The History of the New Testament Canon

Canonicity  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  1:07:02
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The History of the New Testament Canon Lesson # 9

The history of the New Testament can be divided into three periods:
(1) 70-170 A.D.: This was the period of circulation of the separate New Testament writings among the churches and their gradual collection into one book called the New Testament.
(2) 170-303 A.D.: This was the time of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen and was the period where the New Testament canon was definitely and clearly established.
(3) 303-394 A.D.: This was the period of great debate over such books as 2 Peter, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, Jude, James and Revelation.
Six church leaders are commonly referred to, namely Barnabas, Hermas, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius (Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, 37).
Although these men lacked the technical sophistication of today’s theologians, their correspondence confirmed the teachings of the apostles and provides a doctrinal link to the New Testament.
Christianity was as yet a fairly small movement.
These church fathers, in the early church, were consumed by the practical aspects of Christian life among the new converts.
Therefore, when Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the early church did not have a technical theology of the Trinity, they are basically right.
There had been neither time nor necessity to focus on the issue.
On the other hand these men clearly believed that Jesus was God as was the Holy Spirit, but they had yet to clarify in writing the problems that might occur when attempting to explain this truth.
As Berkhof writes concerning these early church leaders, “For them Christianity was not in the first place a knowledge to be acquired, but the principle of a new obedience to God.”[1]
Although these early church fathers may seem rather ill-prepared to hand down all the subtle implications of the Christian faith to the coming generations, they form a doctrinal link to the apostles (and thus to our Lord Jesus Christ), as well as a witness to the growing commitment to the canon of Scripture that would become the New Testament.
As Clement of Rome said in first century, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”[2]
After the early church fathers comes the era of the apologists and theologians, roughly including the second, third, and fourth centuries.
It is during this period that the church takes the initial steps toward establishing a “rule of faith” or “canon.”
During this period both internal and external forces caused the church to begin to systematize both its doctrines and its view of revelation.
Much of the systemization came about as a defense against the heresies that challenged the faith of the apostles.
The Muratorian canon listed all the books of the Bible except for 1 John, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, and James around A.D. 180 (Hannah, Notes, 2.5).
Irenaeus, as bishop of Lyon, mentions all of the books except Jude, 2 Peter, James, Philemon, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.
The Syriac version of the canon, from the third century, leaves out Revelation.
It should be noted that although these early church leaders differed on which books should be included in the canon, they were quite sure that the books were inspired by God.
The Muratorian fragment also mentions the Shepherd of Hermas as worthy to be read in church, but not to be included with the apostolic writings.
Curiously, the Wisdom of Solomon, an Old Testament Apocryphal book, is also included as canonical.
Another early list appeared in the Codex Barococcio (A.D. 206), which included 64 of the 66 books of the present-day Bible.
Esther and Revelation were omitted, but Revelation had formerly been regarded as Scripture by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and the Muratorian Canon.
By the fourth century many books previously held in high regard began to disappear from use and the apocryphal writings were seen as less than inspired. It was during the fourth century that concentrated attempts were made both in the East and the West part of the Roman Empire to establish the authoritative collection of the canon. In 365, Athanasius of Alexandria listed the complete twenty-seven books of the New Testament, which he regarded as the “only source of salvation and of the authentic teaching of the religion of the Gospel.”[3]
While Athanasius stands out in the eastern church, Jerome is his counterpart in the West.
Jerome wrote a letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola in 394 listing just 39 Old Testament books and our current 27 New Testament ones.
Augustine included the Book of Wisdom as part of the canon and held that the Septuagint or Greek text of the Old Testament was inspired, not the Hebrew original.
The church fathers were sure that the Scriptures were inspired, but they were still not in agreement as to which texts should be included.
As late as the seventh and eighth centuries there were church leaders who added to or subtracted from the list of texts.
Gregory the Great added Tobias and Wisdom and mentioned 15 Pauline epistles, not 14.
John of Damascus, the first Christian theologian who attempted a complete systematic theology, rejected the Old Testament apocrypha, but added the Apostolic Constitution and 1 and 2 Clement to the New Testament.
One historian notes that “things were no further advanced at the end of the fourteenth century than they had been at the end of the fourth.”[4]
This same historian notes that although we would be horrified at such a state today, the Catholicism of the day rested far more on ecclesiastical authority and tradition than on an authoritative canon.
Thus Roman Catholicism did not find the issue to be a critical one.
Eusebius (270-340) who was the bishop of Caesarea, is commonly referred to as “the father of church history” because of the writing of his Ecclesiastical History. This history consists of ten books, and covers events and Christian doctrine of the church from the apostolic age to the time of Constantine. Eusebius’s work enters into biblical studies for various reasons, most frequently for evidence he gives of what Christians of the first centuries thought about the authorship and canonicity of the NT books.[5]
He was a trusted friend of Constantine who enjoyed access to all the church archives and he promptly set about to record the history of the Church.
With scholarly precision, he set up a system for classifying the New Testament books.
He employed the same categories that were set up for the classification of the Old Testament.
Eusebius list is composed of the following:
(1) Homologoumena (the “acknowledged” books): The four Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul (presumably including Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter and, “if it seems desirable,” Revelation;
(2) Antilegomena (the “disputed” or “spurious” (notha) books: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and, “if this view prevail,” Revelation and the Gospel of the Hebrews; and
(3) Pseudepigrapha (the “fabrications of heretics”) namely, the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias and Acts of Andrew and John.
The issue of canonical authority finally is addressed within the bigger battle between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.
In 1545 the Council of Trent was called as a response to the Protestant heresy by the Catholic Church.
As usual, the Catholic position rested upon the authority of the Church hierarchy itself.
It proposed that all the books found in Jerome’s Vulgate were of equal canonical value (even though Jerome himself separated the Apocrypha from the rest) and that the Vulgate would become the official text of the Church.
The council then established the Scriptures as equivalent to the authority of tradition.
The reformers were also forced to face the canon issue.
Instead of the authority of the church, Luther and the reformers focused on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
Luther was troubled by four books, Jude, James, Hebrews, and Revelation, and though he placed them in a secondary position relative to the rest, he did not exclude them.
John Calvin also argued for the witness of the Spirit (Hannah, Notes, 3.7). In other words, it is God Himself, via the Holy Spirit who assures the transmission of the text down through the ages, not the human efforts of the Catholic Church or any other group. Calvin rests the authority of the Scripture on the witness of the Spirit and the conscience of the godly. He wrote in his Institutes, “Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God.”
[1] Berkhof, History of the Christian Church, 39
[2] Geisler, Decide For Yourself, 11
[3] Hannah, Notes, 2.6
[4] Hannah, Notes, 3.3
[5] Patzia, A. G., & Petrotta, A. J. (2002). In Pocket dictionary of biblical studies. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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