In this article, I’d like to offer some thoughts about the inspiration of the New Testament canon from a philosophical perspective. My aim is to make us think deeply about what inspiration is (within a theological context) and how this relates to the Bibles we read today.
A precursory remark is that I am not a scholar of New Testament textual criticism. As I explained in a recent article, this is a highly academic and specialised field, and scholars dedicate their whole academic careers to its study. The complexity of the subject is such that no one could become an expert by reading just a few relevant books. My reflections come after studying a book called Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (InterVarsity Press, 2019), which I highly recommend for a deep dive into the subject.
The term ‘canon’, if you weren’t aware, refers to a collection of books which are generally accepted as authoritative. There are 27 books in the New Testament canon accepted by most Christian denominations today.
The manuscripts from the early centuries of Christianity that have been discovered reveal a wide variety of writings sometimes contained in codices, which are like an early form of books. Before codices there were scrolls. While a codex allowed for books to be compiled in a way scrolls couldn’t be, it’s important to point out that just because a codex contained a particular selection of books this doesn’t mean it solidified a canon. Codices often contained books that would not today be considered ‘inspired’, along with others that would.
So how did the faithful of Christian history come to know what to regard as the official New Testament canon? What scholars usually do is refer to lists of books cited in the works of the early church Fathers (for example, Origen, Eusebius, Cyril, Athanasius, and many others). The books the Church Fathers listed as canonical varied, and there are books some of them listed which are not included in the New Testament canon generally accepted today (for instance The Shepherd of Hermas and The Apocalypse of Peter).
According to the information presented in Myths and Mistakes, the Church Fathers (at least those discussed in the book) were generally in agreement in respect of the majority of New Testament books. So, for instance, the Gospels and the Pauline epistles have almost unanimous attestation.
What interests me for the purposes of this article is that what scholars appear to be doing is resting the authority of the canon on these lists produced by the Church Fathers. But doesn’t this mean that what they are saying is that it is these lists which are ‘inspired’, rather than the books themselves? (bear with me, I’m going to elaborate!)
In order to answer this question, we need to look more closely at the idea of inspiration. I have heard Christians often justify the inspiration of the Bible by referring to a single scripture, 2 Peter 1:21, which says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. If the justification for inspiration is that an author is ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’, what does this mean? And if this is the criteria for ‘inspiration’, how did the Church Fathers (from whom we derive our canon) know which authors were ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’ and which were not?
On the subject of what exactly the Holy Spirit is, I wrote an article about that. I highly recommend giving that article a read if the subject matter of this post is of interest to you.
So why are some writings considered to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and others not? From the perspective of my own philosophy, God’s omnipresence means God is in control of everything that happens. If this is true, it means that anything anyone writes is inspired by God. God works through human beings as the animator of all our actions. What makes the ‘inspired’ writers of Scripture different? Did they enter into a trance-like state while they were writing? Or did they perhaps see the words they were to write in their minds in a unique way? To the best of my knowledge, the Bible doesn’t explain the way in which the Biblical writers were inspired.
It is true that Christians believe we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptised. Acts 2:38 reads, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” The Holy Spirit, in my experience, is reflected in a personal relationship with God — God talks to us directly and makes us constantly (or at least, a great deal more than previously) aware of His existence and His presence. But that’s the case for all Christians and doesn’t explain how the Biblical writers were different.
If the writers of the 27 books of the New Testament canon were not inspired in a unique way, this would allow us to lend extra weight to the many books from the early centuries of Christianity that were not included in the canon. The canon can then be seen as a series of books chosen by committees and councils to fulfil their purposes, rather than being in themselves inspired and authoritative in a unique way. The New Testament is certainly not inspired in the way the Qur’an claims to be in Islam, where the words of the Scripture are believed to be written on a preserved tablet which God keeps with Him.
In general terms, I believe a ‘closed canon’ can be perceived in two ways. One is that human beings made a decision regarding which books should be considered canonical. The other is that God made this decision, and by His providence worked through human beings to ensure the 27 books of the New Testament that are widely accepted today are canonical. The truth might well be that these two perspectives are not incompatible, and that both are true. When you read a Bible, God has placed that particular version in your hands for the purposes He wishes to accomplish. And perhaps that’s good enough assurance for the majority of Christians.