Who Decided What Books to Include in the Bible? 5 Principles

By Sean McDowell Published on March 3, 2018

How was it decided what books would become part of the Bible? This question relates to canonicity. The word canon comes from the root word reed. The reed was used as a measuring rod and came to mean “standard.” Canon thus refers to the officially accepted list of biblical books.

We are going to briefly consider five guiding principles for canonization from the updated Evidence that Demands A Verdict. But first, realize that the church did not create the canon; it did not determine which books would be called Scripture. Instead it recognized, or discovered, which books had been inspired from their inception.

Some people think the early church created the list; that they sat down and asked which books fit their dogma, and threw out the rest. It didn’t happen that way at all. In the end they recognized, or discovered, which books had been inspired from their inception.

Here are five ways they could tell:

1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?

If it was reliably known to be written by a spokesman for God, or commissioned by an apostle, then it was considered the Word of God.

2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?

Miracles frequently separate true prophets from false ones . Moses performed miracles as proof of his divine calling (Exodus 4:1-9). Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). The apostles performed miracles at the start of the early church (Acts 3:1-9).

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3. Did the message tell the truth about God?

God cannot contradict Himself (2 Corinthians 1:17-18). And God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). Thus, Church Fathers rejected any book with false statements about God –  statements that contradicted long established aknowledgeabout Him –. In fact, according to Geisler and Nix, they maintained the policy, “If in doubt, throw it out.”[1]

4. Does it come with the power of God?

Church fathers believed the Bible was “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and thus should have transforming power for edification (2 Timothy 3:17), sanctification and evangelism (1 Peter 1:23). Thus, if a book did not have the power to change a life, then it was not divinely inspired. The presence of God’s transforming power was a strong indication that a given book had His stamp of approval.

5. Was it accepted by the people of God?

In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul said, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

Church Fathers considered whether or not a book was accepted by the first believers as Scripture. If so, then it was regarded as canonical. This practice was seen in the Bible itself. One instance is when the apostle Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as Scripture on par with the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).

Discussions about what books to include in the canon are complex, of course, and go beyond the scope of this article. Some books were accepted in the canon much earlier than others. Orthodox, Protestant and Catholics differ over a few books too.

Nevertheless, these five principles help clarify that the process of deciding what books were in the Bible was not left to chance or happenstance. The Church Fathers were very intentional about what books they recognized as divinely inspired, and the common ground across Christian traditions far outweighs the differences.


Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org. This article used by permission.

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