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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Important Factors Caused the Early Church to Recognize the Present New Testament Canon?

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What Important Factors Caused the Early Church to Recognize the Present New Testament Canon?

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? – Question 9

God divinely inspired the books that were admitted to the New Testament canon of Scripture. There were however, many other writings that claimed some type of divine authority. How did the people discern between that which was divinely inspired of God, and which was not? How did the early church know which books were to be placed into the canon of Scripture? What criteria did they use to determine which books had God’s authority?

There are a number of important observations that we have to make to be able to answer these questions. They are as follows:

There Were Two Distinct Questions They Asked

With respect to the acceptance of certain books as New Testament Scripture, there are actually two distinct questions.

What Caused the First Believers to Accept These Books?

To begin with, we want to know what caused the first generation of Christians to initially accept, copy, read, study, and circulate these works. What was it that caused them to receive these writings as authoritative?

How Did Believers Respond to These Books after the Apostles Died?

The second question deals with those who lived after the time of the Apostles. What factors led them to accept certain writings as having the authority of God behind them? How did they determine which works were authoritative and which were not?

There Were Three Overriding Factors

There seemed to be three important factors that caused a book to be accepted by believers; it had to teach orthodox doctrine, it had to have been written by an apostle or one from the apostolic circle, and it had to be continuously used by the church from the beginning. These were the three overriding factors that caused the early Christians to accept certain books as having God’s authority behind them.

1. The Books Would Have to Teach Orthodox Doctrine: the Rule of Faith

To begin with, any book that would come from God had to be consistent in its teachings. It would continue the teachings of Jesus and His specially-chosen apostles.

There Was a Body of Truth or the Apostles Doctrine

We know that the early church, from the beginning, taught the Apostles’ doctrine, or the Apostles’ teaching. The new believers were immediately taught about Christ. We read in the Book of Acts:

So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:41-42 NRSV)

There was a limited body of truth that the church accepted as authoritative.

Jude wrote about “the faith” that had been delivered. He said:

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3 NRSV)

Paul wrote about the doctrine, or teaching, that lead to godly living. He said:

Anyone who teaches something different disagrees with the correct and godly teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Timothy 6:3 CEV)

It was clear that God had revealed some specific truths or doctrines.

Believers Were Warned about False Doctrine

The Apostle Paul warned about listening to teaching that was contrary to what Christ taught. He wrote:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8 NRSV)

In addition, believers were warned about a false gospel. He wrote to the Galatians:

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. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-9 ESV)

If there was a “false” gospel, then there must have been a “true” gospel. Therefore, any writing that would originate from God would teach the same “rule of faith” as was taught from the beginning. The teaching had to be consistent with what God had previously revealed through Jesus.

2. An Apostle or an Associate of an Apostle Had to Have Been Behind the Work

Next, the writings had to have the authority of the Apostles behind them. This would guarantee that the teaching was consistent with that which God had previously revealed. If the document originated from those specially selected men whom Jesus Himself chose and commissioned, then their authority and truthfulness was guaranteed. It was impossible for any false teaching to be contained in the writings of these hand-picked disciples. A number of points need to be made.

Apostolic Authorship Would Have Guaranteed Authority

The issue of authorship was important because of the special promises that Jesus made to His specially chosen Apostles. They were given His divine authority. If a particular writing came from an apostle, then its authority was guaranteed. This means that most of the New Testament books would have been immediately accepted by the churches. Once they recognized the work came from the hand of a genuine Apostle, the authority was assured.

Jesus Himself Appointed the Apostles

The apostles were appointed by Jesus to carry on His teaching ministry after His ascension into heaven. Matthew recorded Jesus’ command as follows:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

He promised that the Holy Spirit would teach them in a unique way. Jesus said:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26 TNIV)

Jesus also said to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would testify of Him. In turn, these disciples would testify to others about Jesus. He said:

When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27 TNIV)

Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. He said:

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. (John 16:13-14 TNIV)

When Jesus prayed to God the Father, He emphasized that they would continue His work of revealing the Father. He prayed the following:

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:25-26 TNIV)

The early believers knew that Jesus authorized these specially selected men. The spoken words of the apostles, as well as their written words, were considered to be the same as the words of Christ. They were His representatives.

Most of the Books Were Written by Apostles

The apostles wrote a number of the New Testament books. They include: the gospels of Matthew and John; the thirteen letters of Paul; two letters of Peter: three letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. This makes 21 out of 27 books. The possibility exists that the writings of James, Jude, and Hebrews could be added to this list. They too could have been written by apostles. That would leave only the gospels of Mark and Luke, and the Book of Acts without clear apostolic authorship.

The Apostles Numbered More than Twelve

There is some uncertainty as to how many people were in the apostolic circle. The New Testament does not restrict the title “Apostle” to only the twelve men who followed Jesus from the time of His baptism to the time of His ascension. There were more than twelve men who were with Jesus during this period. When a replacement was needed for Judas, the disciples chose between those who had been with Jesus from the beginning. The credentials for becoming one of the Twelve were as follows as the Book of Acts records:

Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from the baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us. (Acts1:21-22 NET)

This shows that the number of apostles was more than the “Twelve.”

Certain Others Were Called Apostles

There were others who were known as apostles. James, the brother of Jesus, is called an apostle by Paul. Paul wrote:

Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19 NASB)

This puts James in the same company as the twelve apostles, though he was not a follower of Jesus from the beginning.

The Apostles Spoke with the Authority of Jesus

We find the apostles speaking and writing with Jesus’ authority. After a council of leaders met in Jerusalem, these apostles issued a statement to believers. It read in part:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements. (Acts 15:28 TNIV)

In another example, Paul wrote about his own authority as an apostle. He said:

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:3-5 ESV)

He also told the Corinthians that he had received godly or divine wisdom. Paul wrote:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13 ESV)

Paul told the Thessalonians that his words were the words of God. He wrote the following:

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 NRSV)

His message carried the full authority of Jesus Christ.

Paul also spoke with the power of the Spirit when he wrote to the Corinthians. He put it this way:

And my message and my preaching were very plain. I did not use wise and persuasive speeches, but the Holy Spirit was powerful among you. I did this so that you might trust the power of God rather than human wisdom. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NLT)

Paul wrote to the Galatians about his unique authority. He said that God has specially set him apart to preach the message of Christ. He said:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being. (Galatians 1:15-16 NRSV)

These apostles were the foundation of the church. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19-20 ESV)

In the last book of Scripture, John testified about his authority. He said:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19 NET)

Therefore, we consistently find Jesus’ hand-picked apostles asserting their authority. They knew they had been specially chosen by Him. Other believers recognized their unique authority.

Some Books May Not Have Been Authored by Apostles

While apostles wrote most of the New Testament, it is not necessary that every writer of a New Testament book had to have been an Apostle. A writer of a New Testament book may belong to the larger apostolic circle—people who had personal contact with the apostles. While the books authored by the apostles were immediately accepted as authoritative, there were a few works that were not written by apostles. Decisions had to be made concerning which ones would be accepted, and which ones would be rejected.

The church was aware that false teaching was circulating. Paul warned his readers about false teaching. He wrote the following to the church at Galatia:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who in his love and mercy called you to share the eternal life he gives through Christ. You are already following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who twist and change the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including myself, who preaches any other message than the one we told you about. Even if an angel comes from heaven and preaches any other message, let him be forever cursed. (Galatians 1:6-8 NLT)

The Apostle Paul also warned about people preaching a different Jesus; a Jesus that never existed. It seems that the Corinthians were rejecting these false apostles. Paul wrote:

For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NASB)

The New English Translation also indicates the Corinthians rejected such teaching. It says:

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus different from the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the one you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it well enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NET)

The New Living Translation, however, understands Paul saying that the Corinthians were accepting this different gospel. It says the following:

You seem to believe whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach about a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT)

Whatever the case may be, they were warned about these false apostles and false teaching. Believers were not ignorant of the fact that certain people were distorting the message of Christ.

Later in the same chapter, Paul again warned about false apostles. He wrote:

For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15 NET)

These false apostles claimed to be special representatives of Christ. They are compared to Satan, or the devil. Consequently, the people would have had to have been on guard against false teaching.

The Non-Apostolic Writings Were Written Under Apostolic Guidance

If we include books written not by the apostles themselves, but by people who wrote under their guidance and supervision, then all the New Testament books could be included in this category. For example, the gospel of Mark was written from the influence of Peter. Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Someone from that apostolic circle wrote the Book of Hebrews—though his present identity is unknown. James and Jude were also apostles in the wider sense of the term and, depending upon their identification, could actually have been two of the twelve Apostles. Therefore, every New Testament book has some type of apostolic connection. This guaranteed the accuracy of the contents.

All of the Books Were Produced in the First Century: Antiquity of the Writings Was Crucial

The fact that the apostles, or some people from their circle, were responsible for the books of the New Testament is an important factor in recognizing the extent of the authoritative books. One of the factors in determining the canonicity of a book was its antiquity. All of the New Testament documents were written in the first century—possibly before A.D. 70. Books that were written after the apostolic era could not be considered candidates for the New Testament Scripture. It was only the immediate Apostles of Jesus who had that authority to speak and write for Him. No one else was given this authority, and this authority was not transferred, neither was it transferable.

There Would Have Been Guidance from the Apostles in Determining the Canon

There is also the likelihood that each of the present New Testament books received an endorsement by the living apostles. Many of the apostles were still living when most, if not all of, these books were written and circulated. They would have been in a position to give guidance to believers concerning which writings were divinely authoritative, and which writers were not. We have one example that it was being done. Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture. He wrote:

Don’t forget that the Lord is patient because he wants people to be saved. This is also what our dear friend Paul said when he wrote you with the wisdom that God had given him. Paul talks about these same things in all his letters, but part of what he says is hard to understand. Some ignorant and unsteady people even destroy themselves by twisting what he said. They do the same thing with other Scriptures too. (2 Peter 3:15-16 CEV)

We should rightly assume that the apostles would have taken extraordinary interest in assuring the writings that were read out loud to the believers in the churches were only those written works which carried Jesus’ authority.

The Church Had the Highest Regard for Apostolic Authorship

The importance of the apostles can be seen in the earliest complete list of New Testament books that we presently possess. It was compiled by Eusebius, who died in the year A.D. 340. He made a distinction between twenty-one books that everyone received as authoritative and six which there was some uncertainty about. The reason for the uncertainty is that they could not be directly traced back to an apostolic source. This shows the concern of the early church that only those writings that came from the apostles and their immediate associates had any claim to authority; all other writings did not. Eventually, the authority of the six disputed books was settled when it was found that they could be traced back to the apostles.

3. The Writings Would Have Been Used Continually among Believers

The third important factor was continuous use by the believers. Any writings that would have God’s divine authority behind them would have had to have been continually used by believers from the beginning. The New Testament lays down this principle. The writings were to be read out loud in the church and the writings were to be circulated. In what was probably Paul’s earliest letter, he wrote the following:

Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. (1 Thessalonians 5:26-27 NRSV)

Earlier, in that same letter, Paul wrote:

We always thank God that you believed the message we preached. It came from him, and it isn’t something made up by humans. You accepted it as God’s message, and now he is working in you. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 CEV)

The Apostle Paul also told the church at Colosse to circulate his letters. He said:

And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 HCSB)

In a general letter sent out to the churches, Peter commented on Paul’s letters:

And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation -- as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16 NKJV)

The way in which Peter spoke of the letters of Paul indicates that the knowledge of them was widespread in the church. This shows that the churches had been obedient to the command to circulate the letters of the apostles. As the Scripture repeatedly commanded, these letters were sent out and read publicly in the various churches.

There Was Immediate and Universal Acceptance of the Writings

Universal acceptance was another key factor in recognizing which books God had divinely inspired. Indeed, there were a number of books that were rejected by the church because it was recognized they did not have God’s authority behind them. What is impressive is that there was a surprising amount of agreement among the early believers as to the divine authority of our present New Testament books.

The Acceptance of the New Testament Was Gradual, but Continuous

The books of the New Testament were written, copied, recopied, circulated, read, studied, and cited as authoritative alongside the books of the Old Testament.

Eventually, they were placed into a collection. While the New Testament writings were immediately recognized as authoritative, the need for a collection of sacred writings occurred gradually.

The Books Were Copied, Recopied, and Circulated

Another important point to remember is that the books that are in our present New Testament were copied, recopied, and widely circulated among the churches. There must have been some reason for this. Obviously, the people believed these writings had some special worth to continue to circulate them.

Only the Authority of a Few Books Were Ever Questioned

Only a few of our present New Testament books were even questioned. In addition, it was only a minority of people that had any doubts about them. For the most part, the doubts were due to a lack of knowledge about the origin of these books. We find no example of a book that is presently in the New Testament that was originally doubted by a large number of believers, and then later accepted. As we mentioned, the main reason that some books were doubted was the uncertainty that the writings came from the hand of an apostle or one of their associates.

The Believers Know Jesus’ Voice

It is also important to realize that most of our present New Testament was immediately accepted as Holy Scripture. This ready acceptance is in keeping with the promise of Jesus that His sheep know His voice. He said:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27 TNIV)

Jesus also said that those who wished to know the truth about Him would know it. He said:

If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know about my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from my own authority. (John 7:17 NET)

Jesus knows those who are His and His people know who He is. This gives further testimony that false teaching would not have passed by unnoticed by the church.

Through the Holy Spirit, Believers Can Discern Between the True and the False

The Apostle Paul wrote about believer’s discernment through the work of the Holy Spirit. He wrote the following to the Romans:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family- calling him “Father, dear Father.” For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:14-16 NLT)

Paul wrote to the church of Corinth explaining that believers have the mind of Christ. He said:

Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. (1 Corinthians 2:12-15 NET)

Therefore, the believers in Jesus Christ would have been able to recognize divinely authoritative Scripture when they read it.

The Process of Canonization Is Similar to the Understanding of Doctrines

The canon of New Testament Scripture was recognized in a similar way as some biblical doctrines. The formation of the teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ occurred in the early centuries of the church. The doctrine of the Trinity took a couple of centuries to clarify. The doctrine of justification by faith was clarified at the time of the Protestant Reformation.

The fact that these doctrines were clarified at a certain point in history does not mean they came into existence at that time. In the same manner, the New Testament canon did not come into existence when it was generally recognized by the church—rather it came into existence with the completion of the last book that God divinely inspired.

Divine Inspiration Is the Key to Whether or Not a Book Should Be in the Canon

The basic principle for a book to be considered part of the New Testament canon is divine inspiration. A book can only be part of the canon if it is God-breathed Scripture. This is the only criterion.

The New Testament Books Met These Three Criteria

The twenty-seven documents of the New Testament met these criteria—they were written by Apostles, or men in the apostolic circle, they were orthodox in their teaching, and the church continually used them.

There was never any discussion concerning the divine authority of the majority of the New Testament writings. These documents were initially considered to be an authoritative witness of Jesus Christ. Their divine authority was never really questioned.

Summary – Question 9
What Important Factors Caused the Early Church to Recognize the New Testament Canon?

The overriding factors for acceptance of certain writings as part of the New Testament were basically three things. The work had to be orthodox in doctrine. The writing had to have come from an apostle or one from the apostolic circle. The church had to have used the work continuously from the beginning.

The criteria that were used to determine which books were to be placed in the New Testament would have included apostolic authorship. If an apostle wrote a book to be read in the churches, then it would have had immediate acceptance as Scripture. For those writings which were not authored by an apostle there would have been the guidance by the living apostles to help the church determine what was, and what was not, written with God’s divine authority. The fact that the books that are in our present New Testament were copied and recopied shows the value in which they were perceived as having.

The recognition of the canon is a fact of history, not a repeatable process. The early church was closer in time and had greater information than we have available today. Therefore, their judgment is to be preferred over that of modern scholars.

God divinely inspired the books that were admitted to the New Testament canon of Scripture. There were, however, many other writings that claimed some type of authority.

In addition, God’s people would have been able to determine what was divinely inspired and what was not. The testimony of God’s Spirit would have been a factor. God’s people know His voice. The fact that the present New Testament was, for the most part, readily accepted, shows that this is the case.

What Are Some of the Differences Between the Recognition of the Old Testament Canon and the Recognition of the New Testament Canon? ← Prior Section
What Minimal Factors Should Be Expected of a Book That Is to Be Included in the New Testament Canon? Next Section →
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