Article: 8 Min

How Did We Get the New Testament Canon?

by Bibles.net

Guido DBres wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561. He was pastor and student of John Calvin, living amid persecution against Protestant Christians like himself by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. DBres delivered his Confession to the Roman Catholic King of Spain Phillip II. He soon became a martyr for his beliefs. 

Of the Belgic Confession’s 37 articles, five of them are exclusively about the Bible. What could this man have believed about the Bible that made him willing to die for his Confession?  

Here’s what the Belgic Confession has to say about the Bible.

1

The Bible Is the Written Word of God  

We confess that this Word of God was not sent, nor delivered by the will of man, but that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, as the apostle Peter says.  

And that afterwards God, from a special care, which he has for us and our salvation, commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed word to writing; and he himself wrote with his own finger, the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures. (Article #3. Of the Written Word of God) 

Here, the Belgic Confession quotes 1 Peter 1:20-21which says, “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (NIV).  

The Holy Spirit delivered God’s Word through human writers. These writers put words together, committing their own memories and thoughts to paper. But as they wrote the words of the Bible, God’s Spirit directed them in such a way that what they wrote was his Word.

Guido believed the Bible’s testimony about itself—that it truly is God’s Word.

2

The Written Word of God Contains 66 Books 

In the fourth article of the Belgic Confession, Guido DBres joined the chorus of church history in affirming that only 66 books of the Bible (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books) are inspired by God and authoritative.

In his next articleDBres explains that these books (the canon) are authoritative because God, through his Holy Spirit, confirms the truth and authority of these books in his peoples’ hearts.

We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and conformation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesses in our hearts, that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves.(Article #5. From Whence the Holy Scriptures Derive Their Dignity and Authority.) 

Following this, DBres says that the extra books (called “apocryphal”) may be useful to their readers, but only as much as they agree with and don’t detract from the teaching of the divinely inspired 66 books of the Bible.  

3

God’s Written Word Is Our Final Authority 

In this final article addressing the Bible in the Belgic Confession, DBres makes it clear that he believes the canonical books are the primary and ultimate source of authority for the Church. 

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein.  

For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for anyone, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says.  

For, since it is forbidden, to add unto or take away anything from the word of God, it does thereby evidently appear, that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.  

Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself.  

Therefore, we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you; and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house. (Article #7. The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, to be the Only Rule of Faith.) 

De Bres explains that the teachings of the Bible are complete and contain all that is needed for humanity to know the way of salvation, referencing the following passages from the Bible.

  • But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed(Galatians 1:8 ESV).   
  • “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19 ESV). 
  • “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We [the Apostles] are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:1-6 ESV).

DBres firmly admonishes readers to test all creeds, councilsconfessions—even his own!—by the measuring rod of the Bible. He recognizes that he, too, is subject to the judgment and correction of the Bible. 

 4

Would You Sign the Belgic Confession? 

What did Guido De Bres believe about the Bible that made him willing to die for his confession? The Belgic Confession says the Bible is the written Word of God, given to us in 66 books, which are the final authority for the churchHe died for God’s Word—not man’s.

So would you sign the Belgic Confession? 

If you would like to read more, you can find all 37 articles of the Belgic Confession here. 

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’ livesthe 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: 

1

Apostolicity

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). 

2

Orthodoxy

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? 

3

Universality 

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. 

4

Antiquity

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.

Article: 12 Min

Is the Canon Closed?

by Michael J. Kruger at The Gospel Coalition