Perhaps you have heard the claim that the Bible was put together by a church council sometime in the 400s. Often this is brought up by critics of the Bible in order to disprove the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible. However, such a statement is overly simplistic and actual fails to look at the facts. In a real sense it is a revision of history as it occurred. Anyone who makes such a statement needs to do their homework. It is unfair to Christians to have such a mischaracterization argued against them. The following are the facts that many neglect in their discussion concerning the development of the canon of Scripture. The term canon comes from a Greek word that means rod, measuring rule, standard. When speaking of the canon of Scripture we are identifying the books that serve as the standard of the Christian faith. Books standardized not by individuals, not by the church, and not by an ancient council but by God Himself.
The Church Does Not Define the Bible to Be God's Word, The Bible Defines Itself to Be God's Word
The reason that the Church identifies the Bible as the Word of God is because the Bible itself claims to be the Word of God. At least 3,808 times the Old Testament authors refer to a statement as being Thus said the LORD, indicating that these words belong to God and not the human author who recorded them. The prophets are described as having the word of the LORD coming down upon them before they spoke the words preserved for us in the prophetic books of the Old Testament (Jeremiah 1:1-2; Ezekiel 1:2-3; Joel 1:1; Hosea 1:1). The clear implication is that the prophets spoke what God had told them to speak and thus were delivering His message. This is the message written down in the books that bear their name.
The Apostle Paul states that All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). The all Scripture Paul refers to is the compilation of both the Old and New Testaments. The Greek word, graphe (Scripture), typically refers to written words. Paul consistently uses the word to refer to the Old Testament writings (Romans 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4; Galatians 3:8, 22; 4:30; 1 Timothy 5:18). However, the New Testament authors themselves include each others' writings as the category of Scripture. For instance, Paul quotes a statement of Jesus' recorded by the author Luke and calls it Scripture in I Timothy 5:18. The quote is alongside one from Deuteronomy. Both the verse from Deuteronomy and the one from Luke's gospel are preceded by the statement For the Scripture says. With the two quotes connected by the Greek word for and (kai), Paul appears to identify both Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Luke as being Scripture. Luke's writing is deemed authoritative by Paul in teaching that elders should be paid for their service. Also, Peter explicitly labels Paul's letters as Scripture. He states that the untaught and unstable distort his writings as they do the rest of the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16). So, according to Peter, Paul's letters are a part of Scripture. Furthermore, these letters were intended to be read aloud to the congregations and admonish them (Colossians 4:16).
Paul acknowledges that these Scriptures are God's very words. He describes them as God-breathed. The underlying Greek word, theopneustos, is a compound word consisting of God (theos) and breath (pneuma). It communicates God breathing out the Scriptures. Thus, the origin of Scripture is God who breathed them out and not man. Peter affirms Paul's point when he says knowing that first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 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 (2 Peter 1:20-21). These men spoke from God not from their own will.
Further claims of the Bible being God's Word found within Scripture can be seen with the author of Hebrews in quoting Psalm 95. He does not even credit David as writing the poem but the Holy Spirit. In introducing a quote from the psalm, he states: Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says (Hebrews 3:7). He recognized that though David penned the words, the origin of them came from the Holy Spirit of God. Even Jesus identified the Old Testament as God's Word. He stated that David in the Spirit wrote about Him in Psalm 110 (Matthew 22:43-44).
So the definition of the Bible being the Word of God does not come from the Church or any Church Council for that matter. It comes from the Bible itself. Martin Luther put it well when he stated, "It is not the Word of God because the church says so; but that the Word of God might be spoken, therefore the church comes into being. The church does not make the Word, but it is made by the Word." If one wants to contend the truth of the Bible being the Word of God then they need to deal with the claims of the Bible itself.
The Councils Did Not Create the Canon, They Merely Confirmed the Canon
The claim that a council in the 400s created the canon of Scripture as we have it today is certainly unfounded. It would be equivalent to arguing that America was founded fully as a Christian nation. (While there are certainly Christian elements that can be found in the framing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, one can also find secular humanist views and ideas of moralistic deism.) There is much more to it than simply claiming that the nation was established as a Christian nation. Likewise, there is much more to these councils than that they "created" the canon. It would be better to describe the councils as the process the church went through to "recognize" the canon. The disputes and discussions over what books should be included centered on whether or not the books were God's very words. The criteria that was looked for was whether the book claimed to be God's word, whether it was written by an apostle who would have been sent by God to write His words, and whether it was in accord with the teachings of the books that clearly were God's very words.
Interestingly, many of the books that did not become part of the Protestant canon do not even claim to be God's Word. For instance, the intertestamental 1 Maccabees 9:27 talks of how prophets (those who would have spoken for God) had ceased to appear among the nation of Israel. The book does not claim to be prophetic itself nor does it state that it serves as God's very words. Thus, the Church did not get together and arbitrarily decide that it was not to be included in the Bible. The book excludes itself from being included in God's Word. It also would exclude other books written contemporary to it since the time of prophets had be recognized as having ceased. The Jewish Talmud also indicated an ending to the time of the prophets after the writings of the Old Testament which would further exclude the later writings that comprise what is known as the Apocryphal (meaning hidden) books. It states "After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel." The churches of the time recognized these apocryphal writings not to be inspired as seen in their not treating them as such. It should also be noted that several of the apocryphal books contain historical errors and contradictions which would clearly indicate them not to be inspired.
An examination of the practice of most of the churches at the time of the councils in the 300s and 400s reveal that predominantly what was treated as God's Word in worship and personal study were the 66 books that we now hold in our hand as the Bible. While a few books were doubted early on, most churches were found to be in agreement later, indicating God's powerful hand of providence at work. Most of the writings that are not included in the Bible today, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, were never read in the churches or ever viewed as authoritative. Eventually the different churches all were identifying the same books as being canonical and thus communicating God's Word. Church leader Athanasius in 367 listed all 27 books of the New Testament as canonical before much of the councils that many erroneously claim determined the books that would be in the Bible. The council simply served as a statement that here are the books that are God's Word. J. I. Packer points out that "it seems that the process involved no more than the explicit recognition of an established state of affairs. It was not a case of imparting to a newly-made collection of books an authority which they had not had before, nor of reminding a forgetful generation what authority the earliest Christians had ascribed to apostolic writings" ("Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, 66). It would better be described as a process of discernment. With the growing persecution and the rising of heretics that promoted books certainly not demonstrating evidence of being God's Word, such a statement was necessary for clarity and to guard the Church from error. They wanted to make sure Christians did not begin to read the wrong books that were not of God and therefore not authoritative for their lives.
Much more could be said about this and many more specifics pertaining to the debates and discussions over what books were canonical or not could be given but this should suffice for now the point that it would be wrong historically to claim that the councils merely created the canon of Scripture that we have today. That would undermine the testimony of the books of Scripture themselves and the facts surrounding the councils. Let's not rewrite history to make a point but deal with the text of Scripture itself and why Christians really are convinced the Bible to be God's Word.
Soli Deo Gloria!