Since Christianity arose before the third section of the Old Testament canon (the Writings) was fixed in the first and second centuries A.D., Christian literature was free to circulate and gain acceptance by Jews as well as Gentiles. Christians believed that the Holy Spirit had been given to the church and that prophecy had returned to Israel (Acts 21:9; I Cor. 12:28; Rev. 22:6,9). All New Testament writings lay claim to authority, either implicitly or explicitly.
In regard to the formation of the canon of the New Testament, recent canonical study has emphasized the process that lay behind the formal listing of authoritative books in the fourth century: “the process of the formation of authoritative religious writings long preceded the particular designation of the collection as canon in the fourth century” (B.S. Childs).
From the time of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection the memory of him was repeated, collected, and formulated in such a way (orally and in writing) that it became scripture through which the living Lord spoke to the community of faith. As these formulations were repeated, heard, and sung in worship and instruction, the community’s self-understanding and activities were shaped and subsequent formulations were influenced. The process in the Christian church also had its stages of fixation.
Stages in the Formation of the New Testament Canon
1. The Collection of the Letters of Paul
Paul’s letters were recognized by many of their first readers as divinely inspired. This is evident from the fact that these letters were preserved and that the churches addressed continued for the most part in the directions Paul pointed out.
Who first brought together Paul’s letters into a collection is not known. One supposition holds that the author of Ephesians–a disciple of Paul, possibly the one-time runaway slave Onesimus–collected his master’s letters about A.D. 90 and wrote Ephesians under his master’s name as an introduction to the collection. This hypothesis cannot be verified.
Near the end of the first century Clement of Rome referred to I Corinthians as “written with true inspiration.” He appealed to the authority of Paul along with that of the Old Testament. Early in the second century Ignatius wrote to the church at Ephesus that Paul “in every letter makes mention of you in Christ Jesus”–thus indicating Ignatius’ knowledge of a collection of Paul’s letters.
The author of II Peter (first half of second century) knew the collected letters of Paul and referred to them as on a level with “the other scriptures” (3:16), that is, probably the Old Testament and possibly some Christian writings which had gained wide acceptance in the church. The heretic Marcion published his own edition of Paul’s letters about A.D. 140. This shows that the collected letters of Paul were well known in the church of Marcion’s day.
2. The Emergence of Four Gospels
The church regarded both the words of the historical Jesus and those of the resurrected Christ as inspired and authoritative. (For examples of words of the resurrected Christ, see Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8.)
The author of Luke-Acts tells us that many accounts of Christian beginnings existed when he wrote. These were based on the reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2). Only four accounts were included in the church’s canon. Why were these four preserved?
The answer may be that each of the four became recognized as authoritative in a different important early center of the church. If this is so, these four Gospels were first circulated locally before they were circulated throughout the church.
The four Gospels were slow in gaining general acceptance. By and large the early church preferred oral reports about Jesus and the apostles. Papias (second quarter of the second century) said that “things out of books were less useful to me than what could be learned from a living and abiding voice”–meaning, as the context shows, from some living person who had had contact with disciples of the original apostles.
Though early church writers (such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius) sometimes cited material like that in our Gospels, the first clear reference to any of our four Gospels appears in the writings of Papias. He mentions Mark’s Gospel and refers to a collection of “oracles” (sayings of Jesus) in “the Hebrew language” (that is, in Aramaic) by Matthew. This collection of sayings of Jesus is probably not our Gospel of Matthew, but rather perhaps a source used extensively by Matthew, possibly “Q”.
Justin Martyr (died about 165) referred to our Gospels as “memoirs” of the apostles and of those who followed the apostles. He believed the deeds and words of Jesus were authoritatively reported in them. He indicated that on Sundays in its liturgy the church of his time read from these apostolic memoirs, as well as from the Old Testament prophets. Here it is no longer the oral tradition about Jesus but the written records of him that are the center of attention and authority.
A harmony of the Gospels, known as the Diatessaron, prepared by the Syrian Tatian (around 170), appears to have used only our four Gospels. This indicates that these four Gospels had come to a place of pre-eminence by that time. In about 180 Irenaeus offered an elaborate argument for the validity of four Gospels: since there are four winds and four directions, so there must of necessity be four Gospels. But to him we largely owe the preservation of our four Gospels. He insisted on the retention of these, since they had long been in use in the churches in its various parts; and he gloried in their manifold witness to Jesus, as against others’ attempt to reduce the Gospels to one harmonized version or eliminate some of them, as Marcion (about 140 A.D.) had done.
Many other Gospels appeared in the church during the second and following centuries, but they did not gain universal acceptance. They consist of:
Gospels of Our Canonical Type
Their authors took traditional material about Jesus, like that in our four Gospels, and used it to advance untraditional or “heretical” theology. (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, Papyrus Edgerton 2, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of the Egyptians are of this sort.)
Gospels of a Gnostic Type
These present Jesus as the revealer of secret knowledge, given to the disciples in dialogues and visions. These Gospels also stemmed from groups the church regarded as heretical. (Representative of this type are: the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of John, the Sopia Jesu Christi [The Wisdom of Jesus Christ], and the Dialogue of the Redeemer.)
Gospels Which Supplement and Embellish the Canonical Gospels
Here the desire was to satisfy curiosity by filling in gaps in the church’s knowledge of Jesus. This was done from pious fancy and from legends from foreign sources. (Belonging to this type are: the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Story of Thomas, and the Gospel of Nicodemus [Acts of Pilate and Christ’s Descent into Hell].)
It is evident that our four Gospels made their way to the fore early, that by about 140-200 they had established themselves widely in church favor and use, and that they maintained their favored position until the New Testament canon was closed.
3. The Selection of the Rest of the New Testament
In the period around 140-200 most of the remaining books of the new Testament rose to a place of wide acceptance and authority. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria (all around the end of the second century) agreed on the authority of the following: the four Gospels, thirteen epistles of Paul, the Acts of Apostles, I Peter, I John, and the Revelation to John. An agreement on Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Jude had not yet been reached, and the authority of the Revelation to John was still contested in some quarters (particularly in the Eastern part of the church).
Some books of high quality were popular at this time but were not finally accepted into the New Testament canon: I Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Apocalypse of Peter, for example.
4. The Fixing of the New Testament Canon
Marcion seems to have made the first closed collection of Christian writings. He was a Gnostic who rejected the Old Testament and everything “Jewish” and put in place of the Old Testament “the Gospel” (an abridged edition of the Gospel of Luke) and “the Apostle” (ten edited letters of Paul). How much influence this “heretic” had in causing the church finally to draw up an approved list of books is not known.
It was not until Eusebius, around 325, that a careful attempt was made to distinguish approved from unapproved books. He made note of acknowledged, disputed, and rejected books. Among the disputed he named James, II Peter, Jude, II and III John, and the Revelation to John.
In his Easter letter of A.D. 367 Athanasius of Alexandria listed as canonical the books now contained in our New Testament. Church councils at Rome (382), at Hippo (393), at Carthage (397), and again at Carthage (419) fixed the list at those now present in our New Testament.
In some parts of the church, controversy over the inclusion of the Revelation to John and some of the General Epistles continued until the beginning of the sixth century.
Standards by Which Christian Books Were Judged
In general, three standards operated through the centuries in the church’s selection of its authoritative–and, finally, canonical– literature: the extent of the acceptance and use in the church of a particular writing; the fidelity of its contents to the church’s traditional teaching; and the defensibility of its claim to apostolic origin (either written or authorized by an apostle).
The Christian church from the first accepted without question the sacred volume of Judaism as its scriptures. It was enough that Christ had stamped it with his divine approval. His view of the Old Testament as the living voice of God, his use of it, conditioned the attitude to it of the believing communities. In all these Scriptures of the Old Testament, Jesus saw the holy task it was his to accomplish. In Christ, Christians saw “the word of the prophets made more certain” (II Pet. 1:19). Moses and all the prophets truly wrote of him (Luke 24:27). The principle running through the varied literature of the Old Testament, that God had a redemptive purpose for the world through Israel, was almost sufficient to bring its writings together into one composite volume. By the testimony of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, New Testament believers responded to its evidence and outline of God’s unfolding revelation and its focus on the Savior whom they had come to know. Thus the church came to honor the Old Testament as Christ honored it, and found in it divine truth.
It was, however, left to the Christian church to discover for itself, in addition to the Old Testament, a like body of accepted writings. The various New Testament authors wrote to meet the needs of their own times, but in the purpose of God these writings have become his word for all times. This collection of writings forms what is called the canon of the New Testament.
Why the Formation of a Canon
Jesus was the redeemer to whom the Old Testament gave witness. His words, it was felt, could not be less authoritative than those of the Law and the Prophets. Convinced of that, Christians repeated them often and put them into written forms that became the nucleus of the canon.
Time was passing. As long as the traditional rule of “apostolic doctrine based on Christ’s teaching and interpretation of his work” was generally held in the churches there was no need of a written rule. But as the apostles one by one died, an oral tradition was insufficient. Dissensions within churches also made appeal to the written Word both natural and necessary.
Yet the fiat of a church council did not make a specific writing canonical. No book could be declared scripture that did not hold within itself those forces which made it so. An amazing unanimity prevailed among the churches as to which writings spoke compellingly of God. That fact was uppermost in determining canonicity. The New Testament canon grew under the guidance of a spiritual instinct rather than by the imposition of an external authority.
The writings accepted were authored by those held in honor in the church–Matthew, John, Paul, Peter–as well as by less known figures behind whom was an apostolic authority–Peter behind Mark, Paul behind Luke. Some books, like the epistle to the Hebrews, took longer to attain the status of canonicity. Others, like Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthians and the Shepherd of Hermas, were candidates for canonicity for some time, but did not finally succeed.
God’s revelation in Scripture declares itself to be God’s word. The Old Testament’s 4,000 usages of “Thus saith the Lord” specifically relates its original to God. That recurring affirmation, “God spake,” calls humankind to hear his voice from the eternities. The prophet Jeremiah was assured by God, “Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9). To Ezekiel, God said, “Thou shalt speak my words unto to them” (Ezekiel 2:7). David declared, “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me; and his word was in my tongue” (II Sam. 23:2).
The New Testament writers at times use the phrase “the word of God” for the revelation preserved in the Old Testament. Beyond that, they identify the message of the gospel as the true meaning of that former Testament. What they had to declare was, then, no less authentically the word of God. When the first Christian believers accepted certain newer writings as Scripture (II Pet. 3:16), it was with the sureness that here too God was speaking.
The word scripture in its derivation means something that is written. Scripture is God’s word written. The Bible is eloquent with the speech of God in written form.
Inspiration is the term used for God’s direct action on the biblical writers. While the individuality of each was preserved, they were at the same time moved, guided, and guarded by the Holy Spirit so that what they wrote constitutes for humankind the one all-sufficient Word of God.
As that statement makes clear, the Bible is both a human and a divine product. We see something of its human author–his outlook, style, temperament, and the like. But it everywhere carries the stamp of the divine impulse to indicate that behind and within the work of the human author is God himself. Thus God, by the process of inspiration, is the direct author of Scripture.
Inspiration is plenary; it is full, entire, complete. Scripture in all its parts is God-breathed. Inspiration is verbal . The Bible does not simply convey ideas about God. Rather, the biblical writers put God’s revelation into words that are to be received as God’s words. The Bible therefore can be trusted.