The Close of the New Testament Canon

Canonicity  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  1:02:41
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The Close of the New Testament Canon Lesson # 13

In the church, the canonical formation of the New Testament occurred with the creation of closed lists of authoritative writings.
These catalogs began to be drawn up only in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The frequent appearance of catalogs of scriptural books during the fourth century, and their absence before that time, indicates that the question of the precise limits of Scripture, and hence the notion of a canon, arose in this period, just as the variations in the terminology, categories and contents of these various catalogs show that the situation was still somewhat indeterminate and that some points were resolved only at a late date. The recognition of Revelation in the East and of Hebrews in the West was finally negotiated in this period, and hesitations about some of the General Epistles (Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John) were overcome. But the four Gospels, the letters of Paul and Acts are staple items of all such lists, and this indicates that they had become so firmly established in use and esteem from an early time that no question could arise about their place. Hence by the end of the fourth century there was a very broad, if not absolute, unanimity within the Christian community about the substance and shape of its canon of authoritative Scripture. This is remarkable insofar as there was never any official, ecumenically binding action of the ancient church that formalized this canon.[1]
Carson and Moo write “It must be admitted that this more or less traditional approach to the canon is in danger of giving a false impression, namely that the church took inordinately long to recognize the authority of the documents that constitute the New Testament. This is entirely false. Discussion of the canon is discussion of a closed list of authoritative books. The books themselves were necessarily circulating much earlier, most of them recognized as authoritative throughout the church, and all of them recognized in large swaths of the church.”[2]
The earliest list of New Testament books which contain only twenty-seven appeared in 367 A.D. in a letter of Athanasius, who was the bishop of Alexandria.
The order of this list of books was the following: (1) The Gospels, (2) Acts (3) General Epistles (4) Pauline Epistles (5) Revelation.
The apostle Peter in 2 Peter 3:16 spoke of Paul writing “in all his letters” and by the second century, the letters of Ignatius were being collected.
Evidence of exclusive collections being made in the second century is seen in the writings of Justin Martyr who argues for only the four canonical Gospels.
There are serious discussions in the second century about authorship and authority of various letters.
In A.D. 230, Origen (A.D. 185-254) stated that all Christians acknowledged as Scripture the four Gospels, Acts, and the thirteen epistles of Paul, I Peter, I John, and Revelation.
He added that the following were disputed by some people: Hebrews, II Peter, II John, III John, James, Jude, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
In other words, all the churches by this time were in agreement about most of the books, but a few doubted some of the epistles that were not as well known.
Others were inclined to include a few books that eventually did not secure a permanent place among the canonical books.
By A.D. 300, all the New Testament books we presently use were generally accepted in the churches, although in a few places, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation were not in use.
Doubts about these books faded during the next fifty years, so that by A.D. 367, Athanasius listed all the 27 books as canonical in his Easter Letter, which also recommended certain other books for private reading only, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache.
Athanasius was an early church apologist, theologian and bishop of Alexandria.
His greatest contribution to Christian theology was his uncompromising stance against the popular Arian teaching of his day.
As far as canonicity is concerned, one of the greatest things ever to be discovered was the Muratorian Fragment.
This was found in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, in 1740 by a librarian named Muratori.
This document showed that cataloguing of the New Testament had been done as early as the second century.
The Muratorian Canon which has been dated from the second to the fourth century provides a canonical list which distinguishes between books that are appropriate to be read in the worship service and those that should be read only in one’s private devotional time.
Donner writes “The only Scriptures for the apostolic and early post-apostolic church consisted of the Old Testament. Apostolic writings were obviously known, but did not have the peculiar ‘scriptural’ authority of the Old Testament writings. They existed side by side with an oral tradition which was at least as, if not more, important for the church. Only gradually did the church become aware of the need to have some agreed list of books―a gradual awareness in which the appearance of Marcion’s canon may have played a greater or lesser role. By the end of the second century the question of the canon was vigorously debated. (The Muratorian Canon, which is usually assigned to this period is shown as evidence of this debate.) By this time there was no longer any question about the bulk of the New Testament: the four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul and some of the Catholic epistles. Doubts about the seven ‘disputed books’ (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation) continued until the fourth century and even after in some regions. This is, of course, no more than a broad outline of the conclusions that are usually obtained with regard to the New Testament canon. There is considerable variation in the details of the argument in the various authors.”[3]
B.B. Warfield writes “The Canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles, and that was when John wrote the Apocalypse, about A.D. 98. Whether the church of Ephesus, however, had a completed Canon when it received the Apocalypse, or not, would depend on whether there was any epistle, say that of Jude, which had not yet reached it with authenticating proof of its apostolicity. There is room for historical investigation here. Certainly the whole Canon was not universally received by the churches till somewhat later. The Latin church of the second and third centuries did not quite know what to do with the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Syrian churches for some centuries may have lacked the lesser of the Catholic Epistles and Revelation. But from the time of Irenæus down, the church at large had the whole Canon as we now possess it. And though a section of the church may not yet have been satisfied of the apostolicity of a certain book or of certain books; and though afterwards doubts may have arisen in sections of the church as to the apostolicity of certain books (as e. g. of Revelation): yet in no case was it more than a respectable minority of the church which was slow in receiving, or which came afterward to doubt, the credentials of any of the books that then as now constituted the Canon of the New Testament accepted by the church at large. And in every case the principle on which a book was accepted, or doubts against it laid aside, was the historical tradition of apostolicity.”[4]
[1] Gamble, H. (2000). Canonical Formation of the New Testament. In (C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, Eds.)Dictionary of New Testament background: a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[2] Carson, D.A. and Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament-Second Edition; page 734; copyright 1992, 2005; Zondervan
[3] Some Thoughts on the History of the New Testament Canon, Theo Donner, Themelios 7.3 (April 1982; pages 23-27.
[4] Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Revelation and Inspiration (Vol. 1, pp. 454–455). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
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