We’re continuing our look at the London Baptist Confession’s statement on Scripture. The Confession is not binding on us, but it is a wonderful guide.
It consists of several paragraphs that each address an important component of a fully-orbed doctrine of Scripture. Last week we saw how Scripture is special revelation from God himself through the words of men. It is sufficient for knowing the way of salvation and God’s will.
The next paragraph simply enumerates the books that make up the Old and New Testaments, followed by a brief statement on the Apocrypha: they are useful books for devotional reading but are not to be binding on the consciences of God’s people.
The following (fourth) paragraph speaks to the binding authority of Scripture, especially its source. Scripture is authoritative because God has give it its authority. The Confession says:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependenteth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.
Why is this something that is necessary to say? The question that the Confession is answering is, “Who says that the Bible is true?”
The Bible is not true because the church declared it to be true in church councils. If that was the case, then the truthfulness of Scripture is almost arbitrary.
The first time that we are given an account of a canon, or an authoritative collection, of Scripture, is the year 170. It was called the Muratorian Canon. It consisted only of New Testament books. However, it did not list Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, or 3 John. Further down the road, both the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage (both in the 390’s) listed the same 27 New Testament books we affirm today.
Not every part of the world, early on, may have received a copy of a certain biblical text and therefore did not include it initially in their canon. But when they did receive it, it was received with joy and an acknowledgment that they should do so based on the witness of the church at-large and its apostolic roots.
Some have argued that because we do not have a list of New Testament books until the end of the fourth century that the early church did not care as much about the authority of Scripture as we do. But that is a gross misreading of church history.
The apostle Peter says that Paul’s letters are sometimes difficult to understand and that evil people twist the meaning, as they do the other Scriptures. Peter affirms Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), and therefore he affords Paul’s writing the same status as the Old Testament, which the Jews received as authoritative.
Paul often ended his letters with a command to pass it around to other churches. He tells the Colossian church to send that letter around and to wait for a letter from Laodicea. Paul, as he wrote his epistles, was fully aware that he was writing Scripture on par with Moses and the prophets.
The point is that within the pages of the New Testament you see the seedlings of a canon of Scripture. To deny it is to willfully ignore the actual words.
So why did councils make pronouncements about a canon? Because there were those who were going against the well-established canon before the councils took place. Some were making declarations that the church had got it wrong and that only what they said about the Bible was true. The councils were attempts at returning to the earliest witnesses about the authority of Scripture and which texts were in fact Scripture.
Why did a council make a declaration about the divinity of Christ and not the humanity? Because some were saying that Christ was not fully divine. Why did a later council make a declaration about the humanity of Christ and not his divinity? Because there were those who were teaching that Christ was not fully human.
Many times, a council is not the one being novel. Councils were convened to reject the novelty of something the church did not believe.
When it comes to the Old Testament, the same kind of questions remain. How do we know we have the collection that God intends?
By the time of Jesus, Josephus, a Jewish historian, lists 22 books that lines up nicely with ours. We have 39 Old Testament books in our Bibles, but that’s partly because scribes later divided some books into two (Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles). Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have been a single book at one time. In some places, books of the prophets were also grouped together into a single book. These were simply traditions that did not erase the peculiarity of each author or its authority.
Besides, Jesus and the apostles quote from the Old Testament. For all the quotations, there are no disputes within Scripture that someone quoted something that they shouldn’t have. Jesus and the apostles do not quote anything in the Apocrypha, and the Jewish leaders with which Jesus had so many blowups never do, either.
Some have argued that just because there are questions of authorship on some books that that means we cannot have any assurance that we know anything at all. That kind of sentiment is wholly untenable, and no one uses it in everyday life.
Here is just one example. We do not know who wrote the books of Hebrews with complete assurance. Probably the best educated guess is that it is a teaching of Paul given through the words of Luke. It has plenty of Luke’s high-brow Greek and Paul’s high Christology. The author mentions “our brother Timothy” toward the end (13:23). He has allies in Italy (13:24). However, the author says that he received the gospel from others (2:3), something Paul always rejects; he received it directly from Christ. All of the internal evidence suggests it was not Paul but a close associate with a better education that most. The apostolic companion and physician fits the bill, and he has already written two volumes of the New Testament against which we can compare the vocabulary and grammar. An early collection of the New Testament had Hebrews directly after Romans. Romans was titled “The Apostle Paul to the Romans.” Then Hebrews was called “And to the Hebrews.” So even the early church at least recognized the Paul-ness of the letter, and they were far more attuned to who wrote it.
In the end, we believe in the authority of Scripture not because of what we think but because of what it says. The Holy Spirit is ultimately the one who shows us that glorious truth, to which we will turn next week!