Discuss the development of the New Testament canon. On what basis did some Christian books come to be considered authoritative while others were not?
The guiding hand of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the development of the biblical canon. The word “canon” is a strange word to most Christians (as they think of a big gun or a large office copier machine). But its originally meaning is ‘a measuring reed’, and has come to mean ‘those books accepted by the church as the standard that governs Christian belief and conduct.’ A more simplistic definition of the biblical canon would be: books accepted by the early church – and subsequently most evangelical Christians today- as divinely inspired.
The most crucial filter, or criterion, of the development of the New Testament canon was that of apostolicity. Apostolicity refers to the authorship of either an apostle or by that of an associate of an apostle. By applying this criteria, the criteria of time is subsequently placed on the books that were considered as being canonical, for if a book was written by an apostle or his associate, it therefore would have been written within a certain time. In other words, since a book had to be written by either an apostle or his associate to be canonical (that is, included in the New Testament), a book written say, 175 AD, could not be included, because that would have been after the time of any apostle or their associate.
It is necessary to note that Christians in the first century, or at least the first half of the first century, did not have the New Testament as we know of the New Testament. They did, however, have the Old Testament, oral traditions and stories about Jesus’ works and deeds, and messages from God spoken by Christian prophets. Once written, the New Testament works still faced the challenges of distribution and acceptance, challenges that God would eventually put asunder.
Once the books were written, their acceptance can be classified into two groups. The first group, called homolegoumena (Greek for ‘confessed’), were books that were immediately accepted as canonical once they were written. These include the Pauline letters and the Gospels. The second group, antilegomena (Greek for ‘contradicted’), was so named because people were at first skeptical about either their authorship or their divine inspiration. Reasons for this skepticism include the fact that these books were unfamiliar to people because they were more slowly, and less widely, distributed. Others questioned the authority of certain books -namely Hebrews- because they were unable to determine who authored them. We still, to this day, do not know who wrote the book of Hebrews. (Many have their opinion. Mine is that of Barnabas. However, God hasn’t decided to share that tidbit of information with us, so we do not know with any amount of certainty).
Predominantly written over the latter half of the first century, and compiled as the official cannon in the second and third centuries, the biblical canon is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Although some of the books of the Bible were initially in dispute during the early years, the church eventually recognized the divine nature of all of these scriptures and accepted them as inspired by either apostles or their associates.
Even today, in a spirit of discernment and prayer, one needs only to read the canonical and noncanonical books side by side to see the accuracy of the inspiration that led to the formation of the infallible, inerrant, incorruptible canon.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”. 2 Timothy 3:16 (King James Version) Selah!