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Who wrote the Bible’s contents page?

Why are Paul’s letters in the Bible? When, for example, Matt Fuller’s aren’t?!

I think he was trying to be provocative, but the student who asked me this today makes a good point. Paul was an evangelist, church planter and pastor, but we have many of them today. What makes his letters so unique that we still submit to every word of them 2,000 years later.

It’s a massive, foundational question. As evangelicals we are convinced that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). But God didn’t write the contents page of the Bible, so what if we are treating books that didn’t really come from God as if they did?

I think that the answer builds up in four steps.

1) There is such a thing as Scripture

By the time of Jesus, there was a recognised group of 39 books (our Old Testament) that were considered Scripture. That is, although they had various human authors and circumstances, each one was recognised as being the word and voice of God himself.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly affirmed the Scriptures of his day. He never told his opponents that their problem was that they were reading the wrong books – his constant challenge was that they weren’t reading them well enough. “Have you not read…?” was a refrain in his debates.

To take one example, in Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 with this introduction: “at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said…” Genesis 2:24, which is a narrator’s comment on the story was really the creator speaking. God can speak through human writings. There is such a thing as Scripture.

2) Jesus promised the Spirit would guide the apostle’s teaching

Speaking to the apostles on the night before his death, Jesus said: “The Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you… When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth… He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (John 14:26, 16:13-14).

Jesus was concerned that there would be accurate testimony about him, and so promised that the Spirit would guide his apostles to teach accurately about him. (We know that this promise is for them rather than us because the Spirit cannot remind us of what Jesus has said to us – we never heard him speaking firsthand.)

This is vital for us, because Jesus describes us as “those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). We can only come to believe in Jesus through the words of the apostles, so Jesus promised the Spirit would guide their teaching.

3) The apostles self-consciously wrote with Jesus’ authority

Let’s take one example from Paul (who was established as an apostle when Jesus met him on the Damascus road, see Galatians 1-2). At the end of a chapter on the use of spiritual gifts in church meetings he writes “If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (1 Corinthians 14:37). Jesus never taught on this issue, so Paul isn’t referring to a teaching of Jesus. Paul’s own instructions are the Lord’s command.

We could also look at 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 where Paul puts the same weight on his instructions as on words from Jesus’ own teaching, speaking “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v25). Paul self-consciously wrote with Jesus’ authority.

4) Their letters were recognised as Scripture

“Our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him… His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter recognises Paul’s letters as being on a level with “the other Scriptures”.

A bank cashier can recognise notes as being genuine or fake, but doesn’t have the authority to declare notes to be genuine – only the treasury can do that. In the same way, the early church didn’t gather together the 27 books of the New Testament and “make” them Scripture. But they recognised that that is what they are, and so gathered them together with the “other Scriptures” of the Old Testament.

Jesus promised: “my sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:27). That is what happened in the early church – Jesus’ sheep recognised his voice in the books that the apostles wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that is our greatest assurance today. The greatest antidote to worry over whether a book should really be in the Bible is to take it and read it, and pray to your shepherd that you would hear his voice speaking personally to you.

Further reading
Introductory - Why Trust the Bible? (Amy Or-Erwing)
More technical – The New Testament Documents (FF Bruce)