In a post-modern culture, truth is viewed by many as subjective opinion, rather than as objective fact. This is difficult for the orthodox Christian believer in sharing the Gospel, as the authority for which our conviction lies is found in the pages of Scripture. So then, now more than ever, the question of what books make up the canon of Scripture and how we can know that these books are authoritative as compared to others is of utmost importance. Considering this, we shall review a brief history of the canon, specifically the New Testament, and how it came to be recognized as authoritative.
Looking to the first half of the second century AD, an important individual arose on the scene by the name of Marcion. Although Marcion was branded a heretic, his contribution to the necessity of recognizing an official canon was of infinite value. After being convicted of heresy and excommunicated in AD 144, Marcion spread his heresy throughout large sections of the Roman empire. This was highly detrimental to the progress of orthodoxy as Marcion could not reconcile what he believed to be the “angry God of the Old Testament with the loving and sacrificial God of the New Testament, represented in the person of Jesus.”1 This means that he did not recognize God as a Trinity, nor did he accept the Old Testament as Scripture and the God communicated therein. In spite of his heresy, Marcion was one of the first “Christians” to argue for a particular list of New Testament books that should be recognized as Scripture. As stated earlier, his contribution was recognizing the necessity of an official canon, and this in particular as he heretically rejected books otherwise viewed as authoritative by orthodox Christians.
In the second half of the second century AD, a problem arose from the opposite side of the heretical spectrum. This time, rather than the limiting of the canon of Scripture to specific books and their modified forms to support the heresies of individuals such as Marcion, the recognition of a plethora of writings began to gain support with the influence of Montanus. The problem here was that Montanus and his followers were prone to ecstatic outbursts which were written down and identified as prophetic oracles on the same level of authority as Scripture. Coupled with the apocalyptic, yet unfulfilled, nature of many of these outbursts, this “forced the Church to argue that the canon of Scripture should be limited to those books with apostolic and eye-witness authority, for the writings and practices of the Montanists had clearly exceeded the theological boundaries represented by those apostolic authorities.”1 Because of these two major influences in the second century, being the discrediting of authoritative books and the elevation of non-authoritative writings, the Church had been backed into a corner requiring the standardized acknowledgement of the authoritative books of Scripture to be recognized by an official canonization. That is not to say that these books would then become official after this recognition, but rather that canonization would set limits upon the already generally recognized Scriptures by the majority of orthodox believers.
Not all agree that these two individuals impacted the canon as much as has been stated. The comment has been made that, “Marcion, various gnostic groups and the Montan-ists were not, as is usually asserted, catalysts that led to a second century closing of the canon of Christian scriptures…but [rather] there was no second century closing of the scripture collection at all.” While the sentiment here regarding the closing of the canon may be partially true, as there were other influences toward the close of the canon over time, it is necessary to define terms. If “canon” does in fact mean “scripture collection,” then this statement is true, but only as the “canon” was closed much earlier, not much later; that is, as soon as God had inspired the last book of the Bible. The important point to note is that “Scripture” and “Canon” are not generally equivalent terms. It seems that for all the argument of the early Church, inspiration had been overlooked. While it is true that today’s canon does contain the collection of inspired Scripture, the authority of the Scripture comes by means of the Holy Spirit Who inspired it, not the Church who collected and canonized it.
Moving forward, the end of the fourth century provided a series of councils which would help to close the canon, and three lists were instrumental in influencing these councils toward a consensus. The first is the Muratorian Fragment. This eighty-five line document of Latin text contains “a listing of the books considered authoritative by the Church, accompanied by a number of historical and theological comments. The weight of scholarly opinion holds that the original document (probably written in Greek) dates from the end of the second century CE. The list contains four categories of Christian books. The first category is those works universally accepted as Scripture: the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, two (or three) letters of John, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Apocalypse of John. A second category contains one disputed book: the Apocalypse of Peter. Third are those books that were rejected for public reading and worship but still remained acceptable for reading in private, such as the Shepherd of Hennas. Finally, the fragment lists a number of books which should be rejected altogether by the Church.”1 Although this fragment does not contain the exact representation of the canon as we know it today, it does promote a list of criteria in recognizing a work as Scripturally authoritative, especially being, “the public reading of a book in a service of worship and apostolic authorship.”1
The second of these lists is found in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Eusebius, “categorized the books as those universally accepted: the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, the Pauline epistles (including Hebrews), 1 Peter, and 1 John. He noted some question as to whether the Apocalypse of John ought to be included in this category, and he chose to include it here as well as with those he concluded were to be rejected. The second category included those books that were disputed, yet familiar to most in the Church: James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Finally, in a somewhat overlapping category, Eusebius listed the books that were to be rejected because of serious doubts about their apostolic character or authorship: the Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hennas, Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache of the Apostles, and the Gospel According to the Hebrews.” This list plays an important role as Eusebius can be respected for his study of history and collection of works which would otherwise have been lost, although not necessarily his theology, as he was suspected of Arianism. This may make it harder to distinguish between him and Eusebius of Nicomedia (who was present at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 in support of Arius).
The third of these lists is that contained in Athanasius’ Festal Epistle of AD 367. “While he excluded the books of the Old Testament now considered deuterocanonical [recognized as Scripture by Roman Catholicism], his list of New Testament books contains the twenty-seven books now considered canonical (albeit in a slightly different order). Although the debate would continue for some years, this list of Athanasius would eventually establish the limits of the New Testament canon.”1 This list was very similar to the list accepted by the Western Church, and even more influential as Jerome’s translation of the Latin Vulgate gained popularity. Jerome’s translation contained the same books as found in the list of Athanasius.
Apart from heretical factions and supporting documentation, three Church councils around the turn of the fifth century “effectively ratified the choice of the twenty-seven books. As one of the Western Church's leading biblical scholars and theologians, Augustine threw his considerable support behind the acceptance of these limits at Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, and again at Carthage in 419.”1 As most councils throughout Church history, it is evident that these three also existed to combat heresy.
In conclusion, several of Roger Nicole’s criteria are in common with history about how to deem whether or not a book is Scripture and should be canonized. These are Apostolicity (it should have been written by an apostle), Orthodoxy (any canonical book must be orthodox as God would not permit his Word to teach falsehood as well as truth), Church Authority (it is the prerogative of the Church to establish the canon), and 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.
Sheeley, Steven M. 1998. "From "Scripture" to "Canon": The Development of the New
Testament Canon." Review & Expositor 95, no. 4: 513-522. ATLA Religion
Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2008).
Kalin, Everett R. 1988. "The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning." Currents
in Theology and Mission 15, no. 5: 446-446. ATLA Religion Database with
ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2008).
Nicole, Roger R. 1997. "The Canon of the New Testament." Journal of the Evangelical
Theological Society 40, no. 2: 199-206. ATLA Religion Database with
ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 8, 2008).
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