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Inspiration and The Canon

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By
Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
(412)822-7255
Perhaps the most fundamental doctrine held by professing Christians down through the centuries has been the authority of the Bible. The first Baptist distinctive states that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice. The authority of the Bible is necessary for all other doctrines to be accepted. Knowledge of Theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, and all other doctrines comes solely from the Bible. If the Bible is not authoritative, then man has no basis for his beliefs. It is the purpose of this paper to examine two important subjects which are necessary to determine whether or not the Bible which now exists is the authoritative Word of God. These subjects are: the inspiration of the books of the New Testament,(1) and the canonization of these books.

Inspiration

What is Inspiration? Perhaps before that can be answered, a definition of Revelation should be given. Revelation can be defined as "any species of knowledge of which God is the ultimate source and cause."(2) That is, Revelation is the giving of information by God which man would otherwise be unaware of. Having established this, Inspiration can be defined as: "that influence of the Spirit of God upon the minds of the Scripture writers which makes their writings the record of a progressive, Divine revelation."(3) Thus, Inspiration means that God moved upon the minds of men to enable them to accurately record the divine truth which He revealed to them.

Having established a basic definition of inspiration, it is important to determine both the method and the extent of this inspiration. These two factors will have a great importance in determining the authority of the New Testament. Several theories have been advanced. The first of these is the Intuition Theory, which is also known as Natural Inspiration. In essence, this theory states that inspiration is nothing more than a greater development of man's own ability to gain insight into God's truth. This is obviously false. God is so much greater and wiser than man that man could never begin to comprehend the magnitude of Truth without God revealing it to him. Also, man is a depraved being. This would mar his natural ability to comunicate any Truth which he learned. Obviously, Supernatural wisdom and guidance must be involved if man is to comunicate God ' s revelation without error and subjective expression.

A second theory is the Illumination Theory. This theory holds that the illumination which the Holy Spirit gives to all Christians was intensified for the authors of the Bible. This theory also has problems. In the first place, this theory fails to distinguish between inspiration and illumination. Illumination refers to a divine quickening of the mind to understand Revelation. This has no bearing upon inspiration. This theory falls prey to the same attack as did the Instuition Theory. Man, as a depraved being, can not inerrantly impart Truth regardless of his understanding without the supernatural help of God.

A third theory of inspiration is that of Thought Inspiration. This holds that God imparted concepts to the New Testament writers and then allowed them to set these concepts down in writing in their own words. This theory is unacceptable for several reasons. First of all, thoughts can only be inspired through the medium of words. No concept has ever been conceived which was not done so through the medium of words. Concepts from God would have been given in words, and thus should have been written in the same words. Secondly, this theory underestimates the importance of words. The words are the concept. Scriptural study is based upon exegesis, which studies the actual words. Points of doctrine can hang upon just one word. To assume that God inspired the concept, but let man write as he wanted is dangerous because the more that man's word is brought into revelation, the less of God's Word is contained in it. If the words themselves are not inspired, than all that men today can read is an individual's subjective verbal interpretation of God's inspired Truth.

A fourth theory teaches that the Bible is inspired and inerrant in areas of morality and theology, but not inspired, (and thus subject to error) in the areas of science and history. This theory of Parital Inspiration places the determination of what is inspired and what is not in the hands of the reader. It is up to him to determine at what point theology ends and history begins. He is asked to base his beliefs upon a book which is partially Truth and partially fiction. This is obviously not the way that God intended His inspiration to be. II Timothy 3:16 teaches that, "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God." "All" means every part, whether theological or historical.

The Mechanical Dictation Theory teaches that the writers of Scripture became the passive penmen of God. This theory is good in that it removes the human, subjective element. Yet this theory fails to account for the various styles which are seen throughout the Scriptures. Paul's writings and Peter's writings are decidedly different. But if both just wrote exactly what God told them, as if they were in a trance, then all of the New Testament writings would follow the same style. Styles differ, so the Mechanics Dictation Theory is unacceptable.

The final theory is the Verbal-Plenary Theory. This states that the writings of Scripture are first of all verbally inspired, which means that each word is exactly what God wanted written. Secondly, the Scriptures were plenarily inspired, which means that each word or portion of the Bible is equally inspired, infallible, and final. It should be noted that this theory is not one of a mechanical dictation. Because God is omniscient and omnipotent, there is no problem with accepting the idea that God inspired men in their individual styles. God need not be limited to one style. He is fully capable of bringing His revelation across in any style He wishes.

This theory of inspiration is the only one which can be justified Scripturally. I Peter 1:21 states that, "holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." This indicates that all the writings of Scripture were inspired by the moving of God. II Timothy 3:16 states again that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." "All" of necessity includes every word. Matthew 5:18 speaks of not "one jot or one tittle" passing from the Law. If words were that important in the Old Testament, it is certain that they are just as important in the New Testament. This theory also guarantees inerrancy. If every word contained within the Scriptures is precisely the word which God intended, then there can be no error because He is a holy and perfect God.

The fact that the Bible is a product of Verbal Plenary inspiration makes it authoritative. God is a holy God, and the process of His moving men to write down His revelation verbally guarantees inerrancy. Thus, by excepting the Verbal Plenary Theory of inspiration, it immediately follows that those books which were inspired are inerrant and authoritative.

The Canon

Having decided upon the inspiration of the Word of God, it is necessary to examine the means by which this inspired Word became part of the Canon(4) of Scripture, otherwise known as the Bible. The mere fact that God inspired His Word during the Apostolic age is of no value if that Word has not been preserved down through the centuries. It will be the purpose of this section of the paper to examine the origin and formation of the New Testament Canon, and determine whether or not the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are those books which were products of God's inspiration.

It took twenty years for the first of the New Testament books to be written following the death of Christ. The first of the books to be written was most probably the Epistle of James, which was written sometime during the late 4O's and early 5O's A.D. It was then another forty years before the final book was written, which is the Revelation of John. During this time, the messages of Christ were carried orally. Thiessen states,

When the community had received the oral message, the need for an authoritative written interpretation of the facts in the life of Christ, together with their application to life, became apparent. The Pauline and other Epistles were written to meet this need. About the same time...the need for authentic accounts of the life of Christ itself became apparent. The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John were written to supply this need. The Book of Acts was called for by the need for an authentic history of the Apostolic period, and the Apocalypse was written to set forth God's revelation of the consummation of all things.(5)
It becomes apparent from this statement that all of the New Testament books were very necessary to the churches. Thus, each church would want to have a copy of these inspired writings. In order to do this, the writings had to be collected and compiled into one complete set.

This was not an easy process to accomplish. There are several reasons for this. First of all, many other epistles and gospels were being written besides those which were inspired by God. Such volumes would include the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the First Epistle of Clement, and the Apocalypse of Peter. Each of these books was accepted by a certain segment of Christians. By their acceptance of a book, they believed that it should be considered as part of Scripture. Thus, with this large amount of materials being circulated, it was difficult to sift through them and determine which were really the Word of God, and which were only the writings of men.

A second major obstacle in the formation of the canon was the fact that the inspired epistles often had a very limited circulation because of the distance between churches and the time needed for copies to be made.(6) Also involved in this is the fact that a church which received a Gospel or an Epistle would undoubtedly hold on to it for a certain amount of time before allowing it to be taken or copied. It would be only natural for the recipient of a volume of inspired Scripture to desire to hold onto it and treasure it. This, too, impeded the circulation of the New Testament books, and consequently slowed the canonization process.

In spite of these difficulties, the canonization process began almost immediately after the books were written. This is clearly shown by Peter in II Peter 3:15 16, where he states, "...even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things..." There were three very important reasons for the formation of the Canon. The first of these was the Canon of Marcion, which was printed in 140 A.D. This document was becoming widely accepted, yet it left out several inspired books and mutilated some of those which it included. Because of this it was realized that there was a need to collect and preserve all those books which were recognized as being inspired. A second reason was that different church leaders desired to have additional books placed within the canon. The only way to avoid this was to set a complete canon. The third reason was the fact that in 303 A.D., Diocletian ordered that all the sacred books be burned. Believers then sifted through the books that they had and picked out those which they wanted to guard against destruction. These three factors had a definite influence upon the formation of a recognized Canon of Scripture. Though collections were being made in the second century, full recognition of some of these books was delayed. The following books appear nowhere in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers: Philemon, II Peter, II John, III John, and Jude.(7) Kenyon dismisses Philemon from his listing, but adds Hebrews and the Apocalypse.(8) But Westcott states:

From the close of the second century the history of the Canon is simple, and its proof clear. It is allowed even by those who have reduced the genuine Apostolic works to the narrowest limits, that from the time of Irenaeus, the New Testament was composed essentially of the same books which we receive at present, and that they were regarded with the same reverence as is now shown to them.
In determining which books were canonical and which were not, four tests were given to each book. The first test was that of Apostolicity. The book had to have been written either by an apostle, or by one closely associated with the apostles. The second test was that of Content. The contents of each book were examined to see if it was of a high enough spiritual character so as to be considered canonical. It was through this test that many of the Apocryphal and pseudopigraphal(10) books were eliminated. A third test was that of Universality. If a book was not accepted Universally, then it was not considered canonical. Finally, the fourth and most important test was that of Inspiration. Regardless of the results of the other tests, if a book did not give evidence of divine inspiration, then it was not accepted as part of the canon. In examining this fourth test, Angus and Green write,
The Holy Spirit, given to the church, quickened holy instincts, aided discernment between the genuine and the spurious, and thus led to gradual, harmonious, and in the end unanimous conclusions. There was in the church what a modern divine has happily termed an "inspiration of selection".(ll)
The Christian today can be very thankful that he has a Canon of Scripture. If he did not, he would constantly be bombarded by books and letters which claim to be inspired. Such was the case during the early centuries of the church. But the hand of God was upon believers, and He enabled them to rightly choose which volumes were to be considered as divinely inspired. Luke 21:33 states, "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away." God has intended for all generations to have His Word. Thus, it follows that everything which God wants man to have is contained within the existing Canon. Those books which were rejected were not inspired, or God would have led for them to be included. Thus, based chiefly upon the Providence of God, it can safely be said that the New Testament Canon is an accurate compilation of the inspired writings of the New Testament era.

(1) While the process of inspiration is the same for all of the books of the Bible, for the purposes of this paper only the New Testament will be considered.
(2) William Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers, 1979), p. 62.
(3) Lewis Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947) p. 19 6.
(4) "The word canon found favor in the eyes of the Greek, and passed from a sense of a measuring rod to be used for a plumbline... (and) it entered the mental sphere and there stood for a rule, for an order that told a man what was right." Casper Gregory, Canon and Text of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), p.15.
(5) Henry Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943), pp. 5 6.
(6) "The means of intercourse were slow and precarious. The multiplication of manuscripts in remote providences was tedious and costly. The common meeting coins of Christians was destroyed by the fall of Jerusalem." Brooke Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (London: Macmillan and Co., 1875), p.4
(7) For a more detailed account of the appearances of New Testament books in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, see Alexander Souter. The Text and Canon of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), p. 153.
(8) Thiessen, op. cit., p. 9.
(9) Westcott, op. cit., p. 6.
(10) Writings of the Heretics.
(11) Thiessen, op. cit., p. 10.

Bibliography
Chafer, Lewis. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947. A very complete, yet easy to read theology with manor excellent theological points.

Gregory, Caspar. Canon and Text of the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.

Henry, Carl. Revelation and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958.

Pinnock, Clark. Biblical Revelation. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.

Shedd, William. Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 1. Minneapolis: Klock and Klock Christian Publishers. 1979.

Souter, Alexander. The Text and Canon of the New Testament. New Y ork: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1913.

Strong, Augustus. Systematic Theology. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1907. Perhaps the best concise theology available today.

Thiessen, Henry. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943.

Warfield, Benjamine. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970. An excellent, thorough defense of the authority of the Bible.

Westcott, Brooke. A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Co., 1875. Though Westcott has some problems in his textual view, he gives an excellent background on the canon.



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