To begin with, let us define the word canonization. It means to test something by a set rule or standard, to ascertain it as genuine. This is obviously of great importance when it concerns the holy Scripture; we need to have confidence that we have the Word of God, and that we have all of the Word of God, and that there is nothing in the Bible except the word of God.
The 39 books of the Old Testament were conclusively recognized as Scripture from well before the time of Christ. And Christ Himself made us aware of that in this exchange with the Pharisees:
Luke 11:49 Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: 50 That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; 51 From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.
Genesis, which tells us of the murder of Abel, was the first book of the Hebrew Old Testament in the way that they had arranged. 2 Chronicles, which tells us of the murder of Zacharias, was the last book of the Hebrew Old Testament in the way that they had arranged. So Christ intentionally encapsulated all 39 books of the Old Testament in that one statement; everyone in his day recognized that Canon, and so He quoted from it as such. Furthermore, both Josephus in A.D. 95 and 2 Esdras 14 in A.D. 100 also recognized those 39 books as having been the long-standing Canon of the Old Testament. It is almost certain that Ezra the scribe concluded the Canon of the Old Testament in about the fifth century B.C.
And in addition to God Himself promising to honor His Word above all His name (Psalm 138:2), how seriously did the Jews take the faithful recognition and transmission of the Old Testament Scripture? So much so that Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of the apostles, said, “The Jews would die ten thousand times rather than to permit one single word to be altered of their Scriptures.” (Eusebius, Evangelical Preparation, VIII. 6.)
But then came Christ and the writing of the New Testament.
Our starting point for that portion of the Canon is Christ’s promise to those who would write it:
John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
This is how the New Testament writers were able to get everything perfect, things that were often decades in their past and in some cases things that they were not even present to see! And here is how they themselves regarded the words of the New Testament writings even while they were still in the process of being written:
2 Peter 1:16 For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 18 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. 19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
This was Peter reminiscing about his great experience on the Mount of Transfiguration – and then proceeding to say that Scripture was even more trustworthy than that wonderful experience! He knew that his memory would fade over time and that others would be getting the information secondhand. But the written Scripture would always say the same thing, and everyone could always look at it for time immemorial whether they were there or not when it happened.
Most of the New Testament was obviously written by the apostle Paul. And here is how Peter, one of Christ’s inner circle, one of His most trusted confidantes, viewed the writings of Paul:
2 Peter 3:15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
Peter equated the writings of Paul with Scripture, meaning all of the Old Testament and the then extant books of the New Testament. And this shows us another aspect to remember when considering canonization; God gave the early church the spiritual understanding of which writings were to be regarded as Scripture and which were not. But bear in mind the distinction between understanding and deciding; those two things are radically different. Neither the church nor any successive council “decided” the Canon of Scripture; they merely recognized what already was. Rene Pache explained it this way:
“Because the writings of the apostles and prophets were canonical by virtue of their intrinsic qualities, the Canon, in principle, existed from the time these books were written; and it was added to with successive appearances of new inspired works. It happened that the church was a long time expressing its unanimous acknowledgment of certain of the writings; but when it finally came to it, all it did was bow in recognition of that which already existed.” (Rene Pache, The Inspiration And Authority Of Scripture, p. 161).
The New Testament canon of Scripture, 27 books beginning in Matthew and ending at Revelation, began to be written within a decade or so after the death of Christ (James was written about A.D. 45), and culminated with the writing of The Book of The Revelation in about A.D. 90. And when God gave us that last book of Scripture, He used two methodologies to inform us that there will be no more Scripture coming. One, He told us of events all the way up into the destruction of the heavens and the earth and the remaking of all things new; in other words, He gave us the very end of the story. Two, having given us the end of the story, He gave us this warning:
Revelation 22:18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
Once all of this was done, though, all that was left was the formal recognition of these books and only these books as Scripture. This was done largely on the following criteria. One, authorship; was the author respected and regarded as speaking with divine authority? Two, local church acceptance; had it been read by the various churches? What was their opinion of it? Three, early church leaders recognition; did the students of Christ’s apostles (such as Polycarp, a disciple of John) quote from the book? Four, content; what did the book teach? Did it contradict other recognized books? Five, edification; did the book inspire, convict, and edify local congregations and individual believers?
Under those criteria, the early church quickly recognized all 27 books of the New Testament and only the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical. Some (Hebrews, James, second and third John, Jude, Revelation) took a bit longer than others to be officially recognized, but still, well before any councils met to utter an official word on it.
In A.D. 376. Athanasius published a list of Old and New Testament books that he said were “handed down and believed to be divine”; all 27 of our books of the New Testament were on that list. (Way Of Life Encyclopedia Of The Bible, p.72)
Notably, the Apocrypha was never regarded by the true church as part of inspired writ. These were late books, written between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. which never were included in the Hebrew Canon. They had no place in the Masoretic text and were not interpreted by any targum. According to the general opinion of the Jews, the prophetic voice died with Malachi. (Pache, p.171)
As to councils (Trent, Nicea, Carthage, etc.), there was not even any debate about the Canon of Scripture in the Nicean Council of A.D. 325 because practically all of the apostolic writings were already nearly universally recognized by the church as Scripture.
Lastly, remember the promise of the greatest authority in Scripture, Jesus, the Son of God:
Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
This was a promise of preservation. If any of the words of Christ, including the written word that He Himself is the divine author of, have passed away, then we have a serious problem. And if anything has been added to the Canon of Scripture, then some of the words of Christ have passed away by dilution, which is just as serious as having them pass away by deletion! Simply put, our Canon of 66 books does not contain the Word of God; it is the Word of God. And it was never necessary for anyone to meet to decide that. No one ever did decide it; people merely declared what God Himself had already decided and the church had already recognized.
Pastor Bo Wagner can be reached by email at email@example.com, and his books are available by clicking the “Store” link above.
Feature photo by Pastor Bo Wagner