Why I Believe the Bible #09B (The Process of Canonization – The New Testament)

Wayne —  November 4, 2009 — 1 Comment

BIbleLike the Old Testament, the canon of the New Testament was not determined by man.  Rather the Canon of the New Testament was determined by God, generally accepted by the church, and finally confirmed by man.

The Test of Apostleship

In order for a book to become part of the New Testament, one of the criteria was that the book had to be authored either directly by an apostle (like Matthew, John and Paul’s Epistles) or by someone close to an apostle (like Luke or Mark or Jude).  The authority of the apostles to deliver God’s Word was recognized by many and is acknowledged in the New Testament itself.

In the book of Acts, we are told of Cornelius sent to Peter in order to hear the word of God:

And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” [Acts 10:22 ESV]

In the book of Ephesians, Paul groups the apostles with the prophets who recorded much of the Old Testament:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, [Ephesians 2:19-20 ESV]

Further, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul refers to his teaching as the Word of God:

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. [1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV]

Jude also refers to the apostles as prophets:

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” [Jude 1:17-18 ESV]

Early Acceptance of the Canon

The New Testament Canon was accepted shortly after the time the original books were written.  By the latter part of the 2nd century, the core collection of the New Testament was generally recognized within the church.  By the early 200’s AD, Origen listed all 27 books that are in the New Testament Canon today.  In that work he questioned only six of the books.  He did not indicate that they were not part of the Canon but noted that there were some unknowns regarding those books.  They were as follows (an indication of the reason for the question is included in parentheses):

  • Hebrews (author unknown)
  • James (dispute over misperceived conflict between faith and works)
  • 2 Peter  (style different than 1 Peter.  A scribe was used for 1 Peter who may have helped Peter with his Greek.)
  • 2 & 3 John – (Because the author calls himself elder instead of apostle.  Interestingly, Peter also referred to himself as an elder)
  • Jude – (Dispute because it refers to Book of Enoch and the assumption of Moses.  Notably the book does not refer to either of these works as scripture)
  • Revelation – (because the 1,000 year reign of Christ which is referred to in the book was also taught by a certain cult at that time)

Because of the early controversies, these books were not as attested to in the writings of the early church fathers.  This led to the expansion of doubts by later fathers.  Interestingly, the four gospel gained universal acceptance very early on with little controversy.

By A.D. 372, in the Festal letter of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, he lists all 27 New Testament books in exactly the same order as the current New Testament without any reservations.  This order was affirmed by the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D.

Tests of New Testament Canonicity

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament books had to meet a series of criteria in order to be considered scripture.  Those included:

  • Was it written by a prophet of God?
  • Was the prophet confirmed by an act of God?
  • Does it tell the truth about God?
  • Does it have the power of God? (transforming power)
  • Was it accepted by people of God?

It is important to remember that this criteria was not used to autonomously judge scripture.  To the contrary the church saw itself not as the determiner of scripture but merely as empowered only to receive and recognize what God has spoken through his apostles and their immediate companions.

New Testament Proof of Authority of Apostles to Write Scripture

New Testament books had to have apostolic authority in order to be considered part of the canon of scripture.  Jesus created a limited group of authorized apostles:

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: [Luke 6:12-13 ESV]

Indeed, the authorized ministry of this small group of apostles actually began under the oversight of Jesus during his life:

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. [Luke 9:1-2 ESV]

Before he departed this Earth, Jesus promised the Apostles that they would have the authority and divine guidance to write scripture:

“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  [John 14:25-26 ESV]

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  [John 16:12-14 ESV]

Jesus provided orders and proof to the apostles after he rose from the dead:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me;  [Acts 1:1-4 ESV]

Based on this, the Apostles saw themselves as authorized by God to be the witnesses to his bodily resurrection:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” [Acts 1:15-17 ESV]

They also saw themselves as qualified (within limits) to appoint a “replacement” for Judas:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. [Acts 1:21-26 ESV]

As indicated earlier, Paul also viewed the apostles at the foundation for the church and made them equal to the Old Testament Prophets:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, [Ephesians 2:19-20 ESV]

God gave the apostles miracles to attest to their authority:

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. [Acts 5:12 ESV]

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. [Acts 2:43 ESV]

Paul viewed himself as an apostle with equal authority to the original 12:

Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead– [Galatians 1:1 ESV]

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles),  [Galatians 2:7-8 ESV]

Like the other apostles, Paul learned directly from Jesus:

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  [Acts 9:3-6 ESV]

He was appointed an Apostle by Jesus:

But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles–to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’  [Acts 26:16-18 ESV]

Paul understood that his words were not his own but “taught by Spirit:”

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. [1 Corinthians 2:12-14 ESV]

Next time we will look more at how this rag tag group of men were chosen by God to record his word and how that lends more credibility to the Bible.

Return to the Why I Believe The Bible index page.

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