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Why Are Some Books Considered Scripture and Others Not?

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Why Are Some Books Considered Scripture and Others Not?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

“No disrespect to other writers and their writings, but the Scriptures are in a class by themselves.”

Historically, Christians accept the collection of books known as the Bible as belonging in a special category called Scripture or the Scriptures. Why make such a distinction? Who is to say that some writings are more important than others? Why not regard Augustine’s Confessions or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as Scripture?

The classification of a specific group of books as Scripture can be viewed from three different perspectives. The first perspective is that of the authors. Christians accept books as Scripture that were authored or authorized by prophets, apostles, or other religious figures who spoke for God. Augustine and Lewis were respected teachers, but they themselves would have rejected any suggestion that they were prophets or that their writings should be considered Scripture. We should note that books of Scripture could be penned by men who were not themselves prophets or apostles but who were doing the writing on behalf of such leaders. Many of the books of the Bible were written by scribes on behalf of someone else. For example, Baruch was a scribe for Jeremiah (Jer. 36) and Tertius was a scribe for Paul (Rom. 16:22). According to the early church, Mark wrote his Gospel based primarily on the testimony of the apostle Peter (note Mark 1:16; 16:7). Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts as a close ministry associate of the apostle Paul (compare Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11). The early Christian church considered apostolic authorship or authorization the key criterion for determining which books belonged in the New Testament.

Another perspective on the books of Scripture has to do with the inspiration of the writings. Christians affirm that books of Scripture are inspired in a sense in which other books are not. By “inspired” here is not meant that the books are uplifting (that would be “inspiring”) or that they are works of genius or great feeling. Books of Scripture may be any or all of these things, but to be inspired in this context means that God was speaking through the authors’ writing to impart revelation, to communicate his word to his people. Paul used the Greek word theopneustos, literally “God-breathed,” to describe this inspiration of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter spoke of the writers of Scripture as being moved by the Holy Spirit to write what they did (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Third, the books of Scripture are unique by virtue of their authority for the people of God across time. That is, a book is considered Scripture because it came to function for the Israelite people in Old Testament times or for the church since the time of the apostles as authoritative for the entire community. The earliest collection of books that functioned in this way was the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), which Jews call the Torah (law, instruction). The Torah set forth the foundational events and the “constitution” or governing principles of the people of Israel under the covenant that God had made with them through Moses. Likewise, the Gospels set forth the foundational events of the new covenant—the death and resurrection of Jesus. In different ways, all of the books of the Bible function collectively as the foundational documents of the Christian church, the authoritative norm for the people of Jesus Christ.

To affirm that some books (and not others) are Scripture is to affirm that all three of these things are true of those books. Scripture is unique because it is the word of God spoken through prophets and apostles and given to God’s people to function as their charter documents. No disrespect to other writers and their writings, but the Scriptures are in a class by themselves.


For Further Study

Cameron, Nigel M. de S. “Bible, Inspiration of.” In Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter E. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. [offsite link]