In the past we have discussed the Canon of Scripture, that is, the set of books that appear in our Bible. That earlier Fish Hooks told how establishing the contents of our current New Testament was a drawn-out matter of selecting which books had the status of ‘scripture’ – and there were numerous candidates that didn’t make the cut. But readers have wondered how this process took place – what did that process of selection look like, and what were the criteria?
Let’s begin our story where the Christian church began: at Pentecost when the assembled group of Apostles dramatically received the Holy Spirit and immediately began to preach the Gospel to others. This account is found in Acts 2, and there are three things of which we should take particular note about Peter’s preaching: (1) He takes the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the ‘Old Testament’) to be God’s revealed truth; (2) he anchors his message on eyewitness facts about Jesus; and (3) he interprets both of those with the special spiritual power and authority of an Apostle. These are essentially the same three principles that the early church applied to the selection of the books which they considered ‘Scripture.’
Now the top priority for those first Christians was not to create a new Bible, but to widely preach the Good News of what God had done to redeem His creation. The Apostles, as the ones who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, who had received his personal instruction, and who had been spiritually empowered on Pentecost were at the heart of this initial expansion of the church – what we call the ‘Apostolic Age.’ Paul, though not one of the initial twelve, was personally commissioned by an encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and was thus accepted as a bona-fide Apostle (Acts 9). According to tradition, the Apostles preached the Gospel over a huge geographic region extending from Spain to India. But as the Apostles died off (mostly by martyrdom) it became a priority for the church to preserve their teachings. The writings which we call our New Testament all date from the latter half of the First Century AD (that is, within about 20-70 years of Jesus’ death). However, they were not all neatly collected in one book, and there were also other ‘Christian’ writings in circulation which ranged from pious instructional materials to outright forgeries that propagated false teachings. But which were which?
So it became the job of the ‘Post Apostolic Age’ to sort out which of these writings were truly God’s Spirit-inspired Word for His Church. That wasn’t as easy as holding a big meeting to hammer out the list: the church was widely spread out and persecuted in many places. But the leaders were guided by the same principles that Peter employed: (1) they automatically accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word; (2) they were interested in facts as heard and seen by eyewitnesses, not creative story-telling or later speculation; and (3) they recognized the special authority conferred on the Apostles to not only provide reliable witness to events, but to also interpret them by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
From the writings of early church leaders that have come down to us, we can see that the ‘major’ books of the New Testament were agreed upon quite quickly: by the middle of the 2nd century, if not before. For example, Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop in what is now Lyon, France (who was taught by Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John) in his writings specifically quotes from 21 of our 27 New Testament books, seems to allude to three more, and only fails to mention Philemon, 3 John, and Jude. That was the pattern elsewhere too – the disputes were mainly about the ‘lesser’ books.
It’s common for critics to make much of the fact that ‘finalizing’ the canon of New Testament books would go on for a number of centuries, and some try to portray it as a haphazard or ‘politically motivated’ process that just ‘happened’ to give us our current Bible. But our confidence that our scripture is the inspired Word of God is ultimately not based on the human processes that brought it to us, but on our confidence that our faithful and loving God will not mislead us (Luke 11:10-13). We don’t believe in The Book – we trust it because we believe in our God who inspired and brought it to us as His Word for our salvation in Jesus Christ.