How were the contents of the Bible determined? t{squared}

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Have you ever thought about who determined what books should be included in the Bible? How did they go about deciding which were God’s words? Honestly, this question never entered my mind until it was taught in seminary. But it’s an important question. Many non-believers will ask this very question, and we need to have an answer (1 Peter 3:15).

First a little vocabulary:

Canon of Scripture: refers to the list of all the books that belong in the Bible (Grudem, 54)
Canonization: the process of recognizing that inherent authority of a book as inspired by God, not bestowing that authority from an outside source (Plummer, 57)

In sum, we don’t declare a book of the Bible to be canonical (belonging in the Bible). God gives it authority as His inspired Word, and we recognize that authority as the Word of God. 

Grudem goes into great detail about the history behind the development of both the Old and New Testament. I’m going to simplify it somewhat here. If you would like to read more about the historical development of Scripture, go here and see Chapter 3 (it’s a limited preview on Google Books).

Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament books are the Jewish Scripture. This canon began when God wrote the Ten Commandments for Moses on Mt. Sinai and continued to be collected from 1400-430 B.C. During the time of Jesus’ life, the canon was well-established and accepted as Jewish Scripture. Jesus did not contest the Old Testament list of books as Scripture. In fact, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote from the Old Testament and affirm it as divinely authoritative over 295 times in the New Testament (Grudem, 57).

Accepting the Old Testament canon as Scripture is rather easy for a believer. Because Jesus accepted it as God’s Word, we can too.

New Testament Canon

The New Testament adds a bit more complexity because it was written after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Therefore we do not have his confirmation of the texts included as we do the Old Testament. But we do have the Holy Spirit whom he left to lead and guide us.

The early church had certain qualifications that a text must have in order to be considered Scripture (Plummer 59-60):

  1. Apostolic: the text must have be written by an eyewitness of Jesus or closely tied to an eyewitness of Jesus
  2. Catholic: (not the denomination) the text must be widely and preferably universally accepted by the early churches as Scripture
  3. Orthodox: fancy word meaning sound doctrine; the text must not contradict any other text already affirmed as Scripture or established doctrine
In A.D. 367, Athanasius included a canonical list of books that matches exactly our current 27 books of the New Testament. Three hundred years may seem like a long time to compile a canonical list of New Testament texts. We must remember though that this was not a time of modern technology or even the printing press. Everything was copied by hand and circulated over large geographical areas. Throughout this time, the texts were being read, taught, and acknowledged as Scripture in the churches scattered across the world. Gathering an official list simply took time.


Understanding how and why the books included in the Bible were determined proves important in our Christian life. First, we may accept everything we find in Scripture as God’s Word to us. Second, we are able to give an answer to those who ask about the Bible’s origin.

In the end, while we have sound explanations for the canonization process, ultimately the Holy Spirit and the faith He gives us leads each person to believe and trust what he finds in Scripture. On days when we do not like or do not understand what we read, we can trust that those words are indeed from God and seek to apply them to our lives.

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In addition to Grudem’s Systematic Theology, I used 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (40 Questions & Answers Series) to write today’s post (affiliate links).

This post is linked with thanks to:

Thought Provoking Thursday
Thoughtful Thursday
Thankful Thursday
Proverbs 31 Thursday

Life in Bloom
Thrive at Home Thursday


  1. I’m loving your tsquared Thursdays! Thanks for sharing so much great information girly! :) Blessings friend! 

    • Thanks! I get very few comments on Thursdays so I wonder if no one likes it!
      Mary Beth

      • I love it, Mary Beth!  I think people tend to comment less on more serious and thought-provoking topics like this… I often get the same lack of response on similar blog posts.  But, people ARE reading, so keep writing! And thanks for linking up to Thrive @ Home Thursday! :)

        • Thanks Jenni! That is what I’ve been telling myself! :) Plus, the Lord led me to write it, so I have to trust that He has a reason and stay faithful!

  2. RedOakLane says:

    Very interesting.  Thank you for linking up!


  1. […] we established that the Bible is a book of God’s words. This resulted in a discussion of how the books of the Bible were determined to be God’s words which concluded in the Old Testament being affirmed as such by Christ and the New Testament being […]

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