6 Overviews of the New Testament Canon
The following is a paper presented during graduate school at what was then known as Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. Why post differing views concerning the New Testament canon? I am glad you ask!
The development of the New Testament Canon at first glance would appear to some as a possible basic definition of where the New Testament came from originally. In this presentation we will show that there is truly not a precise answer to what appears to be such a simple question. Especially since Christianity is based on the facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To base a religion on such facts one needs to be able to provide “…an answer for the hope we have…” (1st Peter 3:15), in that many saved and unsaved alike individuals cannot provide an answer to what the canon is, regrettably, but much less where it came from, and why these particular twenty seven books are what we, as Christian’s, believe as our guide to eternal salvation based on the aforementioned death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As a Christian, to make such a bold statement of not knowing precisely the origin of the New Testament canon may not appear to have any substance in regard to salvation, yet so many seem to give little if any thought of why they believe what they do, other than a particular belief has been introduced and accepted as fact. Here in lies possibly one of the problems to the decline of Christianity in our society today, we have accepted the teachings, or lack thereof, and yet when confronted with a situation of why we believe what we do the standard answer has become faith in the inspired Word of God. The obvious next question would then have to be, where did the inspired Word of God come from? This being the key reason for the topic of this discussion, along with to show there are many answers to the previously stated question concerning the inspired Word of God, and in particular the origin of the New Testament canon. To do this we will show numerous sources, all with differing accounts, of the origin of the New Testament canon. However, it would be unjust to make such a statement without first defining our topic prior to defending the research.
The Canon: A definition
The canon in simple terms deals with how many books are in the Bible, and what the basis for each one is to be included. However, to be fair in defining the development of the New Testament canon we will look at different definitions, albeit most do agree on this area, simply to establish our foundation of research.
Canon- the standard by which the sixty-six books in the Bible and their content were determined and the basis upon which they were included in Scripture. 1
Canon – handed down by the apostles sometimes know as the “rule of faith” (a Greek word meaning measuring stick”). 2
Canon – derived from the Greek word kanon. Originally it referred to a straight rod or a ruler which was used as a test for straightness or a measurement of length. It also came to symbolize anything which constituted a rule, norm, or standard. 3
As we can already see the definitions of canon are in fact similar, yet in the following statements, we will also be able to show its use in the New Testament and other brief examples that we may use throughout in the development of the New Testament canon.
The Greek word for canon appears in the New Testament four times. In 2 Corinthians 10:13, 15, 16 it refers to an area or sphere of ministry that God determined for Paul. The word also appears in Galatians 6:16, where it describes the standard that Paul wants believers to follow.
In Christian history the term canon was first used to describe doctrines which constituted the basic beliefs and practices of the church. It was a synonym for orthodoxy in belief and practice. As time passed, it also came to refer to those scriptures which Christians regarded as normative for the church and which contained approved doctrine. These books became the canon of the New Testament.4 With our foundation laid; let’s now begin to look at the differing accounts of the development of the New Testament canon. For purposes of simplicity, we will simply title each of the following sections on the source from which they came.
The New Testament its Background and Message
The criteria for determining canonicity are difficult to determine precisely. Some books were quickly and widely received. Others appear to have been severely questioned and little used. Some books were accepted into the authoritative collection of Scripture in one locale but omitted in other places.5 This statement alone establishes our argument on the difficulty in showing the development of the New Testament canon. However, this is simply one statement, throughout the rest of our discussion a solid case, not only for the development, but for the difficulty in determining precisely how the development took place will be proven.
The first Christians had none of the books of the New Testament since the books were in the process of being written. However, they did possess the Old Testament, oral teaching about Jesus’ ministry and redemptive work, and direct revelation from God coming through Christian prophets.
Evidence of growth of the canon appears in the use of canonical writings by early Christian writers. This type of proof is evidence represents the best proof available up to the end of the second century. Other sources include opinions of certain writers or councils. These include:
The Canon of Marcion, The Murstorian Canon, The Festel Letter of Athanasius, and the Third Council of Carthage.
The third and final source of this section includes the contents of ancient manuscripts. For example, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus contains the entire New Testament and part of the Old Testament in the sections that have been preserved.6
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology
In this section we will look at a different type of development in that the definition remains the same, while either more or less detail is added or taken away, furthering our discussion on the complexity of the development of the New Testament canon.
The earliest list of NT books containing only twenty seven appeared in A. D. 367 in a letter of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. The formation of the NT canon was not a conciliar decision. The earliest ecumenical council, Nicea in 325, did not discuss the canon. The first undisputed decision of a council on the canon seems to be from Carthage in 397, which decreed that nothing should be read in the church under the name of divine Scripture except the canonical writings. The council could list only those books that were generally regarded by the consensus of use as properly a canon. The New Testament canon must therefore be regarded as a process rather than an event, and a historical rather than a biblical manner. The coming of the Word of God in print is only slightly more capable of explication than the coming of the Word of God incarnate.7
Thus again we have shown though alike in some areas, the ultimate decree from this particular source, is an example of comparing where the canon of the New Testament originated to the coming of God. While on the subject of Theology of the canon, or the New Testament itself, we will continue with like kind sources for the continuity or flow of thought in our discussion of our topic.
The traditional Roman Catholic position is that it is through the church that we come to understand the Bible and to be convinced of its divine authorship. The church, which was present before the Bible, gave us the Bible. It decided what books would be canonized. It testifies that these particular books originated from God, and therefore embody His message to us. Further, the church supplies the correct interpretation of the Bible. The church and ultimately the pope give us the true meaning of the Bible.8
Though this particular argument may not directly relate to the development of the New Testament canon, the significance is of theological manner in providing views from numerous sides of what we have established as a definition of the canon, thus leading us to use these types of defense in our argument of not having a simple historical, and factual view to base the development on the New Testament on. The last of these types of evidences to be presented is from Dr. Elmer Towns.
Theology for Today
Most scholars believe that the New Testament canon was completed by A. D. 100. However, some feel it was completed earlier. Others, (usually those who want to deny the supernatural predictions of some of the prophets); say it was not completed until 200 or later. The books of the New Testament were adopted on the basis of their own authority over all rivals for Scripture. And after their adoption there has been almost no debate concerning the issue.9
This paragraph, from Dr. Towns, can in itself once again give us a basis for the argument of the development of the New Testament canon. Words, such as most, some, usually and others prove the doubt in which the development actually took place. This is not to say any or all are wrong or incorrect, simply making the point of the development of the New Testament canon is a very debatable topic for discussion and does not give the simple answer to history.
Dr. towns continues in his writings confirming other books have been discovered and do exist from apostolic time, but that man has chosen which ones are to be canonized, as is the case with the development of the New Testament, but also, that some books are still used today in which are not included in the New Testament, yet possibly could have been included depending upon the particular pope at the time.
Differing views have thus far been presented, some based on theology, others on different sources. At this point two separate examples of historical nature will be presented, again showing, though similar, differing accounts of the development of the New Testament canon.
An Introduction to the New Testament
One could have used this particular source for our entire discussion due to the fact in depth views are given concerning the arguments being presented here. However, due to the amount of information given, only the historical data will be used as to show in the following section even it can be disputed based on the writer and other circumstances involved in our topic. The following first sentence emphasizes the point in our discussion.
If we think of the New Testament canon as a “closed” list of recognized books, the principal turning points are well known and not largely in dispute.
The first known such closed list to come down to us is that of Marcion. More important, the idea of New Testament Scripture, certainly well established in the first part of the second century, pre-supposes some sort of canonical limit sooner or later. By the end of the second century, the Muratorian list, though virtually valueless as a guide to the origin of the New Testament books to which it refers, reflects the view of the great church in recognizing a New Testament canon not very different from our own. In other words, the Gospels, Acts, the thirteen Paulines, 1 Peter, and 1 John are universally accepted very early; most of the remaining contours of the New Testament canon were already established.
The Cheltenham manuscript includes all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James and Jude. While the Easter Letter by Athanasius is the first to contain all twenty seven New Testament books. The sixtieth canon of the Council of Laodicea includes all twenty seven books except the Apocalypse. The Third Council of Carthage recognized the twenty seven New Testament books, and thereafter in the West there was little deviation from that stance. 10
This historical account does indeed give us a timeline and affirmation of the lists, yet still shows the development of the canon of the New Testament has its difficulties. One last example of the historical nature and we will conclude this topic of discussion by validating our point, yet leaving the reader with a thought to digest our subject.
History of Christianity
Where the Hebrews had appealed to a single collection of old writings, the Christians had two collections, the Old and the New Testaments. They were not quite sure which books was part of this written canon, though Irenaeus was clear that there were four gospels that described Jesus’ life. Many other gospels were used as well, especially by the Gnostics, but were rejected by Irenaeus and the Christians as fictional.
According to this source the canon as we know it was not agreed upon until the fourth century, although the most important writings, the gospels, and most of the letters, were fairly universally accepted by the time of Tertullian.11
The development of the New Testament canon is clearly a debatable topic. As we have shown throughout this writing, there are many views of the canonicity of the New Testament. We have introduced theological facts, along with historical data, showing numerous examples and writings from experts in the fields we have discussed.
Though many agree with, me included, the entire Word of God, the development of the New Testament canon is a very debatable subject to say the least. Throughout history, and even today, there are different religions using what they consider the New Testament canon. We as Christian’s, as stated in our introduction, “…must have an answer for the hope we have…”, thus these types of cannot be contained in one writing or sitting, but must be researched and presented in a way the Holy Spirit leads the believer. There will always be questions regarding the Word of God, and for the unbeliever, these questions must be answered as God has instructed us to make disciple of all nations, better known as the Great Commission.
A final thought, or quote from a previously used source to finalize the point being made: “It is a false impression that the church took inordinately long to recognize the authority of the documents that constitute the New Testament. Rather discussion of the canon is a discussion of a closed list of authoritative books. There was an authoritative message from the beginning”.12
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