Though some may be intimidated to learn about the New Testament canon, Christians have nothing to worry about. No secret council or politician arbitrarily decided which books “made it” into the canon.
F. F. Bruce clearly explains that,
The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. (22)
God has always led his people by his Word. That’s why Jesus, quoting the Old Testament, said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 NIV; Deuteronomy 8:3).
Christians knew that God spoke to his people. It was only natural for them to recognize these new writings as authoritative—what we call the New Testament—in the same way that God’s people recognized the Old Testament as Scripture.
Why Did the Church Have to Decide Which Books Belong in the New Testament?
With so many manuscripts circulating after Jesus’ and the apostles’ lives, the early church needed to identify which Christian writings were authoritative for several reasons.
They needed to know things like:
- Which books should be used in the church, especially during worship?
- Which writings do you use to settle doctrinal disputes between fellow believers?
- If the Roman Empire demands that you hand over the sacred books of the church, which books would they hand over?
- Heretics were creating “canons” that excluded the entire Old Testament and the New Testament writings. Which books should be kept? Which books, if any, should be discarded?
Jesus built his church upon his teaching and work. Jesus commanded his disciples to teach these things to others (Matthew 28:19-20), first orally, and then in written form. These writings have always formed the foundation upon which the church was built (Ephesians 2:20).
Four Criteria for Knowing Whether a Book Belongs in the New Testament
When considering which books were authoritative, the early church recognized the self-attesting authority of God’s Word in the books that would come to form the New Testament canon.
The early church fathers did, however, employ a few criteria of authenticity to deliberate which texts were authentically from God. The church mainly used four criteria to help them recognize which books God had given them. Let’s walk through these four:
The first criterion dealt with authorship. The early church asked, “Who wrote the book?” If a book was written or endorsed by an apostle, then it was viewed as authoritative (Matthew 10:1-20).
The second criterion dealt with content. Does the content of the book reflect the teaching of the undoubted apostolic writings? Does it correspond to the faith handed down through the churches? Is it consistent with the gospel? Does it exalt Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
The third criterion dealt with universal acceptance. Was the writing recognized and used by the majority of churches? Or were only a few churches in a localized area using it? If it was confined to a region, rather than accepted by the whole church, it was rejected.
The fourth criterion dealt with age. How old is the document? The further it was dated from Jesus’ life and the spread of the gospel, the less authoritative it became. Essentially, anything written later than the first century was excluded from consideration.
The Final Verdict on Which Books Belong in the New Testament
The New Testament canon’s development can be traced through important early church fathers and groups of godly men at church councils who ultimately recognized which books should be received.
After the Council of Carthage (AD 397), the canon of Scripture is considered “closed.” This means that no more books can be added to the canon of Scripture. Everything we need to know about sin and salvation, how Christians should act and think, and how we can have a right relationship with God is given in the Bible, which includes the 27 books of the New Testament.
Pick up the Bible and read the New Testament today! God preserved these texts so that you would be able to read them.