How and Why Was the New Testament Compiled?–Reflections on New Testament Canonization

biblicalGreek Manuscript of 1st Corinthians 13I have had many discussions with Christians and non-Christians alike about the Bible. We have talked about many themes in the Bible, the reliability of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the sufficiency of the Bible. As I often say, I believe the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture is the elephant in the room of endless theological, biblical, and ecclesiastical controversies. All controversies in the church all boils down to one’s view of the Bible. This is why my wife and I passionately taught the K-3rd graders this past Wednesday night the following questions and answers:

Q. What rule has God given to teach us how we may glorify and enjoy God?

A. The Word of God is the only rule to teach us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.

Q. What is the Word of God?

A. The Word of God is the Bible, made up of the Old and New Testaments, and inspired by God.

When teaching the last part of that answer (“inspired by God”), Erica and I emphasized the Bible’s direct reflection of God’s character. So, what you say about the Bible is what you are saying about God. If the Bible is flawed or errant, then so is God. Second Timothy 3:16-17 directly connects the Bible to God’s character. The only reason evangelicals, like Al Mohler, emphasize the inerrancy of Scripture so ardently is the fact that the eternally perfect God has spoken. When God speaks, all of creation, including fallen man, must react and respond accordingly.

But something I have noticed is an increasing question among young Christians, particularly, regards how we received the New Testament that we find in the pages of our Bibles. We know the New Testament was inspired by God, but humanly speaking, where did it come from? Who compiled the Gospels, history, epistles, and apocalyptic literature that we find in the New Testament? When was the canon closed? Why was it closed? These questions are important for Christians to consider from time to time. What I love about students is their desire to learn and not simply accept something as truth without consideration. I attempt to answer some of these questions below, but for a more thorough look at the development of Scripture as we have it today, I would point you to Paul Wegner’s The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible.

How and why was the canon of the New Testament closed? “Canon” is a term that refers to a “collection or list of books accepted as an authoritative rule of faith and practice.” This word derives from a Hebrew word meaning “reed” or “stalk” that were used as measuring sticks. So, when we speak of the canons of the Old and New Testaments, we are referring to an authoritative rule that is our measuring stick for life.

The process of New Testament canonization was settled around 400 AD in the Western Roman Empire. However, in the East, everything was not settled for an additional 200 years. There were certain factors that hastened the canonization of the New Testament.

(1) The Old Testament by itself was inadequate for the reason that there was not enough that was explicit about the person and work of Christ. It was in the Gospels and Epistles that Jesus of Nazareth was explained, encountered, and experienced as Savior. The Church that was initially satisfied with the Old Testament began to realize over time that the fullness of God’s revelation of himself and Christ was explained in the Gospels and Epistles.

(2) The eyewitnesses of Christ all were dead by the early second century AD and those who knew the apostles soon died as well in the following decades. The Church recognized that if there was to be an accurate and authoritative record of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent implications, then those documents written by those eyewitnesses needed to be protected and preserved.

(3) Heresy began to arise in the earliest Church. More serious and severe heresy that threatened the survival of the basic understanding of the true gospel began to emerge in the following centuries. Canonization helped protect the Church and the gospel of her Christ.

(4) There were good and useful books written by second and third generation believers and these books often were useful to the church. However, these went along with heresies in the sense that they were written by those who did not know Christ or the apostles personally.

(5) The use of the codex form allowed for books containing multiple documents. The church was prompted to collect books and bound them together in the same volume.

A vital consideration in New Testament canonization is centered around this question: Is the New Testament canon a list of authoritative books or is it an authoritative list of books? If the authority resides in the documents, then they are authoritative and inspired. But if the authority resides in those who made the list of the books in the New Testament, then the authority lies in those who made the list and not in the documents themselves.

In the West, our current New Testament format was initially canonized with the exception of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. In the East, our current New Testament format was initially canonized leaving out James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The East was more open to extra-canonical books. By 393 AD, however, our current canon was established in various places. There were various factors that delayed New Testament canonization of which included the fact that the Church already had a Bible (the Old Testament) as well as a few other factors.

So, what were the standards writings had to meet in order to be considered for inclusion in Holy Scripture? The criteria for canonicity are as follows:

(1) Apostolic authorship or a direct connection to the apostles.

(2) The origin of the book must have been established in the apostolic era. The book had to be written and known in this era.

(3) The books had to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. True revelation from God is found in Christ and by extension, the writings of his apostles.

(4) The book had to have the power to spiritually edify those believers and congregations that used it.

The history of the Bible is simply fascinating. The preservation of Scripture and the process of canonization is evidence of the sovereign goodness and grace of God. We live in a unique time. The Word of God is readily accessible. This was the dream of men like Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin. Thank God for the authoritative rule of faith and practice that we have in the Bible. Be grateful for the revelation of God in Christ in the New Testament. Remain ever in awe of the fact that God has graciously chosen to reveal himself through words. Read them. Obey them.


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