How Did We Get the New Testament Canon?

     When we pick up our Bible each morning and pull at the ribbon marking where we previously left off, we give little thought to how the 66 books collected in that binding came about.  But there was a time when those books were not bound together and understanding what books told the story of God was not taken for granted.  There is history behind how the 37 books of the Old Testament came to general acceptance as the canon, but for the sake of this post, this discussion will focus only on the development of the New Testament canon.

     Gonzalez explains that in the early Church it was typical that readings from a Gospel were shared in the meetings.  However, “Since there was no approved list,” writes Gonzalez, “different Gospels were read in different churches, and the same was true of other books.”[1]  But once a Gnostic named Marcion developed a list of accepted books that excluded the heavier Jewish writings, others in the Church had to respond.  Different lists were generated.  But it was not one list from one person that identified the canon, but instead the consolidation of many lists, debated, accepted, rejected, and revised over time.  Much of the canon simply came about by what was more commonly accepted and supported.  For example, Grudem writes, “Because the apostles, but virtue of their apostolic office, had authority to write words of Scripture, the authentic written teachings of the apostles were accepted by the early church as part of the canon of Scripture.”[2]  Of course, this is just one idea of but one guideline for a canon list; and these lists, if they were to argue against the heresies of people like Marcion, also had to be supported by sound reasoning, understanding of authorship, the contribution of the book, and so-on. 

      There may have been other elements outside of hard, justifiable evidence for which books made the list and which did not. John 10:27 records Jesus saying, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they will follow me” (ESV).  Is it possible that as the disciples of the early Church read specific books, they heard the “God breathed” word of Jesus?  Did they simply recognize that the book was something more than the others, something special?  Another similar element is regula fidei, that is, the Rule of Faith.  Oserhaven defines this as, “the official church teaching that is in agreement with Scripture and is a summary of it.”[3]  Because a clear list of Scripture had not yet been identified within the church, it is possible that the Scripture that lined up with the traditions and teachings of the church—specifically the verbally transmitted gospel and other verbal guidance of the apostles—became the canon.  Those books that did not agree were thrown out.  If this is true, the understanding of the unwritten church doctrines might have played a larger part of the eventual settling on the agreed New Testament canon.   

     [1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 62.
     [2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 62.
     [3] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001), 1043.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
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