The Formation of the New Testament Canon

Canonicity  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  56:43
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The Formation of the New Testament Canon Lesson # 11

The determination of the canon of the New Testament was not the result of any pronouncement, either by an official of the church or by an ecclesiastical body but rather, the canon was determined by God Himself.
The establishment of the canon was the process by which formal recognition was given to the writings of Scripture already recognized as authoritative.
Carson and Moo write “Indeed, it is important to observe that, although there was no ecclesiastical machinery like the medieval papacy to enforce decisions, nevertheless the world-wide 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.”[1]
B.B. Warfield writes “In order to obtain a correct understanding of what is called the formation of the Canon of the New Testament, it is necessary to begin by fixing very firmly in our minds one fact which is obvious enough when attention is once called to it. That is, that the Christian church did not require to form for itself the idea of a ‘canon,’—or, as we should more commonly call it, of a ‘Bible,’ hat is, of a collection of books given of God to be the authoritative rule of faith and practice. It inherited this idea from the Jewish church, along with the thing itself, the Jewish Scriptures, or the ‘Canon of the Old Testament.’ The church did not grow up by natural law: it was founded. And the authoritative teachers sent forth by Christ to found His church, carried with them, as their most precious possession, a body of divine Scriptures, which they imposed on the church that they founded as its code of law. No reader of the New Testament can need proof of this; on every page of that book is spread the evidence that from the very beginning the Old Testament was as cordially recognized as law by the Christian as by the Jew. The Christian church thus was never without a ‘Bible’ or a ‘canon.’”[2]
The early church had certain criteria for determining which books were inspired and which ones were not:
(1) Apostolicity: Every book of the New Testament must either be written by an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle.
(2) Reception by the churches: The books must be universally received by the local churches as authentic at the time of their writing.
(3) Usage by the churches: Longstanding, widespread and well-established use among Christian communities.
(4) Consistency or rule of faith: They must be consistent with the doctrine that the church already possessed, namely, the Old Testament and Apostolic teaching.
(5) Inspiration: Each book must give evidence, internally and externally, of being divinely inspired and the spiritual gift of discernment was used to determine canonicity (1 Cor. 12:10).
(6) Recognition: Each must be recognized as canonical in the catalogues of the church fathers.
(7) Internal: Each book must contain exhortation to public exegesis of the Word to be classified as canonical (Col. 4:16; 1 Th. 5:27; 1 Tm. 4:13; Rv. 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13; 2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Apostolic authorship in the New Testament corresponds to prophetic authorship in the Old Testament.
This is based on the “pre-authentication” passages where Christ authorized the apostles to write scripture in advance (Mt. 10:40; Lk. 10:16; Jn. 14:26; 15:26, 27; 16:13).
The thirteen letters of Paul all indicate that he is the author, although this is challenged by some modern scholars.
The gospel of John indicates that John is the author (Jn. 21:23, 24).
The three epistles of John are identical to the gospel in style.
1 John also claims to be written by an eye-witness (I Jn. 1:1).
Revelation claims to have been written by John (Rev. 1:4, 9).
Both 1 and 2 Peter claim Petrine authorship (I Pet. 1:1; II Pet. 1:1; 3:1).
This leaves only Luke, Acts, Hebrews, Matthew, Mark, James, and Jude without direct internal claims to apostolic authorship.
Early church history connects Luke-Acts with Paul, saying that it was written by Luke under Paul’s supervision and approval (Papias quoted in Eusebius).
Papias and others also said that Mark wrote the memoirs of Peter.
Hebrews is of uncertain authorship, although it is theologically and conceptually connected with Paul.
At the same time, the grammar and vocabulary are quite different from Paul’s other books.
Two options are possible: Paul wrote it in Hebrew or Aramaic (and it was later translated).
This would account for the obvious difference in vocabulary and style.
Clement of Alexandria states that this was the case according to his earlier sources.
Or one of Paul’s companions could have served as his amanuensis (see ch.13:23).
James and Jude -- two options are possible: The book may have been written by Christ’s half-brothers (Mk. 6:3) who were evidently designated as apostles after the resurrection (I Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19).
Early church sources indicate that this theory is the correct one.
It may have been written by James and Jude the Alpheus brothers, two of Jesus’ original disciples (Lk. 6:16; Acts 1:13).
This possibility comes about from a comparison of the crucifixion accounts, which seem to establish that James the Less (James Alpheus) and Jesus were first cousins on their mother’s side.
Therefore, James the Less might have called himself “the Lord's brother” (Gal. 1:19) within the common usage of the day.
In either event, both books are of apostolic origin.
J. Hampton Keathley III writes “The question naturally arises, what process and by what means did the early church recognize which books were canonical and which books were not? The following summarizes the tests used to discern which books were canonical. (1) Authentication on the Divine side—Inspiration. Did the book give internal evidence of inspiration, of being God breathed? Was it of proper spiritual character? Did it edify the church? Was it doctrinally accurate? ‘The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were rejected as a result of not meeting this test. The book should bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit.’[3] (2) Authentication on the human side. Three issues were important here: (a) Was the author an apostle or did he have the endorsement of an apostle? Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, but he did so under Peter’s endorsement. Luke, as a close associate of the Apostle Paul, wrote under the endorsement of his authority. (b) Universal acceptance was another key factor. On the whole, was the book accepted by the church at large? The recognition given a particular book by the church was important. By this standard, a number of books were rejected. There were some books that enjoyed an acceptance by a few, but were later dropped for a lack of universal acceptance. Then there were a few books that some questioned because of doubts about the author, not the content, but were later accepted because the majority accepted them.”[4]
Dr. Ryrie writes “First of all it is important to remember that certain books were canonical even before any tests were put to them. That’s like saying some students are intelligent before any tests are given to them. The tests only prove what is already intrinsically there. In the same way, neither the church nor councils made any book canonical or authentic; either the book was authentic or it was not when it was written. The church or its councils recognized and verified certain books as the Word of God, and in time those so recognized were collected together in what we now call the Bible. What tests did the church apply? 1. There was the test of the authority of the writer. In relation to the Old Testament, this meant the authority of the lawgiver or the prophet or the leader in Israel. In relation to the New Testament, a book had to be written or backed by an apostle in order to be recognized. In other words, it had to have an apostolic signature or apostolic authorization. Peter, for instance, was the backer of Mark, and Paul of Luke. 2. The books themselves should give some internal evidences of their unique character, as inspired and authoritative. The content should commend itself to the reader as being different from an ordinary book in communicating the revelation of God. 3. The verdict of the churches as to the canonical nature of the books was important. There was in reality surprising unanimity among the early churches as to which books belonged in the inspired number. Although it is true that a few books were temporarily doubted by a minority, no book whose authenticity was doubted by any large number of churches was later accepted.”[5]
[1] Carson, D.A. and Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament-Second Edition; page 735; copyright 1992, 2005; Zondervan
[2] Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Revelation and Inspiration (Vol. 1, p. 451). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
[3] Enns, p. 172-173.
[4] Bibliology: The Doctrine of the Written Word, page 32; Biblical Studies Press, 1997;
[5] Ryrie, C. C. (1972). A survey of Bible doctrine. Chicago: Moody Press.
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