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How Did We Get the Bible?

April 17, 2024 | Brad Campbell

Three times in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes about handing down (Greek, paradidomi) things he has received: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3), the sacrament of communion (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12). These three things that Paul hands down to the church in Corinth (and therefore to Christians in all times and places) function as three necessary parts of a body: Bones, Flesh, and Breath. The Bones of the Christian tradition are the Scriptures, grounding Christians to find their ultimate fulfillment and end in Christ Jesus. The Flesh is the worship life of the gathered, universal Church, centered around the act of receiving God’s presence and grace through Communion. The Breath is the life of the Spirit which continues to breathe afresh upon the pages of Scripture and tradition to bring clarity and direction to the Church. The Church is continually called to be a fully alive and embodied combination of Bones, Flesh, and Breath – of Scripture, worship, and life in the Spirit.

Obviously, the Bones of all bodies are what gives it structure and proper form; just as bones support a body, the Scriptures are a trellis for tried-and-true orthodox Christianity. In recent biblical scholarship, a lot of discourse has been given to understanding how we received our Scriptural Bones. Believe it or not, the Holy Bible did not one day fall from the sky with proper delineations about what is and is not “God’s Word.” Believe it or not, Christians throughout the first eight centuries of Church history argued and sometimes killed one another over what they thought should be considered as “God’s Word.” Believe it or not, the disagreements of the Church on such matters has yielded three different biblical canons, all used even to this day (66 books in the Protestant canon, 73 books in the Roman Catholic canon, and 78 books in the Eastern Orthodox canon). It begs that we ask the question, “How did we get the Bible?”

In the Old Testament, we get a rare glimpse of how the Hebrew Scriptures were determined to be “God’s word.”

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22) occupies a unique position as the only biblical figure explicitly validating the Scriptures as the Word of God. Her significance lies not only in her prophetic authority but also in her pivotal role during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. When the Book of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was re-discovered in the temple after hundreds of years of not practicing its commands, King Josiah sought confirmation of its authenticity, turning to Huldah for guidance. Remarkably, her response affirmed the divine origin of the scriptures, declaring that the calamities foretold within it would indeed come to pass, validating its authority. Huldah's assertion underscores the sacred nature of the written word, establishing a profound precedent for the recognition of scripture as the inspired revelation of God.

The New Testament, on the other hand, does not include any texts within itself that tell us how it became one cohesive book. In fact, it wasn’t until three hundred years after Jesus rose again that a group of Christians decided upon the first biblical canon. All the books that we have in our Bibles today at Plainfield Christian Church were decided unanimously upon in the years 325 and 381 by Church Doctors including Augustine, making our Scriptural tradition longstanding and rich. But how did those people decide, amongst hundreds of floating gospel accounts, letters, and written apocalyptic visions, that the books we have today should be THE books of the New Testament?

The process of determining the books that comprise the New Testament canon was a complex and gradual one, involving theological debate, ecclesiastical councils, and the Spirit-given discernment of the early Christian communities. In the centuries following Jesus' death and resurrection, numerous writings circulated among the diverse Christian communities, including various gospels, letters, and apocalyptic texts. Amidst this diversity, certain criteria emerged to evaluate which writings should be considered authoritative and inspired by God.

Factors such as apostolic authorship, orthodox theology consistent with the apostolic tradition, widespread usage in worship and teaching, and recognition by respected church leaders played significant roles in the formation of the canon. Additionally, the presence of divine inspiration and spiritual edification were crucial considerations. Over time, through careful deliberation and communal discernment, a consensus began to form around certain writings that ultimately became the core of the New Testament.

Augustine of Hippo and councils such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 contributed to the formalization of the canon, though it's important to note that the process was not uniform across all Christian communities and regions. Despite disagreements and debates, the canon gradually solidified and closed, reflecting the shared convictions and beliefs of the early Church. The selection of the books in the New Testament represents the collective wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit’s Breath working within the early Christian community to preserve and transmit the message of salvation for future generations.

But why should we as Christians in 2024 care about how we got our Scriptures?

The Scriptures are an incredibly beautiful collection of many genres of texts – ranging from poetry to parable, fiction to nonfiction, prophecies to psalms, and everywhere in between. To avoid the danger of losing the weightiness of their importance (as we often experience with many family heirlooms passed down through generations), it is important to remember how we received the Holy Scriptures for a few reasons. 

First and foremost, we received the Scriptures because God’s Spirit inspired the hearts and minds of men and women to write them down. It seems like a simple truth, but God’s Breath is foremost responsible for the Christian Scriptures. At the heart of our understanding of Scripture lies the recognition that it is the product of divine inspiration. The Holy Spirit moved men and women to write down the words of God, infusing the Scriptures with divine authority and significance. Acknowledging this fundamental truth reinforces our faith in the living presence of God within the written word and invites us into a deeper encounter with the divine.

Second, there have been various times throughout the history of Christianity in which Christians have gathered to discern collectively and prayerfully what is God’s word (in fact, this happens every week as we worship). This is important for two reasons. First, it reveals to us that interpreting and understanding not only Scripture, but also God, is a communal task. Faith is not an individual reality, but a collective reality. Therefore, the interpretation and reception of Scriptures through the centuries is not the task of devotional Christians, but of the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Understanding how we received the Scriptures serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness with the wider body of Christ and grounds us in the enduring truth and authority of God's Word. By embracing this heritage, we are empowered to faithfully interpret, proclaim, and embody the message of Scripture in our contemporary context, guided by the same Spirit that inspired its composition millennia ago.

The Holy Scriptures inform every part of the human life; therefore, knowing how we received what has been handed down to us since Paul’s ministry and the Old Testament times is important. As the Bones of the Christian faith, the Scriptures call us into a greater life with Christ centered not only in God’s word (Scripture), but also of God’s Word (Christ Jesus). The Flesh of our worship is saturated with God’s word and Word, inviting us into deeper union with Christ and with one another. It reminds us of the truth we sung of even this past Sunday: “Your Word will never change / Your Name is here to stay / Jesus, there is no other.” The ultimate call to consider the question of how we got the Bible is also a commissioning to share God’s word with our broken world. It is a call to hand down the Bones, Flesh, and Breath of our faith. Our call is to be people of God’s Word, so that we may ultimately say with deep truth, “your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105).


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