The Canonisation and Preservation of Scripture

Jeffrey Khoo

There are Christians who wrongly think that the Bible is only infallible and inerrant in the past but no longer infallible and inerrant today. They say that the church today does not have all the words God has “breathed out” for His people (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16–17). Such a view undermines the very foundation of the Christian Faith. If the church today does not have an infallible and inerrant Bible, then how can we know for sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? If we do not have every inspired word of the Holy Scriptures today, then how can we obey Jesus’ command that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)?

It is disturbing that so-called Christians today, even conservative or fundamental ones, do not and cannot believe they have in their possession a perfect Bible, infallible and inerrant. They would rather accept the false teaching that the Bible is no longer infallible and inerrant; that God did not preserve His words perfectly to the jot and tittle; that some of God’s inspired words have been lost and remain lost. According to them, it is simply “foolish faith” to believe in the perfect preservation of the divinely inspired Scriptures.

The New Testament comprises a total of 27 books with 140,521 words that God has inspired and preserved throughout the ages according to His promise, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18); “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35; Luke 21:33; Mark 13:31). By faith in God’s unfailing promise, every sincere Christian ought to believe that he has a perfect Bible today.

How do we know this? In the same way that God worked in history to preserve and identify for us the 27 canonical books of the Greek New Testament, God has also preserved and identified for us the 140,521 inspired words of the Greek New Testament in the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. It is important to understand that God’s special providential work can involve a closure, a terminus. All the inspired New Testament books were completed by A.D. 100 when the Apostle John wrote the last book of Revelation, and God warned against adding to or subtracting from His Written Word in Revelation 22:18–19. We also know that in the first few centuries, there were uninspired men who penned spurious writings and passed them off as Scripture. Some of these were the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Epistle of Barnabas, etc. These false and heretical books threatened to confuse and overthrow the truly inspired books of Scripture. Nevertheless, God would never allow any of the inspired books of Scripture to be lost or obscured during the process of biblical canonisation (i.e., the precise identification and authoritative listing of the divinely inspired books of the New Testament). The Holy Spirit providentially guided the church in His own special way to identify the 27 books which we accept today as our New Testament Canon, no more, no less. There was a terminus to the canonisation of Scripture at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397.

In like manner, the Lord allowed copyist errors and corruptions to enter into the transmission process through the pen of fallible scribes. Nevertheless, His special providential hand kept His inspired words from being lost. By virtue of God’s special providence, that nothing happens by chance, and that history is under His sovereign control, in the fulness of time—in the most opportune time of the Reformation when the true church separated from the false, when the study of the original languages was emphasised, and the printing press invented (which meant that no longer would there be any need to handcopy the Scriptures thereby ensuring a uniform text)—God restored from out of a pure stream of preserved Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, the purest Hebrew and Greek Text of all—the Text that underlies our KJV—that accurately reflects the original Scriptures.

That the special providential preservation of Scripture sees its historical parallel in the special providential canonisation of Scripture was Dean Burgon’s thinking as well. Dr E. F. Hills wrote of Burgon: “Burgon … never lost sight of the special providence of God which has presided over the transmission of the New Testament down through the ages, expressly set out to maintain against all opponents that the Church was divinely guided to reject the false readings of the early centuries, and to gradually accept the true text. He denied that he was claiming a perpetual miracle that would keep manuscripts from being depraved at various times, and in various places. But ‘The Church in her collective capacity, has nevertheless—as a matter of fact—been perpetually purging herself of those shamefully depraved copies which once everywhere abounded within her pale’ (The Revision Revised, 334–5). He believed that just as God gradually settled the Canon of the New Testament by weaning His churches from non-canonical books, so He did with the Text also.”

The God of the Bible is an all-powerful and all-knowing God, and this God cannot fail to preserve His inspired words to the last iota according to His promise, so that His people at every age, even today, can say with absolute certainty that they have in their possession a 100% perfect Bible, infallible and inerrant; and can tell precisely where all His divinely inspired words are providentially preserved to the glory of His Name.

Rev Dr Jeffrey Khoo is the academic dean of Far Eastern Bible College.

– Published in Bible Witness, Vol 5 Issue 2 (March – April 2005)