The 66 books of the Protestant Bible

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. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17

This concept of God-breathed scripture can be confusing to some. The question this article’s title asks is one of canonization. The biblical canon is the collection of books recognized as coming from God. Canonization, therefore, deals with the process of recognizing what has come from God and should be in the Bible. As mentioned in the First Steps article on the Bible, most of the books deal with people who have been in direct contact with God in some way. Perhaps they have the proven gift of prophecy, or they were in close proximity to Jesus (who himself was God), or they received instructions from God the Father. Care has been taken to ensure that the books found in the Bible are those that have come from God. He decides the books that are from Him, not people.

How is this so, if humans are the ones in charge of compiling? How does canonization work? In the beginning, the Isrealites had the benefit of knowing that the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), collectively called the Pentateuch, came from God himself, who was leading them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. These books were saved for future generations. Several other books were added to the canon in this very direct manner. As for others, several criteria are employed to determine the canonicity of a certain book. First off: is it compatible with what has already been written? If not, it is plainly not from God. Secondly, who was it written by? Was it someone from the faith? Were they writing on behalf of God? The last two questions in particular had to be established. Third, did God confirm it? If it was a prophet, did what they say come to pass? Did the events listed in the book actually happen? Does the book contain God-given knowledge? Fourth, was the book widely accepted within the church community? Books in the canon are obviously not immune to criticism and doubt, but were the book itself and the other canonical qualifications commonly accepted in the church?

On the flip side, there are some allegedly inspired books that do not make the cut. Apocryphal books are books that have split opinions – they may be included in some Christian denominations, but not others. For example, Roman Catholicism includes a number of extra books in their Bible. These books, however, are not held to be biblical by others, possibly because they fail to hold up to one or more of the standards in the above paragraph. There were also books written that more definitely fail these standards and are not even considered apocryphal. For example, there were several other ‘gospels’ that introduced serious inconsistencies with the teachings of the commonly accepted books, or were written centuries after the events they spoke of (the four gospels in the Bible were all written in the first century).

The quote from 2 Timothy at the beginning of this article was not written after the closing of the New Testament canon. In other words, some books still hadn’t been written yet at that point. The canonization process, however, was the same at that point as it was in the future, so with that in mind, the quote also applies to 2 Timothy itself and to future canonical books. The fact that God inspired a canon is possible (as God certainly has the power to do that) and necessary (as we would need some constant way of knowing God’s will). The canonization process ensures that only those books that have ‘the fingerprint of God’ are included in the Bible, and like 2 Timothy says, those books speak to us about the genuine God.

One final note: the principle of inerrant scripture requires correct interpretation of the Bible by us, and the recognition that only what is said by God himself or by men speaking on behalf of God is actually inerrant and good. For example, the Bible features acts of murder. Should we conclude that the Bible tells us to murder? Of course not! Another example is that the apostle Paul makes a point at times to separate what he is saying from what God is saying, such as 1 Corinthians 7:6-12. While Paul’s recommendations may be good and consistent with what God says, it is not necessarily inerrant.


Further Resources:

A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, a large and in-depth book explaining how today’s Bible came to be. Chapter 13 in particular (The Discovery and Recognition of Canonicity) was helpful for this article.
The Bible: The Holy Canon of Scripture is a free resource communicating the same concepts.