This has been quite the enjoyable series of articles to develop, and I trust that you have benefitted from it thus far. We’ve seen what the concept of Canon is, taken a look at how the Old and New Testament collections of books were formed. We’ve also considered some of the objections against the Biblical canon as well as why we do not recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture. We also looked at what were the criteria for recognizing a book as Scripture. In this last article in the series, we will consider if there are any missing books which need to be added to the Bible today.
Are there any other candidates for the Canon of Scripture?
Today there exist no strong candidates for addition to the canon and no strong objections to any book presently in the canon. Although there are many other Early Church writings that people say should be included in the canon, such as early Christian leaders and bishops or writings such as the Shepherd of Hermas or Didache, these do not hold up to the standards laid out in our previous article.
Several of the Early Church Fathers expressly stated that their own writings were not to be viewed as authoritative. Ignatius, for example, about A.D. 108, said,
“I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were apostles I am a convict; they were free, I am even until now a slave” (Ignatius, To the Romans 4.3; compare the attitude toward the apostles in 1 Clement 42:1, 2; 44:1–2 [A.D. 95]; Ignatius, To the Magnesians 7:1; 13:1–2; et al.).
Other early writings such as “The Shepherd of Hermas” teach unbiblical concepts such as the necessity of penance, that baptism forgives sins and a confusion about the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. (See Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 641).
What about the Gospel of Thomas and other early writings that claim to be Scripture?
The Gospel of Thomas which for a time was held by some to belong to the canon, ends with the following absurd statement (par. 114):
Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We can clearly see that the Gospel of Thomas is here teaching something utterly ridiculous and not in keeping with the teaching of the rest of Scripture. Thus, though its authorship may be early, it fails other tests of canonicity. Similarly, there are other books which some liberal and critical scholars have tried to argue should be added to our Bibles such as the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Judas and many more. Many of these cannot be reliably traced to the authors they claim to be penned by and are actually much later forgeries and contain numerous aberrant teachings such as Gnosticism or Docetism (the belief that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance).
The Gospel of Peter, for example, records Jesus on the Cross as saying, “My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me”‘. Immediately after, it states that, “when he had said it he was taken up.” Biblical Scholar, F.F. Bruce comments on the Gospel of Peter,
“The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, ‘remained silent, as though he felt no pain’, and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he ‘was taken up’, as though he – or at least his soul or spiritual self – was ‘assumed’ direct from the cross to the presence of God. (We shall see an echo of this idea in the Qur’an.) Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.” (F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 93)
Orthodox Christian scholarship has thoroughly debunked the claims of these books, yet some of these myths keep being propagated through popular channels like the History Channel and fictions like The DaVinci Code.
Regarding other early writings which were claiming canonical authority, Origen (184-253 AD) said:
“The church receives only four gospels; heretics have many, such as the gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Thomas, etc. These we read, that we may not seem to be ignorant to those who think they know something extraordinary, if they are acquainted with those things which are recorded in these books.”
Ambrose (c.340-397 AD) is credited with saying, “we read these that they may not seem ignorant; we read them, not that we receive them, but that we may reject them; and may know what those things are, of which they make such a boast.” So, we see that the Early Church fathers were aware of these spurious writings, but rejected them.
Every other existing document of the early church outside the New Testament which might be considered for inclusion in the canon contain either explicit disclaimers by their author that they are not authoritative or include some doctrinal aberrations that make them unworthy of inclusion. Because all Scripture shares One Divine Source, truly inspired Scripture will not contradict previous revelation otherwise God would contradict Himself. On the other hand, there are no strong objections to any book currently in the canon.
What if we found a ‘lost letter of Paul’ today?
At this point, someone may ask a hypothetical question about what we should do if another one of Paul’s epistles were discovered, for example. Would we add it to Scripture?
This is a difficult question because two conflicting considerations are involved. On the one hand, if a great majority of believers were convinced that this was indeed an authentic Pauline epistle, written in the course of Paul’s fulfillment of his apostolic office, then the nature of Paul’s apostolic authority would seem to guarantee that the writing would be, at the very least, consistent with the rest of Scripture and perhaps bear some authority. But the fact that it was not preserved as part of the canon would indicate that it was not among the writings the apostles and God himself wanted the church to preserve as part of Scripture.
Moreover, it must immediately be said that such a hypothetical question is just that: hypothetical. It is exceptionally difficult to imagine what kind of historical data might be discovered that could convincingly demonstrate to the Church as a whole that a letter lost for over 1,900 years was genuinely authored by Paul. It is more difficult still to understand how our sovereign God could have faithfully cared for his people for over 1,900 years and still allowed them to be continually deprived of something He intended them to have as part of His final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. These considerations make it so highly improbable that any such manuscript would be discovered at some time in the future, that such a hypothetical question really does not merit further serious consideration.
Divinely Preserved for Us
In conclusion, are there any books in our present canon that should not be there? No.
Are there any books missing from our present canon of Scripture? No.
We find this confidence in God’s sovereign hand repeatedly confirmed both by historical investigation and by the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to hear God’s voice in a unique way as we read from every one of the sixty-six books in our present canon of Scripture.
“The entire idea of “lost scripture” requires us to believe that God would go through the work of inspiring His Word so as to provide for His church guidance and instruction and encouragement; but then, having inspired His Word, be shown incapable of protecting and preserving it and leading His church to recognize it for what it is.” (James R. White, Scripture Alone, 110)
This sort of view of God is not the view of the Bible. Our God is more than capable of preserving His Word for us, and He has. What a blessing that is to us!
May we never neglect our Bibles and the amazing gift that it is to the Church. May we study it more and be reformed by it day by day. Would we never take for granted the immense privilege we have to read and hear the very Word of God!
Below is a video by a New Testament scholar, Dr. Michael Kruger, who is the President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He has written and spoken on these topics extensively. You can also follow him on his blog – Canon Fodder.
I hope that you have enjoyed this series of articles on The Books of the Bible. I would like to do a future series of articles on other topics on the theology of God’s Word such as its inspiration, authority, sufficiency, clarity, interpretation, inerrancy and translation. If those would be interesting to you – please let me know !
Articles in this series:
- What is the Canon of Scripture? | (Part 1)
- Why were the Books of the Bible collected together? | (Part 2)
- What about the Apocrypha? | (Part 3)
- Why were the New Testament Books added to the Bible? | (Part 4)
- How do we Recognize the Books that are Scripture? | (Part 5)
- Is the Bible missing any books today? | (Part 6)
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God bless & SDG!