My teenage daughter once asked me, “Where did we get the Bible from?”
At the time she asked me this, I had just finished class one of my MATS courses, New Testament Introduction. In this class for one of the weekly assignments, we had to answer the question, “Give a definition of the word ‘canon’ and describe the basic criteria and time-line of the formation of the New Testament canon. Why did early Christians feel a need to establish an authoritative list of Scripture?”
My response to this important question is as follows:
The word “canon” is derived from the Greek word kanon. This word is based on the Hebrew kaneh. Canon and the Hebrew kaneh mean “rule” or “standard. The canon of the Bible refers to the accepted collection of books of the Old and New Testaments. The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament comprise the Protestant Biblical canon; however, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have different books in the OT.
The canon of the New Testament, comprising the four Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters, the various epistles, and other books, were written “starting in the late 40s and proceeded through the latter half of the first century.” At its core, “canonicity is determined by God.” It is important to note that the Christian church is not the arbiter of what is considered the canon of scripture; rather the church is the discoverer, minister, recognizer, and servant of the canon.
There are several reasons the early Christian church felt the need to establish the canon of scripture. The books of the New Testament were “prophetic, intrinsically valuable” and they were worth preserving for future generations of Christians and non-Christians alike. In addition to the efficacious nature of having the canon, it also served to dispel heresy. By having a defined set of recognized books of the Bible, the church could use them as the measure of whether other writings should be considered inspired scripture, uninspired but important, or heretical.
The ability to determine heretical writings is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of the canon. Apologist and radio host Hank Hanegraff often says “Christians must be so familiar with truth that when counterfeits loom on the horizon, they recognize them instantaneously.” This admonishment is true today, and it was true in the early centuries of Christianity. The established canon of scripture equipped Christians to know truth from falsehood.
The counter-effect of persecution, while important, was the least important of the criteria for establishing the canon of scripture. The fact that the apostles and other early believers who were eye-witnesses to Jesus and his death were persecuted and did not recant their testimony is perhaps some of the most compelling evidence for the truth of the New Testament. However, the canon of scripture was not recognized until after the apostles had died. The persecution of the early church and the attempted destruction of New Testament manuscripts may have meant that believers had to choose to preserve books that were recognized as canon; however, ultimately it is God’s power to preserve his Holy Word that allowed the Bible to be preserved.
For those who say that the canon of the Bible should still be open, my response would be to ask for what reason or on what authority they would make the claim. The criteria of canonization are apostolic authorship, orthodoxy, antiquity, and ecclesiastical usage. The examination of ancient writings that fall into these categories has already happened. Further, there have been no new writings discovered that meet these criteria.