Yesterday, we began our two-part discussion on how we got the 66 books that comprise the biblical canon. If you missed it, feel free to take a look back before moving on to the New Testament discussion.
First century Christians did not have the New Testament Canon. They relied on the Old Testament Canon and the teachings of the Apostles to guide their faith. However, they began recognizing additional writings as divinely inspired very early, even while the human authors were still alive.
In fact, NT Scripture acknowledges other NT Scripture. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quotes Luke 10:7 and refers to it as “Scripture.” And another example, in 2 Peter 3:16, Peter calls the writings of the Apostle Paul “Scripture.” Church leaders from the late first and early second centuries AD often quote the words of Jesus and the writings of the Apostles and refer to them as “Scripture.”
To protect from heresy and false teaching, it became necessary by the middle of the second century to compile an official list of books that the Church recognized as Christian Scriptures. Although a few discussions arose over a handful of books, it appears that there was general consensus by early in the third century AD.
As with the Old Testament Canon, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were not chosen by men. They were merely recognized to be those God had already inspired as Scripture. Three primary criteria guided the early Church as they recognized the New Testament Canon.
- Apostolic connection – the author had to be one of the original apostles or closely associated with Jesus or one of them.
- No contradiction – the early Church leaders recognized that God would not contradict Himself in theology or ethics, so any divinely-inspired writings would not do so either.
- Widely applicable – from the time they were written it was clearly obvious which writings had widespread application for the Church. These were the letters and books that were greatly circulated and read again and again.
The Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD, which was attended by Augustine, officially recognized the list of 27 New Testament books we accept as canonical today. There had already been widespread, general consensus from east to west. The Council merely confirmed the writings that God had made clearly known to His church.
The following quote from “An Introduction to the New Testament,” by Carson, Moo, and Morris, emphasizes God’s selection of the canon.
Indeed, it is important to observe that although there was no ecclesiastical machinery like the medieval papacy to enforce decisions, nevertheless the worldwide church almost universally came to accept the same twenty-seven books. It was not so much that the church selected the canon as that the canon selected itself. (page 494)
God’s creation and protection of the Canon is miraculous! He has revealed Himself to His children through His written, Spirit-filled Word.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV
For further reading:
“How did we get our Bible?” (Focus on the Family)
Sources for this article:
An Introduction to the New Testament, D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1992)
Encountering the Old Testament, Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 1999)
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Word Publishing: Dallas, 1993)