Many years ago, I attended a conference where the speaker boldly pronounced, “You only need to read the book of Mark.” In his sermon, he was attempting to dumb-down the remainder of the authority of the New Testament. Is this a correct view? Are only Jesus’ words worth reading? Should those who are followers of Christ only mind His words? What about the other writers who authored the books of the New Testament? Are their books inspired and authoritative?
This week let’s examine what the Scriptures say about this very important matter. Many are those in the capital who call themselves “Christians” or “followers of Jesus” who hold to this theologically liberal position. What they mean by being a “follower of Jesus” might not be how the Scriptures define a true Christian.
Read on, my friend!
There are several ways this question can be answered by the use of Scripture and the testimony of Church history (as we will see). Keep in mind that the outcome of this study is extremely important relative to our formation of convictions regarding the Bible. In other words, if you side with the idea that only Jesus’ words need be studied then one need not interest themselves in the writings of the apostles and all that they instruct about the Christian life. Often what Jesus mentions, the apostles spell out in detail. This includes matters such as the believer’s active commitment to a Bible-teaching local church, steadfastness towards missions, evangelism, and discipleship, growing in knowledge and understanding of the Word, among other important issues. Accordingly, the purpose of our time together in God’s Word this week is to build your passion regarding the inspiration and authority of the whole of the New Testament’s (NT) 27 books.
Holding to, or rejecting this conviction will drastically impact your life.
When Paul said to the Ephesian Elders whom He had ministered to for over three years, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:17)1 he knew how spiritually thwarting and damaging it was to starve a believer from the spiritual food they so desperately need from the Bible. Every Christian needs a consistent diet of Scripture. We need to know what it says regarding creation, justification, sanctification, and glorification. This is why the primary role of any pastor is to teach, teach, teach, and teach the Word of God (cf. Ephesians 4:11). As you study the priority of the pastor-teacher’s job description, throughout the Scriptures there is clearly an emphasis on Bible instruction. Here then are three reasons why one can trust in the plenary2 inspiration of all 27 New Testament books.
II. THE TESTIMONY OF THE AUTHORS
If the whole of the NT is to be taken as the authoritative, infallible, inerrant, plenarily-inspired oracle of God (in addition to the Old Testament), then it would follow that the writers whom God spoke through would testify to their being used in that way. They did. Here are several examples:
A. THE APOSTLE PAUL
“If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.” (1 Corinthians 14:37; Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:13, 16; 2 Corinthians 2:17)
B. THE APOSTLE JOHN
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” (Revelation 1:1-2; Cf. Revelation 1:10-11; 21:5; 22:6; 22:18, 19)
C. THE APOSTLE PETER
“… these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven — things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12)
D. JESUS (NOT IN QUESTION, BUT INCLUDED.)
“He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.” ( John 12:48)
E. PETER TESTIFIES OF PAUL
“And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
F. PAUL TESTIFIES OF PETER
“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
G. JUDE TESTIFIES OF THE APOSTLES
“But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” ( Jude 17-18)
In a broader sense, both Paul and Peter attest to the total inspiration of Scripture in their letters. Here are several passages.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” (2 Timothy 3:16)
It is worth noting that liberal theologians interpret this important passage incorrectly. Misquoting Scripture, they teach “All Scripture inspired by God is …” which leaves open the possibility that some Scripture is not inspired by God, implying that it is incumbent upon man to figure out what is and what is not. However, similarly constructed passages in the Greek NT (Romans 7:12; 2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Timothy 1:15; 2:2; 4:4; and Hebrews 4:17) indicate very convincingly that, from a grammatical perspective, such a translation is impossible. “All Scripture is inspired” is the proper translation. Peter adds:
“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
WHAT “INSPIRATION” REALLY MEANS
1. It does not mean that the writers were inspired.
Specifically, it’s not the writers, it’s the Scriptures that are given by inspiration of God. It is “All Scripture” (graphe) that is inspired (theopnuestos) (or God-breathed). When speaking and scripting apart from the penning of Scripture the writers of the NT were human and subject to fallibility and inaccuracy.3
2. God worked in unison with the writer’s mind.
Sometimes God dictated through them (Jeremiah 1:9, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” but most often He utilized the personality of His prophet or apostle.4 Note the following quote:
“But, as clearly seen in Scripture itself, God’s divine truth more often flowed through the minds, souls, hearts, and emotions of His chosen human instruments. Yet, by whatever means, God divinely superintended the accurate recording of His divinely breathed truth by His divinely chosen men. In a supernatural way, He has provided His divine Word in human words that any person, even a child, can be led by His Holy Spirit to understand sufficiently to be saved.”5
3. Only the original autographa6 were inspired.
However, the fact that none of the original manuscripts (mss.) are in existence today does not pose a problem: Copying scribes could and did err.
“The NT scholar is not significantly hampered by the unavailability of the autographa, however, because of the science and art of textual criticism. The abundance of manuscripts of the NT or portions thereof and the earliness of their dates in relation to the original compositions places him in a better position to know precisely what was originally written than for any other ancient writing.”7
It is also important to comment on the quote of 2 Peter 3:15-16. Since this is such a strong and straightforward passage of the apostle Peter attesting to the apostle Paul’s writing of Scripture (again, graphe), many liberal theologians in their bias desperation, have attempted to discount the epistle’s authority by questioning its authorship (by Peter) and by vastly pushing back the date of its writing. However, that 20th-century attempt to diminish the book runs cross-grain to 2 Peter’s inclusion by the leaders of the second century Church with the other 26 NT books.
III. THE TESTIMONY OF THE SECOND-CENTURY CHURCH
The last book of the NT to be written was the apocalypse, or as we better know it today, the book of Revelation. It was written by the apostle John around A.D. 94-96. Thus, the era of the first-century church came to a close and the writing of the NT was completed. Many of the NT books were known as encyclicals, meaning they were intended for more than one audience to read. Soon all 27 books would become encyclicals as the various papyrus8 manuscripts that contained the NT books were passed around and recopied as they circulated from church to church during this period. Importantly, they were immediately viewed as authoritative because, in addition to Christ’s words, the apostles had always been seen as Christ’s representatives, having been appointed by Him. There was never any reason for the second-century church to doubt that the apostles were Christ’s spokesmen after the ascension and the day of Pentecost. Accordingly, their writings, given their own testimonies as previously seen about their writings) were henceforth viewed and accepted as authoritative. There was never any doubt.
This fact is further and convincingly witnessed in that the apostles’ writings contained commands in them to be read in the church services. In that the early church patterned their services after those of the Jewish synagogues where the reading of Scripture was preeminent, this internal demand by the apostles to have their writings read alongside of them communicated a huge message relative to what we’re studying. It is the apostles saying that their writings were equally Scripture! Note the following passages:
A. COLOSSIANS 4:16
“When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea [Ephesus].”
B. 1 THESSALONIANS 5:27
“I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.”
C. REVELATION 1:3
“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”
First Thessalonians 5:27 is in need of elaboration. The Greek word for adjure (enorkizo) means “to put under an oath.” It is very strong language and is indicative of Paul’s intent. Paul put the church at Thessalonica under oath by God to read his letter to them and in the main service. It stands to reason, if you were commanded by God to write Scripture, you would possess a similarly authoritative vocabulary. The fact that all of these verses explicitly say to read the Apostolic writings in the church services is akin to placing them on par with OT Scripture. Therefore, these passages more than suggest a foreseeable implication.
By the middle of the second century, “the authority of the apostles was accepted as equal to that of the OT. Apostolic writings were read in church services along with those of the OT. By the end of the period the principle of a fixed and written NT canon was established.”9 By the end of the second-century the classification of the NT writings as scriptural is evident in the apologetic writings of Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus wrote to defend the faith from heretical teachings in his compendium of books titled, Against All Heresies. In his treatment, he quotes 21 of the 27 NT books as his authority in refuting doctrinal errors. And his NT quotes far outweigh his use of the OT. As of yet, the 27 NT books have still not been formally “sewn together” in what is referred to as the canonization of Scripture.
What is especially important about the aforementioned is the acceptance and adherence of the second-century church leaders and believers to the scriptural authority of the apostolic writers.
Looking back, they could see the bakery through their binoculars.
The second century church had a much greater vantage point than do we.
Their assent to apostolic authorship and scriptural authority carries much more sway than the present-day deviations of wayward liberal theologians commenting some 2000 years later. In comparison, their attempts to superimpose personal ideas on apostolic authority are almost laughable.
IV. THE TESTIMONY OF THE CANONIZING PROCESS
The canonization of Scripture did not occur until the early fourth century. From A.D. 200 to 300 everyone in the church knew of the basic contents of the NT and continued to view them as authoritative (although precise limits had not yet been defined). Prior to discussing the actual formalizing of the canon, it is essential to point out what the word means.
“Canon” is from the same basic Greek word (in other words it is transliterated from Greek into English). Its etymology stems from meaning a “reed” to a “rod” or “bar.” And since those are devices used for measuring, the word took on the metaphorical meaning of a “standard.” Used in literature, it meant, “A list of words correctly attributed to an author.”10 Used in English it means the authoritative books accepted as Holy Scripture.
In a proper sense, the canon actually came into existence when the original penning of the autographa occurred — even though it took the church many years to recognize that. In other words, the authority is latent in the books themselves — not the body that later “canonized” them.11
Importantly, the canon consists of those God-inspired books when penned by God’s agents.
Although much more could be said historically about the authenticating events that led up to the official recognition of the canon of the NT and more of the authenticating aspects of the third century, for the sake of brevity we will cut to the chase.
Diocletian was the Roman Emperor during the turn to the fourth century. He was a vicious man who ordered all religious books be burned in his attempt to have everyone worship him as god. The risk in hiding a copy of Scripture was personal death. One person who lived through the ordeal was Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 270-340). He was a respected church leader and historian and spent a great amount of time and attention to the canon. The future of the Scriptures was at stake. In his book, Church History, he speaks much about the subject of the canon.
In 313 Constantine conquered the Roman Empire and declared Christianity as a legal religion. Soon thereafter he commissioned Eusebius to make him 50 copies of the NT. Eusebius followed through and this led to the actual “sewing together” of the books of the NT. Until this time the NT existed in various codices12 and the criteria for determining which books would actually be in the canon had not been solidified. Eusebius may be credited with achieving that amongst the church leaders.
Athanasius then completed Eusebius’ work. Therein the extent of the NT is codified and ratified by the Church Counsel of Laodicea in A.D. 365. The pronouncement of this gathering read, “Psalms composed by private men must not be read in the church, nor books not admitted into the canon, but only the canonical [books] of the New and Old Testaments.”
Following this gathering was further ratification by church leaders throughout the world and in two subsequent church leader councils the canon was further verified and ratified. These councils were: The Council of Hippo in A.D. 393 and The Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. It is in this latter counsel that Augustine said, “[It is decreed] that nothing except the canonical Scriptures be read in the church under the name of divine Scripture… Of the New Testament, the four gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of St. Paul, the epistle of the same to the Hebrews, Peter (2), John (3), James, Jude, Apocalypse …” States Westcott,
“General accord with this decision was evidenced in the practice of all the churches from that point on.”13
The NT was now canonized. The latently authoritative writings had been recognized as such, collected and bound. The church had assented unanimously, recognizing them for what they had always been from their point of origin — God’s oracles.
To say that only the words of Jesus in the book of Mark are worth reading is to starkly and blindly obliterate the testimony of the New Testament writers, the testimony of the third-century church and the testimony of the canonizing process. It is to commit intellectual sin, to side with liberal theologians, and it surely leads to an immature Christianity, if not heresy in your own life.
This spiritual immaturity is clearly seen in Markan14 adherents; they are characterized by thwarted personal growth in Christ and all that he expects of His called-out ones in terms of a high view of the local church, evangelism, discipleship, missions, stewardship, and the like. One can certainly question if those who follow a Mark-only theology are truly Christians or saved, for they have gone so far as to redefine who Jesus Christ is. Theirs is not the Jesus of the whole of Scripture.
Are the Christian leaders you follow — including the pastor of your local church — in compliance with Paul’s conviction? cm
“For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27)
1 Note, too, that Paul and other NT authors strongly condemned those who in any way adulterated or diminished the Scriptures (cf. Galatians 1:6–9; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:3,4; Revelation 22:18,19).
2 Plenary, according to Merriam-Webster means, “complete in every respect: ABSOLUTE, PERFECT, UNQUALIFIED.”
3 As a matter of fact, nowhere in Scripture, including Matthew 16:18–19, can one support the idea of ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”). I.e. that there is supposedly a lineage of leadership stemming from the apostle Peter to the present-day Pope who, when he speaks ex cathedra is speaking for God.
4 Sometimes this included the use of an amanuensis, which is a secretary to whom they dictated.
5 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Timothy (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1995) p. 143.
6 Autographs, or manuscripts written by the author.
7 Dr. Robert Thomas, The Canon of the New Testament, excerpted article, p. 2.
8 This was (and still is) a sedge plant that was made into a primitive form of paper. Later, vellum or parchment, a processed animal skin that was much more expensive than papyrus, was used to copy NT books.
9 Dr. Robert Thomas, The Canon of the NT, excerpt notes, p. 13.
10 Merrill Tenney, The New Testament, A Survey, p. 417.
11 In theology this is termed “a collection of authoritative writings” versus, “an authoritative collection of writings.” Whereas the former stresses the latent authority of the documents, the latter stresses the authority of the collection agency — i.e. the church rather than the books.
12 A codice was an early, primitive form of a modern-day book, contrasted with a scroll, which was a rolled-up papyrus mss.
13 Westcott, The Bible p. 189.
14 Those who hold only to the book of Mark as the original gospel (which stresses His humanity) and that all the other gospel writers copied it. The Markan priority hypothesis is led by a similar group of people who lead The Quest for the Historical Jesus movement — a view of Jesus that denudes Him of being Lord and Savior.