“The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven,” one of the characters says in The Da Vinci Code. “Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.”
Walk into the first class session of World Religions 101 at a university near you, and you’re likely to hear a variation on that theme. The Catholic Church created the Bible to control people. The Bible as we know it didn’t exist until the reign of Constantine. The church decided what belonged in the Bible at the Council of Nicaea.
But according to New Testament scholars Michael Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) and Don Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge), historical evidence does not bear out this narrative. The books of the New Testament were all written in the first century and were in wide use by the early church as early as the second century. Kruger and Carson explain why they don’t believe the Bible’s authority comes from the decision of any man.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Michael Kruger: Now, one of the common misconceptions that floats around out there is that the Bible is the result of an act of the church, if you will, and that the church sort of created the Bible and brought it into existence. And so in some sense then the church is kind of over the Bible. And that idea is widespread and it has a number of different manifestations. One which I hear a lot is this idea that the Bible was created at a church council. Usually, it’s the Council of Nicea in the 4th century that’s mentioned and usually, the shadowy figure of Constantine is put there as someone just working his plan from the background.
And so he supposedly manipulates things and gets the Bible he wants and creates the sort of First Bible for the church that everyone’s agreed on. And then suddenly, you have the Bible as the result of the decisions of men in the 4th century. And so it creates this idea that the Bible is this human invention. It’s entirely an accident of history. It’s something that you can’t really put much stock in because it’s all political anyway. This is the sort of idea that you get from it.
But that whole narrative has a number of holes and problems in it. One of the problems, of course, just on a factual level, is the Council of Nicea didn’t really address the New Testament Canon at all. It was more concerned with Christology and how to articulate the Divinity of Jesus. And so it really has nothing to do with that. The other mistake with that is this idea that it was not until the 4th century that Christians really thought about what books were in their Bibles.
And we can see the emergence of the canon all the way back in the 2nd century. So the idea that a later church council created the Bible just is out of sync with the chronology. Christians already had a Bible long before that, not only an Old Testament that functioned, but a core collection of New Testament books that functioned very early. Yes, some of the edges needed to be refined and solidified. But the core was there from long before any vote or any church council.
So it’s always important for people to just remember that it’s not that the Bible was created by men but it was sort of more organically brought up within the body of the church and recognized for what it was.
Don Carson: If you word the question a slightly different way, did the church create the Bible or did the Bible create the church? There is a sense in which, even though absolutely everything that Mike said is entirely truthful, there’s a sense in which both are true.
The Bible dares speak of the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the gospel. Now, what is meant by that is not that they invented it, or they created it, or they created manuscripts holus-bolus or anything like that. But they were God’s duly-appointed, Christ-ordained mediators of this early revelation which issued in God-inspired texts, actually given by God.
In that sense, there is a sense in which the early apostles and apostolic leaders contributed under the grace of Christ to give us documents that are fully authoritative. But granted that that’s happening already in the 1st century, then to imagine that somehow the church creates the documents in the 4th century or authorizes them in the 4th century runs afoul of all of the timing problems that Mike has already brought up.
So it depends on which group you’re answering. If you are answering Muslims who are influenced by liberal Christian thought, then the answer Mike gives is exactly right. But if you’re answering Muslims who are saying, look, in their case, the Bible was given by just plain flat out dictation.
God dictated the Koran and Mohammed allegedly memorized it and then dictated it to his followers and they wrote it down. As opposed to all of that, we insist that God worked in spacetime history through the experiences and the beliefs and the convictions and the work of the spirit in the lives of apostolic men and their work.
It is an historically mediated revelation from God that nevertheless is fully and authoritatively verbally inspired by God. In that sense, it is important to say that there is a sense in which the canonical scriptures do flow out of the work of the spirit of God through those first God-ordained witnesses even while we hasten to say all the things that Mike said and much more.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, and I think, you know, you could add a whole other set of layers to this in terms of thinking about the relationship between the church and the Bible. You know, part of the conception in people’s minds is that these documents were written in the 1st century just sort of as friendly advice to the church. And it wasn’t until the 4th century that the church decided, “You know, these are great books. I say that we make these scripture and sort of infuse authority into them.”
I think we need to rethink that too. When we look at the New Testament authors, particularly the apostles like Paul who are explicitly identifying themselves as apostles, you see a real sense of authority when they write. They know they’re not writing just casual letters that maybe later would accrue a scriptural status over time. But there seems to be a sense in which Paul understood him to be standing and speaking with the authority of Christ even then and his audience seemed to recognize that as well.
So when you ask the question of where the authority came from, it can’t be a later vote or a later church council. It seems to be sort of innately built in to the documents themselves. So I think these two angles can round out that that whole discussion of how to think about that issue of church versus Bible.
Don Carson: It’s worth remembering that the apostle’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 14, “If anybody is questioning what Paul is writing let him acknowledge that what Paul is saying is the Lord’s command.”