A Providential Reason: The Canon of the BiblePastor Lutzer | November 23, 1997
No council ever met to accept some books of the Bible and reject others; they only recognized what had been used by God’s providence.
Selected highlights from this sermon
The Bible came about through God’s providence. It was not dictated or constructed by man. Instead, the books of the Old and New Testaments were recognized by God’s people to be the very Word of God.
What about other ancient books and writings such as the Apocrypha? Historically speaking, they were never recognized by God’s people, and if anyone has a new book that they think should be added to the Bible, they should carefully examine the warnings at the end of Revelation.
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There is a story about a Protestant minister who spent a lot of time at the racetrack gambling. And he began to observe that there was a priest who was down at the racetrack and who blessed certain horses. And whenever those horses were blessed, they won. So he thought to himself, “All that I have to do is to keep track and look at that priest and see what horse he blesses, and then I’ll put my money on that one.” So that’s what he did.
He saw the priest bless the horse. The Protestant minister decided to put all of his money on that horse, and it ran about a hundred yards and fell over dead. (laughter) He was pretty upset because he lost a lot of money. And he found he priest and he said, “I don’t understand it. You blessed horses, and every horse you blessed won the race. You blessed this one and he died.” And the priest said, “Well, you know, that’s the problem with some of you Protestants.” He said, “You can’t tell the difference between a blessing and last rites.” (laughter)
Well, you know, of course, that there are differences between Protestants and Catholics. And today, because of the nature of the subject, we’re going to have to talk about those differences in a spirit of love, and a spirit of sensitivity. But the differences are going to have to be talked about and faced ultimately.
When Stephen and Janet Ray converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, the said that their decision came down to this question. Now listen carefully. Did the New Testament give birth to the church, or did the church give birth to the New Testament? You say, “Run that past me again.” Well, here’s the issue, you see. If the New Testament gave birth to the church, then the New Testament has primacy, but if the church birthed the New Testament, then the church has primacy, and it is first not only in time, but also in authority.
Let me put it for you a little bit more clearly perhaps. The Catholics say that the Bible alone cannot be our authority because the Bible does not tell us which books are authoritative. Therefore, the church, and not the Bible, is the final authority. And that’s why church tradition is elevated, not only equal with the Scriptures, but in a sense above the Scriptures.
You see, that’s why those of us who are Protestants are sometimes a little confused, aren’t we, when we talk with our Catholic friends and we say, “Now, why do you pray to Mary when it’s not found in the Bible?” And many Catholics are not troubled by that at all because they say, “I do not base it on the Bible. I base it on the tradition and the teaching of the church because the church has primacy over the Scriptures.”
Now, today we’re going to be discussing some of these issues, and I need to simply pause and remind you of the fact that if you are here today and you are a Catholic, not only are you welcome, but you are in good company. In fact, we have discovered as we have new members’ classes here at The Moody Church that about 25 to 35% of all the people who join The Moody Church have a Catholic background. And I’ve discovered as I’ve traveled around the country, that we have thousands of listeners of our radio programs who are Catholic. And so we want you to know that you not only are welcome, but I hope that what I have to say today will be accepted in a spirit of acceptance and recognition that there are these differences that we simply cannot avoid in this series of messages on the question of the Bible being the Word of God.
Let me tell you what we hope to accomplish today, and I don’t know whether or not we will be able to do it all, but here are the questions that I hope to answer in the next 25 minutes.
• When was the decision made as to what books should be in the Bible and who made it?
• Can we be sure that we have the right books in the Bible?
• Why does the Catholic church have some additional books not found in the Protestant Bible?
• And why do Protestants believe that the Bible alone is the basis for faith and practice?
Now, today we’re going to cover some things that could become quite technical but we’ll try to keep them from being such. Normally when I preach here at the church I take one passages of Scripture and expound on it. Today we’re going to look at a number of different verses. In some instances, I will simply quote them because we have a lot of territory to cover. And I hope that you will hang in.
I discovered that last week there was a woman who was present who said, “Everything that Pastor Lutzer says is above my head.” I have two comments about that. Number one, it’s hard for me to believe that that is true because I’ve always prayed that God would keep me simple. And my staff has said, “Stop praying it. He’s overdone it already.” And secondly, if it is above your head, I just want you to sit up a little straighter, and I’m sure that it will not get past. Alright!
So, with that introduction let’s begin. Now, let’s begin by talking first of all about how the Bible came to be—the Old Testament. How did it come to be? Well, when God inspired Moses and told Moses the words of the Lord, the Scripture says that Moses wrote down all these words in a book. And then it says in Deuteronomy 31:26 that the book was taken and it was laid up in the Ark of the Lord. And as you study the history of the Old Testament you discover two things. Number one, various books were added, and number two, they were revered. They were recognized to be the Word of the Lord. And throughout the Old Testament you have that expression, “The Word of the Lord came to me.”
Now, to be fair, we have to understand that there were some books that were included then in the Canon as it was developing, and there were those who were uneasy and wondered whether they should be in the Canon. For example, some people said that the Song of Solomon is too sensual. They read the book of Esther and discovered that the name God does not occur in the book, and they wondered whether or not the book of Esther should be in the Old Testament. But by and large, they were convinced that what they had was the Word of God, and there was widespread agreement that the books that were included and revered were Scripture.
Now not all the books that were written during that period of time were included as Scripture. For example, the book of Joshua speaks about a book of Jasher. First and Second Samuel talk about a book that I believe is called The Book of the Wars of the Lord. We don’t know what happened to these books. All that we know is that they were not included as Scripture, and so far as we know, they have passed from history.
What’s important for us in this message is to realize that the Canon that Jesus had, and by the way, I’m going to be using that word Canon, refers to the books that were thought to be qualified Scripture. Actually, the word Canon originally was a reed or a measuring rod, and so it became applied to those books that made the grade, so to speak. But what is important for us to realize is that all of the books that we have in our Old Testament, all 39 in content, were identical to the Old Testament that Jesus had when He walked the face of this earth.
Now, if I had a Hebrew Bible here and opened to the Table of Contents, we would discover that it looks quite different than our Old Testament. For example, our Old Testament has 39 books. The Hebrew Bible has only 22. But the reason is because they combined certain books. For example, in the Hebrew Bible there is no 1 and 2 Samuel, or 1 and 2 Kings. It’s simply Samuel and Kings. And other smaller books were attached to other larger ones, so you have 22 books, but the content is the same.
The second thing we discover is that the arrangement of the books (the order) is different. Would you believe that in the Hebrew Bible (If we had one here today we could show it to you.) the last book is Chronicles. We call it Second Chronicles, and that’s the last book of the Old Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.
Now, with that background, I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 23. I ask you to turn here because this gives further incidental proof of the fact that when Jesus was on earth, the Canon of the Old Testament (the 39 books we have, though arranged differently and grouped differently) was exactly the Canon that is in the Hebrew Bible today, which is our Canon.
Notice in Matthew 23, verses 34 and 35, Christ said these words: “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town (Now notice.), so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” Very interesting!
The first murder in the Old Testament is that of Abel. Did you know that in 2 Chronicles, chapter 24, in our Bible (That’s the way we designate it, which is the last book of the Hebrew Canon.), you have the murder of a prophet by the name of Zechariah? His father’s name is different because sometimes in ancient times the grandfather and the father were sometimes used interchangeably, but it’s the story there of how he was murdered in the temple.
What Jesus was saying is, “From Genesis to Revelation (as we would say it in New Testament times), from the beginning of the Canon to the end of the Canon, all the righteous blood that was spilled from A to Z…” You notice that Jesus clearly shows that the Canon that He is accepting is that of the Old Testament ancient Jewish Canon.
Now you say, “Well, you entitled this message The Providence of God. I still haven’t seen the providence of God so far.” Here’s where I see divine providence. Did you know that there never was a commission or a committee or a council that met together to determine what books were going to be in the Old Testament? They never gathered and debated the issue and said, “Well, I vote for this one,” and “I don’t vote for that one,” and they never duked it out, so to speak. That never happened any time in history. It was the people of God who discerned that certain writings were of God, and they accepted those writings, and they rejected others, and soon the people of God (the Jews of the Old Testament) accepted a certain body of literature as having come from God, and they all believed that prophecy ended, the miracle of inspiration ended for them with the prophet Malachi 400 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, and they subscribed and they agreed that this collection of books was the Word of God. And I see in that the providence of God.
Now, it’s true that there was a council later that ratified it. They looked at the list and said, “Yes, we agree,” but they were actually ratifying what the Jews had already done hundreds of years earlier without a formal council. There was individual debate, but it was never determined by a council but by the people of God. That’s the Old Testament.
Now, what about the apocrypha? We, of course, as Protestants, refer to the apocrypha. That word means hidden, because if you take a Roman Catholic Bible and you look at it, you’ll notice that it had some additional books in it that are not found in the Protestant Bible. And I preach on this because people ask me about it all the time. They say, “Where did those books come from?” “How come we accept these books?” a Catholic might say, and Protestants say, “We don’t accept them.”
Let me give you a little bit of history. And by the way, there are in total 15 apocryphal books, 11 of which have been accepted as Canonical by the Roman Catholic Church, four of which are combined with other Old Testament books. And that’s why if you have a Douay version of the Old Testament, as I do in my study, I believe I’m correct in saying that there are only seven additional books in the Roman Catholic Bible.
Why this difference? Come with me to the city of Alexandria in Egypt about 250 years before the time of Christ. These scholars decided to take the Old Testament and translate it into Greek. They came up with a translation that became known in history as the Septuagint. It simply means 70. There is a myth (probably a myth, although it’s possible that it’s true) that it was done in 70 days by 70 scholars, and that’s where it got its name from. This became a very popular translation. In fact, it was used in the Greek speaking world. The New Testament writers show acquaintance with it, and it is a very important link in the history of religion—the Jewish religion and the Christian faith. Many of the verses that we even know today show acquaintance with the Septuagint translation.
Now, in that translation, at a later date, sometime later, these books were inserted, the books that we call the apocrypha. What I’d like to do is to tell you that if you’ve never read the apocrypha, it is important that you do so. You can purchase one, or if you have a Catholic Bible I encourage you to read the apocrypha, because many of these books give some interesting history regarding the intertestamental period. Others of them, perhaps their value might be very severely and properly disputed.
Let me give you some reasons why Protestants have never accepted the apocrypha. And I might say that the Roman Catholic Church did not officially accept it until the Council of Trent in 1546. It is then that the actual vote and the actual council accepted the apocrypha 29 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, perhaps because some of the verses in the apocrypha were being used against Luther at the time. Nevertheless, that is simply a record of history.
Why don’t Protestants accept these books? Number one, because the New Testament never quotes them as being authoritative. The writers might show acquaintance with the apocryphal books, and certainly they would have known of their existence, and they would have read them. But when the Bible says, “Thus says the Lord,” or “As it stands written,” often that quotation, that phrase, is found in the New Testament, but it is never a quotation from the apocrypha. That’s one reason.
Let me give you a second. I have to say that the reason that I encourage you to read because some of the stories are very passable, and others of them have rather evident historical errors, so there’s always been a question as to whether or not they could be Scripture. But perhaps the most important reason is that they were never a part of the Hebrew Old Testament Canon. That’s perhaps the primary reason. The apocrypha was never written in Hebrew. It was Greek, and as a result it came into the Septuagint and was debated, and some people thought it should be a part of Scripture. Some of them thought that it shouldn’t be. Some of the Bible translators said, “We will translate it and we will set it apart because we don’t believe that it is Scripture, but nevertheless it is beneficial to read.” And so you had the issue arise in that way. But that explains, I think, why it is a very quick overview as to why we have this divergence of opinion regarding these books, these books called the apocrypha.
Now, let me talk briefly about the New Testament. How did it come to be? Early on as God inspired the New Testament writers, they began to write the Word of God. But notice the difference now. Think this through. The ancient Jews could take these writings to the Temple. They could put them in the Ark. They could accumulate them like a library, but the Christian church was scattered abroad. It was everywhere. You had congregations throughout all of Asia Minor, so as the Apostle Paul began to write a letter to one church, one church knew about that letter, but not necessarily the other church. There was no central depository for all of the books. Consequently, as these books were written there were some lists of books that might have included some and excluded others. So there was a period of development as the Canon began to come to be.
I think for the Early Church one of the most important questions to authenticate a book was: "Is it either written by an Apostle, or someone who would authenticate the Apostle?' For example, Luke was not one of the early Apostles, but he was a companion of the Apostle Paul, so in that sense Luke had apostolic blessing, even if not apostolic authority.
Now, as these books began to be written, they were accepted again as the Word of God by the Christian church. Notice how quickly they were accepted as Scripture. Take your Bibles and turn to 2 Peter 3 where Peter comments on the writings of Paul, and gives us some encouragement and hope. We all admire Peter. For some he is the first pope, but for those of us who perhaps do not take that opinion, nevertheless admire his writings. He was one of the apostles, highly valued, and this is what he says about the Apostle Paul in 2 Peter 3:14-16: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, (Now isn’t this comforting?) just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand (Aren’t you glad that Peter even struggled with some of the things that Paul wrote?) which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
Do you see how Peter recognized the writings of Paul as being Scripture? Already in that first century they again saw that what was being written was indeed the Word of God. And by the end of the first century, you have all 27 books. They were known and they were largely accepted.
Now there was some debate over the book of Revelation, and some of the other books of the New Testament oftentimes, because there were churches that weren’t acquainted with the book of Revelation, or perhaps there were those who thought it had too much apocalyptic imagery, but essentially the church recognized that these writings were the Word of God.
Now, another note of providence! There was no council that ever met to debate what book should be in the Bible, accepting some and rejecting others. That never ever happened. Once again there was a council that met centuries later that ratified the list of 27 books of the New Testament, but they were only doing what the Christian church had already done centuries before, namely to accept these books as the Word of God, and therefore, it was as if God superintended what was happening, and the people of God themselves recognized what books were to be received. And that is why we have the New Testament Canon today.
Now that needs to be emphasized because sometimes you get the impression that there are people who think, you know, that on a hot sweaty Friday afternoon some people got into a room somewhere and they began to debate these things, and they said, “Well, let’s decide what books are going to be in the Bible.” That did not happen. We believe that God superintended the process in such a way that the Christian church recognized those books that were of God, and rejected those which weren’t. There was some debate, yes, but it was never done by a council that rejected or accepted a list of books.
Now, let me give some concluding principles here that are very important. And I think we can all agree on this, no matter where we come from religiously. A book either does or does not have authority. It either has come from God, inspired by God, or it didn’t come from God. In other words, the emphasis is on the writing itself. You could not take a letter of Abraham Lincoln’s and say that surely even if we don’t know if it is from Abraham Lincoln or not, if we vote on it, we can say that it is from Abraham Lincoln, and that will make it to be from Abraham Lincoln. No! All that we can do is to recognize what has been written. We do not have the power to be able to create that which is authentic and that which is not. And of course, our Catholic friends would agree with us on that point because it is so evident. But here’s where the difference comes. You see, because we believe that the church is fallible, and the Bible is infallible (The church can make mistakes but the Bible has none.), sometimes our Catholic friends say to us, “Well, you know, I really do think that because you have a fallible church, you cannot have an infallible Bible, because maybe the wrong books are in the Bible.” And so we have to simply say flat out that yes, it is possible. It is theoretically possible that the church could have made a mistake, because the church is not infallible. The church can make mistakes. We believe that they didn’t because God superintended them in such a way, and the very fact that there is no book that has ever seriously laid claim to be in the Canon. If you think that there is some book that should have been included, I’d encourage you to read it and to circulate it and to see whether or not it indeed would have the kind of authenticity that the other books of the New Testament have. I don’t think that such a book exists.
You know, years ago, in the early church there was a book called The Shepherd of ¬¬¬Hermas that some people thought should have been Scripture, and others thought no, it shouldn’t have been. All that you have to do is read it and be convinced that this is not the Word of God. It is sub-biblical.
What is it that I am trying to say? Just this! We believe very strongly that ultimately the authority of the church must be limited and must bow before the authority of Scripture. The church is fallible. Scripture is infallible. Now this shouldn’t come as a surprise because in the earlier messages in this series I emphasized the fact that it was fallible human beings that wrote an infallible text. Look at David and his mistakes and sins and crimes, so far as that’s concerned. He was a very fallible human being, and yet what he did was he wrote that which is the Word of God infallible, so it should not be a surprise to us that God entrusted infallible Scriptures to a fallible church, a church that can make mistakes. But that’s the dividing line between Protestantism and Catholicism, whether or not the church has authority independent of the Scriptures or whether it must bow to the Scriptures and say that the Scriptures alone become the basis of authority.
So let me say first of all, a book either does or does not have inherent authority. We believe that the only thing that the church can do is to recognize authority. It cannot confer authority. You can’t get people together and say that if enough of us agree we can make something to be that which it is not.
Number two, we believe that the Bible alone is authority. I’ve already emphasized that, and that is known in history by the Latin sola Scriptura. In other words, Scripture alone! Tradition cannot be trusted because tradition sometimes contradicts itself and certainly church history has shown that not only can it contradict itself, but many traditions also can contradict that which is in the Scriptures. And therefore our emphasis always is the Bible, and the Bible alone! We aren’t Lutherans, but we do agree with Luther who, at the Council of Worms, said, “My conscience is taken captive by the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant,” for popes and councils had contradicted one another. So let’s emphasize the fact that the Bible alone is God-breathed.
Let’s take our Bibles and turn to one more passage, and that is found in 2 Timothy where we find the words of the Apostle Paul. I emphasized this in an early message in this series where it says in chapter 3, verse 15 of 2 Timothy: “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” And then he says: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Now, that can’t be said about decrees that are made by church councils. They are not God-breathed. The Bible alone is.
You’ll notice it says that it is inspired and it is profitable for doctrine, that we might know what is right for reproof, (that we might get it right), for correction (that we might stay right), for training and righteousness (that we might model that which is right). And so the Bible alone has that authority.
Now, once you accept the sola Scriptura, of course, then you begin to think of solus Christus—Christ alone, that when He died on the cross the only means for salvation is through faith in Him, and that we can add nothing to that. We cannot contribute to it because when Jesus died, He died for sinners.
And faith alone—sola fide! All of those solas, as we sometimes refer to them, hang together, but the basis is that the Bible alone is the rule of faith and practice.
You say, “Well, do you think that the Canon is open for some other books?” I saw a program on television recently that said, “Maybe it’s time to debate the Canon and to put some other books in there.” Well, first of all, I respond by saying, “Show me the book.” But the second thing is, turn to the book of Revelation, chapter 22. Now, I know that this ending applied primarily to the book of Revelation because this was written at a time when the Canon was still fluid in the sense that maybe there had not been yet a settling down of exactly the 27 books that were going to be in it, but I would think twice before I opened the Bible to insert some other book in it.
Have you ever noticed, by the way, that all false cults have their additional book? They have the Bible and then they always bring another book written by somebody else that they bring along with them. And the reason is because the things that they believe are not found in the Bible, but they are found in this book, and so they spend the rest of the time trying to show that what’s in this book actually does not contradict what is in the Bible. But almost always, inevitably, it does, and may I say of necessity it does? Of necessity!
Notice this warning in chapter 22, verse 18: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book (Have you read the book of Revelation recently? Do you know something about these plagues? If you ever get nervous about adding to the Word of God, I suggest that you reread what God says.), and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
Wow! Be very careful when you add to the Word of God. Be very careful when you think that you can combine God’s Word with traditions and with other beliefs, and somehow make it all fit. No, lest you add to the Word… Isaiah said, “To this word and the prophecy, if they will not adhere to it, do not hear them.” The emphasis is on the infallible written Word of God. And then it says in verses 20 and 21, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”
When you read the Bible you need to understand that from Genesis to Revelation it has one unified message. It has to do with Christ. And I would not want to be here today and to preach a message like this without remembering, in the words of the song:
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!
The Bible was not written to be studied, though we should study it. It wasn’t written just simply to give seminary students something to do. It was written that it might lead us to God through Christ. That’s the whole purpose, and there could be some of you here who have never believed in Christ for yourself. You’ve never come to saving faith in Him. And even today you can do that.
Someone, in emphasizing the unity of the Bible and the theme of Christ, has said, “In Matthew, He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. In Mark, Christ is the miracle worker. In Luke, He is the Son of man. In John, He is the door by which everyone of us must enter. In Acts, He is the shining light that appears to Saul on the Road to Damascus. In Romans, He’s our justifier. In 1 Corinthians, our resurrection, in 2 Corinthians, our sin bearer. In Galatians He redeems us from the law. In Ephesians He is our unsearchable riches. In Philippians He supplies every one of our needs. In Colossians He is the fullness of the Godhead bodily. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians He is our soon-coming King. In 1 and 2 Timothy He is the mediator between God and man. In Titus He is our blessed hope. In Philemon He is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. In Hebrews He is the blood of the everlasting covenant. In James He is the Lord who heals the sick. In 1 and 2 Peter He is the chief shepherd. In 1, 2 and 3 John it is Jesus who has the tenderness of love. In Jude He is the Lord coming with 10,000 saints. And in Revelation, “Lift up your eyes, oh church, for your redemption draweth nigh.” He is King of kings and Lord of lords. That’s the heart of what the Bible is all about.
What do we believe here at The Moody Church? Solus Christus? Yes! Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone is the basis of faith and practice.
Would you join me now as we pray?
Father, I pray that You will take these words and grant that they shall help us understand. I pray today, Father, that You will give to us a sense of appreciation for Your book, as we’ve learned a little bit about its history, and a little bit about the debate that continues to swirl around it. We ask today that You shall engender great faith in our hearts, that You would reveal Yourself, and that we can depend upon it. And the promises that we have sung about earlier are great enough and grand enough to lead us all the way to God forever. Father, receive our thanks, we pray, for Your love and Your mercy and Your grace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.