Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Formation of the NT Canon

Last week we laid some essential groundwork for our discussion on the canonicity of the Christian Scriptures. We detailed the process by which the Hebrew Scriptures became canonized, an authoritative rule for faith and life, as the Christian Old Testament. The canon of the Christian Scriptures was a needed distinction given the misappropriation of other possible texts that for some borders on authoritative. The same process of the reception of God’s word took place with the advent of Jesus Christ and the ensuing written accounts of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These accounts witnessed to the Gospel, but were they to be rendered as Scripture for the Christian?

The Need For New Scripture

By the end of Malachi the OT canon is closed. Nothing is to be added to it. But with the coming of Christ there is a warrant for further Scripture for the Christian faith. Why? The word of God, as He made it known through various forms, was recorded as the Hebrew Scriptures and subsequent Christian OT. The very word of God is contained therein. With the coming of Christ, God speaks once again, a new and further revelation that builds upon the OT Scripture.

The apostles, direct witnesses, and those close to them believed Jesus was God. Subsequently they knew that His life and implications for the lives of mankind needed not just to be shared orally with each other, but written down. Therefore it is necessary to record again the divine words of God Himself spoken through Jesus revealing the good news of our salvation and the call on our lives to serve Him as Lord. The words of Jesus for the Christians were “treasured and quoted, taking their place beside the Old Testament and being held as of equal or superior authority to it.”[1] We see the apostle Paul give example to this elevation of Christ’s words as Scripture, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). Paul refers to a quotation from the OT in Deuteronomy 25:4 and goes on to quote Jesus from Luke 10:7 as Scripture!

Paul shows us that Jesus’ words were considered on equal authority with the OT Scriptures and therefore warranted recording as God’s holy word. This revelation from Christ was in line with the revelation of God in the OT, but it was nonetheless new, “So when the promised Messiah came, a new and generous outpouring of divine revelation necessarily ensued.”[2] Where rabbis previously expounded upon the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians now preached upon a new divine word from God,

“…which now has been manifested through the appearance of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:10-11).

Thus we see with the coming of Christ a warrant, more than that, a need for recording His words and those of His immediate companions to reveal to us the very nature of God and subsequent gift of grace to mankind through the cross. It was worthy of being recorded because it was inspired by God to be received as Scripture, as canon. But how did 27 different documents, that we now call the New Testament canon, come to be considered as canon for the Christian Church? It happened over centuries as the Church recognized and received certain texts as the inspired word of God.

Criteria For Reception of New Testament Scripture

The process for distinguishing certain documents as Scripture for the NT was different than that used for the reception of the OT. The criteria for accepting the OT as canon for the Christian had to do largely in part with what constituted the Hebrew Scriptures to which Jesus referred to as “Scripture.” But there was not a litmus test to be applied to OT texts because the Hebrew Scriptures had already been inspired and recorded long before the formation of the Christian Church.

But now with the rise of new Scriptures for the Christian New Testament (though the authors did not see themselves writing Scripture in the sense that they viewed the OT as Scripture) there was a need for some method by which to approve the genuineness of God’s inspired documents recording the good news of the Gospel. Traditionally there are three such criteria that have been applied to texts considering their reception into the NT.

However it must be said that these criteria for the Church did not enable them to declare Scripture to be Scripture on their own authority, but instead received it under the inherent internal authority of the text itself that was undeniably inspired. John Calvin gives us a further glimpse into this reality of reception:

“When the church receives it, and gives the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted, but acknowledging it as the truth of God, she as in duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent…Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.”[3]

Instead then the role of the church was primarily one of reception, seeking out at every point the authenticity of the documents as the inspired word of God versus the fallible word of man. So too the role of the Apostles played a major part in the reception of documents as Scripture,  “the church saw itself empowered only to receive and recognize what God had provided in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions.”[4] This speaks directly to the first criteria that arose for the Church’s reception of NT documents as inspired, the apostolicity of the text.


One of the primary criteria used to recognized which texts were inspired canon is the identity of the author. The early church gave great value to the authors who had seen the incredible reality of the risen Jesus Christ with their own eyes, those who were “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16b). But more than simply being eyewitnesses, these Apostles “were the duly authenticated messengers of Christ, of whom He said, ‘He that heareth you, heareth me.’”[5] Therefore Christ’s Apostles, lit. “sent out ones,” were tasked to proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because they were the heralds and messengers of God’s grace to the world.

This eyewitness account and charge to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ gave incredible authority to the Apostles because of whom they represented, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18b, 19a, 20a). The basis then for this new revelation of God in Jesus relied upon Christ’s apostles and the power of the Spirit within them to record God’s inspired word. Therefore, “since Jesus himself left nothing in writing, the most authoritative writings available to the church were those which came from his apostles.”[6]

The first criteria for canonicity of the NT books was the apostolic nature of the author recording this new revelation. The early church in the process of receiving those texts which were to be NT canon acknowledged “those books, and those only which [could] be proved to have been written by the Apostles, or to have received their sanction.”[7] Or in other words “if the Christians believed that a book was written by an apostle, they received it, without further argument, as canon.”[8] Over time then the words of the Apostles, inspired by God, “came to written form in the books of the New Testament.”[9]

However, some texts received as canon were not written by Apostles. Instead the apostolic criteria included those who would have been “from the apostolic circle, to have somehow been certified by the apostles.”[10] For example we know that the authors of Mark, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude were not apostles, but instead had close ties to Apostles and shared so vitally with them in the mission of the Gospel that their words became an inspired witness, or in other words “The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship, but imposition by the apostles as ‘law.’”[11] The recognition of what the Apostles believed to be true bore incredible weight on the early church documents as they witnessed to the reality of Christ. Thus apostolicity was a foundational criteria for assessing which texts were to be considered as inspired canon for the New Testament.


The second criteria for recognizing a document as canon was that of catholicity, or universal reception. If a letter had been received and acknowledged by the church universal then there would be general consensus as to its authorship and authority as truthfully witnessing to the Gospel. This criteria would be as close as we would come to a committee gathering and voting unanimously for its approval. We don’t have a formative event like this for the NT documents, but we do have the important witness and consensus of churches all over the Mediterranean receiving certain books and rejecting others as they witnessed to the inspired content of the Gospel truth.

It’s one thing if a letter is received as an authoritative witness to a specific church and another thing entirely if it is universally received. Or in other words, “A work which enjoyed only local recognition was not likely to be acknowledged as part of the canon of the catholic church. On the other hand, a work which was acknowledged by the greater part of the catholic church would probably receive universal recognition sooner or later.”[12]

For example the apostle Peter speaks of certain letters that his audience to whom he writes should know,

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

We see already from Peter that Paul’s letters would be generally known and recognized to his audience, implying already within our Scriptures a general recognition of Paul’s writings as Scripture. Thus the catholicity, or universal acceptance, of a letter was a key criterion for reception into the NT canon.


The third criteria for recognizing the books of the NT canon had to do with conformity to the common rule of faith, also known as ‘orthodoxy.’ Fundamental to this criteria was the understanding that there was a common theology of the Gospel that must be considered consistent in its parts to be true. Texts in this category were weighed to see if they conformed to the common theology of the Gospel and texts already accepted, or to see if they conflicted with the common theology thereby proving its nature as an uninspired document. But even this criteria is vitally connected to the first of apostolicity, because by the document’s conformity to a common theology they meant conformity to the theology of the “apostolic faith—the faith set forth in the undoubted apostolic writings and maintained in the churches which had been founded by the apostles.”[13]

Paul refers to this idea of conformity and orthodoxy when he says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). So too would texts that did not conform to the Gospel as witnessed by the Apostles be considered outside the canon of the NT.

There were many texts that claimed to meet other criteria that failed in this category. For example one such document was named The Gospel of Peter. But contained within it was a teaching that did not conform to the message of the Apostles, it was unorthodox. So when a bishop named Serapion “discovered that its account of the Lord’s death was tinged with Docetism (it implies that he did not really suffer), then he decided that he ought to pay the church of Rhossus a pastoral visit to make sure that it had not been led astray by this heterodox teaching.”[14] Conformity was an important criteria for assessing a document’s authenticity with regards to being the true inspired word of God.

Even later in church history, after certain books had been accepted for centuries, some doubted their canonicity. In the 16th C. Martin Luther “questioned the canonicity of The Epistle of James because he thought it did not set forth a clear doctrine of justification by faith alone.”[15] Or in other words he questioned James because he did not believe it was orthodox. Therefore last of the generally accepted criteria for canonicity was the content of the documents conformity to the orthodox teaching of the apostles.

Criteria for receiving documents is one path to explore how the NT came to be canonized, but another path is the actual historical process by which the 27 books of the NT were received as Scripture using these three criteria. We must now turn our attention to the reception of the NT books in the history of the early church.

The Formation of the NT Canon

The early church in the 2nd C. A.D. generally accepted the criteria we have just looked at as a basis for canonicity.[16] But the process was not immediate of recognizing the NT canon, it was received over time as the church recognized it as the inspired word of God. A few witnesses in the history of the early church are important as we explore the canonization process of the NT.


All canonized books of the New Testament were written in the first century but it took time for them to be recognized and received. In the 2nd Century A.D. we get a glimpse of the beginning of the canonization process. The earliest list of accepted books, known as the Muratorian canon, included 24 books that were considered authoritative for the Roman church, though it included many books that did not end up in the NT canon. This gives us a glimpse only 100 years or so after the first century documents were written as to the initial process of their reception as canon.

By the end of the 2nd Century A.D. a core “collection of New Testament books—twenty-one of the twenty-seven—was generally recognized.”[17] The books most readily accepted were that of the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Those books which the church regarded as apostolic, catholic, and conformed to the apostolic teaching were beginning to be received as canon. It wasn’t long until all 27 books were recognized.


By the 240s A.D. we see an incredible recognition of all 27 books of the New Testament by Origen, one of the Greek Fathers. Origen is the first in church history to acknowledge all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. However in the process Origen draws up lines between the universally acknowledged, or undisputed books of the NT, twenty-one in number, and those that were in dispute, six in number, namely Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude.[18] Therefore from Origen we get an incredible insight into the continuing process of the church’s reception of the particular inspired books of the NT, that the church accepted some without reservation while having reservation about others. A century later arguably the greatest event occurs for the history of the NT canon.


The great bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, would write a yearly Easter letter to the churches for the encouragement of their faith. In his Easter letter of A.D. 367, Athanasius listed 27 books he considered to be the New Testament scriptures for the Christian church encouraging them of their canonicity.[19] He listed with no reservations, no distinction between undisputed and disputed, all 27 NT books that we have in our canon today. He is the first to do so. We have no witness of any clamor either, for “from that time on, Christians of all traditions—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—agreed on the NT canon.”[20]

What followed Athanasius’ decree were three synods held in Africa. At “Hippo Regius in AD 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419”[21] the 27 books were agreed upon as authoritative canon for the Christian New Testament. The canonization process was complete when the Latin Father Jerome enshrined the 27 books of the NT into his Latin Bible, the Vulgate, alongside the OT books. Thus by the end of the 4th C. A.D. with Jerome’s work we have the completion of the canon of the Christian church, Old and New Testament together.

The New Testament Today: Closed

But since the initial reception of the NT canon, many other apocryphal documents (not to be confused with the OT Apocrypha) have emerged such as the infancy narratives of Jesus, other Gospels—such as the one attributed to Thomas, as well as a whole host of gnostic texts. Should these be added to the canon of the NT?

If our NT canon was still open, which virtually no Protestant holds, then there might be warrant for searching the validity of these texts. But certain problems arise with our aforementioned criteria. If these texts were inspired why were they not generally recognized by the early church as the rule of faith and practice for their lives? More than that these texts all include theological discrepancies with the 27 books received as canon. Certain scholars are divided, but as to the apostolic nature of the authors of these texts there is no doubt that they were removed from the apostolic circle.

So we declare emphatically that the NT canon is closed, even if a text were to arise that met the criteria, because it has not been inspired and so orchestrated by God to be received into the NT canon. Furthermore we have the great declaration of the close of the canon from the Apostle John in Revelation 22:18-19,

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Thus with the close of the NT canon we have the close of the entire corpus of Christian Scripture. Both the OT and NT are the divine word of God received and declared to be canon, the authoritative word of God for every person.

[1] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 310.
[2] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al. (Wheaton: Crossway 2012), 81.
[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, Ford Lewis Battles trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.7.2.
[4] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 83-84.
[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 153.
[6] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988), 256.
[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 153.
[8] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 137.
[9] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 82-83.
[10] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 137.
[11] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration, ed. Ethelbert D. Warfield et al. (New York: Oxford University, 1932), p. 455.
[12] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 261.
[13] Ibid., 260.
[14]  Ibid., 260-261.
[15] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, footnote 4 on 137.
[16] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 318.
[17] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 84-85.
[18] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86; F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 192.
[19] See Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 316; Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86; F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 209.
[20] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 136.
[21] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem et al., 86-87.

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