When I was eighteen I participated in a “street evangelism” campaign at the Boston University campus as part of a Bible course I was enrolled in. A few of the BU grad students decided to have a little fun and interrogate us with some questions of their own. We were steamrolled by their merciless intellectual superiority. My ignorance was not bliss on this particular occasion. I was deeply humbled and walked away from the experience realizing I didn’t actually know much about my faith, God or the Bible. In the afterglow of this outreach debacle I decided to apply my mind to better understand what I believed and why I believed it.
One of the many significant questions they raised was, “How do you know the Bible is reliable?” This is a much more complicated question than it first appeared to me.
First of all, is our Bible a reliable version of the original manuscripts? I believe it is. Despite the fact that we have no original manuscripts of our sacred texts, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of manuscripts we do have are centuries removed from the originals and there are more variations among our existing manuscripts than words in the New Testament, most scholars agree that the Biblical books we have today are extremely close renditions of the originals. It is important to recognize our Bible is not a perfect or exact version (I believe this is providentially significant) but it is what marketers today would advertize as 99.9 percent pure.
Second, were the original manuscripts reliable accounts of the events, teachings, revelations, etc. that they record? I can’t even begin to address this complex question in an article this size. Instead I’d like to focus on a third aspect of the Bible’s reliability—is the canon reliable?
What I mean by this is whether the right documents or “books” were chosen to become part of what we now call the Bible. There was an abundance of Christian literature being written and distributed in the first few centuries before the church had an official canon. Many of the earliest Christian writings, addressed as false teaching by what is now considered “orthodox” teaching, likewise addressed what is now considered “orthodox” teaching as false teaching. Is the Bible yet another case of the victors writing history?
The first Christian Bible produced in the early church was by a Christian teacher named Marcion who was later excommunicated as a heretic. Marcion’s Bible contained 11 books: 10 Pauline epistles, 1 gospel (an edited version of Luke’s gospel), and no Old Testament books. Marcion was rejected as a heretic primarily for his belief that the God of the Gospel and the God of the Old Testament were two completely different gods. Although Marcion’s Bible was rejected by the church at large, the debate within Christianity about which books were reliable as Scripture carried on for another century.
At least 46 early Christian writings were considered potentially Scriptural in status at some point or quoted from as “scriptural” by one of the early Christian authorities. (The number of times early Christian authorities quoted from a book in a Scriptural manner was one of the factors official church councils used to determine its credibility as Scripture.)
The first time in history we see our current 27 New Testament books listed as the Christian canon is in 367AD by Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria. We finally see consensus in the western church on a closed canon by the end of the fourth century and by the end of the fifth century in the east, with some books still being questioned sporadically throughout history.
So is this canon reliable? Did they pick the right “books”? This question is clearly a matter of faith and it is not only a question of faith in God but of faith in the early church leaders and the politically motivated post-Constantinian church authorities that met to debate and make decisions at official church councils. For us to assume the leaders and processes used to make weighty decisions on matters like closing the canon in the fourth century were any less messy and human than the church leaders and processes we use to make decisions today would be extremely naïve in my opinion.
There is a bigger set of questions underlying the question of Scripture’s reliability—do we trust God to move through human beings and human processes and how do we discern if God is or has?
Troy Watson is pastor of Quest Community. This is part the series, “The Role of Scripture for Postmodern Life.”