A—An Introductory Survey.
Into the golden age of Roman literature, with such lustrous names as Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, and other brilliant Latin writers, the New Testament Scriptures were born. But while the books of Rome are largely forgotten memories, the Book of God, translated into approximately a thousand human tongues, lives on as the most potent literary force in the world today, circulated by the million. The reason is not difficult to discover. It is different from all other books, for back of the inspired human penmen, its real author and originator is God.
The story or history of the writing of the New Testament, its assemblage, and its acceptance by the church at large during the early centuries of the Christian era, is a fascinating one, albeit not generally nor clearly understood. The idea unfortunately obtains with some that the New Testament, as we now have it, was delivered virtually full-formed into the hands of the primitive Christian church. But such a concept has no basis in historical fact. The reverent and inescapable question, therefore, of how and when and where the New Testament canon was formed, is wholly proper, and an understanding of the truth of the matter is essential for every Christian worker, for he is bound to meet this problem occasionally in dealing with thoughtful minds. Furthermore, it forms an invaluable background in studying the manifestation and recognition of the Spirit of prophecy in the remnant church.
The word "canon" came, through usage, to mean a catalogue or list. As here used it signifies a collection of writings divinely inspired, and hence authoritative, sacred, and binding; and in this case consists of the collection of twenty-seven books received by the Christian church as the New Testament Scriptures. Its formation may, in general, be divided into three periods: First, the Period of Writing (c. 5097 A. D.) in which the texts were produced; second, the Period of Discussion (c. 100-300), during which they were brought together in various collections, and given place side by side with the Old Testament; and third, the Period of Fixation (300-397), during which the questions on the precise content of the canon were finally and permanently settled.
The history of the canon is the story, then, of the process by which these books were so brought together, and their place and value as Sacred Scriptures officially recognized, from which time forward they formed, in the mind of the church, not only an authoritative but a closed collection. This full and general recognition required time. The process was gradual, covering, as noted, several centuries, Its early stages are more difficult to trace with certainty than those of the Old Testament canon. In fact, for the first century of the Christian era, the Old Testament was the Bible of the Christians. At first there was evidently no thought of a complete New Testament, as such, to be placed beside the Old.
Jesus Himself did not leave a single line written with His own hand, of which we have knowledge. Only once do we read of His writing, and that was on the dust of the ground; in a few hours, perhaps, the words were blotted out by a wisp of wind or the trample of heedless feet. The oral teachings of Jesus were committed by Him to His apostles to be authoritatively proclaimed by them as the gospel of God. They were its accredited teachers and expounders, and their words were consequently accorded the greatest weight. When, therefore, they later committed them to writing, their manuscripts were accepted as the written rule of faith. They were preserved, often read, and widely circulated. At the death of the apostles these Gospels and Epistles took the place of the oral transmission. And no oral teaching essential for the church was uncommitted to writing. There was, indeed, a recognized transference of authority from the apostles to their writings, and these writings came to be regarded as final authority in the church. Thus they came to be placed alongside the Old Testament as part of the Scriptures committed to men.
Collections of the Pauline epistles, more or less complete, also came into possession of the leading churches. As the Old Testament was an authoritative book, so the Pauline writings were accepted as the teachings of an authoritative person or apostle. They were co-ordinated with the Gospels as a second indispensable element in the documents of the new dispensation which were now being placed alongside the Old Testament as part of the church's authoritative Scriptures. 2 Peter 3:16 indicates indisputably that even during Paul's lifetime his epistles were regarded as authoritative and inspired. Upon two principles, then,—the supreme and intrinsic authority of the gospel itself, and the pre-eminent right of the apostles to teach it,—the subsequent formation of the actual New Testament canon depended.
By the end of the first century all the books of the New Testament were in existence, scattered as the possession of particular churches or individuals. In this sense, the entire canon was begun and completed during the latter half of the first century. But when the last individual book of the New Testament had been written, there was still no New Testament, as such. Its books had to be collected, accepted, and accredited with a peculiar authority by the church at large before our New Testament, as we now have it, could be said to exist as a canon of Scripture. The individual Gospels and Epistles, given by divine direction into the hand of the churches to whom directed, gradually came to be circulated because of the desire for all possible instruction. In this way numerous collections were made up. The larger churches of Antioch, Asia Minor, Greece, and Northern Africa had sets of the writings, more or less complete, which they recognized as inspired. These early limited collections do not, however, constitute evidence, as some would infer, that other apostolic books were not known and possessed in other sections; and there are no indications of a systematic distribution or assemblage of the apostolic compositions at that time.
Thus it was that the Christian church, already expanding rapidly during her militant and triumphal march through the latter half of the first century, saw her New Testament canon forming. Indeed, the acceptance of the individual books by the receiving churches was, in a sense, their actual canonization. The New Testament, as assembled, was in reality formed by the public usage of the church; and the test of a place in the canon was the apostolicity of the writing, As in the Old Testament, the principle of selection was .that each book must be the work of a prophet, so in the New, apostolicity was the gauge and guaranty of admission. The cases of Mark and Luke were cared for on the basis that they were really the amanuenses of Peter and Paul, respectively. Thus the essential principle of apostolicity was not violated.
The writers of the New Testament were prophets as truly as those of the Old. (See, for example, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; James 5:1-8; 2 Peter 3:7-13; Revelation; Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21, etc.) But they were more than prophets; they were apostles as well. In God's plan the apostles were made the interpreters of all who had gone before. And in the inspired catalogue of the gifts of the Spirit, recorded in Ephesians 4:11, apostles are placed before prophets. So, then, the test of apostolicity is wholly rational, Scriptural, and harmonious. And such was the constant basis of the apostles' appeal for receiving their writings as authoritative. (See 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 3:1, 2; Titus 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Col. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 1:1.) Indeed, an apostle is one sent forth to teach with authority, that apostolic authority coming from Him with whom they had fellowshiped for three years,—who, after His propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the world on Calvary, and its formal acceptance by the Father, returned to the eleven disciples and declared: "All power ["authority," R. V.] is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Matt. 28:18-20.
The majority of the New Testament books were produced independently by the inspired writers, without particular reference to others, and primarily for a particular community, church, or individual. Thus each book began its career alone, the process of collection into one volume being gradual. It was formed slowly for several reasons. At first certain books were known only in certain churches to be apostolic; and it was not until the whole body of believers throughout the Roman Empire was united in the consciousness that all the twenty-seven books, which were accepted in the several parts of the church, were known to be apostolic, that they were universally accepted.
Some books were indeed disputed in certain sections of the church, which shows that their ultimate acceptance was based on sufficient and convincing evidence. May we here stress the point that the formation of the canon should not be confused with the rise into authority of its several parts as a written rule of faith? It only shows the stages by which the books, rightly belonging to the canon, were recognized and brought together. In other words, the differences of opinion as to which books should be received as apostolic, mark the stages by which the evidence for the books was gradually accepted by the church as a whole, and the carefulness of the early church at large in fully and finally receiving books as apostolic. Similarly, the temporary acceptance, by some, of certain apocryphal or spurious writings on the fringe of the canonical books, was corrected in due time by the same process.
The distinction is fundamental between the actual acceptance of the individual books by the churches and communities to whom they were addressed, and who received them as inspired writings from the apostles (which acceptance constitutes their real recognition, or canonization), and their later, formal placement in full official lists or catalogues by the dominant Christian bodies, consequently involving general recognition by the entire Christian world with all its digressions, divisions, and apostasies. This latter feature was, as has been stated, a slow process, involving centuries of time, and was accompanied by interminable discussion, but was brought to an end when all parties, East as well as West, were satisfied that the twenty-seven books, individually accepted before the close of the first century, did in reality constitute not only the New Testament canon, but the full canon, thus excluding all apocryphal writings, and so closing the question.
The four Gospels were almost everywhere received from the beginning of the second century. The same is true of most of Paul's epistles. In fact, there was no uncertainty at any time concerning eight ninths of the books of the canon from the moment of their appearance, and through all succeeding centuries. By the time of the Council of Nice (325 A. D.), the hesitancy of the churches of the West regarding Hebrews, and of those of the East regarding the Apocalypse, had largely disappeared. In time the full canon was universally and finally recognized by the churches of Christendom, as will be presented in detail next month.
Again, the process of collection did not at first have the incentive which it afterward received through the rise of heresy and the challenge of spurious writings claiming apostolic authority. In the early years of the second century, gifted but erratic Christian teachers began to divide the scattered churches into parties or sects through the introduction of novel and schismatic views. Other stalwarts arose to oppose these ideas, and insisted upon the original Christian beliefs, and in so doing appealed in support of their views to the writings that had come down from the apostles. In this way the emphasis came to be laid on the apostolic writings.
By the end of the fourth century, the Christian world knew what writings really bore the message of God, and hence what belonged in the canon. The present New Testament canon therefore represents the decision of the universal church, the authoritative action of Christian consciousness, carefully interrogated for three centuries, thereby giving it a value and a recognition that transcend any and all particular ecclesiastical councils which took formal action.
(To be continued in February)
*A two-year chronological Bible reading program was adopted as part of the Ministerial Reading Course plan for 1933 and 1934. The Old Testament for last year was accompanied by a chronological chart of the component books, with suitable notations and authoritative citations. Under date of September 7, 1933, the Association Advisory Council "Voted, That a Chronological Chart of the New Testament Books be prepared as the 1934 complement to the 0/d Testament outline used for the current year ; and that L. E. Froom prepare this chart." This material is the result : and this article is the first of three, giving (1) An Introductory Survey ; (2) The Historical Development; and (3) The Chronological Order of the Writing. The second and third sections will appear in February and March.—Editors.