This is a question that has plagued many believers to this day! Let's take a look at this foundational question.
As believers, the core of our belief is the doctrine that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If we say that the Bible is not the inspired word of God then we cannot trust it to be one hundred percent truth and because of this so much of the Christian faith rests upon the question “How can we know we have the original words of God?” The statement usually follows this question that there have been many errors that have crept into the Scriptures throughout the years. This question has to do with the canon of scripture and Lewis and Demarest ask the question in their book “Integrative Theology” wording it this way, “How can we today be sure that all of the documents God-inspired have found their way into the Bible?”This paper will attempt to answer that question.
Part of the problem that we find with answering this question is that the Bible was written two thousand years ago. The other part of the problem was that human authors wrote it. This problem is furthered by the fact that the copies that were made were copied by hand, which would lead one to assume that there must be some kind of mistake. We see today that printing presses can pump out thousands of identical copies in a short period of time while before the invention of the printing press if you wanted a copy it had to be made by hand. These problems make answering the question “How do we know we have the original words of God?” a difficult one to answer.
To have a conversation concerning the question “How can we know we have the original words of God” we must first talk about how the Bible was treated and passed down throughout history. According to F.F. Bruce, the word Bible comes from the Latin through the Greek word Biblia which means books and the first time we see it called Bible in history is 2 Clement 2:14 which acknowledged “the books” as the canonical books of Scripture.
When we take a look at scripture we see the New Testament (NT) authors treated the OT scriptures as the word of God.In 2 Timothy 3:15-16 we see Paul talks about the sacred Scriptures and calls them inspired by God (NASB).
While it might be easy to say that the NT supports the OT as God’s words what does the NT say about itself? Does the NT support itself as God’s inspired Scriptures? We see an interesting passage in 2 Peter that shows that Peter felt that Paul’s writings were Scripture because he groups them with the rest of existing Scripture. The interesting thing about the 2 Peter passage is that if Peter authored it that means that it must have been written before A.D. 65 when Nero in Rome persecuted him.
I feel that there is substantial scriptural support to show that the authors of Scripture believed that all of Scripture, OT, and NT, were the actual words of God.
While it might be easier to say that Scripture supports itself as Scripture we cannot necessarily stop there. We must take a look at what Church History has to say. This would involve looking at the canonization process and how we have the 66 books of the Bible that we have today and why some were not chosen to be included.
According to Jeffery Beshears based upon the writings of ancient historians such as Josephus and Philo that it is highly probable that there was a corpus of ancient writings that very closely reflect our OT that was accepted by devout first-century Jews and Christians.In 1647 we see the Westminster Confession come onto the scene, which states that scripture is “The Word of God written.”This confession includes our current version of the Scriptures. In Eusebius’ writing, The History of the Church He tells us about Diocletian’s persecution of the church. “Everything has been fulfilled in my time; I saw with my own eyes the places of worship thrown down from top to bottom, to the very foundations, the inspired Holy Scriptures committed to the flames in the middle of the public squares.”His description of the scriptures, calling them inspired shows that as a church leader felt that the Scriptures were indeed the word of God.
Arthur Pink (1886-1952) talks about how the entirety of the Christian faith rests upon Scripture being the words of God,
“Christianity is based upon the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture. The starting point of all doctrinal discussions must be the Bible. Upon the foundation of the Divine inspiration of the Bible stands or falls the entire edifice of Christian truth. If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
Pink felt that the Christian faith rested upon the truth that Scripture is God’s word to humanity.
When talking about Church history and the canonization of Scripture many times there is the accusation that the canon was completed by power struggles and to control the orthodoxy of the faith. This accusation could not be any further from the truth. The process of canonization was one that was difficult and while the requirements may have been few they were very specific. According to Dr. Ken Gardoski’s notes on the subject, there are four principles for OT canonization and four principles for NT canonization. The four for the OT are 1. Was it authoritative? Did it speak with divine authority? This includes “thus says the Lord” type of statements. 2. Was it prophetic? Did the prophet Moses or a man of God in the tradition of Moses write the text? 3. Was it Authentic? Was it truth in line with previous revelation? 4. Was it received by the people of God? Was it accepted by the people of God who read it, copied and collected it with the other Scriptures?One of the interesting things about being a prophet in the OT was that one of the requirements found in Deut. 18:21-22. What the prophet prophesies must come to pass. As Dr. Gardoski put it, He must bat a thousand.That means that part of the requirement of an OT book to become canon was that someone who has been proven to be God’s spokesman speaking God’s words to His people must write it. This part of the canonization process of the OT helps give some comfort that we can know that it is the words of God.
The NT canonization process was not much different from the OT following similar principles. 1. Did it have apostolic authority? This does not mean an apostle necessarily wrote it, but it at least bore apostolic authority or approval. 2. Was it prophetic? There were prophets in the NT era, which is how a book could still be authoritative even when not written by an apostle. 3. Was it authentic? Just like with OT canonization the NT scripture needed to line up with previous revelation. 4. Was it received by the church? Did the NT church read, circulate, copy and collect the writing? So as we can see while there is not an abundance of principles for canonization they are effective in making sure that scripture is the inspired word of God. These principles are effective in making sure that we have the actual word of God. The most convincing of these principles for this writer is that each book must be in line with previous revelation. When reading Scripture we find that God does not lie because He cannot lie.If God were to give revelation that would contradict previous revelation He would be untruthful which according to God’s character He is incapable of being. The Bible as we have it today was not put together haphazardly, to accomplish a political goal during a power struggle in Church History, or to control the orthodoxy of the faith but to give us the actual words of God through the Scriptures.
A discussion concerning whether or not we can know that we have God’s original words can not be had without a discussion of the inspiration of Scripture. Inspiration can be defined as follows: The Holy Spirit of God guided the human authors of the Bible in such a way that what they wrote was the very word of God.In his book “Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches” John Hammet gives this statistic that 99% of Evangelicals say that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, true in all its teachings.Inspiration has two aspects, Verbal and Plenary. Verbal Inspiration is the idea that while the human authors wrote down the Scripture, what they wrote was exactly what God wanted them to write down. Plenary Inspiration means full inspiration or that all of Scripture is inspired not just part of it. We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all of Scripture is “God Breathed” or inspired by God. This is an all-inclusive statement, all of scripture is inspired by God and according to the definition given above if something is inspired by God than it is the actual words of God. As previously discussed for a book to become canon it had to meet the requirements of canonization. Part of the requirement of canonization was that it must be in line with other previous revelation because God cannot lie. If a book does not line up with the truth in other books than it is not inspired by God because it would mean that God contradicts Himself which He cannot do.
The most interesting part of the topic of Inspiration is that God used human authors. While what was written was exactly what God wanted to be written we see different styles of writing as well as different literary genres throughout Scripture. This is how we can tell the difference between Pauline writings and Johannine writings. However, even with differences in writing styles due to the nature of Inspiration Scripture does not contradict itself. The proof text for this idea of Inspiration is found in 2 Timothy 3:16.Walvoord and Zuck tell us that Paul uses this verse to remind Timothy and reemphasize that God Inspired so there would be no error.MacDonald tells us that while Paul was talking about the OT when writing this he was also talking about the NT scripture that had been written up to that point in time.This is a key thought to remember because according to Carson and Moo 2 Timothy was written anywhere from A.D. 64 to 67 which means there were other books written before it. The nature of inspiration helps us to know that we have the actual words of God in the Bible that we use today because what the Biblical authors wrote down was exactly what God wanted them to write down. Wayne Grudem puts it this way,
“ The Bible says there are “many ways” (Heb. 1:1) in which the actual words of the Bible were written. Sometimes God spoke directly to the author, who simply recorded what he heard (Rev. 2:1,8,12). At other times the author based much of his writings on interviews and research (Luke 1:1-3). And at other times the Holy Spirit brought to mind things that Jesus taught (John 14:26). Regardless of the way the words came to the authors, the words they put down were an extension of them-their personalities, skills, backgrounds, and training. But they were also exactly the words God wanted them to write the very words that God claims as His own. If God claims that the words of Scripture are His own, then there is ultimately no higher authority one can appeal to for proof of this claim than Scripture itself.” 
A Further Look At 2 Timothy 3:16
According to Lewis and Demarest, this verse is at the center of the doctrine of inspiration and is not without its controversies. They say that “The metaphor “God-breathed” (theopnuestos, from theos and pneo, to breathe) connotes origination by divine power.” When Paul used the phrase “God-breathed”, he meant that God inspired the writing and that what was written was exactly what God wanted to be written. Lewis and Demarest further say that “Paul in these few words has propounded the doctrine of plenary inspiration: every portion of Scripture has its origin with God.”Again this means that all of Scripture, OT and NT are from God, the very word of God. Sumner puts it this way “The people who wrote the books of the Bible were instruments that God miraculously used – pencils in His hand, as someone once put it- to give us His written word, the Bible”This whole idea is supported elsewhere in Scripture such as in 2 Peter 1:19-21. Peter tells his readers that Scripture is not given by an act of human will but is given from God. Peter says that the men were moved by the Holy Spirit speaking God’s words. Kevin DeYoung says this concerning the 2 Peter passages, “There are many texts we could use to show that the Bible is without error, but here’s the simplest argument: Scripture did not come from the will of man; it came from God. And if it is God’s word then it must be true, for in Him there can be no error or deceit.” While this quote may address the issue of inerrancy more than inspiration it still applies because if God’s word is not from God alone but from the human will than it is fallible and has potential to be wrong but if it is from God then it cannot be fallible because God is without error.
While we can confidently say that Scripture is the actual word of God it does not mean that there are not questions to be answered concerning how we know that it is. Questions concerning the Apocrypha or the other “gospels”, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary. Another question that would be raised would be how do we know that there are no mistakes made in the copying process that impacts a core doctrine of the faith? What if an unknown letter from Paul or another apostle is found today would it make it into the canon of Scripture? What about new revelation, could there be modern-day additions to Scripture through revelation given today? These questions are not to be ignored or waved away with a superficial response similar to “just have faith.” These are questions that are being asked and deserve meaningful and truthful answers.
Let’s look at the first question. What about extra-biblical writings such as the Apocrypha or the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary? When looking at extra-biblical texts such as these we must remember the principles of canonization that were previously discussed. These books while they may be beneficial do not pass the test of canonization. As far as this writer knows the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary were not widely accepted as Scripture through Church History making it ineligible for canonization while the Apocrypha while accepted somewhat during early Church history was not accept across the board the way that the rest of Scripture was accepted. The Apocrypha has a speckled past where Luther and Calvin rejected it as scripture while the Roman Catholic Church accepted it as “deuterocanonical” or “later additions to the canon.” While the Apocrypha was valued among Jewish scholars it was not considered Scripture but only beneficial for their historical and moral value and considered to be supplemental to Scripture.For a long time there was little question about the Apocrypha, it was not until the Reformation that questions concerning it arose. Part of the problem with the Apocrypha is that there were some Doctrinal problems, such as praying and atonement for the dead for their deliverance from sins, as well as some historical and geographical inaccuracies, II Esdras 6:42 implies that the Earth is flat which also contradicts other parts of the OT.
In regards to other Gospels such as the Gospel of Judas, which puts forth that Judas was betraying Jesus because Jesus told him. This is something that completely contradicts the majority of Scripture, which breaks the principle of lining up with previously revelation as well as not being accepted, again as far as this writer is aware, in general by the Church. So in response to the question concerning the Apocrypha and other extra-Biblical text, while some may be beneficial they do not meet the standards of the principles of canonization and therefore not the words of God.
To address the next question that could bring confusion and doubt concerning whether or not the Bible is the word of God we must look at how the Bible was passed down through generations. When examining this question one thing to think about it the fact that the printing press is a relatively new invention, invented in the mid 15thcentury. The invention of the printing press took the possibility of variations from copy to copy away. Before the invention of the printing press and use of other methods such as wooden block printing text was handwritten and copied by hand, which was a meticulous process that was very time-consuming. This was the main way that the OT and NT were passed along throughout history up until the time of the printing press. Because this was the transmission process for the first manuscripts if the Bible Beshears tells us that most of the originals did not last long. This was due to a few different reasons varying from normal wear and tear from being transported between churches and people to a desire for new copies of the original.Part of the issue of this form of transmission is that it is done by human hand. This means that variations are inevitable and once a variation was made it was passed on to every copy made of that copy. However, Sumner lays out the process that a scribe would go through to make copies of Scripture. If one mistake was found the entire page was to be scraped and if three mistakes are found during the proofreading process the entire manuscript would be scraped and recopied.According to “Grasping God’s Word” by Duvall and Hayes tells us that while there are variants even though the scribes were extremely careful when copying texts we can be sure that there is no textual dispute about the vast majority of the Bible.The discovering in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls helps this out. There were manuscripts of the OT that were 1000 years older than any that were previously known. The most impressive thing about these manuscripts is that they were almost identical to the manuscripts previously known to exist with minor variants that did not impact the meaning of a passage. To this writer, this fact encourages that the text changed very little over thousands of years and the changes that have occurred do not impact any doctrine or knowledge given concerning Jesus. Sumner reminds us that this discovery was important because of this lack of changes and how closely the text matches the Hebrew text that was used as the basis of today’s OT.
To respond to the potential of finding a previously unknown epistle or that there may be a new revelation given scripture does not support the potential for this nor does the process of canonization. If a new potential book were to surface the problem with being able to add it to the canon of scripture is that it would not meet the requirement of being copied and collected by the church. Even if this new book were to not be restricted by the canonization process Scripture itself would restrict it. Scripture is very clear in Revelation 21:18 that revelation has finished, there will be no new revelation given to man. Scripture is closed and nothing new can be added to it. Paul also tells us that even if the canon was not closed that if anyone gives a revelation that contradicts what Scripture has already revealed than it is not of God.
In conclusion to answer this question of “How we know we have God’s original words” we can know by the process of inspiration and how consistent Scripture is concerning itself and God. Scripture does not contradict itself, which is consistent with God’s character of being truth. We can be confident that the transmission or copying process was a very tedious one that was very closely monitored for accuracy leading to very few changes between the manuscripts that are available. The differences or variants between the manuscripts that are there do not impact any doctrine or change anything that we know about Jesus. This should give us confidence that the Scriptures that we have are the original words that were written and following the process of Inspiration as well as the definition that what was written was exactly what God wanted to be written down. The canonization process was restrictive in a way that kept things from becoming a political attempt to get what may have been politically motivated from getting in and only what was in line with what had already been revealed. A word of warning from Grudem is helpful in this pursuit of answering this question,
“If the Bible can not be trusted, then God Himself cannot be trusted. To believe that the Bible affirms something false would be to disbelieve God Himself. To disbelieve God Himself is to place yourself as a higher authority with a deeper, more developed understanding on a topic or topics than God Himself.”
We will close with this statement from Sumner,
“The early church fathers – well-known Christian leaders from the second and third centuries of the Christian era – quoted the New Testament extensively in their writings, so extensively that, according to some scholars, all but eleven New Testament verses appear somewhere in their writings. In other words, it is nearly possible to reconstruct the entire New Testament from the church father’s writings alone! The bottom line, most Bible scholars tell us, is that most translations today contain essentially the same content as the first-century originals. In other words, the New Testament we have today is the same one written nearly two thousand years ago.”
To echo Sumner, we can know that we have God’s original words today because all the evidence points to the fact that the text has changed minimally from when it was written to today and the changes do not change anything of importance found in Scripture. Be encouraged that we have the actual and original words of God.
Breshears, Jefrey D. Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017.
Carson, D A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.
Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G A. Williamson. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books, 1989.
DeYoung, Kevin. Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me. Wheaton, Illinois : Crossway, 2014
Duvall, J Scott, and J Daniel Hays. Grasping God's Word: a Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012..
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. [2014 ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014.
Grudem, Wayne A., and Elliot Grudem. Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know. Edited by Elliot Grudem and Wayne A. Grudem. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.
Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005.
MacDonald, William. Believer's Bible Commentary: A Complete Bible Commentary in One Volume! homas Nelson Publishers: T, 1995.
Sumner, Tracy Macon. How Did We Get the Bible? hrichsville, Ohio: U, 2009.
Towns, Elmer L. Theology for Today. 3rd ed. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning, 2008.
Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1983-1985.
F.F. Bruce The Origin of the Bible accessed online from:
Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, [2014 ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014), pg 131
The Origin of the Bible – FF Bruce points out that this was written around A.D. 150 so not terribly long after the time of Christ.
We see Matthew 21:42 use it in the plural sense but then in Mark 12:10 in a singular sense. These are not different Scriptures but to show that as a whole the OT was accepted as the word of God.
This passage is 2 Peter 3:16
D A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), pg. 663. They talk about certain theories about when this was written but the letter states Peter as the author which would mean that it has to have been written before his death.
Jefrey D. Breshears, Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), 167-169the issue that Beshears brings up with this is that the books are not named and are not the same number of books as we have although he does offer some possible solutions to the issue, such as a combination of certain books in the ancient OT.
Jefrey D. Breshears, Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), pg 198. To read the full Westminster Confession go to https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/westminster-confession-faith/
Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G A. Williamson Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 258
Elmer L. Towns, Theology for Today, 3rd ed. (Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning, 2008), pg 27
Dr. Gardoski’s notes from TH500 BBS Week 5 notes pg 20
Dr. Gardoski’s notes from TH500 BBS Week 5 notes pg 20-21
Dr. Gardoski’s notes from TH500 BBS Week 5 notes pg 20
Titus 1:2 says that God cannot lie.
Taken from Dr. Ken Gardoski’s notes TH500 week 5 BBS pg 1
John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), pg 306
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” (NASB)
John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures(Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1983-1985), pg 757
William MacDonald, Believer's Bible Commentary: A Complete Bible Commentary in One Volume!(homas Nelson Publishers: T, 1995), pg 2123
D A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), pg 578
Wayne A. Grudem and Elliot Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, ed. Elliot Grudem and Wayne A. Grudem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), pg 14
Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, [2014 ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014), pg 143
Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, [2014 ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014), pg 143
Tracy Macon Sumner, How Did We Get the Bible? (hrichsville, Ohio: U, 2009), pg 14
Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (Wheaton, Illinois): Crossway, 2014), pg 39
Jefrey D. Breshears, Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), pg 181
Jefrey D. Breshears, Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), pg 196
https://www.livescience.com/43639-who-invented-the-printing-press.htmlthis article also gives a great breakdown of printing presses from before Gutenburg’s time and how he improved upon methods already in use.
Jefrey D. Breshears, Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and Transmission of the Bible (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), 296-97 He also points that these manuscripts were made from papyrus which was not a very sturdy material.
Tracy Macon Sumner, How Did We Get the Bible? (hrichsville, Ohio: U, 2009), pg 51- 53
J Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God's Word: a Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Pg 25 They mention in a footnote that it is actually anywhere from 97 to 99 percent of the NT can be reconstructed from the existing manuscripts beyond any measure of doubt while the OT is at 90 percent.
J Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God's Word: a Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), pg 25
Tracy Macon Sumner, How Did We Get the Bible? (hrichsville, Ohio: U, 2009), pg 45
Galatians 1:8 and 2 Corinthians 11:4
Wayne A. Grudem and Elliot Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, ed. Elliot Grudem and Wayne A. Grudem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), pg 15. This is an interesting thing to consider that if we believe that the Bible is false we are in actuality saying that we think we are smarter, wiser, and of a higher authority than God which is a dangerous mindset to be in, to say the least.
Tracy Macon Sumner, How Did We Get the Bible? (hrichsville, Ohio: U, 2009), pg 60