Is it worth dying for?
Believers trembled, as well they might. In AD 303 the fires of Roman persecution were being stoked up with a new target – the New Testament scriptures.
The emperor’s law demanded that all New Testament books be handed in to be destroyed. Faced with forfeiting God’s word or their life, Christians needed to be sure that the works they possessed were indeed God-breathed.
When the emperor’s men came to their houses, for which books were they prepared to die? Without such pressures today, it can be easy to accept the Bible’s 66 books without a second thought, but why exactly are they alone God’s inerrant word? The answer is simple but profound – we accept them, not because our decision imparts inspiration but because they already are the word of God.
The Bible makes no attempt to prove its authority. It asserts in its very first sentence: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). It presents itself as self-evidently true, in the same way ‘as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter do of their taste’ (Calvin).
When a king speaks to his people, he does not seek to prove his authority. Instead he issues commands and expects his people to listen. The Pentateuch is similar to a covenant treaty document, written by a king for his people. The Israelites accepted the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7) as God’s words, coming ‘from the throne room of Israel’s heavenly king’ (Meredith Kline).
The great Creator-King lovingly entered into covenant with Israel, having delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. His law was written on tablets of stone and placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. Deuteronomy, itself a covenant document, was God’s authoritative word and all were to gather to hear it read (Deuteronomy 31:9-13).
As the Old Testament progresses we are reading covenant history. Joshua added a record of covenant renewal to the ‘book of the law of God’ (Joshua 24:26), Samuel the prophet laid a book on kingship before the Lord (1 Samuel 10:25), and further divine history was written by Isaiah and other prophets (2 Chronicles 32:32). All these were inspired by God.
In the prophets we often hear the voice of Yahweh as a covenant prosecutor arraigning God’s people for breaking the Sinaitic covenant. The vassals have rebelled against their King and must repent.
The Psalms speak with the same authority. Their melody is covenantal. The music moves the soul to maintain a relationship with the covenant King of Israel. You hear the evocative themes of God’s loving dealings with Israel, the broad chords of his majestic law, and the gentle strum of the harp calling a sinful people to renewed relationship. Fittingly, the Psalter begins with the blessings of obedience and covenant curses on disobedience.
Fulfilment in Christ
Jesus had no hesitation in accepting the Old Testament as the word of God. His chronology ran from Abel to Zechariah, son of Berechiah (Matthew 23:35), from Genesis to 2 Chronicles (the last book of the Jewish canon). He used both the law and the prophets in his Emmaus exposition (Luke 24:27).
But the old covenant revelation was not final. Jesus Christ and the sealing of the new covenant in his blood fulfils all that the Old Testament anticipates and predicts. Four Gospels proclaim redemption through Christ and call all to faith in him. The Acts describes the apostles bearing witness to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the mediator of the new covenant. On the foundation of their teaching the church is built (Ephesians 2:20).
Their witness in written form now protects the church against error. Peter compares the written words of Paul with ‘the other [Old Testament] scriptures’ (2 Peter 3:16). Paul equates words from Luke’s Gospel with scripture from the book of Deuteronomy (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
At the end of the New Testament, the new covenant’s conditions are re-stated. Those who add or take away from it are cursed (Revelation 22:18-19); those who read and heed its words are blessed (Revelation 1:3). So Revelation’s refrain is a call to listen – ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 3:6).
But if the 66 books of the Bible are clearly God’s word, why do so few accept them? The last quotation tells us why – we need ears to hear it. It takes the Spirit’s power to cause someone to really hear the truth, for the things of the Spirit are ‘spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14).
As the Spirit inspired men to record God’s word without error, so he alone has the power to illumine human minds to accept it. Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27).
It is, therefore, a sign of faith, not naivety, to accept God’s word. The believer traces God’s providence in granting the church discernment to accept that its 66 books, and no others, are God’s Word.
The church was like a bride walking through a garden being given flowers by the Bridegroom for her bouquet. Her Bible bouquet began with the Pentateuch and she admired each new blossom as it was added. However, it was not a complete bouquet until the Bridegroom had chosen the final flower to add to it.
Christ and the apostles accepted the old covenant documents which had been preserved by the Jews as the oracles of God (Romans 3:2), in spite of attempts by Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy it around 167 BC.
Most New Testament books were accepted by the church by the mid-second century, but for others of its books widespread acceptance took longer. With other supposed scriptures circulating, some claiming apostolic authorship and several being used by heretics, believers were cautious.
However, by the fourth century all 27 books of our New Testament were accepted by the church. The 66 books became known as the canon of Scripture – the rule of faith against which all truth claims must be measured.
God had guided believers to discern which books made up his Word and by 382, when Jerome was translating the Bible into Latin, the canon was ‘to be received gratefully, preserved faithfully, and handed on intact’ (F. F. Bruce).
We can be grateful to the Christians who in AD 303 refused to hand over their New Testament scriptures. Their faith was in a powerful God who made sure his inspired word had been preserved.
This is why we can say: ‘we believe without a doubt all things contained in [the Scriptures], not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God’ (Belgic Confession, Article 5).
Edited from an essay by the author, as a CMTC student