There are a lot of views about how the ancient writings actually became part of our Bible. Some have said that, for political and theological reasons, a council of bishops voted on these particular books out of hundreds of competing writings. Others say the church ran each book through a rigorous test to determine whether it was inspired. The issue of “canonicity” of the books of the Bible is an important topic. (The word canon in this context means a “rule” or “standard.”) Sorting out fact from fiction in this matter will help strengthen our confidence that the Bible we hold in our hands contains only the books that are meant to be there — and none that don’t belong.
Because Christians received the Old Testament canon from the Jews, there was little debate regarding what should be included. So, for the very earliest Christians, “Scripture” consisted of the Old Testament books as we have them in our Bibles today. However, during the first sixty years of the church (until about AD 100), important documents by Spirit-led apostles and prophets were still being written. The consolidation of these various writings into what we call the New Testament took some time.
How did this occur? The Christian leaders and communities to whom the apostles and prophets originally wrote knew which books were authentic (written by a true apostle or prophet), true (the information was reliable), and therefore authoritative (the apostles had been given authority to lead the church, so their words were commands from God). Almost immediately these apostolic writings began to be copied and passed around to neighboring and distant churches. Very soon, churches began to use these “New Testament” writings in teaching and worship. So for most of the books, there was little question about whether or not they were authoritative for the faith and practice of the churches.
Even when we hear about “disputed” books, we should actually be encouraged rather than discouraged because this indicates that the early church leaders were extremely cautious regarding writings about which they were uncertain. However, once they were able to research the origin and contents of the books, they reached a consensus of what was to be accepted as authoritative. The affirmation of our present New Testament canon at the Council of Carthage (AD 397) was not a vote on these books over competing documents but an acknowledgment of the writings that Christians all over the world had already accepted.
Michael J. Svigel received his master of theology in New Testament and doctor of philosophy in Theological Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). He currently serves as associate professor of Theological Studies at DTS, teaching Theology and Church History. Prior to accepting his position at the seminary in 2007, he worked as a writer in the Creative Ministries Department at Insight for Living Ministries. Mike and his wife, Stephanie, are parents of three children.
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