There is only one passage in the entire New Testament that references other books later canonized into our New Testament as already considered to be inspired scripture. The writer of 2 Peter refers to the letters “Paul wrote” as “other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). 2 Peter was written around 90-110 C.E., approximately 30-40 years after Paul wrote the last of his letters. By this time, copies of Paul’s letters were being passed from house church to house church to be read as part of worship. Looked at from our current perspective where we have had the books of our Bible settled for some 1,600 years, this point may only evoke a polite nod. But how did the church of 2 Peter come to view Paul’s letters as being inspired? That is the question we want to ask this post.
We are concluding our look at biblical inspiration in the previous post and this one by looking toward an understanding of it. In the previous post we noted how it is more important to ask the right questions than have all the right answers. When we ask what of God is being revealed through the Bible, the answer is that Jesus is the greatest living revelation of God. The question we are asking in this post is, “How were the 66 books selected in our Bible deemed to be inspired?” In other words, what were the criteria used to determine that each book was inspired?
I do not recall having a specific answer to that question prior to 2017, just an understanding that the Early Church determined the final canon of scripture by the end of the 4th century. In early 2017 I began a writing exercise to think out how I would briefly summarize the Bible. (What do you mean, “Why?” Isn’t that on everyone’s “Top Ten List of The Whacky, Crazy Things I Do In My Free Time?”) I had come to believe that writing that out would be an important touchstone in a years-long (and still on-going) journey to better understand the Bible as a whole. The task unexpectedly resulted in providing me the answer to our focal question this post. Below is the summary of the Bible I wrote:
The Bible is the Early Church’s consensus of the best books that collectively reveal God’s instructional measure needed for perfecting a life of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Each book adds to that revelation from its particular setting and focus, and falls under one of three categories:
- ancient stories of the Jewish people that reflectively convey their struggles, victories, and evolved understanding of living out the Spirit’s call to be God’s people;
- the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as the fulfillment of those ancient Jewish stories through establishing God’s reign which is based in the obedience of loving God and loving others; and
- the apostolic age of writings that re-engage the victories, struggles, and evolution of living out the Spirit’s call to be God’s people, but now as followers of Jesus.
My answer to “How were the 66 books selected in our Bible deemed to be inspired?” is in that summary and came straight from the Bible itself. The first sentence of my summary is largely borrowed from 2 Timothy 3:15: “and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” “Sacred writings” is referencing the Jewish Scriptures (i.e., the books in our Old Testament) which were held as inspired by Jesus, the apostles, and the Early Church.
The verse is better understood within the context of its larger passage of 2 Timothy 3:14-17 which includes the more well-known statement that “All scripture is inspired by God.” Biblical scholars have noted that the purpose of this passage is not to declare that the Hebrew Scriptures are inspired, because the language indicates that attribute is assumed (which it was by Jesus and the apostles over 30 years before 2 Timothy was written). The passage’s real purpose is to define what qualities it takes for scripture to be considered inspired. With that thought in mind, I re-read the passage. It now stood out that the qualification for scripture to be deemed inspired is that it is “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” I also noticed how multiple terms from that passage are associated with the concept of receiving instruction. Here is that passage with emphasis added on these words that now popped out at me anew:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
The goal of instruction is to move pupils from unknowing to comprehension to accomplished practicing of a skill set. This passage corroborates that sequence by noting how inspired scripture’s instruction is to lead believers to “be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Put very simply, according to this passage the books that can best teach us about Jesus are those that are to be deemed as inspired.
If including the Old Testament as the books that best teach us about Jesus seems like a bit of a head scratcher, you may want to re-read the previous post. But also consider this— in The Bible and the Believer, Dr. Peter Enns notes there are about 365 direct citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament and another 1,000 allusions as compiled from the indices in The Greek New Testament (Barbara Aland, et al, eds. 4th rev. ed.). In The King Jesus Gospel, Dr. Scot McKnight summarized well why the Old Testament is included:
The Story of Jesus brings the Story of Israel… to its fulfillment… The Story of Jesus is about his kingdom vision, and this kingdom vision emerges out of the creation story, out of Israel’s Story of trying to live out God’s design for Israel.
Paul’s letters reflect that he was a master of seeing Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament. Some scholars believe the author of 2 Timothy was actually transposing Paul’s view in Romans 15:1-6 when writing 2 Timothy 3:14-17, including how inspired scripture are those books that best teach about Jesus. [*SPOILER ALERT: Paul wrote Romans but not 2 Timothy. Critical studies topic for another day, just go with it for now.*]
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:1-6; emphasis added)
Paul references Psalm 69:9 as applying to Jesus’ life and therefore “was written for our instruction.” This passage is a good segue as we have finished discussing biblical inspiration and now turn our attention to biblical interpretation.
Next post: Introduction to interpretation