This is another in a series of questions about the Bible.
Question: Why do we accept the writings of some people as inspired books of the Bible, while the sayings of other prophets, ancient and modern, are not accepted as inspired scripture?
Response: There are several facets to this answer.
First, a person’s writings are not inspired scripture merely because they are true. Someone might write a book that teaches that honesty is the best policy and feeding the poor is good, both of which are true, but this does not mean that particular book is God’s message to mankind. The telephone directory or a history book may be 100% true and error-free, but it is not God’s inspired message. Many philosophers, religious teachers, and prophets can recognize that honesty and feeding the poor are good, or accurately report an event, but these truths can be found in the world without any special revelation from God. The theologians call the common truths that most people recognize “general revelation” because these teachings are generally available to all people. “Special revelation” is God’s specific messages that could not be discovered by observation of the world. Special revelation would be such things as predicting the future, a teaching about heaven, or how to get right with God. These things are not available to people without God telling us about them.
So any given individual teaching, from any religion, might be true. This does not mean that we should accept someone’s teachings as the inspired word of God just because the teaching is accurate.
Also, merely because someone claims that their teachings are from God, it does not follow that they truly are from God. False prophets have existed in every generation, even in the old testament and the new. God, through the prophet Ezekiel, spoke against false prophets who claimed “thus says the Lord” when the Lord did not indeed speak through them (Ez. 13:28). Jeremiah similarly spoke against false prophets who were deceiving the the people, saying false things as if they were from God (Jer. 27:14-15). Modern examples can be found of similar people who claim to have heard from God.
Second, we must consider how God spoke in times past. A few of the writings of the Bible are directly spoken by God, such as when someone heard God speak audibly. In Exodus 3 and 4, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush. Later in Exodus God writes the ten commandments directly onto stone tablets. Samuel heard God’s voice directly, such that it woke him from sleep (1 Samuel 3). At other times God would speak to someone such that others around would hear sounds (Exodus 19:9, 16; Acts 9:7). In Jude 1-3, the writer tells us that he had started to write about one subject, but “felt compelled” to write about something else.
So God would speak to people in various ways, as Hebrews 1:1 tells us.
Third, what makes a writing inspired is God, for He determines His message to mankind. God decides what He wants to communicate, then works through mankind to communicate it. It is not the case that inspired writings are inspired in the same sense as a talented human artist, such as Shakespeare or Rembrandt might be considered inspired or inspirational. Prophetical writings are inspired scripture because God communicated a message, not because humans decided one prophet was inspired and another was not. The books of the Bible are included because these were the messages God determined to communicate.
Fourth, we must consider how people are expected to distinguish that a teacher is a true prophet and not a false prophet. True prophets provided a sign to the hearers that proved they were from God. The people who received messages from prophets were able to determine true prophets from false ones because of the signs that followed the prophet. Here are but a few examples:
- Moses showed his credibility because of the ten plagues in Egypt which he predicted in advance.
- Moses’ authority as a prophet was challenged by Korah’s family, and Moses responded “Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord.” God destroyed all those who challenged Moses, thus giving a sign that Moses was God’s true prophet. (Numbers 16:28-35)
- Joshua was given signs that he was God’s prophet. Joshua predicted that the Jordan river would dry up to let Israel cross, and it did (Joshua 3:7-16)
- Samson was given supernatural strength, beyond what any human would have been capable of.
- Elijah commanded the rain to stop, giving proof that he was a true prophet (1 Kings 18)
- In Isaiah’s day, Assyria was capturing every city it attacked (Is. 36:1) and came against Jerusalem. Isaiah gave signs that showed he was a true prophet, foretelling that not even one arrow would come against the city. God then destroyed the entire Assyrian army, giving approval to Isaiah’s words (Is. 37:30-36)
- Jonah was raised from death in the great fish, giving divine approval to his message from God.
- The apostles of Jesus did signs and wonders that showed they were true prophets. “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4)
- Jesus did miracles to show His message was from God. Even Nicodemus recognized Jesus was true, for “no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2)
Thus all true prophets had a message from God that was accompanied by miracles that were signs the prophet’s message was true.
Fifth, the miraculous signs ceased when God stopped giving new messages. In the Old Testament, the leaders clearly recognized the end of God’s messages. Geisler and Nix in their book A General Introduction to the Bible quote five ancient rabbis who state that inspired prophets ceased in ancient Israel after the deaths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, corresponding with the destruction of the Jewish temple (p.206). So the Jewish leaders recognized when God’s messages stopped being given through the prophets.
In the New Testament, the signs of an apostle ceased when the apostles died. Regardless of one’s view of the continuation of spiritual gifts to common believers in modern times, the signs of an apostle are not found today. Many times in the book of Acts the apostles did signs specific to apostles, signs that could not be denied (2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 8:13, etc.)
Sixth, prophets’ teachings must align with any writing telling something about God that His people already knew to be true.
Seventh, God gave His people a way to tell whether a prophet is true or false:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. (Duet. 18:21-22)
Geisler and Nix give several tests that were employed by the people of God when recognizing whether someone’s message was truly from God. It had to be confirmed by acts of God, align with truth about God that was already known, come with the power to impact people using the Holy Spirit as God’s word always does, and was it accepted by the people of God. From the very start, the inspired books in the Bible had almost universal acceptance by God’s people. There were very few disputes in determining the canon of scripture. (see their chart on p.294, which I have copied in one of the links below)
Eighth, to anyone familiar with the tone and message of such books as those accepted by everyone into the New Testament, picking up a false book becomes obvious that it is not inspired. Reading a book like The Gospel of Thomas becomes evidently clear that it is not inspired. The nature of the books are vastly different, in doctrine and in ability to impact lives.
For a very lengthy treatment of how our Bible came together, see Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible.
In conclusion, the people of God have not, nor do they now, accept writings as part of God’s word unless the writings come from a prophet of God, telling the truth about God, in the power of God. No other so-called prophets or religious teachers meet the high standards required to be recognized as a true prophet of God. As such, we can trust our Bibles to be the true word of God.