Issue 2006 - Volume 25 Number 5
Canon Of Scripture
How the Writings Became Scripture
The New Testament was not written all at once. It was
written over a period of years. A great deal of the things Paul wrote is
Scripture, but not everything he wrote is (i.e. an earlier letter he had
sent to Corinth; I CORINTHIANS 5:9). Some of what he wrote never made it
into the pages of the New Testament. No doubt the same thing could be said
about other writers of portions of the New Testament. And other early
Christians also wrote things of a religious nature which never made it into
the New Testament. And in fact, some pretenders even wrote some things as if
they were Paul, Peter, Thomas, Andrew or some other notable disciple.
So how did writings come to be recognized as Scripture and when the New
Testament was compiled wound up being a part of it, while others failed the
test? Who actually made the decisions? Did they make it during the first
century or much later? Did they just guess or flip a coin? Of course not!
"But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter
of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of
human will, but men moved by the Holy spirit spoke from God." (II PETER
1:20,21). What does the word "Scripture" mean? The Greek word (graphe)
occurs about 50 times in the New Testament and always refers to the written
record of the utterances of God. This includes writings that make up both
the Old and New Testaments.
The English word "canon" (Greek: kanon) came to mean standard
or rule. When one speaks of the canon of Scripture he is referring to those
writings that met the standard and are regarded as being legitimate and
authoritative and therefore have been included in the Bible.
The Word Delivered
"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to
you..." (I CORINTHIANS 11:23). The writers of the New Testament wrote
by inspiration. They wrote things as given to them by direct revelation from
God (II TIMOTHY 3:16,17). Scripture is not a result of guesswork but rather
Divine plan and action. When one rejects the teachings of the Bible, he has
rejected God Himself.
God told the writers of the Bible what to say and when to say it.
Regarding the New Testament, there are actually eight human agents through
whom Jesus revealed His New Covenant by the written word. They are Matthew,
Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude. While God also revealed His
will through the spoken word (through both apostles and prophets), He did
not cause it all to be written down in permanent form. What He did
cause to be written is adequate for our spiritual needs and guidance. It is
complete, and is referred to as Scripture.
We now have a pretty good idea concerning the approximate dates of
writing for most of the New Testament. Refer to the chart on the back for
these dates and other information.
"And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles'
teaching..." (ACTS 2:42). These writings did not become Scripture
because years later some scholars got together and decided to bestow that
honor upon them. They were Scripture before the ink was dry. The writings
were accepted as Scripture immediately by the church. There was no gradual
evolving to it at all, as some liberal theologians suggest today. The only
things gradual about it was the spread of the copies of the initial
documents to the ancient world and later the compiling of the writings into
one book. The apostle Paul quotes Luke's gospel in 65 A.D. and refers to it
as Scripture (compare I TIMOTHY 5:18 with LUKE 10:7) and Peter refers to
Paul's writings as Scripture (II PETER 3:16).
The liberal theologians try to diminish from the importance of following
the Bible today by saying these writings were regarded as just plain letters
by the church in the first century and that it wasn't until the second and
third century that they mistakenly became regarded as authoritative
Scripture. So, we do not really have to obey the doctrines of the
Bible, they say, as long as we get the proper loving spirit and the general
goodness it promotes. These verses, and others, show that they are wrong,
that these writings were regarded as authoritative Scriptures of God from
the time they were written.
Promise, Providence and Canonicity
"...But the word of the Lord abides forever. And this is the word which
was preached to you." (I PETER 1:25). God was and is determined that
His word will not be destroyed! It will never be overthrown or obliterated,
though many dark forces have tried in the past and others continue to this
day. During the first three centuries of the existence of the New Testament
Scriptures, countless efforts were made by the enemies of God to eradicate
Christianity from the earth. For example, Diocletian, emperor of Rome,
decreed in 305 A.D. that all Christian literature be destroyed throughout
the world. It was thought that if the Scriptures could be destroyed, then
the new faith would fail. That is probably true, for there can be no faith
apart from the word (ROMANS 10:17). But God would not permit it to happen.
Only Divine intervention can explain why the most powerful and cruel civil,
military and religious forces that the world could muster failed in their
efforts, as did cultural and social pressures. Even opponents from within
the church itself failed to corrupt the Scriptures which the Lord had given
to His people.
When early Christians received a new Scripture from one of the eight
writers, they would make copies to send on to other Christians in other
localities, who in turn would do the same. In fact, they were told to follow
this procedure (see COLOSSIANS 4:16; I THESSALONIANS 5:27 for examples).
These writings were already being circulated and accepted as Scripture when
early Christians decided to gather them all into one compilation. This
compilation came to be known as the canon of Scripture. While it is true
that some tried to get other writings included, and a few others complained
that they did not want some included that were, the issue of what belonged
in the Bible had already been settled. Writings were refused a place that
were not written by either an apostle or someone approved by an apostle,
since Jesus had promised to reveal all His truth through these apostles. It
was rather easy to tell forgeries from the genuine, due to glaring mistakes
The history of the Bible certainly shows the care, on both God's part as
well as the parts of faithful and courageous men and women, that went into
its formation and preservation. "...we also constantly thank God that
when you received the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word
of men , but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its
work in you." (I THESSALONIANS 2:13).
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 10.4; April 2003
How We Got The New Testament
Everyone understands that the New Testament was not written by one man and
that it was not written at one time. In fact, at least eight different
inspired men wrote various parts of the New Testament over a period of
several years. Furthermore, we know that we do not have all the writings of
even these eight men. For example, Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:9 that
he had written an earlier epistle to the church at Corinth. That letter has
not been preserved for us. It is likely that some other writings of Paul, as
well as those of Peter, James, Matthew, etc., are not included in the New
Testament and have been lost forever.
So, we ask: How did the books that are in the New Testament get there? Who
decided that these should be included and others should be excluded? Do we
have all the books that we should have? Basically, these questions concern
what is called the "canon" of Scripture. "Canon"
literally suggests the idea of meeting a standard or system of rules. When
we talk about the canon of Scripture, we are talking about those writings
that adhered to a certain standard or set of rules. The writings that met
those standards and rules were viewed as being legitimate and authoritative.
These are the ones that were included in the New Testament.
But, who established those rules and standards? And, in a practical way, can
we be sure that when we pick up our New Testaments today we have an accurate
recording of the message that God wanted us to receive? We'll continue our
study of these important questions in this short series of lessons.
Paul wrote, "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered
to you..." (1 Cor. 11:23). The writers of the New Testament wrote by
inspiration. The words they penned were given by the direct revelation of
God (2 Timothy 3:16,17). He told them what to say and how to say it. When
the inspired men of the first century wrote, the product of their work was
immediately acknowledged and accepted by those in the church. They
"continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42) and
they received those teachings "not as the word of men, but as it is in
truth, the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). These writings were
"Scripture" before the ink had dried. (The word
"Scripture" is used about 50 times in the New Testament and always
refers to the written record of the will of God. Thus, the word
"Scripture" can be accurately applied to the things found in both
the Old and New Testaments.) Some argue that there was a gradual evolving of
thought concerning the Scripture - that only after a long period did these
writings come to be regarded as an authoritative source. That simply is not
true. Certainly there was a gradual process of spreading and distributing
these writings around the world (Colossians 4:16). Ultimately there was a
compiling of these works into one book. (There is some evidence that
compilations of the various books that make up our New Testament began as
early as 115 A.D. - perhaps only a few years after the death of the last
apostle). But the actual writings were regarded as Scripture immediately.
Paul (writing in about 65 A.D.) quotes Luke's gospel and refers to it as
Scripture (see 1 Timothy 5:18 and Luke 10:7). Peter (in 66 A.D.) mentions
Paul's writings and calls them Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
We know that the inspired writings of the first century were widely
circulated among Christians of that time (see Col. 4:16 and 1 Thess. 5:27).
It is clear that those early Christians held the sacred writings in highest
esteem and regarded them as the basis of their religious authority.
Within the first 50 years after the apostles there were several writers who
made frequent appeal to the authority of what we now know as the New
Testament books. Clement of Rome, in his Epistles to the Corinthians (A.D.
95) makes reference to Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, Romans, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1
Peter and Ephesians. The epistles of Ignatius (A.D. 115) and Polycarp (A.D.
130) refer to various New Testament books. Justin Martyr (A.D.100-165) made
extensive appeal to the four Gospels and mentions Acts and Revelation.
Early heresies initiated by the Gnostics and others required that faithful
brethren make a defense of the inspired writings. This they did, and we have
the record of their defense preserved unto this day. In the process of
defending the New Testament works, they actually insured that we would have
historical verification of the writings that were known to be produced by
inspired men. Someone has said, "in the struggle with Gnosticism the
canon was made."
Other Christian writers came a little later. Among these were Clement of
Alexandria, Irenaeus and Tertullian. Writing in the period from A.D. 170 to
A.D. 220, they made many references to New Testament books. For instance,
Irenaeus mentions Paul's epistles over 200 times. Questions about the canon
of Scripture were already settled long before a "church council"
was convened to discuss the matter at Carthage in A.D. 397. The
"council" only "confirmed" what was already known to be
A legitimate question to ask is: Do we have all the New Testament? In other
words, are we sure that all of the writings that should have been included
were, in fact, included when the canon of Scripture was compiled? The answer
is, YES. In order for books to be considered New Testament Scripture, they
had to be confirmed as the work of an inspired apostle or of a prophet so
closely associated with the apostles as to imply apostolic approval of their
writing. (This accounts for the inclusion of the writings of Mark and Luke.)
While there are some other writings that claim apostolic authorship, they
are easily shown to be forgeries. They contradict the acknowledged and
genuine apostolic writings. And, furthermore, it has been proved that most
of them were written long after the apostles died. Actually, scholarly
attacks against the New Testament canon have always been in regard to the
books that are included, not those that are excluded. It is hard to find a
scholar who says that more books should be added to the New Testament. No
other writings come even close to bearing the marks of true inspiration and
apostolic authority. A strong defense can be made for each of the 27 books
that we find in our New Testament today. They are not there because some
"church council" decided to put them there. Rather, they are there
because they were accepted by a consensus of early Christians and churches
that knew the apostles and prophets who actually wrote the books, We repeat
that the question of the canon of Scripture had long been settled before the
first "council" was held to discuss the subject. That council only
went on record as approving what was already acknowledged.
We have been looking at the process by which our New Testament came into
existence. Actually, the title "New Testament" was apparently not
used until near the end of the second century. But, the sacred writings that
make up our New Testament were well known. They were widely circulated among
Christians of that era. It is interesting to study the history of how these
writings were handed down to us today.
There is one very important point for us to remember as we ponder this
subject. Namely, we should never forget that God's hand of providence was
guiding the process of preserving His Word. Look at His promises about this:
Isaiah 40:8, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of
our God shall stand for ever."
Matthew 24:35, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall
not pass away."
1 Peter 1:25, "But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is
the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. "
It is clear that God was and is determined that His Word will not be
destroyed. Regardless of the actions that men may take, God's Word will
stand. We know that there were several attempts throughout history to
obliterate God's word. For example, Diocletian, emperor of Rome, decreed in
305 A.D. that all Christian literature be destroyed throughout the world.
His idea was that if the Scriptures could be destroyed, then the new faith
would also vanish. He was probably right (remember that "faith cometh
by hearing" the word of God - Romans 10:17). But God would not allow
this to happen. Think of it -- the most powerful and cruel of political
forces could not remove God's Word. When we pick up our New Testament and
begin to read, we can be sure that we have the literal and infallible Word
of God. Written by inspired men, handed down by faithful Christians,
preserved by the mighty God - it is the "engrafted word which is able
to save your souls" (James 1:21).
By Greg Gwin
From Expository Files 7.6; June 2000
The two articles included in this issue of BC
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