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Inspiration and the canon of the New Testament

Christians believe that the gospels like the rest of the Bible are the inspired word of God and that when the scriptures are read and proclaimed God speaks to us through them.  At the same time the Church acknowledges that God works through human beings, human experiences and even through human limitations and also through the Church itself inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. 

It is important to remember that inspiration concerns the ultimate origins and authority of the biblical texts, not facts about their composition. Cultural limitations, discrepancies and mistakes in the texts do not compromise the word which God speaks to human beings through them.

The Canon of Scripture

The texts which proved most valuable to the Church in mediating the life of Jesus to the Church were eventually chosen as the authoritative books or canon of Christian scripture. This took quite a long period of testing and choosing. Though the canon of the New Testament was substantially established by the year 200, it was not finalised until the end of the fourth century.

These texts continue to shape what Christians believe about Jesus and how they understand life and its ultimate meaning, in the light, not only of his teaching, but also of his death and resurrection. It is the faith of the Church that everything needed for the knowledge and love of God in and through Jesus Christ is contained in these human but divine documents.

So on the one hand we seek to discover all we can about the human story of these ancient documents – how they came to be written, their authors, background and human origins – and on the other we seek to discover their deeper or ‘divine’ meaning. We seek especially to discover how Jesus is personally and communally alive to ourselves and to millions upon millions of believers through the living words of the New Testament. In an interview, scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls this ‘learning the living Jesus’.

Interpretation of Scripture in the Church

Professor Felix Just SJ has a very helpful collection of Church documents which relate to the interpretation of scripture in the Church. As well as the full texts of various documents there are a couple of summaries which can help you grasp the main points. A further edition of the document entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church is worth checking because it is well set out and divides the document into manageable sections. Study of these documents is worthwhile, so that you understand the difference between the Church’s interpretation of scripture and the fundamentalist approach.


Fundamentalism of all kinds is big news at present. In this article on biblical fundamentalism, Fr Raymond Brown explains why a literalist interpretation of the Bible is a distortion which leads to misunderstanding and even to loss of faith. He suggests ways of thinking and speaking about scripture in a more authentic way and concludes his brief article with ten possible responses to ten questions often put to Catholics by Biblical fundamentalists.