In a recent Sunday School class, the question was raised as to how we know the Bible is the Word of God. This included both the general issue of how we know anything is a legitimate revelation from God, and the specific issue of how we know which books belong in the collection of materials known as "the Word of God". [Since almost all who read this will have gotten it from the web site at biblical-thinking.org, let me notify you of another article there called "Does God Still Speak?" (235) that has a rather lengthy section on this question of how we may know the Bible is the Word of God that is not specifically addressed to the issues of canonicity.]
What is the Normal Experience?
That raised another question: How did the majority of individuals all through history (including the present) come to believe that the Bible is the Word of God? One fact stands out clearly: few of them came to that conclusion as a consequence of a study of the historical data, or of any other kind of study of "evidences".
Let me illustrate. As a teen, I came to a point at which I heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and responded positively to the invitation to put my trust in Him for the forgiveness of my sins and for the gift of eternal life. To be sure, the content of what I was being told that day was rooted in biblical texts that I was encouraged to look at in the Bible as I was being taught, but I hadn't the background to do any evaluation of whether those texts were actually the Word of God or whether, being the Word of God, they were being properly represented to me as to their true meaning.
There were several questions that I had never considered, and was not considering at that point. First, I hadn't the slightest idea of what "interpretation" was, nor did I realize that neither I nor my teacher was doing any thinking about "context" to make sure that the texts to which I was being pointed really meant what they were being used to support. Second, I had been raised in a rather typical, quasi-religious, American family in which the Bible was held to be "the Word of God", so I had no problem with the teacher using that book to attempt to persuade me to put my trust in her interpretation of it. My point here is that I was culturally, not intellectually, conditioned to accept the Bible as a foundation for faith. That is not true for most cultures in our world, and never has been. Third, the notion that I ought to be critical in my examination of the claims being made -- both that God has actually spoken in written language and that the Bible is the record of that speaking -- never once raised its head. And, fourth, not once did I wonder if, when I prayed to ask God to forgive my sins through Jesus Christ, God even exists, not to mention whether He would hear me.
In other words, I came to faith in the evangelical Gospel of Jesus Christ by the hearing of it; not by the logical, rational, investigation of its truth claims. I am not that unusual. Most people seem to come to faith in a similar way. I don't suppose there is any way to substantiate exactly how the millions of people throughout history that have professed faith in Christ came to this persuasion, but I have a sneaking hunch that the percentage of those who came to faith after having exhaustively examined all the available "proof" is extremely small. In fact, the vast majority of those who have come to faith seem to have done so without having any significant biblical education at all. Few are they who are aware of all of the pitfalls of attempting to understand written communications, yet multitudes have, nonetheless, "believed". Most folks couldn't give a solid explanation of any biblical text by applying the rules of interpretation, context, and setting in history prior to their conversions. More and more, it seems that people are converted to the Gospel of Christ by hearing it proclaimed and explained, not by a deliberate pursuit of the "evidence" for its sources and the "probabilities" of its truthfulness.
This seems to be the case on most mission fields. In my experience, more tales are told by missionaries about how their hearers finally came to faith because of the persistent proclamation of the message being coupled together with some present indicators of truth (such as the ongoing integrity of the missionary, or the apparent evidence of answered prayer, or some supernatural phenomenon that brings a crisis into the picture) than are ever told about how the missionaries went through all the logical evidences that the Bible is a supernaturally produced book, with all the arguments for which books should be included and which should be excluded as "the Word of God". In a word, seldom are the lost won to Christ by anything other than the faithful proclamation of the truths of the Gospel in a setting in which God acts to provide conviction of truth.
And, if the truth be known, the vast majority of those who have gone out as missionaries may have done so with little or no exposure to the "evidences" for canonicity. They may have had one or, perhaps, two easily forgotten courses in a Bible College or Seminary on "canonicity", but most of those courses are taken with a lot of mind-in-neutral hours going by and if tests were to be given today on the issues in them, the former students would probably fail them. My point? For missionaries and convinced subjects of evangelism both, the belief that God has spoken is rarely based upon any evidence other than the simple claim that "the Bible is the Word of God".
From the beginning this has been so. When the apostle Paul walked into a city of the ancient world proclaiming that Jesus was a God-Man Who had died to lift the guilt of man's sin off of his shoulders, rare was the Gentile who had enough "biblical" exposure to know if what he was hearing was true or not. People simply either believed the proclaimed message, or they did not. If they did, they went to their homes without a "Bible" (the printing press and inexpensive editions of the "canon" were centuries away in the future), and if their faith got them in trouble with the local magistrates, many of them went to a martyrs death without even having had a good, rousing debate over what constituted the "canon of Scripture" (my tongue is in my cheek here!).
In fact, it has not been until relatively recently that most believers even had their own copy of the Bible in their own language and in their own hands. Yet they became believers and many of them, over the centuries, lived faithfully without any intellectual "proof" that the Bible was a correctly constituted "canon" of inspired revelation from God!
My claim here is this: the vast majority of people come to faith in the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ without any intellectually supportable and developed convictions as to what makes the Bible the "Word of God". They neither know how and why the particular books that are in the Bible are in there, nor whether there has ever been any debate about it. They simply take it or leave it. History seems to be rather flat on this issue. For most people who believe, the issues of canonicity either never come up, or they come up a lot later, after the fact.
The apostle Paul, in denigrating the significance of "man's wisdom", told the Corinthians that to men, the proclamation of salvation through the message of the cross of Jesus Christ is utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). He then went on to say that in His wisdom, considered foolish by men, God had decided to save people on the basis of the proclamation of the message. If they would believe it, He would save them; if they would not believe it, He would leave them in their lostness (1 Corinthians 1:21). He then says that the reason some believe it while most reject it is that some are "the called" (1 Corinthians 1:24). In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul drives a wedge between the significance of "man's wisdom" and the power of God's wisdom. Thus, the biblical declaration is that men come to believe the message of God because they are called by a God Who has decided to ridicule the "wisdom" of man.
This means that the normal human experience of faith in the message proclaimed coincides with the apostle's teaching that faith does not arise from man's investigations into proof, but from God's amazing grace. But, that does not address most of the specifics of how men come to faith. The clear implication is that whatever is required to get one of "the called" to believe at the time when he hears the proclaimed message, God does. In other words, the external and overt requirement for the salvation of "the called" is that they come under the hearing of the proclaimed message, but the internal and specific rearrangements of both the values of the heart and the thoughts of the mind that lead to salvation are up to God.
None of this specifically requires a thorough investigation of the issues of canonicity.
However, these truths do set the stage for one of canonicity's most fundamental realities: God has retained unto Himself both the responsibility and ability of persuasion at the point of contact with the Truth. Men are not "well off" to rest their confidence in "Truth" upon the "wisdom of men" (1 Corinthians 2:5). Rather, they are to rest in the reality that God provides the confidence that His Truth is Truth. In other words, men believe God because He "shows up" at the point of confrontation that is afforded by the proclamation of the message. He can, and does, overrule resistance, reluctance, excuses, and flawed thinking when He brings a new born child into His family.
How is this related to the issues of canonicity? In this way: whether the issue is a single truth about salvation by grace through faith, or the issue is a whole collection of truths about everything that pertains to life and godliness, the bottom line is that no one believes God without His "showing up". In other words, the message of the cross has its validity in the heart of believing man by virtue of the inner, heart-and-mind-altering works of God on his behalf, AND the total collection of the correlated messages have their validity in the hearts of men by virtue of that same kind of working by God on their behalf. There is something that results from this working by God on behalf of men: they become united together in what they believe. What I am saying is that everyone who comes to faith in the message of the cross by the working of God becomes a part of the company of all of those who believe in the message of the cross. When these compare notes, they discover that they believe the same things about the cross.
In that same vein, when God provides conviction regarding what is, and is not, a true and inspired record of His Truth to men, it affects them similarly. To say it a different way, when those so convinced compare notes, they discover that they have the same convictions. Over the centuries of God's dealings with mankind, a reality has come to pass: the Bible has been accepted by believers as the Word of God. This has not been a process-free development; it has not escaped the penchant of men to argue with each other; and it did not yield a "universal" agreement that included every believer in every time frame (Martin Luther, in his day, had serious reservations about the book of James as to whether it was a part of God's "canon"). But the individual mavericks were swallowed up by the process of God in conviction and by the ongoing flow of God's dealings with humanity in identifying His words. The end result has been that the Bible has been claimed as the Word of God by believers in the message of the cross for centuries and at a level of strength to enable believers to die for that belief. This deeply held conviction may be the result of mass hysteria passed on from generation to generation, but it is just as likely that it is the result of God's "showing up" so many times in so many lives over so much history that the conclusion it has generated is fundamentally accepted by His people.
In the final analysis, no one believes in the Bible as God's Word that has not had a ministry of God to their heart/mind complex to provide that conviction. That means that God has "shown up" for every one of those who possess such a faith. HE is the reason we believe that the Bible is His Word.
Does that mean that Christianity is "anti intellectual" and cannot really stand the scrutiny of investigation? If only those who have some "inner experience" actually come to faith in the Bible as God's Word, does that mean that there are no objective evidences by which it can be tested? Not at all. But it does mean that apart from the active intervention of God, men will twist and distort the data to suit their own agendas and wishes. Ultimately, pure rationality can only flow from Pure Rationality, and as long as men have antagonism toward God, they will not be either rational or fair with the data. The Bible can stand the objective tests of truth; but no man will be convinced of its Truth by its passing of its test. The problem with man is not the issue of evidences; it is the issue of his antagonism toward God and his willingness to pervert truth in order to maintain his own perspective with a minimal invasion of conscience.
There are two issues here. The first is: "Is God still revealing new truth for His people that He is bringing His people to accept as His inspired Word?" The second is: "Will God ever again reveal new truth for His people that He will bring them to accept as His inspired Word?" The answer to the first question is: "Apparently not". The people of God, as a unit, have not recognized any new contributions to "inspired Scripture" for many centuries. This is evidence that He has not been convincing His people of the content of new revelation for centuries. If He has not been doing the convincing, no new canonical material will become standard fare for those whom He convinces. If He had been doing the convincing, new material would have been slipping in over time without resistance by His own.
There are two further realities here that are related to the issue of "new truth" for God's Church. The first is the problem of "the visible church" and the "real Church". The difference is, of course, that there is a difference between a profession of faith and union with the visible church and the actual exercise of faith and union with the invisible and true Church. Interestingly, both have the same Bible except for the Roman Catholic addition of what is known as the apocrypha. That is not as significant as it seems because that addition was historically "late"; it was in direct contradiction to the consensus of the Jews and Jesus in regard to their understanding of the O.T. canon; and it was far later than the Roman development into a false religion that teaches salvation by human meritorious works. That doctrinal decision moved Roman Catholicism out of the pale of the "visible church", so its "canon" is not the canon of Christianity, but the canon of a religion set up in opposition to Christ. The "visible church" that maintains its faith in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone has had the same Bible now for centuries.
This is not really an argument from a consensus held by men; it is, rather, an argument that God, in His persuasion of men about what is and is not His Word, has not created any unity in faith in a different canon than the one we have anywhere in visible Christianity.
The second is the nature of the Church as a worldwide phenomenon. When God was producing His Word within the confines of the nation of Israel (including both Israel and Judah), it was not hard for a man to be established by God as a valid prophet. The land was small enough and connected tightly enough for such a reputation to be established. However, when God went worldwide with His reach to men, He opened up a very difficult door for the establishment of any given person as His prophet. How would His Church in Africa know if a given individual from China was a legitimate prophet or not? Prior to the last few centuries, how would they have even heard about him or benefited from his "words of God"? If the Word of God is for the Church of God, somehow He has to make it available in a believable form to the Church. Thus, the switch from a narrow focus in one nation to a broad focus in all nations creates problems for the generation of more "words of God" to His Church at least until the late twentieth century with its capabilities of satellite transmission of data all over the world in moments.
The answer to the question, "Will God ever again reveal new truth for His people that He will bring them to accept as His inspired Word?" is: "Who knows?" The accepted canon contains prophecies about future, authoritative prophets who will have worldwide reputations for being His prophetic voices. If they write as His spokesmen, their writings will be His Word and they will become accepted by His people. If they do not write, there will not likely be any additions to the canon of His Word. The current writings that are accepted as canonical do not make any statement about whether more is on the way or not. However, if more is on the way, God will establish it as His truth to His people so that they are not left in confusion. That has been His method for centuries.