Disclaimer: None of the information presented in this post originates with me. The core of it belongs to a Fuller Theological Seminary student paper written by Corey Keating in 2000 entitled, “The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon in the First Four Centuries of the Christian Church.” His paper is a concise and very readable summary of the process of compilation of the New Testament that we now use. What isn’t from Keating’s paper is from my memory of a lecture that touched briefly on canonization by Dr. Andy Reimer at Canadian Bible College in about 1999.
The book of Acts records a how members in a synagogue in a city called Berea took the Apostle Paul’s message to heart, but not without fact-checking first from the Scriptures on hand at the synagogue. The result, of course, is that “many believed.” [Acts 17:10-12]
But what exactly are “scriptures?” And how can we know we have true and accurate “scriptures?” They were working from what we now call the “Old Testament.” If the Jewish people accepted the Old Testament as scripture, how can we be as sure about the New Testament?
There are two good reasons that it would be good to know how the collection of books and letters that we know of as the New Testament came into being. The first good reason is that we, as believers, need to be confident that the documents that record the life and teachings of Jesus and the original Apostles are a true and accurate testimony. In other words, are these really Jesus’ teachings? Did he really die for our sins? Did he really rise from the dead and become “Lord of heaven and earth?”
We could just assume that the Bible we have is the complete revelation of God and his salvation through Jesus Christ. Being confident of their truth because we understand the process of transmission strikes me as a better way.
The second good reason it would be good to know how it happened involves an idea that has gone viral in our society. It is an idea that has been around for centuries, but has really gained traction in our time. It is the idea that some books were deliberately excluded from the Bible by a nefarious group of men who wanted control over what people believe. The idea was around long before The DaVinci Code.
It is not the existence of other writings that is in question – they certainly exist – it is their faithfulness to Jesus’ message and teaching. In fact, the critics can point to some “gospels” that have received prominence by modern scholars, such as the “Gospel of Thomas,” which departs radically from the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. Some of these other writings have been around almost as long the Gospels.
So what happens when a trusted friend or family member tells you that he believes that a cabal has taken control of the faith by limiting what books got into the Bible? What can you say when that person would rather believe a book that was rejected by the first few generations of Christians as a reliable witness than the accepted canon of the Church?
Perhaps you can begin by reminding them that the men responsible for promoting those books probably have as much of an agenda as those who rejected them so many centuries ago. It may even be the same agenda as those who wrote the books in the first place. If you want to impute motives to the collectors of the New Testament, you might as well have a look at the motives of those who want to alter the canon. Fair is fair.
It turns out that attempts to change the witness of Jesus and the Apostles is the very reason the New Testament eventually took shape as a collection of sacred church writings.
Since the churches were founded upon the work of the original Apostles it makes sense that it would be their writings that would have accurately reported the work of Jesus and the early church, and the gospel they preached. What better written foundation to build the doctrine and practice of the church on?
There is no doubt that there were early writings by Apostles and their delegates to various churches. Each of the writers of the Gospels and Acts is mentioned in someone else’s Gospel, Acts, or the letters of the Apostle Paul. These were preserved by the churches that originally received them, and were usually copied by visiting members of other churches, eventually ensuring a wide distribution of the Gospels, Acts, and letters of Peter, John, James, Jude, Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews.
These books soon came to be the standard by which church doctrine would be measured. Strangely enough, the first recorded attempt to limit the acceptable books of the faith belongs to a heretic named Marcion in approximately 140 AD. He devised the idea that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
Because of this, his canon excluded almost all of the Old Testament, as well as any Gospels with obvious Old Testament connections. This left only most of the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul (with some editing out of references to the Old Testament). For him, these were the only acceptable and true witness to Jesus and his teaching.
The connection between Jesus and the Old Testament is so glaringly obvious that Marcion’s list was easily rejected by the majority of the church. It’s existence, however, prompted a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes sound, godly teaching to be used by Christians.
Irenaeus, an early opponent of Marcion, appealed to a group of writings that seem to have been well known as “apostolic” to address the heresy. He lists them, quotes from them and defends them as the standard for formulating doctrine and practice in the church.
One notes here that Irenaeus not only has defended the Old Testament, but has promoted the use of New Testament material in its defence. That raises writings now included in the New Testament to the level of Scripture in the eyes of the church. Similar lists compiled by his contemporaries Tertullian and Hippolytus and others further encouraged their use for doctrinal defence. These lists may be said to form the nucleus of what we now call the New Testament.
Naturally, there were more details to be worked out, but the core of the New Testament was pretty well established by the end of the second century.
Note that these lists were initially a reaction against Marcion’s exclusion of works that had already been largely accepted by the church.
Another example of a list is a document dated at roughly 170 AD that was found by a man named Muratori in the mid-eighteenth century, and is now referred to as the Muratorian Canon. The writer compiled a list of normative writings for the church, along with reasons for accepting or rejecting books that were available at the time. In one case he calls a book “too recent” and that it therefore could not have the stamp of either prophetic or apostolic authority. ”
Apostolic authority” seems to have been the main criterion for including a book in the accepted canon of the church in the second century. This does not absolutely require that an Apostle be the writer. They do need to be from the time of the Apostles and to accurately represent the teaching and activity of Jesus and the Apostles. For instance, the Gospels of Mark and Luke make no claim to having been written by Apostles. Mark and Luke, however, were long-time ministry partners of Peter and Paul, respectively, and had essentially unlimited access to their mentors’ memories of their encounters with Jesus and the other disciples for their writings.
Churches founded by the original Apostles also had traditional understandings of the gospel of Jesus that assisted them in determining whether a writing was a true representation of the “faith once delivered.” As Gnostic writers tried to supplant true doctrine with their own writings that claimed apostolic authorship, the leaders of these churches rejected them as “unorthodox.” They compared these slightly later writings with those already accepted as “orthodox” and rejected those that taught a different gospel.
Since the four accepted Gospels agree in teaching about Jesus, for instance, a “gospel” that shows Jesus teaching about “secret knowledge” (such as the “Gospel of Thomas”) would have been rejected outright at the time. To accept such a different take on Jesus’ teaching when so many reliable witnesses agree makes no logical sense. A self-contradicting canon would reduce Christianity to complete nonsense – something that even ancient theologians were intelligent enough to figure out. What that says about modern scholars who wish to include it or replace the accepted canon I shall leave to the reader.
What about the councils of the third and fourth centuries that are thought by many Protestants to have “corrupted” the church by “imposing” doctrines and a canonical New Testament? Since no records of the actual minutes of the meetings have been handed down, surely there must have been back-room deals made or political horse-trading for favours in return for acceptance of certain books, right?
Since the purpose of this post does not cover doctrine as such, we will concentrate on the canonization of the New Testament. For one thing, there was no longer any argument about whether the books approved by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus were going to be part of the accepted Canon. By the time of Origen in the early 200’s they were already accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole. Essentially the councils rubber-stamped the scriptures that were already generally accepted by the church. The earlier churchmen and theologians who used these books and letters as authoritative had already proven the point to the satisfaction of the participants of the Councils.
In fact, this seems to signal a shift in how books were included in the Canon. The shift is from the idea of apostolic authority to that of their use by early theologians. “If they were good enough for Irenaeus and Tertullian, etc, they are good enough for me” might be a vernacular way of putting it.
We can look to the examples of Jerome the scholar and translator and Augustine the great theologian, who were both very influential in settling the canon. Apparently, while Jerome was not sure that the Letter to the Hebrews should be accepted, the fact that it was well accepted by the Eastern Church led him to include it in his Latin Vulgate translation. In a similar vein Augustine and much of the Eastern Church reluctantly accepted the Apocalypse (Revelation) due to its acceptance in the West. The turning point was the fact that these books were freely used by prior generations of orthodox theologians.
Notice that by this time there is no need to refer to apostolic authority because that question had already been settled by previous generations of thoughtful theologians. With a few minor exceptions, the list was already settled. Those that needed more discussion, such as 2 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation, were settled by noting that previous generations of theologians were freely quoting them in their own writings.
The history of attempts to alter the witness of the New Testament writings by including spurious works or discrediting accepted works should teach us not to be surprised by similar attempts in our time. The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to trying to discredit historic Christianity.
We do not have to accept a self-contradictory new canon of scripture, no matter how scholarly the argument for inclusion seems. Nor do we have to accept the trashing of centuries of witness to the testimony of the Apostles and their faithful companions in the first century.
We can be confident that the New Testament that we now have is a true and accurate presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was meticulously preserved as various writings by the churches established by the Apostles. They were faithfully collected into a “canon” by wise and discerning people who cared about faithfully transmitting the same gospel traditions to later generations.
Let us honour their commitment by being faithful to the real Lord Jesus that these people so faithfully bore witness to.