[CF Devotionals] 2009-08-23 - New Testament Canon

Study on the Bible, Part 6

Douglas states, "Information on the early use of the New Testament (NT) books has been augmented in recent years both by the discovery of old portions of the NT and of early books that quote it.

Some NT books were questioned for a time for various reasons, but since the end of the fourth century A.D. there has been no question among most of the Christian churches as to which books belong in the NT. Nearly all branches of Christendom have accepted the current 27 books as authoritative and canonical, not because of any arbitrary decree of church leaders, but because of the witness of the NT itself, the early church fathers, the truth contained in these books, and the blessing on those who believe and obey them." 1

Kent notes the following:

"Who decided which books belonged to the canon? Many have the idea that the church or its leaders took some official action which accorded canonical status to our twenty-seven books. However, the earliest decree of any church council regarding the complete canon was made at the Council of Hippo in A.D. 393 (and was repeated by the third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397).

The wording of this resolution is significant: "Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in the church under the title of 'divine writings.' The canonical books are ... ." (both Old and New Testament books are listed). Now it is clear that this council did not in any sense create the canon. Rather, the statement assumes that the canon already existed and was recognized, and the council merely confirmed the prevailing opinion of the churches. This conciliar decree made no innovation.

Nearly three hundred years before the Council of Hippo, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the church in Corinth , A.D. 96. In it he frequently cited the canonical writings of Paul, Matthew and perhaps some others to reinforce his argument. It is important to note that he shows no like concern for any writings other than our New Testament books, even though there were such in existence. The tenor of Clement's writing shows his recognition of one series of books which was valued similarly to the Old Testament.

In A.D. 367 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria , listed as canonical books the same twenty-seven which we know. Yet his list was not a new pronouncement.. Thus prior to any official council, the church was well aware of a canon of Scripture.

We must conclude that recognition of the canon was the experience of the church as a whole, virtually from the time of the writers and their first readers. The same Spirit who inspired the writers also quickened the sensitivity of the readers to recognize a unique authority attached to this particular series of books.

How did the church recognize the canon? It is true theologically that only those writings which were inspired of God were to be regarded as Scripture. But how was this feature to be detected? It seems assured from the records of early church leaders that apostolic authority was the chief criterion. Those New Testament books written by men who were not apostles were accorded apostolic authority because their authors were companions of the apostles.. Mark was regarded as Peter's protege, Luke as Paul's associate, James and Jude as members of the apostolic circle at Jerusalem .

... By the end of the fourth century there was no further debate over the limits of the canon in the Western church. In the East a few books were still debated for another century, but eventually all major segments of the church agreed on our twenty-seven books." 2

  1. Douglas, J. D. and Merrill C. Tenney, editors, NIV Bible Dictionary, Zondervan Interactive Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989, Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc.
  2. Kent, Jr, Homer A., How We Got Our New Testament, Grace Theological Journal, Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, ID, 1960-1991, Volume 8 Number, Spring 67, p. 25.

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