The term “canon” is used to describe the books that are divinely inspired and belong in the Bible. Determining the canon was a process conducted by early church leaders and scholars. Ultimately, it was God who decided what books belonged in the biblical canon. A book of Scripture belonged in the canon from the moment God inspired its writing. It was subsequently a matter of God’s leading the early church to discover which books should be included in the Bible.
The books of the New Testament stand out as distinctive because they are the earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period. This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century.
Paul considered Luke’s writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18 quotes both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Some of the books of the New Testament were being circulated among the churches (Colossians 4:16;1 Thessalonians 5:27).
All of the New Testament books were cited, alluded to or named by church fathers in the first three centuries AD. For example, Clement of Rome cited, alluded to or named at least ten New Testament books (c. A.D. 95-97). Ignatius of Antioch cited or alluded to six books (c. A.D. 110). Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle, quoted or alluded to 18 books (c. A.D. 110-150). Later, Irenaeus, who as a young boy had heard Polycarp speak, named as authentic 17 books and cited or alluded to 6 more (c. A.D. 130-202). Hippolytus recognized 22 books (A.D. 170-235).
The New Testament books subject to the most controversy were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation. It is important that we be reminded of such disputes and debates lest we conceive of the history of the canon in an overly sanitized fashion.
However, we should not overestimate the extent of these disputes. Origen, for example, simply tells us that these books were disputed by some. But, in the case of 2 Peter, Origen is quite clear that he himself accepts it. Thus, there are no reasons to think that most Christians during this time period rejected these books. On the contrary, it seems that church fathers like Origen were simply acknowledging the minority report. Generally, it was the authorship of these books that was in dispute.
The first “canon” was the Muratorian Canon, which was compiled in A.D. 170. The Muratorian Canon included all of the New Testament books with the exception of Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter and possibly 3 John. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.
The councils followed something similar to the following principles to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit:
1) Was the author an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle?
2) Is the book being accepted by the body of Christ at large?
3) Did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching?
4) Did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect the work of the Holy Spirit?
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, issued the earliest known list containing the 27 books of today’s New Testament in A.D. 367.
Again, it is crucial to remember that the church did not determine the canon. No early church council decided on the canon. It was God, and God alone, who determined which books belonged in the Bible. It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to His followers what He had already decided. The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in His sovereignty, and despite our ignorance and stubbornness, brought the early church to the recognition of the books He had inspired.