How Do You Know What Belongs in the Bible?

The most overlooked part of the Bible, apologetically speaking, is the table of contents. It does more than just tell us the pages on which the constituent books begin. It tells us that the Bible is a collection of books, and that implies a Collector. The identity of the Collector is what chiefly distinguishes the Protestant from the Catholic.

Douglas Wilson knows this. Writing in Credenda Agenda, a periodical espousing the Reformed faith, he notes that “the problem with contemporary Protestants is that they have no doctrine of the table of contents. With the approach that is popular in conservative Evangelical circles, one simply comes to the Bible by means of an epistemological lurch. The Bible ‘just is,’ and any questions about how it got here are dismissed as a nuisance. But time passes, the questions remain unanswered, the silence becomes awkward, and conversions of thoughtful Evangelicals to Rome proceed apace.”

Most Protestants are at a loss when asked how they know that the 66 books in their Bibles belong in it. (They are at an even greater loss to explain why the seven additional books appearing in Catholic Bibles are missing from theirs.) For them the Bible “just is.” They take it as a given. It never occurs to most of them that they ought to justify its existence.

All Christians agree that the books that make up the Bible are inspired, meaning that God somehow guided the sacred authors to write all and only what he wished. They wrote, most of them, without any awareness that they were being moved by God. As they wrote, God used their natural talents and their existing ways of speech. Each book of the Bible is an image not only of the divine Inspirer but of the all-too-human author.

So how do we know whether Book A is inspired and part of the canon while Book B is not? A few unsophisticated Protestants are satisfied with pointing to the table of contents, as though that modern addition somehow validates the inspiration of the 66 books, but many Protestants simply shrug and admit that they don’t know why they know the Bible consists of inspired books and only inspired books. Some Protestants claim that they do have a way of knowing, a kind of internal affirmation that is obtained as they read the text.

Wilson cites the Westminster Confession—the 1647 Calvinist statement of faith—which says that the Holy Spirit provides “full persuasion and assurance” regarding Scripture to those who are converted. The converted, says Wilson, “are in turn enabled to see the other abundant evidences, which include the testimony of the Church.”

But the “testimony of the Church” cannot be definitive or binding since the Church may err, according to Protestant lights. (Protestants do not believe the Church is infallible when it teaches.) What really counts is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Without it, the Protestant is at a loss—but, even with it, he is at a loss.

When young Mormon missionaries come to your door, they ask you to accept a copy of the Book of Mormon. You hesitate, but they say that all they want is for you to read the text and ask God to give you a sign that the text is inspired. They call this sign the “burning in the bosom.” If you feel uplifted, moved, prodded toward the good or true—if you feel “inspired,” in the colloquial rather than theological sense of that word—as you read the Book of Mormon, then that is supposed to be proof that Joseph Smith’s text is from God.

A moment’s thought will show that the “burning in the bosom” proves too much. It proves not only that the Book of Mormon is inspired but that your favorite secular poetry is inspired. You can get a similar feeling anytime you read an especially good novel (or, for some people, even a potboiler) or a thrilling history or an intriguing biography. Are all these books inspired? Of course not, and that shows that the “burning in the bosom” may be a good propaganda device but is a poor indicator of divine authorship.

Back to the Protestant. The “full persuasion and assurance” of the Westminster Confession is not readily distinguishable from Mormonism’s “burning in the bosom.” You read a book of the Bible and are “inspired” by it—and that proves its inspiration. The sequence is easy enough to experience in reading the Gospels, but I suspect no one ever has felt the same thing when reading the two books of Chronicles. They read like dry military statistics because that is what they largely are.

Neither the simplistic table of contents approach nor the more sophisticated Westminster Confession approach will do. The Christian needs more than either if he is to know—really know—that the books of the Bible come ultimately from God. He needs an authoritative Collector to affirm their inspiration. That Collector must be something other than an internal feeling. It must be an authoritative and, yes, infallible Church.

By Karl Keating



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    The author berates the Protestants for assuming the bible “just is” but he provides no explanation of his own as to how it came to be, why certain books were accepted and others rejected, etc. He berates the Protestant for turning inward to find the inspiration, but where did the RCC find its inspiration in selecting the books? We know the subject was hotly debated, and yet somehow this early group determined the orthodoxy of the bible – by what means though? Surely the individual people making the decisions must have been influenced in exactly the same way that the author denigrates, when practiced by Protestants – or were their decisions more political in nature? One can only imagine. The author offers no support for the Church’s “infallibility” in this matter. Why would we trust this “infallible” Church that has been wracked by sex and financial scandal, war, inquisition, conquest, forced conversion through terror, etc. for most of its existence? I suppose that one could argue that the actions of the RCC have largely copied those of Yahweh in the Old Testament, but we can see the results of using that poor role model.
    In any event, I do enjoy watching Protestants and fundagelicals hacking away at their own roots when they attack the RCC. As long as we maintain that these Bronze and Iron Age words are somehow inspired, holy, or sacred, then those who carry out those words may not be condemned as terrorists… That applies to any of the Abrahamic religions – so long as these ancient books, written by primitive, uneducated, sexist, brutal men, are called holy, then extremists who carry out their words are righteous.
    See Numbers 31:1-18 or perhaps Deut 17 as just a couple of examples where believers are ordered to kill and even rape at Yahweh’s command. There are pages of such passages. Talk about your “burning in the bosom” inspiration!

    1. Muyiwa Reply

      Patrick, u know, a man’s got to believe something, whether u believe in God, Theist or Deist or u believe in no God, i.e chance. This is what we choose to believe, and we “assimilate” “truths” that support our beliefs. Whatever you believe is your kettle of fish. Mind ur fish diligently and stop looking in another’s kettle

      1. Patrick Gannon Reply

        In case you didn’t notice, or actually read the article, the author is not minding his own kettle of fish, he is minding the Protestant’s kettle of fish. If the RCC would mind its own kettle of fish and not stick its nose in everyone else’s then you might have a valid point, but they are trying to put laws in place that force their views on everyone else whether they accept those views or not, and that opens them up to being challenged – and I shall do so, when I can. The entire purpose of the article is to show how “we” (Catholics) are better than “them,” (Protestants). Ah, the songs of childhood… Catholics, Catholics, ring the bell. Protestants, Protestants, go to Hell!” Nothing has changed. Christianity has become even more divisive than it was in the past.

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