New Testament History
‘New Testament canon’ refers to the collection of writings used by the Christian community as normative for its life and thought. ‘Canon’ refers to a group of writings that are the rule. ‘Canon’ comes from a Sumerian term meaning ‘reed’ or ‘rule.’ These are the books found in our Bible. Some denominations have added other books to their Bible.
Early Christians understood themselves to be commissioned by the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, to spread the ‘Good News,’ and take God’s rule, Kingdom of God, into the world. Jesus declared to his disciples to announce the euangellion, “Good News,” as found in Mark 3:14; Luke 10:1-12; Mark 1:16-20; Matthew 28:16-20 and in many other verses.
The ‘Good News’ was spread, first, through preaching and teaching. Some preachers and teachers began to proclaim doctrines that were not taught by the Apostles and the early church decided to find a way to preserve Christianity’s integrity.
Two types of literature existed at that time; the Gospels and Epistles. Gospels were accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; while the Epistles arose to correct teaching and preaching of the time. These writings considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of Old Testament Judaism. Jesus was understood and the fulfillment of both the law (First 5 books of the OT,Pentateuch) and the prophets (Mt. 5:17). II Peter 3:15-18, warns followers of Jesus to be aware of false teachings and to adhere to the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Eusebius in ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ III, XXII describes the problems confronting the first generation after the apostles: “But when the sacred band of the Apostles and the generation of those to whom it had been vouchsafed to hear with their own ears the diving wisdom had reached the several ends of their lives, then the federation of godless error took its beginning through the deceit of false teachers who, seeing that none of the Apostles still remained, barefacedly tried to replace the preaching of the truth by the counter-proclamation of ‘knowledge falsely so-called.”
Early attempts to define the ‘canon’ limited the number of books in the New Testament to 20 or 22. Many spiritual writings were floating around the world during the second and third centuries. Most reliable among the writings were those of the Apostolic Fathers, Christians from the generation after the apostles, along with the writings of the Apostles, which included other writings that were disputed by some. These books were widely used by Christian communities, along with the book of James and Jude(Jesus half-brother’s).
All four Gospels were recognized as authoritative for early Christians. The Septuagint accepted as authoritative for the Old Testament as Jesus, Paul, Peter all quoted from it. The Septuagint was the Old Testament translated into Greek, the official language of the day. Gospel writers made extensive use of it in their interpretations of Jesus’ mission and understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. Origen (182-251) was the person who designated the collection of Christian literature as ‘New Testament.’ Origen accepted the current ‘canon’, with the exceptions of II Peter, II and III Epistles of John, James and Jude.
It was not until 367 AD that a list of Christian scriptures, as we know them, finally appeared. The process of selection was the result of those books used by Christian communities. That is to say, the final 27 books of the New Testament were primarily determined by ‘grass roots’, rather than hierarchy. Revelation was accepted by Origen and others in the second and third centuries.
Criteria for Canonical Selection
1) Highly valued by a number of Christian communities.
2) Writings cited in another early writing as a reason to take the book seriously.
3) Apostolic authorship
4) Apostolic tradition: i.e., does the writing represent the kind of Christian teaching associated with the apostles?
5) Does the writing display the regula fidei, regular faith, recognized in the early Christian community?
Luther on the Authority of Scripture and Doctrine
From Luther's Sermon on 2 Corinthians 13:8;W.A. 34. II. 387; A.D. 1531 Luther writes about the authority of Holy Scripture.
"This is so great a good that no human heart can grasp it (therefore, it necessitates such a great and hard fight.). It must not be treated lightly, as the world maintains and many people who do not understand, saying we should not fight so hard about an article and thus trample on Christian love; rather, although we err on one small point, if we agree on everything else, we should give in and overlook the difference in order to preserve brotherly and Christian unity and fellowship.
No, my dear man, do not recommend to me peace and unity when thereby God's Word is lost, for then eternal life and everything else would be lost. In this matter there can be no yielding nor giving way, no, not for love of you or any other person, but everything must yield to the Word, whether it be friend or foe. The Word was given unto us for eternal life and not to further outward peace and unity. The Word and doctrine will create Christian unity or fellowship. Where they reign all else will follow. Where they are not, no concord will ever abide. Therefore, do not talk to me about love and friendship, if that means breaking with the Word, or the faith, for the Gospel does not say love brings eternal life, God's grace, and all heavenly treasures, but the Word.
Bibliography: Fee, Howard Clark. Understanding the New Testament. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1983; Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co. 1910; Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. ed. by G.A. Williamson. 1965; Comfort, Philip Wesley(Ed). Beckwith, R.T. Origin of the Bible. Tyndale House Publishers. p.p. 51-98. 1992.