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The Individual and the Canon of Scripture

Jimmy Akin

DAY 325

CHALLENGE

“Why shouldn’t the individual decide for himself what books belong in the Bible?”

DEFENSE

God didn’t promise to guide individuals in this way. It’s also a dangerous thing to try.

First, how would an individual decide what books are canonical? Some have claimed these books are “self-authenticating” or that the Holy Spirit will provide what amounts to a private revelation to the individual, but neither proposal works (see Days 229 and 236).

An individual might establish that certain books are reliable historical records (e.g., that the Gospels reliably record the ministry of Jesus), but the claim they are Scripture—divinely inspired—is a matter of faith that goes beyond such historical evidence.

There is thus a problem with the evidence an individual would have at his disposal if he set aside the conclusions God guided the Church to reach about the canon and tried to consider the matter afresh.

Second, if he tried to do this, he would very likely end up with a canon that was too large or too small.

Daunted by the difficulties that certain books face, he might truncate the canon by ejecting certain books from it that belong there (as Martin Luther tried to do with James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation). Alternately, he might be attracted by the possibility of exotic, esoteric new books of Scripture and wish to include books that do not belong in the canon (as many moderns have done with writings like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic gospels, or the writings of Joseph Smith).

Third, since there is no promise in Scripture that the canon will close (see Days 52 and 110), one would have to remain open to new works. Any book that one had not read and personally evaluated would have to be regarded as a potential book of Scripture.

Fourth, the actual historical practice of the vast majority of Christians has not been to try to settle the matter themselves, but to rely on the guidance of the Church. That God guided them to do this is a sign that it is what they should do (though this fact does not fit well with the doctrine of sola scriptura). If they were meant to decide the matter individually, God would have made this clear.

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