The Formation of the New Testament Canon: The Methodology and Events Which Lead to Canonization

By

Jeffrey S. Krause

Liberty University School of Religion

  

 

Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)

 

Introduction

     “After almost 2000 years of church history how can Christians be sure that they have the right Bible?” states Stephen Voorwinde in the scholarly journal, the “Vox Reformata.”[1] This is the question that almost every Christian ponders at some point in their spiritual experience. Many questions must be answered in regards to this issue. How were the canonical books chosen? What were the criteria that went into the process of the Bible’s formation and were there any extraordinary circumstances surrounding the formation of what we today call the Bible? These are the questions that will be pondered in this essay.

The Canon and the Old Testament Witness

     In the formation of the “Canon,” Roger Nicole declares the following; “[T]he history of the canon explores the course of acceptance and rejection among God’s people historically.”[2] This history, states Nicole, brought with it much agreement in regards to the older witness and a; “notable consensus on the OT existed among the Jews in or before the first century of our era and that a similar consensus on the NT prevailed among Christians no later than AD 400.”[3] The word “canon” finds its origin from the Greek word “kanon” and “is more suitably translated ‘rule’ or ‘standard’ (2 Cor.10:13, 15, 16; Gal.6:16; Phil.3:16).”[4] Noting this, it must also be added that the standard or rule of teaching during the apostolic age and the ages preceding it was the Old Testament Scriptures (Torah) that is common today. On this point, Nicole proclaims the following; “[T]he authority of the Hebrew canon was clearly established by the practice of Jesus and the apostles…”[5] Hence, it is seen that the OT canon bares with it the witness of the apostolic age itself; with it’s ultimate authority coming by way of Jesus Christ and His positive affirmation of these texts during His ministry. Likewise, the apostle Paul himself declared the OT Scriptures as qeopneustoß[6] (“Theopneustos”) or “inspired” or “God breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16.[7] Hence, with this affirmation via the Biblical witness itself, coupled with the long history of Jewish tradition, this essay will not address the Older Testament canonicity. Rather, the remainder of this study will look to the factors that helped to shape and influence the formation of the New Testament (NT) canon.

The Early Church Methodology:

Of the 27 books of the NT canon, tradition states that 21 were produced by apostles.[8] Moreover, if one accepts books that were produced under that apostolic teaching, this number expands to all 27 books[9] of the NT witness;

If under apostolic authorship we include books written not by apostles themselves but by people who wrote under their guidance and supervision, all the NT books could be included, for the gospel of Mark was deemed to have been written under the influence of Peter; the gospel of Luke, Acts and Hebrews under the tutelage of Paul; and James and Jude under less clearly defined guidance, if not by the apostles of that name.[10]

On this point, Voorwinde, quoting B.B. Warfield states the following;

The authority of the apostles, as by divine appointment founders of the Church, was embodied in whatever books they imposed on the Church as law, not merely in those they themselves had written.[11]

     Thus, the authority of the NT writings and traditions bare with it the apostolic witness and in return, are to be seen as self verifying.[12] The apostles, being the spokesmen of God[13] and guided by the Spirit of truth, were speaking and recording the very words of God Himself. This was a concept not entirely foreign to the NT authors, as Voorwinde explains;

At times the New Testament writers seemed plainly aware that they or others from amongst themselves were writing Scripture, e.g. 2 Pet.3:16 refers to Paul’s letters and “the rest of the Scriptures.” Especially the Book of Revelation seems rather self-consciously Scriptural (e.g. 1:3; 22:18, 19).[14]

Hence, the standard used by the early church in evaluating the validity of a certain text came by way of its apostolic origin and tradition; “For a NT book to be canonical it is necessary and sufficient that it should have been written by an apostle. Canonicity would be implied in apostolic authorship.”[15] In like fashion, Warfield states; “In every case the principle on which a book was accepted, or doubts about it laid aside, was the historical tradition of apostolicity.”[16] Thus, the early church fathers had an objective standard in which to work. Despite this objective standard, the task of evaluating apostolicity was not always an easy task;

The early Church did at times show some inadequacy in handling this criterion, since some important segments of the Church raised questions on that score against Hebrews and Revelation, which appeared as suspect on other grounds.[17]

      However, there was unanimity with the early post apostolic fathers as to the need and the method of confirming the New Testament teachings and traditions; “Therefore, by ‘tradition’ they meant doctrine which the Lord or His apostles committed to the church, irrespective of whether it was handed down orally or in documents.”[18] Hence, by using this method, the early fathers were careful to include all of the apostolic writings/witness that was binding upon the church. This “apostolic tradition” was well seen within the early writings of the church fathers, whereby, they verified both the methodology used along with the dire need for such a canon of works;

Clement of Rome…in about the year 96 Clement emphasizes the importance of apostolic authority…Ignatius of Antioch: Around 115 Ignatius stated that the teachings of the apostles are known through their writings…Like Clement and Ignatius, Polycarp sees an integral unity between the Old Testament and the apostles…[19]

     However, though the early church went through this process of identification and selection, it cannot be said that the origin of the canon came from the church itself. Rather, the origin of the Biblical canon is of Divine nature and as it has already been mentioned, God’s revealed word is “self verifying.” Note the words of New Testament scholar Leon Morris when he states;

The Church did not originate the Bible. Its inspiration is divine, not ecclesiastical. It stands or falls because of its relationship to God, not to the Church. Moreover, any official action of the Church is late. We do not find it before the last part of the fourth century. But by then the canon had to all its intents and purposes been decided.[20]

     Noting the above citation, it is obvious that the early fathers held to a certain objective criteria for the collection and compilation of the NT documents; however, it was not that process itself that brought validity to the NT documents themselves. Rather, the NT autographs were “dual authored” and although they were written by agents commissioned to produce such works (the apostles and or their agents), ultimately their origin if from the very person of God. Thus, the modern believer can rest assured that the Bible that they possess today came via the painstaking efforts of men who held these texts in most high esteem. Moreover, one can rest assuredly in the fact that the very omnipotent God, who both authored and authorized these texts, compiled them in such a way to bare true witness of Himself.[21]

Extraordinary Factors Involved in the Compiling of the N.T. Documents

      The remainder of this study will focus on Voorwinde’s excellent work, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon,” which systematically lists the many influences that brought urgency to the formulation of the NT canon. First listed is the person of Marcion, who, in the middle of the second century, attempted to redefine both the apostolic writings and the nature of the God-head itself. As a result, Marcion was excommunicated by the church in Rome. However, Marcion’s heresy did not cease with that event. Rather, Marcion went on to edit the New Testament apostolic writings whereby he only accepted ten of the Pauline epistles and the Gospels[22]. Moreover, Marcion edited out all Jewish influences from the writings themselves; thus, producing a work of great perversion.[23]

Next listed are the Gnostics who; “raised in more acute form the questions of tradition and authority that engaged the Apostolic Fathers.”[24] These individuals believed that they had “special knowledge” of the Divine and of human experience and as a result, began to produce non-apostolic works such as the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Truth.”[25] Although these writings relayed many truths, it is also evident that the authors went “beyond Scripture” and deceitfully; “attributed their apocryphal writings to various apostles”[26] and “at times portray the apostles themselves as deficient in knowledge.”[27] Voorwinde adds; “While they did not delimit the canon as Marcion did, the Gnostics also performed a catalytic function in the formation of the canon.”[28]

Lastly, Voorwinde states that; “Later in the second century orthodoxy was to be challenged from yet another direction.”[29] This challenge came via a movement known as Montanism. This movement’s leader, Montanus; “believed that Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit (Paraclete) had now been fulfilled” and that he, “was the Paraclete’s mouthpiece.”[30] Thus, Montanus proclaimed that he and his prophetesses were inspired by God to new revelation, thus, indirectly challenging orthodoxy. However, none of the Montanistic writings were ever “seen as equivalent to Scripture”[31] and the; “Montanist polemic comprised no attack upon the authority or validity of the Biblical writings (Old or New Testament).”[32]

The Early Church Reaction

     “Nobody can doubt that Marcion, the Gnostics and Montanus forced reflection on the canon question” states Voorwinde.[33] As a reaction to these pseudo writings, the church; “felt compelled to create its own canon.”[34] This resulted in the creation of the “The Muratorian Canon.” Believed to have been written in Rome near the close of the second century, the Muratorian Canon; “indicates the books which were recognized as canonical in the Roman church towards the end of the second century” and includes books “very close to our New Testament.”[35] Irenaeus, “who’s writings are contemporary with the Muratorian list,”[36] formulated a similar canon. In regards to the modern day canonical list, variation is seen with these comments;

He does not seem to have had Hebrews in his canon, and there is some uncertainty as to whether he accepted the general epistles (except 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John). He refers to the Shepherd of Hermas as “scripture” but does not include it in the list of apostolic writings.[37]

     Likewise, the “Ante-Nicene” father Tertullian; “had 22 books in his canon — the four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude and Revelation.”[38] Lastly, there is the church father Origen, who, according to F.F. Bruce; “acknowledged the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline epistles and Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation as ‘undisputed’ books.”[39] These efforts lead to an amazing majority consensus of what the modern believer would call the New Testament. This agreement included the Gospels, Acts, the entirety of the Pauline Corpus, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. Still contested in various ways were Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John (verified in the fourth century) and Jude.[40] In reference to this process of identifying the apostolic writings, Nicole states;

The strength of this criterion increases as years pass by. In a sense we are privileged as compared with the people of the Church until AD 400, since they were exposed to some indecision with respect to the antilegomena (Hebrews, Revelation, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude). They were closer to the original oral message of Jesus and the apostles and on that account were perhaps in a lesser need of a fixed canon. Meanwhile, since the year AD 200 there has been consensus on the 20 other books, known as homologoumena (“agreed upon”).[41]

     Thus, it is seen that the process and criteria of the early church in identifying the apostolic writings, often lead to outstanding agreement very early in the church’s infancy. Agreement and consensus was found on at least twenty of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament in the early to middle third century; with near full agreement at the close of the fourth century;

The Synod at Rome in 382 recognized the 27 books and them alone as canonical…The synods at Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 ratify the synod at Rome…The Ethiopian Church acknowledges the canonical books of the larger Christian Church plus eight additional works dealing primarily with church order…So although the consensus was not perfect, by the end of the fourth century the New Testament canon is officially fixed in the sense of being ecclesiastically defined and universally accepted. From this time on there was no real challenge to the canon until the time of the Enlightenment.[42]

Summary

     As it has been demonstrated, many influences played a part in the early church’s gathering and formulation of the New Testament canon. Early and often heretical teachings forced the hand of the father’s into a position of necessity, whereby they undertook a painstaking effort to identify and canonize the apostolic writings. Thus, in effect, those in the modern church can be thankful of the efforts of the early heretical sects such as the Marcionism, Gnosticism and Montanism. The destructive efforts of these groups were overshadowed by the sovereign and Living God who, through His servant Paul in Romans 8:28 proclaims; “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”[43] Hence, the Lord brought good out of evil intent and the church corporate is stronger therein.

Likewise, it has been demonstrated that the fathers themselves used the objective standard of “apostolicity” to determine which writings were to be included into the New Testament canon. Thus, guided by the Holy Spirit, the early fathers identified and included all of the “God breathed” documents that the church now calls the New Testament. Praise God for the blessing of His self revealing word and for rising up individuals to partake in this most important process.


[1] Stephen Voorwinde. The Formation of the New Testament Canon. Vol. 60. Geelong: Vox Reformata, 1995.

[2] Roger Nicole. “The Canon of the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (1997): 199.

[3] Ibid, Nicole; OT (Old Testament)

[4] Ibid, Voorwinde

[5] Ibid. Nicole, pg. 200.

[6] Robert K. Brown. Philip W. Comfort. The New Greek English Interlinear New Testament. UBS 4th, Nestle-Aland 27th. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

[7] “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB)

[8] Nicole lists these as the following: “Matthew, John (gospel, epistles, Revelation), 13 epistles of Paul, 2 epistles

of Peter.” (Nicole, pg. 200)

[9] A concept known as “expanded apostolicity.”

[10] Ibid. Nicole

[11] Ibid. Voorwinde

[12] There were in fact, three criteria’s for a MSS to be recognized as Divine Scripture; apostolicity, catholicity and orthodoxy.  For the sake of this study, the latter two criteria’s are to be viewed as sub-categories of the former due to the self verifying aspect of the apostle’s works. For a better understanding of this concept, see Daniel Wallace’s interview with John Ankerberg on the textual history and formation of the canon at the URL provided below:  <http://vodpod.com/watch/3231892-dan-wallace-on-how-the-nt-canon-was-formed>.

[13] “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” (Eph. 2:20, NASB) 

[14] Ibid. Voorwinde; “and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you,as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:15-16, NASB)

[15] Ibid. Nicole

[16] Ibid. Voorwinde

[17] Ibid. Nicole, pg. 201

[18] Daniel Hoffman. “The Authority of the Scriptures and the Apostoloc Doctrine in Ignatius of Antioch.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 1 (1985): 74.

[19] Ibid. Voorwinde

[20] Ibid

[21] Although this form of argumentation is circular, it is not of flagrant circularity. As Van Til explained, all questions of ultimate faith commitment are circular in nature. This would be similar to questioning a “Rationalist” and asking them for reasons for their position of rationalization. Moreover, the Biblical witness commands the believer to “presuppose” the Triune God of Scripture as the ultimate source of epistemology; “that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself,in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3, NASB). For a better understanding of this concept, see; “Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic” at the URL provided below: <http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/frame_ligonier.html>.

[22] There is positive evidence that Marcion edited the Gospel of Luke.

[23] Marcion believed that there was an antithesis between the Old Testament God known as the “Demiurge and the New Testament God of the person of Jesus.

[24] Ibid. Voorwinde

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid. The Montanistic movement did not directly attack orthodox teachings and challenge Scripture. However, these teachings did attempt to add to the already established Biblical witness and thus, were considered outside of orthodoxy. The key word above is “new revelation” of an unauthorized sort.

[33] Ibid. Adolf von Harnack adds; “Marcion is the creator of the New Testament canon and is primarily responsible for the idea of the New Testament.”

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid. Voorwinde adds; “It is the earliest extant document in which the canon is treated in a formal fashion.”

[36] Ibid. See Daniel Wallace’s interview on the John Ankerberg show with URL given in footnote 12.

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid. Voorwinde also states of Tertullian; “He did not treat Hebrews as canonical.”

[39] Ibid. Bruce goes on to proclaim that Origen; “does acknowledge, however, that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude were rejected by some.”

[40] Of Jude, Voorwinde states; “Jude is accepted in the Muratorian Canon and appealed to by Clement, Tertullian and Origen. However, it is not universally accepted. Around 360 it is not part of the canon in the Syrian and African Churches.”

[41] Ibid. Nicole, pg. 205.

[42] Ibid. Voorwinde

[43] Romans 8:28, NASB

Bibliography:

Brown, Robert K. Comfort, Philip W, ed. The New Greek English Interlinear New Testament. UBS 4th , Nestle-Aland 27th . Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

Hoffman, Daniel. “The Authority of the Scriptures and the Apostoloc Doctrine in Ignatius of Antioch.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 1 (1985): 71-79.

New American Standard Bible. Update. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 1997 .

Nicloe, Roger. “The Canon of the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (1997): 199-206.

Voorwinde, Stephen. The Formation of the New Testament Canon. Vol. 60. Geelong: Vox Reformata, 1995.

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