Why did we get these four (gospels) and what happened to the others? As it turns out it’s not what most people think. Most people think that there must have been some kind of church council. Some people think that the emperor Constantine called the council of Nicea to have a vote about which books would be in the New Testament, but it didn’t work that way. The council of Nicea didn’t take any vote about the about the books of the New Testament nor did any other council. (Bart Ehrman on Pennsylvania Inside Out)
Dr. Ehrman goes on to describe how the New Testament canon was selected. He describes an organic, almost evolutionary, process where there were numerous Christian groups in a kind of “religion soup” that were all witnessing to unbelievers. Each of these groups met with varying degrees of success at winning converts. The most successful group at winning converts established what was orthodox Christian belief by writing the creeds and selecting the gospels that they thought were inspired.
The funny thing to me about what Dr. Ehrman is saying is that he says it as if a Christian believer should view this as evidence that the Bible was not inspired by God. “No church council ever voted on the books of the New Testament”, he says, “they were only the books whose ideas were most successful at winning converts.” But would I, as a Christian believer, more easily believe in the inspiration of the Bible if there had been some kind of a vote? I don’t think so. Let us examine the issue a bit more closely.
The Test of Inspiration
The 24th chapter of Luke tells the story of two downcast disciples leaving Jerusalem after the death of Jesus Christ. Though they have heard the stories of His resurrection, they have not believed those stories and are leaving Jerusalem instead of waiting for the baptism of the Holy Spirit as Jesus commanded. While they are walking along, they are hailed by a stranger who tells them that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. At the end of this strangers stay with them, they recognize him as Jesus and He disappears. They give a remarkable testimony of the power of the word of God to influence people:
They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
Doing it the Human Way
Now let us contrast this verse in Luke with another verse from the book of Acts:
Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:26)
In this verse, the disciples are attempting to decide who should replace the recently deceased Judas Iscariot as the twelfth disciple. They selected this new disciple in the way they thought best and cast lots and the lot fell on Matthias. As the rest of the New Testament makes clear, Matthias was not God’s choice for the twelfth disciple. God’s choice for the twelfth disciple was the Apostle Paul.
In the contrast between these two verses we see the error that Dr. Ehrman is making when he thinks that some kind of vote in some kind of council would make the New Testament more authoritative. As a humanist scholar, he undoubtedly believes that a group of gospels chosen by the leading members of the church would be more authoritative than the group of gospels that had the greatest power to “burn in people’s hearts”. As a Christian who has read the Bible and some of the pages that were rejected from the canon and who has felt the power of the word of God “burning in my heart”, I would have to say that the process described by Dr. Ehrman does not at all challenge my belief in the inspiration of Scripture.