Yesterday I explained how we know that the Old Testament is God’s word and why the New Testament ought to be considered Scripture, on the same level as the Old Testament. Today I’m going to continue that story and explain how the Bible came to take on its current form.
I explained that as the New Testament books were written, they were recognized as Scripture and spread from church to church. Even so, they were being spread somewhat independently: there was no official table of contents for the New Testament. What we can see, however, is that the church recognized that these writings were sacred. They were written by the apostles and their close associates, and these texts were passed around from church to church. The teaching of these books formed the foundation for the early church (Eph. 2:20).
There wasn’t uniformity of opinion over which books were “in” and which were “out,” but it seems that early Christians had a sense of what the New Testament was. When a heretic named Marcion proposed the wrong table of contents (part of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters), the church got some motivation to put together an accurate list of which books were in. Persecution also played a role in pushing the church to define the New Testament. When the emperor Diocletian ordered all sacred books to be burned, Christians had to decide which books were Scripture and therefore worth risking their lives to protect.
Yet there wasn’t an official list of New Testament books for a couple of centuries. What did everyone do in the meantime?
Well, they continued to follow Scripture, which to each particular church would mean the Old Testament and whatever New Testament books they had access to (early on, not every church seems to have been aware of every New Testament book).
Eventually, church leaders began discussing the New Testament canon in order to settle the matter. They looked at all of the books that various churches considered Scripture and put them in three categories: (1) Acknowledged Books, which were clearly authentic and whose apostolic authority was clear, (2) Disputed Books, whose authenticity (2 Peter was here briefly) or apostolic authority (James, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude were here briefly) was less than clear, and (3) Heretical Books, which were known to be inauthentic or contained teaching that contradicted the rest of Scripture.
What these church leaders was looking for was books that authenticated themselves (they had the authority of God behind them), books that the church had incorporated into its public worship (the church was acknowledging through its practices that such books were on the same level as the Old Testament), and books that could be linked to the apostles and their associates.
So it wasn’t that church leaders sat down and created Scripture in the fourth century. They didn’t put together an authoritative list of books that should be considered Scripture (this is the Roman Catholic view). Rather, church leaders asked which books were authoritative, and then made a list based on their findings. The distinction is important. The authority does not come from the leaders making the list. The authority resides in the New Testament books themselves, and the church leaders simply acknowledged which books clearly had the authority. John Frame explains:
“The Roman church has claimed that the authority of the canon rests on that church’s pronouncement. But (1) the church’s conviction on this matter, unanimous since A.D. 367, precedes any statement by a Roman Catholic pope or council; and (2) as we have seen [here he is referencing his excellent book, The Doctrine of the Word of God], God intends to rule his church by a book, not a church authority.”
So in 367 A.D., when Athanasius wrote down a list of the 27 books that we now have in our New Testament, it didn’t create a scandal. It was generally understood that these books had proven themselves as Scripture. So the Bible didn’t come to us through manipulative religious types who wanted to dominate history by choosing only the books that fit their agenda, as some would have us believe. The Bible consists of the words that God wrote through human authors, words that were recognized as God’s words by God’s people, words that were eventually bound together in a single volume for our benefit.
But some will still be nagged by an important question: How can we be sure that we got all the right books? Did we include some erroneous books? Did we exclude some that actually belong? Should we be looking for further revelation today? I’ll address each of these questions in the next post.