books to include or exclude.
No emperor, not even Constantine, sorted through various books, deciding which ones to include
and which ones to exclude.
No council, not even the council of Nicaea ever sat down and just put all the possible
books on the table and said, all right, guys, let’s go through these, figure out which ones
we like, which ones we don’t like, which ones we’re going to use, which ones we’re not going
to use.
They never sat down and decided which ones to include or exclude.
It is true that certain councils published lists of the official canon, but those lists
were simply an affirmation of the canon, not a prescription of the canon.
In other words, they were not saying, hey, we are prescribing this list because we in
our own authority have decided that this is the canon.
They were sitting down saying, okay, these are the books that all the churches around
the world have agreed are inspired of God, come from an apostolic writer.
They recognize the apostolic authority and inspiration behind them.
These are the ones that are being used to teach and preach in the churches.
And so we are affirming the canon that the churches have already been using since the
apostolic period.
And we are just announcing that this is an affirmation that yes, this is the canon.
But they weren’t prescribing saying, hey, based on our authority, we are putting this
forward as our verdict about what we think the canon should be.
It was an organic, spirit led process from the start.
So don’t believe any of these myths about a single person or even a group of people
sitting down and trying to decide which ones to include or which ones to exclude.
God inspired authors to write the New Testament.
They were inspired by God himself.
And the churches, once they received those writings, immediately received them as authoritative
and started teaching from them and preaching from them.
Even the other apostles who were writing scripture recognized the other writings of the apostles
as scripture.
This was the organic process that took place and God oversaw the whole thing from the start.
So we can be very confident that the books that we have in our New Testament are the
only ones that should be included in the New Testament.
Really good question, really interesting question.
That is dealing with a lot of misconceptions that we have going on today.
And so I really hope that this answer helps and brings some clarity.
Appreciate the question.
Looking forward to answering more in the future.