The Formation of the New Testament Canon Was a Slow and Gradual Process

Any survey of the history of the church of Jesus Christ in its first few centuries will reveal that the New Testament canon developed over time.  For example, it is obvious from reading the book of Acts that the apostles were not spreading their message about Jesus by passing out New Testaments.  On the contrary, their proclamations were constantly appealing to what we call the Old Testament.  Not until the 4th Century can scholars find a list of 27 writings upon which they can agree matches what we have in the table of contents in our New Testament.  Since that time, the canon has been closed and its contents stable.  Thus, though the New Testament canon has been settled for 16 centuries, it took several centuries to become so.  (See also Chronology of the New Testament Text and Canon.)

“What is really remarkable…is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries among the very diverse and scattered congregations not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.”  –  Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, page 254.

We see in the New Testament (i.e. the 1st Century) that Paul’s letters were accorded a certain status by the apostles themselves (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16; 2 Peter 3:15-16).  Early in the 2nd Century we begin to see that the Gospels were circulating with the same sort of status.  Over the next century or two, other documents were deemed to be apostolic by more and more churches such that these additional documents were added to Paul’s letters and the Gospels as worthy of the same status.  Finally, we see Athanasius bear witness to a commonly-accepted and closed canon in the 4th Century (see also Chronology of the New Testament Text and Canon).

Like leaven that works its way into the whole lump, all 27 writings were eventually accepted by the worldwide church.  Just because the boundaries of the canon weren’t firmly established in the 1st through 3rd centuries does not mean that there was no canon at all in that time period.  The canon began as a seed and developed into a tree – over time.  By the 4th Century, the edges of the canon had been fully trimmed and it was time for the ancient church to close its canon.  We can accept their witness or reject it…but we cannot change it.

Most importantly, since canonicity equates to apostolicity insofar as the New Testament is concerned, by the firming of the borders of the canon in its time, the ancient church has identified for us the writings they deem to have come from the apostles.  Do we think we know better than they?

Criteria for the Canon of the New Testament

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.

It clear from reading the New Testament documents that Jesus and His apostles relied heavily on what we call the Old Testament as documentary evidence and authority for their mission.  In the course of their mission, however, the apostles produced writings of their own.  Nevertheless, these writings were incidental to, and supportive of, their primarily oral endeavors.  The 27 documents they produced, what we call the New Testament, were collected and combined with the then existing Scriptures, divided into what came to be called Old Testament and New Testament.  (See Chronology of the New Testament Text and Canon.)

Scholars studying the formation of the New Testament canon have sought to identify what criterion or criteria were used to decide which of the many books produced in that age would be worthy to include in the category of “Scripture.”  The criteria for canonity used by the ancient church must be inferred by modern scholars because there is no official explanation of criteria to be found in the history of that age, nor was there any central authority empowered to formulate official criteria.  The churches were geographically dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and not centrally controlled.  Because scholarly conclusions are inferences, the lists of criteria below do vary from one another – though only in minor ways.  Also, modern scholars generally believe that the criteria were not uniformly applied.  That is, many modern scholars infer that one criterion might take precedence over another at any given point in time.

(For more bibliographical information on the sources of these quotes, see my Annotated Bibliography on New Testament Text and Canon.)

Here then are the criteria used by the post-apostolic church to determine canonicity as identified by more than thirty modern scholars – some deceased and some still quite active, but all accomplished and respected.  By “modern” I mean the last 150-200 years.  I have included both liberal and conservative voices as my focus is on what is considered historically true, irrespective of theological perspective on that history.  Therefore, I am interested in views from across the spectrum of scholars and not just one particular point on that spectrum.

Aland, Kurt (per Harry Gamble on footnote 29 to page 67 of The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, 1985; a fuller version of this quote can be found in The Canon Debate, ed. McDonald and Sanders, Kindle loc 10332; however, read in its original context – which was The Problem of the New Testament Canon, bibliography – Aland came close to saying that antiquity was the defining criterion)

1. “one can speak only of the principle of having no principles”

Allert, Craig D. (in his book A High View of Scripture?  The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, p. 53-56)

1. Apostolicity
2. Orthodoxy
3. Catholicity and Widespread Use

Allison, Gregg R.  (in “How the Bible Was Formed” an ebook excerpted from his book Historical Theology, Zondervan, 2011)

1. apostolicity
2. antiquity

Best, Ernest (1917-2004) (on page 279ff in “Scripture, Tradition and the Canon of the New Testament” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 61.2 (Spring 1979): 258-289.)

1. apostolic
2. early
3. in accordance with the rule of faith

Blomberg, Craig L. (in a lecture he gave, published by BibleTraining.org and titled “The Canon and the Text of the New Testament“)

1. accepted widely throughout the Christian world
2. non-contradiction with previous Scripture
3. genuinely going back to an apostle or a close associate of an apostle

__________. (in his book Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions, 2014)

1. Apostolicity
2. Catholicity
3. Orthodoxy

Bock, Darrell L. (of Dallas Theological Seminary in his lecture series “New Testament Introduction,”  specifically “Canon of the New Testament Part 4,”).

1. Apostolicity
2. Antiquity
3. Orthodoxy
4. Catholicity

Breshears, Jefrey D. (in chapter 6 “Biblical Canonicity” in his book An Introduction to Bibliology: What Every Christian Should Know About the Origins, Composition, Inspiration, Interpretation, Canonicity, and the Transmission of the Bible, 2014)

1. apostolicity
2. orthodoxy
3. catholicity

Brettler, Marc Z. with Pheme Perkins (from their article “The Canons of the Bible” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford, 2010)

1. apostolic authority
2. consistency with apostolic teaching

Bruce, F. F.  (from his book The Canon of Scripture)

1. apostolic authority
2. antiquity (must come from the 1st Century)
3. orthodoxy (must conform to apostolic faith)
4. catholicity (mere regional acceptance was insufficient)
5. traditional use
6. inspiration
7. other issues

Burkett, Delbert (on p. 110-111 of An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity.  Cambridge University Press, 2002, 618 pages.

1. The rule of faith
2. Apostolic origin
3. Extent of use

Campenhausen, Hans von (on p. 230 of his book The Formation of the Christian Bible per footnote on p. 67 of Harry Gamble’s The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Augsburg Fortress, 1985.)

1. must come from the time closest to Christ, authorship playing no important role

Carson, D. A. (in this video 7:31)

1. apostolic (written by, or associated with, an apostle; from the apostolic period)
2. widespread acceptance by the church (versus mere local acceptance)
3. consistent with apostolic teaching (true, not false, teaching)

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris in their book An Introduction to the New Testament, Zondervan, 1992.

1. conformity to the rule of faith (i.e.orthodoxy)
2. apostolicity
3. widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches

Childs, Brevard S. (in his book The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus, Eerdmans, 2008, p. 19-24)

1. Apostolicity
2. Catholicity
3. Orthodoxy

Dungan, David L. (see Dungan 1975, p. 351 in bibliography)

1. apostolic authorship
2. orthodox content
3. customary usage in the congregations of the Great Church

Ehrman, Bart D. (in his book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.  Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 242-243)

1. Ancient
2. Apostolic
3. Catholic
4. Orthodox

Evans, C. Stephen. “Canonicity, Apostolicity, and Biblical Authority: Some Kierkegaardian Reflections” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation ed. by Bartholomew et al, Kindle location 4127.

1. Apostolic authority

Fisher, Milton C. “The Canon of the New Testament” in Comfort The Origin of the Bible 2012, p. 74-75.

1. divine inspiration (i.e. apostolic authorship or approval)

Flesseman van Leer, Ellen (per footnote on p. 67 of Harry Gamble’s The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Augsburg Fortress, 1985.)

1. apostolicity in the western churches
1. inspiration in the eastern churches

Gamble, Harry Y.  (from his book The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Augsburg Fortress, 1985.)

1. Apostolicity
2. Catholicity
3. Orthodoxy
4. Traditional Usage
5. Inspiration

__________.  (from his article “Canonical Formation of the New Testament” in IVP’s Dictionary of New Testament Background, 2000)

1. traditional use
2. apostolicity
3. catholicity
4. orthodoxy

Goodspeed, Edgar J.  The Formation of the New Testament.  University of Chicago Press, 1926, page 78.

“Only books of apostolic origin were to be accepted in the new scripture [i.e. the New Testament].”

Greenwald, Michael R. (in his essay “The Canon of the New Testament” for The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2011, p. 557-560)

1. usage and dissemination
2. apostolicity (from an apostle or connected to an apostolic authority)
3. conformity to the proper understanding of Christianity
4. catholicity (i.e. applying to the church as a whole)

Grudem, Wayne (from his Systematic Theology lecture “The Canon of Scripture: New Testament Canon” beginning about 29:05)

1. Divine authorship (through human authors)
2. Approved by the apostles

Harris, R. Laird (from his book Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, p. 270-271, 284 and elsewhere)

1. apostolic origin

Howard, Jeremy Royal (from his essay “The Origin, Transmission, and Canonization of the New Testament Books” in the HCSB Study Bible, Holman Bible Publishers, 2010)

1. written either by an apostle or a sanctioned associate of the apostles
2. enjoyed wide and long-standing usage in the churches, especially churches that were founded by the apostles
3. reflected high praise for Jesus, were true to the apostolic tradition that had been handed down to the churches, and fit with the overall theology of the other books in both testaments

Kelly, Joseph F.  in his book Why Is There a New Testament?  p. 96, bibliography.

1. apostolicity
2. orthodoxy

Kostenberger, Andreas and L. Scott Kellum and Charles L. Quarles (in their book The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, Kindle location 628, see bibliography)

1. apostolicity
2. orthodoxy
3. antiquity
4. ecclesiastical usage

Kruger, Michael J.  (from his book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books)

1. apostolic origin
2. usage (the general consensus of the church)
3. self-authentication of Scripture

Lea, Thomas and David Alan Black.  (from The New Testament: Its Background and Message, p. 71)

1. orthodoxy
2. apostolicity
3. universality

Licona, Michael R.  (from his 2014 lecture “The New Testament: Text, Translation, Canon”)

1. apostle or a colleague
2. orthodox
3. relevant
4. widespread/longstanding usage

McDonald, Lee M.  (in his article “Canon” in IVP’s Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 1997.)

1. apostolicity
2. orthodoxy
3. antiquity
4. usage

__________.  (in his book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, Baker, 2007.)

1. Apostolicity
2. Orthodoxy
3. Antiquity
4. Use
5. Adaptability
6. Inspiration

McDonough, Sean  (in his lecture “The Development of the Canon” in the  Gordon-Conwell Dimensions of the Faith series “New Testament Survey I”)

1. apostolicity (apostolic background, associated with an apostle)
2. catholicity (not just accepted by one region)
3. orthodox (inspiration goes hand in hand with orthodoxy)
4. traditionally used

Metzger, Bruce M.  (in his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance; Metzger gives the same three criteria in a different order – apostolicity first – and some slightly differing wording in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, p. 66)

1. orthodoxy
2. apostolicity
3. consensus among the churches

Nicole, Roger (in “The Canon of the New Testament Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40.2 (March 1997: 199-206.)

1. Apostolicity
2. Orthodoxy
3. Christocentricity
4. Inspiration
5. The Testimony of the Holy Spirit to the Individual Christian
6. The Authority of the Church
7. The Witness Of The Holy Spirit Given Corporately To God’s People And Made Manifest By A Nearly Unanimous Acceptance Of The NT Canon In Christian Churches

Ohlig, Karl-Heinz (in his 1972 work Die theologische Begrundung des neutestamentlichen Kanons in der alten Kirsche which Harry Gamble says is “the most thorough study of the criteria of canonicity” in a footnote on p. 67 of TNTC, for which see bibliography; I found Ohlig’s eleven criteria in The Biblical Canons, edited by Jean-Marie Auwers and H. J. De Jonge, 2003)

1. apostolicity
2. the age of the document in question
3. the historical likelihood of its contents
4. orthodoxy
5. the agreement with the Scriptures of the Old Testment
6. the edifying nature of the document at issue
7. catholicity
8. clarity and meaningfulness
9. spirituality of the content
10. acceptance by the church at large
11. use for public lessons in the church

Packer, J. I. (in his book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, p. 185).  Packer is not here laying out a set of criteria for the New Testament canon; however, for him one criterion crystal clear.

“As we have seen, if a New Testament book is not authentically apostolic, and if it makes false assertions (as on this hypothesis these books do), then it has not the nature of Scripture, and has no place in the New Testament canon.”

Patzia, Arthur (in his book The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text, & Canon)

1. the authority of Jesus
2. apostolicity
3. usage in the church
4. orthodoxy
5. inspiration

Ridderbos, Herman N.  Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.  P & R Publishing, 1955, 1963, 1988, p. 24.

“[T]he redemptive-historical ground of the New Testament canon must be sought in…apostolic authority and tradition.”

Sawyer, M. James (in his chapter “The Canon of the New Testament” in the book How the Bible Came To Be)

1. Apostolic origin and apostolic doctrine
2. Catholicity (acceptance of the book by the majority of the churches)
3. Public worship (read in the churches along with the Old Testament)

Smith, James E.  Which Books Belong in the Bible?  Lulu, 2009, p. 363-371.  In this self-published book, Smith begins by saying that church leaders were “guided by four principles,” but then goes to list nine.

1. Geographic Universality
2. Doctrinal Harmony
3. Apostolicity
4. Antiquity
5. Numerology
6. Christocentricity
7. Internal Testimony
8. Church Authority
9. Corporate Witness

Tenney, Merrill C. (in his book New Testament Survey, Eerdmans, 1953, 1961.  Updated by Walter M. Dunnett in 1985).

1. apostolic authorship
2. intended for the church as a whole

Thiessen, Gerd (in his book The New Testament: A Literary History, p. 210)

1. apostolic authorship
2. apostolic (orthodox) teaching
3. catholicity

Warfield, B. B.  (in his article “The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament“)

1. apostolic authorship
2. apostolic sanction (e.g. Mark and Luke)

Wegner, Paul D., Terry L. Wilder, and Darrel L. Bock.  “Do We Have the Right Canon?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, ed. by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder.  B & H Publishing Group, 2013, Kindle edition.

1. Apostolic Origin (Apostolicity)
2. Recognition by the Churches
3. The Content of the Book

Wenzig, Tim L.  New Testament Canon and the Creeds: Why Was the Authority of Scripture Left Out of the Christian Creeds?  Amazon Digital Services, 2012.  Although Wenzig never invokes the terms “criteria” or “criterion,” it is clear throughout his short book that he thinks it was apostolic writing that became canonical (e.g. Kindle location 80, 152, 169, 267, 532, and 551)

1. apostolic

Wikipedia – “Development of the New Testament Canon

1. Apostolic Origin
2. Universal Acceptance
3. Liturgical Use
4. Consistent Message

 *****

Note that the only criterion common to almost all these lists is apostolicity.  Moreover, a number of the other criteria may simply be considered derivative of, or part and parcel of, apostolicity.  For example, wouldn’t orthodox doctrine be an inherent characteristic of apostolic writing?  Wouldn’t an apostolic writing be, ipso facto, inspired?  Don’t all apostolic writings by definition come from the 1st Century?  Thus, even when there are other criteria besides apostolicity, they are often adding no actual requirement that is not already inherently present in apostolicity.  Apostolicity was thus the dominating criterion for inclusion when the ancient church determined the canon.

Therefore, we may say that, insofar as the New Testament is concerned, canonicity equates to apostolicity.  The significance of this point cannot be overstated.

More Resources on the New Testament Canon

This post is a continuation of the post Resources for New Testament Text and/or Canon, the only difference being that the list that follows focuses exclusively on canon (i.e., excluding resources on text).

Kruger, Michael J.  Canon Fodder (Professor Kruger’s blog)

Kruger, Michael J. “The Complete Series: 10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon” (a series of blog posts)

Kruger, Michael J. “The Complete Series: Ten Basic Facts About the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize

Kruger, Michael J.  Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.  Crossway Books, 2012, 368 pages.

Kruger, Michael J.  Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Rome:  James White Interviews Michael Kruger on Roman Catholics and Sola Scriptura  (YouTube 1:25:09)

1/7/2014 Sola Scriptura, Canon, and Rome: Dr. Michael Kruger on the Dividing Line – YouTube

James White interviews Michael J. Kruger about the canon in light of Roman Catholic challenges to Sola Scriptura.

Notes:

Kruger says the Roman Catholic view is that the church is like a thermostat and sets the canon, whereas the Protestant view is that the church is like a thermometer that responds to the canon.

The Gospel Authors Were Named Early And Credibly by Jason Engwar of Triablogue

Jason provides several links on this subject in the body of his post.

Like Jason, I see minuses as well as plusses in Ben Witherington’s video.

Triablogue: The Gospel Authors Were Named Early And Credibly.

R. Laird Harris on Canonicity as an Outcome of Authorship

This is a subsidiary post of Apostolicity and the New Testament.

R. L. Harris (1911-2008) says:

“[T]he canonicity of a book of the Bible depends upon its authorship…”

He goes on to say:

“It is freely recognized that other views of the principle of canonicity have been held and that there are some problems connected with our thesis. The chief problem is that we cannot name with certainty all the authors of the Old Testament books and that the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books may be questioned… the authorship of the major parts of both Testaments is clear… and for the remaining portions where the authorship is less certain there is not positive evidence against, indeed, there is some evidence for, the authorship by prophets and apostles.” (Pg. 284)

Source for this material is an Amazon book review of Harris’ The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible (1971).

We also find this on page 278 of that book (emphasis added):

It may be true that apostolicity was not so important an item by A.D. 400 when the consensus of the church was rather well established and when the information about the early authorities had somewhat faded.  But in the earlier times, when the books were new and decisions had to be made, the evidence shows that apostolicity was the main criterion in the church’s decisions.

[F. F.] Bruce [1910-1990] himself admits, “In the early church as a whole the predominant criterion appears to have been apostolic authority, if not apostolic authorship.”  [B. F.] Westcott [1825-1903] comes to the same conclusion, “Step by step the books which were stamped with Apostolic authority were separated from the mass of other works which contained the traditions or opinions of less authoritative teachers.”

Content Moved

The content of this post has been moved to and incorporated with Annotated Bibliography on New Testament Text and Canon.

Dan Wallace and Darrell Bock on the Formation of the New Testament Canon

The first half of this clip features Dan Wallace; the second half, Darrell Bock.

(Time 5:50)

William Lane Craig on Gospel Authorship

Bill Craig responds to the question “Who wrote the Gospels?” by saying that it is a secondary matter.

(9 min read; 2,300 words)

Gospel Authorship—Who Cares? by William Lane Craig

“Can We Still Believe the Bible?” by Craig L. Blomberg

Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions was published in April 2014.  There are six chapters in it.  The first two chapters are on the New Testament text, canon, and translation respectively.

  1. Aren’t the Copies of the Bible Hopelessly Corrupt?
  2. Wasn’t the Selection of Books for the Canon Just Political?
  3. Can We Trust Any of Our Translations of the Bible?
  4. Don’t These Issues Rule Out Biblical Inerrancy?
  5. Aren’t Several Narrative Genres of the Bible Unhistorical?
  6. Don’t All the Miracles Make the Bible Mythical?

As you may have surmised, Blomberg has framed his chapter titles as challenges to the position he defends.

Nick Peters of the Deeper Waters podcast (on-demand radio) interviewed Blomberg about this book on April 26, 2014.  The episode takes its title from the book “Can We Still Believe the Bible?”  Peters’ show last two hours and is divided into six 20-minute segments.  They spent one segment on each of the six chapters.  Therefore, you can get the material on text and canon in the first 40 minutes.  To listen to the podcast, find the date and title of the episode on this list: Deeper Waters Podcast Schedule

Nick Peters’ blurb about this podcast episode:

Join us this Saturday as Craig Blomberg comes on to talk about his newest book “Can We Still Believe The Bible?” We’ll be discussing the text of the Bible, questions about what books made it into the canon and what books didn’t, questions about why there are so many translations of the Bible, how it is that a Christian should understand the topic of Inerrancy, how genre consideration plays into our understanding of the Gospels, and finally whether the Bible can be believed since it contains miracles in it.