In this section we will cover the giving and canonization of the New Testament from a believing perspective, which means that we base our teaching directly upon the Bible itself. This, and this alone, is true faith. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Any doctrine that is not based on the Word of God is not of faith, but it is human tradition and has no divine authority.
Contemporary books on the history of the Bible commonly parrot the Catholic doctrine that the development of the canon of the New Testament was haphazard and occurred over a long period of time and was accomplished by Catholic synods.
“The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council. ... in the Synod of Hippo (393) the great Doctor's view prevailed, and the correct Canon was adopted” (“Canon of the New Testament” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. III, 1908).
Further, it is common for Bible scholars to say that the authors of the New Testament writings did not know that they were writing scripture. Consider the following example of this from the influential International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which accompanies most computer Bible software packages:
“When the actual work of writing began no one who sent forth an epistle or framed a gospel had before him the definite purpose of contributing toward the formation of what we call ‘the Bible.’ ... They had no thought of creating a new sacred literature” (“Canon, New Testament,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).
This is gross heresy. We must understand that most books on the history of the Bible in the past 100 and more years were written by men who have been infected deeply with the spirit of ecumenism and by the skepticism that has permeated biblical scholarship.
If we let the Bible speak for itself, we will know the truth and will be able to avoid the unbelief of this age.
1. The New Testament was written under divine inspiration.
Jesus Christ received words from God the Father (Jn. 17:8) and He promised that those words would not pass away (Mat. 24:35). He further promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles into all truth, would bring things to their remembrance, and would show them things to come (Jn. 14:25-26; 16:12-13). Thus, the apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament did not have to depend upon their fallible human devices. Dr. Edward F. Hills wisely observes: “The New Testament contains the words that Christ brought down from heaven for the salvation of His people and now remain inscribed in holy Writ. ... For ever, O LORD, Thy Word is settled in heaven (Ps. 119:89). Although the Scriptures were written during a definite historical period, they are not the product of that period but of the eternal plan of God. When God designed the holy Scriptures in eternity, He had the whole sweep of human history in view. Hence the Scriptures are forever relevant. Their message can never be outgrown. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the Word of our God shall stand for ever (Isa. 40:8).”
Paul knew that the apostles were writing the very words of God under guidance of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-13).
Paul considered his writings to be authoritative, the very words of God (1 Cor. 11:2; 14:37; Gal. 1:11-12; Col. 1:25-28; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14).
Paul expected his writings to be circulated from church to church (Gal. 1:2; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27).
Paul stated that Scripture was being written by the New Testament prophets by divine revelation under inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 3:4-5).
Peter said that the word being preached by the apostles was the word of God (1 Pet. 1:25).
Peter put the commandments of the apostles on the same level as that of the Old Testament prophets (2 Pet. 3:2). A Jew would not have dared to make such a claim if he were not convinced that the apostolic writings were Holy Scripture, because he looked upon the Old Testament prophets as the very oracles of God.
Peter calls the epistles of Paul “Scripture” and puts them on the same level as the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:15-16). “Although some [of Paul’s epistles] had been out for perhaps fifteen years, the ink was scarcely dry on others, and perhaps 2 Timothy had not yet been penned when Peter wrote. Paul’s writings were recognized and declared by apostolic authority to be Scripture as soon as they appeared” (Wilbur Pickering).
The book of Revelation was written as the prophetic Word of God (Rev. 1:3; 21:5; 22:18-19).
Luke claimed perfect understanding of the things of the Gospel, which can only come by divine revelation (Luke 1:3). Luke is either making a vain boast or he is claiming inspiration.
Paul quotes from the Gospel of Luke and calls it Scripture, putting it on the same level as Deuteronomy (compare 1 Tim. 5:18; Deut. 25:4; Lk. 10:7). Wilbur Pickering observes: “Taking the traditional and conservative point of view, 1 Timothy is generally thought to have been written within five years after Luke. Luke was recognized and declared by apostolic authority to be Scripture as soon as it came off the press, so to speak” (The Identity of the New Testament Text, chapter 5).
In warning the believers of false teachers, Jude refers to the “words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). He holds these words up as the divine standard.
John held up the teaching of the apostles as the absolute standard of Truth (1 John 4:6).
That the Bible is the infallible Word of God is foundational to every aspect of the Bible text-version issue. The Bible cannot be treated merely as another book. It must always be treated as something holy and supernatural, something set apart from all other writings.
When it comes to Bible texts and versions we must be concerned with the words and details because it is verbally, plenarily inspired. We cannot accept the modern text position that thousands of words are somehow of no consequence. Our goal at all times is to have the very words that the Spirit of God gave to holy men of old.
2. The New Testament was completed and sealed.
The New Testament Scripture was finished in the days of the Apostles. Paul and Jude described the revelation of God for this age as “the faith” (1 Ti. 4:1; Jude 3). It can be called “the New Testament faith.” It is a complete body of truth consisting of the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles.
Jude said it was “once delivered to the saints.” This clearly speaks of finality and completion. “The saints” are, first of the, the prophets, the holy men of God, to whom the revelation was given. The saints, are, secondly, the holy brethren in the New Testament churches who received the revelation as the word of God (1 Th. 2:13).
The New Testament Scripture was sealed in the final chapter with a solemn warning against adding to or taking away from it (Rev. 22:18-19).
Since the apostles knew that “all Scripture” is necessary to make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17), it is utterly ridiculous to think that they would not be involved in completing the canon of Scripture for the churches. They were foundation builders (“and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” Eph. 2:20). In such a business, nothing would be more important than collecting the newly-written Scripture.
This was probably done at Ephesus under the direction of John, who wrote the final five books of the New Testament and outlived the other apostles.
We aren’t told this exactly in Scripture, because we don’t need to know it. We are told enough to know that it happened’ we are told everything God wants us to know (De. 29:29); and we accept the Word of God by faith. (“But without faith it is impossible to please him,” Heb. 11:6).
The Roman Catholic Church claims that it gave us the Bible, but we know that this is not true, not only because the Bible was completed in the days of the apostles long before there was a Roman Catholic Church, but also for the following two irrefutable reasons:
Roman Catholic doctrine and practice is not found in the Bible. The churches described in the New Testament are nothing like the Catholic Church. That “church” was formed over a period of many centuries following the death of the apostles, as false teachers corrupted the New Testament church and added their man-made traditions. In the New Testament we find no papacy, no priesthood after the fashion of Rome’s, no sacraments that are added to faith for salvation, no archbishops or cardinals, no baptismal regeneration, no mass, no infant baptism, no last unction, no Mary as queen of heaven, no Mary as Mother of God, no Immaculate Mary, no Mary assumed into heaven, no prayers to the saints, no treasury of grace, no purgatory, no holy relics or holy robes or holy water, no crucifixes or candles or cathedrals or monks, no “celibate” pastors, no enforced days of fasting, no prohibition against marriage or against eating meat, nothing about the church of Rome having preeminence other other churches.
Not only is Roman Catholic doctrine and practice not found in the Bible, it contradicts the Bible, so it cannot be its source. Catholic dogmas such as the papacy, Mariolatry, the Saints, the Priesthood, the Mass, and Purgatory are not only not found in the New Testament, they contradict plain New Testament teaching and practice. Consider a few examples:
The papacy contradicts 1 Pet. 5:1-4, among many other passages. Mariolatry and the Saints contradict 1 Tim. 2:5. The Mass contradicts 1 Cor. 11:23-26. Purgatory contradicts 2 Cor. 5:1-8 and Phil. 1:23. The Catholic Priesthood contradicts the New Testament in that Christ alone is a priest after the order of Melchisedec (Heb. 7:21-27) and Christ established no priesthood for the New Testament churches other than the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9). There is not one example in the New Testament of a priest being ordained and performing the type of ministry that we see in the Roman Catholic Church. The N.T. gives qualifications for elders and deacons but none for priests (1 Tim. 3).
3. The New Testament was received.
We see this in John 16:13; 17:8; Acts 2:41; 8:14; 11:1; 17:11; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:13. Though the record of this history is not extant beyond the pages of Scripture, we know that the reception and canonization of the New Testament books was not the haphazard thing that is described in most books on Bible history. The same Holy Spirit that gave the New Testament Scriptures by inspiration guided the churches in receiving them.
We have already seen evidence from Scripture that the New Testament books were accepted as the Word of God in the apostolic churches. We have further evidence from the writings of church leaders from the first 100 years after the apostles.
Clement of Rome. “Clement of Rome, whose first letter to the Corinthians is usually dated about A.D. 96, made liberal use of Scripture, appealing to its authority, and used New Testament material right alongside Old Testament material. Clement quoted Psalm 118:18 and Heb. 12:8 side by side as ‘the holy word’ (56:3-4). He ascribes 1 Corinthians to ‘the blessed Paul the apostle’ and says of it, ‘with true inspiration he wrote to you’ (47:1-3). He clearly quotes from Hebrews, 1 Corinthians and Romans and possibly from Matthew, Acts, Titus, James and 1 Peter. Here is the bishop [pastor] of Rome, before the close of the first century, writing an official letter to the church at Corinth wherein a selection of New Testament books are recognized and declared by episcopal authority to be Scripture, including Hebrews” (Wilbur Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text). Though we don’t know where Pickering gets the business of Clement being “the bishop of Rome” (since the perversion of the office of bishop had not yet taken hold) or speaking with “episcopal authority” (because the only authority a pastor or bishop has is the Bible itself) the fact remains that Clement, writing at the end of the first century, only a short time after the passing of the apostles, recognizes the New Testament books as Scripture alongside of the Old.
Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippian church in about 115 A.D., “weaves an almost continuous string of clear quotations and allusions to New Testament writings. ... There are perhaps fifty clear quotations taken from Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1 John, and many allusions including to Mark, Hebrews, James, and 2 and 3 John. (The only NT writer not included is Jude!) His attitude toward the New Testament writings is clear from 12:1: ‘I am sure that you are well trained in the sacred Scriptures. ... Now, as it is said in these Scriptures: “Be angry and sin not,” and “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” Blessed is he who remembers this.’ ... In either case he is declaring Ephesians to be ‘sacred Scripture.’ A further insight into his attitude is found in 3:1-2. ‘Brethren, I write you this concerning righteousness, not on my own initiative, but because you first invited me. For neither I, nor anyone like me, is able to rival the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who, when living among you, carefully and steadfastly taught the word of truth face to face with his contemporaries and, when he was absent, wrote you letters. By the careful perusal of his letters you will be able to strengthen yourselves in the faith given to you, “ which is the mother of us all”...’ This from one who was perhaps the most respected bishop in Asia Minor, in his day. He was martyred in A.D. 156” (Pickering).
Justin Martyr (died 165 A.D.) testified that the churches of his day met on Sundays and “read the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” (Apology, I, 67). He also said: “For the apostles in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, thus handed down what was commanded them...” (Apology). “[Just as Abraham believed the voice of God] in like manner we, having believed God’s voice spoken by the apostles of Christ...” (Trypho 119). “And further, there was a certain man with us whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believe in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem” (Trypho 81).
Athenagorus in 177 A.D. quotes Matthew 5:28 and calls it Scripture. “... we are not even allowed to indulge in a lustful glance. For, says the Scripture, ‘he who looks at a woman lustfully, has already committed adultery in his heart’” (Plea).
Theophilus, who was ordained pastor of the church at Antioch in about A.D. 170, quotes from 1 Tim. 2:1 and Rom. 13:7 as “the Divine Word” (Treatise to Autolycus, iii). In quoting from the Gospel of John he says that John was “inspired by the Spirit” (Ibid., ii). He says, “The statements of the Prophets and of the Gospels are found to be consistent, because all were inspired by the one Spirit of God” (Ibid., ii).
Irenaeus died in 202 A.D. and a large number of his works are extant. Their translation into English covers between 600-700 pages in the Ante-Nicene Library. “Irenaeus stated that the apostles taught that God is the Author of both Testaments (Against Heretics IV, 32.2) and evidently considered the New Testament writings to form a second Canon. He quoted from every chapter of Matthew, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, from all but one or two chapters of Luke, John, Romans, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, from most chapters of Mark (including the last twelve verses), Acts, 2 Corinthians, and Revelation, and from every other book except Philemon and 3 John. These two books are so short that Irenaeus may not have had occasion to refer to them in his extant works--it does not necessarily follow that he was ignorant of them or rejected them. Evidently the dimensions of the New Testament Canon recognized by Irenaeus are very close to what we hold today. From the time of Irenaeus on there can be no doubt concerning the attitude of the Church toward the New Testament writings--they are Scripture” (Pickering).
Even some naturalistic modern textual critics have concluded that the New Testament in its current 27-book canon existed in Greek no later than the middle of the 2nd century, which is only about 60 years after the apostles. See David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
From the second century we have evidence that it was customary for each church to have its own copy of the writings of the apostles that they might read and preach from them. “And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites us to the imitation of these noble things” (Justin Martyr, Apology). Wilbur Pickering observes: “Both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus claimed that the Church was spread throughout the whole earth, in their day--remember that Irenaeus, in 177, became bishop of Lyons, in Gaul [ancient France], and he was not the first bishop in that area. Coupling this information with Justin’s statement that the memoirs of the apostles were read each Sunday in the assemblies, it becomes clear that there must have been thousands of copies of the New Testament writings in use by 200 A.D. Each assembly would need a copy to read from, and there must have been private copies among those who could afford them” (The Identity of the New Testament Text).
Surely many believers would be motivated to make their own copies of the Scripture, and doubtless this would have been the case with preachers. I have not seen this important point emphasized in other histories of the Bible, but it is only reasonable. I don’t believe it was a matter of having to purchase a copy from a professional scribe. Though time consuming, it is not that difficult to make a copy of the New Testament. In the first few years of my Christian life, which was B.C. or Before Computers (I was converted in 1973 at age 23), I copied down copious portions of Scripture in my zeal for memorization and in the process of my studies. Had I lived in an earlier time when the Scriptures were not available in printed form, I have no doubt that I would have made my own copy from Genesis to Revelation, no matter how long it took, and I would also have made copies of portions to give away to other brethren and even to unbelievers. During the early months after I was saved I tediously made copies of my testimony by typing it repeatedly and using carbon paper to multiply my efforts, because I was too poor to afford to have it printed. I handed these out in my evangelistic work. I am confident that multitudes of early believers shared this zeal to make copies both of God’s Word and of evangelistic pamphlets. It is only natural, for the believer is born of the Word (Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23), lives by the Word (Mat. 4:4), knows the truth by the Word (John 8:31-32), is a doer of the Word (Jam. 1:22), grows by the Word (1 Pet. 2:2), operates by the faith that comes from the Word (Rom. 10:17), is cleansed by the Word (Eph. 5:26), and defends himself by the Word (Eph. 6:17).
In about the year 208, Tertullian pointed to churches founded by the apostles and indicated that the “authentic writings” were still extant and were the absolute standard by which the truth was measured in the believing churches. He urged heretics to “run to the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, IN WHICH THEIR OWN AUTHENTIC WRITINGS ARE READ, UTTERING THE VOICE AND REPRESENTING THE FACE OF EACH OF THEM SEVERALLY. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find CORINTH. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have PHILIPPI; (and there too) you have the THESSALONIANS. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get EPHESUS. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have ROME, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of the apostles themselves)” (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, 36, cited from Pickering). Pickering observes: “Some have thought that Tertullian was claiming that Paul’s Autographs were still being read in his day (208), but at the very least he must mean they were using faithful copies. Was anything else to be expected? For example, when the Ephesian Christians saw the Autograph of Paul’s letter to them getting tattered, would they not carefully execute an identical copy for their continued use? Would they let the Autograph perish without making such a copy? (There must have been a constant stream of people coming either to make copies of their letter or to verify the correct reading.) I believe we are obliged to conclude that in the year 200 the Ephesian Church was still in a position to attest the original wording of her letter (and so for the others)...”
In A.D. 367 Athanasius, who boldly resisted the Arian heresy denying the deity of Jesus Christ (though he had his own heresies!), published a list of Old and New Testament books that he said were “handed down and believed to be divine.” This list contained all of the 27 books that are in our New Testament today.
All of the Reformation confessions of faith upheld the 66 books of the Bible as divine Scripture. Examples are the Reformed Confession of 1534, the Helvetic Confession of 1536, the Belgic confession of 1561, and the Westminster Confession of 1643, and the Baptist Philadelphia Confession of Faith, 1742, to mention a few. The Westminster says the 66 books of the Bible were “immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the church is finally to appeal unto them.”
What is the significance of these historical facts?
These facts show that the same Spirit that inspired the Scripture enlightened the believers to recognize and receive it (Jn. 16:13; 1 Jn. 2:20). Thus, the process of canonization was not haphazard as it is commonly depicted in contemporary books on the history of the Bible. God did not leave this crucial matter to chance. He guided ever so particularly so that the churches would receive the inspired writings and reject those that were spurious.
The true text of Scripture was not lost among Bible believers in the early centuries; the authentic apostolic writings were still available in the early 3rd century; and there was no need to practice textual criticism in the early centuries of the churches.
The early believers were literate. “...the world into which Christianity was born was, if not literary, literate to a remarkable degree; in the Near East in the first century of our era writing was an essential accompaniment of life at almost all levels to an extent without parallel in living memory” (Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. I, p. 48).
We can expect that the majority of extant manuscripts and versions will in all likelihood represent the pure text of Scripture, because the authentic copies were multiplied greatly throughout all of the Bible-believing churches by the zeal of faithful saints. Corrupt manuscripts and versions were used for a time and in certain localities, such as Egypt, but did not win out because of the providential activity of the Holy Spirit and the vigilance of believers.
We can expect to find the purest text of the New Testament Scriptures not in Egypt but in Asia Minor and Europe. “I believe we may reasonably conclude that in general the quality of copies would be highest in the area surrounding the Autograph and would gradually deteriorate as the distance increased. ... Taking Asia Minor and Greece together, the Aegean area held the Autographs of at least eighteen (two-thirds of the total) and possibly as many as twenty-four of the twenty-seven New Testament books; Rome held at least two and possibly up to seven; Palestine may have held up to three (but in A.D. 70 [when Rome destroyed Jerusalem] they would have been sent away for safe keeping, quite possibly to Antioch); Alexandria (Egypt) held none. The Aegean region clearly had the best start, and Alexandria the worst--the text in Egypt could only be second hand, at best. On the face of it, we may reasonably assume that in the earliest period of the transmission of the N.T. Text the most reliable copies would be circulating in the region that held the Autographs” (Wilbur Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, chapter 5).
4. The New Testament was carefully preserved and transmitted to the next generations (1 Tim. 6:13-14; Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:2).
The believers in the early churches were taught to keep the Scripture “without spot” (1 Tim. 6:13) and to pass along exactly THE SAME things they had been taught by the apostles to faithful men who would be able to teach others (2 Tim. 2:2).
They were taught to carefully transmit the faith to succeeding generations of disciplines and churches. Christ commanded this in Matt. 28:19-20, instructing the churches to teach the disciples to “keep all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” This would require that the believers possess “all things” in writing, which they did in the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles.
There is nothing haphazard or careless about this process. The only ones who would be haphazard or careless in this regard would be the false teachers and nominal Christians.
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