How Did We Get the Canon?
By Mike Gendron
The canon was determined by God and discovered by man. The church did not create the canon, it simply recognized the letters that were already accepted as Scripture by the first century church. Long before church councils were ever convened, church elders were constantly evaluating and deciding which of the many writings of their day carried apostolic authority. We have proof that letters were circulated and accepted before the canon was formally established. Paul wrote: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16).
To collect various letters and books of Scripture into one volume was the task given to Christians already converted to Christ by the Word of God. These early Christians did not give us the Word of God. The Word of God gave us these early Christians. They were under conviction and illumination of the Holy Spirit from the writings of the Apostles and oral teachings of Jesus long before any Council pieced together the Bible. Hence, the Word of God established the Church. Early Christians were convinced and persuaded that it was the Word of God because the Holy Spirit convicted them.
The actual gathering together of the Scriptures into one volume took place in God’s providence, under the supervision, persuasion, and conviction of the Holy Spirit. Christians labored together to separate the actual Word from false writings. The early Christians pooled their cognitive convictions and brought together a Canon of the text to end speculations and dismiss false writings.
Jerome completed his version of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, in 405. In the Middle Ages the Vulgate became the de facto standard version of the Bible in the West. The manuscripts clearly identified certain books of the Vulgate Old Testament as apocryphal or non-canonical. Jerome described those books not translated from the Hebrew as apocrypha; he specifically mentions that Wisdom, the book of Jesus son of Sirach, Judith, Tobias, and the Shepherd “are not in the canon”. In the prologue to Esdras he mentions 3 and4 Esdras as being apocrypha. In his prologue he said of the Books of the Maccabees, that the Church “has not received them among the canonical scriptures”.
We know the Bible was complete and “once for all delivered to the Saints in the first century (Jude 3). The Old Testament Canon was closed about 425 B.C., 425 years before Christ. The last book was written by Malachi. There was no question which books were inspired by God. The writers were well known as a spokesmen for God and claimed to be speaking and writing the inspired Word of God. Secondly, were no errors of history, geography, or theology in the writings.
The New Testament had similar tests to determine a book’s canonicity. First, was the book authored by an Apostle or someone closely associated with an Apostle? They knew who the Apostles were and they knew who their close associates were. The key question about the book’s inspiration was tied to Apostolic authorship or one closely associated. For example, the Gospel of Mark was written by Mark, and Mark was not an Apostle but a close associate of Peter. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were written by Luke who was not an Apostle but a very close associate of Paul. The Apostles were known to the people, their associates were known to the people, and when Apostles wrote and claimed inspiration the people were secure in the veracity of their writings.
Another test applied by the Early Church was the test of content. Did the writings square with what the Apostles taught? In those early years of the Church, heretics such as the Gnostics tried to slip in phony books, but none of them ever made it. If it didn’t square with Apostolic doctrine – it didn’t pass. And the doctrinal aberrations were very easy to spot. A third test was this; is the book regularly read and used in the churches? In other words, did the people of God readily accept it? Read it during worship and make its teachings a part of their daily living? A final test was determined that would sort of pull it all together and that was the book recognized and used by succeeding generations after the Early Church?
There was also a formidable group of spurious books that came in the New Testament period. They all failed to make the canon because they couldn’t pass the test of authenticity. Christ has put His stamp of authority on the Scripture. The early Church clearly discovered the canon of God’s Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To add anything to Scripture or to reject the inspiration of Scripture, is to not only to ignore the warnings of Scripture and the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, but to bring yourself into the very dangerous place where you are susceptible to the curse of God. Paul cites Luke’s Gospel as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18). Peter referred to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Paul commanded the Thessalonians to have his letter read to all the brethren (1 Thes. 5:27). John promised a blessing to all those who read the Revelation (Rev. 1:3). To the Colossians Paul wrote “have this letter read in the church of the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). As long as the apostles were alive everything could be verified. They were eye witnesses to all that Christ said and did.
The councils of Hippo 393 and Carthage 397 simply approved the list of 27 NT books which had already been recognized by the early church. They neither added to the number or took away form it.