The Expository Files

How We Got The New Testament

Everyone understands that the New Testament was not written by one man and that it was not written at one time. In fact, at least eight different inspired men wrote various parts of the New Testament over a period of several years. Furthermore, we know that we do not have all the writings of even these eight men. For example, Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:9 that he had written an earlier epistle to the church at Corinth. That letter has not been preserved for us. It is likely that some other writings of Paul, as well as those of Peter, James, Matthew, etc., are not included in the New Testament and have been lost forever.

So, we ask: How did the books that are in the New Testament get there? Who decided that these should be included and others should be excluded? Do we have all the books that we should have? Basically, these questions concern what is called the "canon" of Scripture. "Canon" literally suggests the idea of meeting a standard or system of rules. When we talk about the canon of Scripture, we are talking about those writings that adhered to a certain standard or set of rules. The writings that met those standards and rules were viewed as being legitimate and authoritative. These are the ones that were included in the New Testament.

But, who established those rules and standards? And, in a practical way, can we be sure that when we pick up our New Testaments today we have an accurate recording of the message that God wanted us to receive? We'll continue our study of these important questions in this short series of lessons.

Paul wrote, "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you..." (1 Cor. 11:23). The writers of the New Testament wrote by inspiration. The words they penned were given by the direct revelation of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17). He told them what to say and how to say it. When the inspired men of the first century wrote, the product of their work was immediately acknowledged and accepted by those in the church. They "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42) and they received those teachings "not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). These writings were "Scripture" before the ink had dried. (The word "Scripture" is used about 50 times in the New Testament and always refers to the written record of the will of God. Thus, the word "Scripture" can be accurately applied to the things found in both the Old and New Testaments.) Some argue that there was a gradual evolving of thought concerning the Scripture - that only after a long period did these writings come to be regarded as an authoritative source. That simply is not true. Certainly there was a gradual process of spreading and distributing these writings around the world (Colossians 4:16). Ultimately there was a compiling of these works into one book. (There is some evidence that compilations of the various books that make up our New Testament began as early as 115 A.D. - perhaps only a few years after the death of the last apostle). But the actual writings were regarded as Scripture immediately. Paul (writing in about 65 A.D.) quotes Luke's gospel and refers to it as Scripture (see 1 Timothy 5:18 and Luke 10:7). Peter (in 66 A.D.) mentions Paul's writings and calls them Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).

We know that the inspired writings of the first century were widely circulated among Christians of that time (see Col. 4:16 and 1 Thess. 5:27). It is clear that those early Christians held the sacred writings in highest esteem and regarded them as the basis of their religious authority.

Within the first 50 years after the apostles there were several writers who made frequent appeal to the authority of what we now know as the New Testament books. Clement of Rome, in his Epistles to the Corinthians (A.D. 95) makes reference to Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, Romans, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter and Ephesians. The epistles of Ignatius (A.D. 115) and Polycarp (A.D. 130) refer to various New Testament books. Justin Martyr (A.D.100-165) made extensive appeal to the four Gospels and mentions Acts and Revelation.

Early heresies initiated by the Gnostics and others required that faithful brethren make a defense of the inspired writings. This they did, and we have the record of their defense preserved unto this day. In the process of defending the New Testament works, they actually insured that we would have historical verification of the writings that were known to be produced by inspired men. Someone has said, "in the struggle with Gnosticism the canon was made."

Other Christian writers came a little later. Among these were Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Tertullian. Writing in the period from A.D. 170 to A.D. 220, they made many references to New Testament books. For instance, Irenaeus mentions Paul's epistles over 200 times. Questions about the canon of Scripture were already settled long before a "church council" was convened to discuss the matter at Carthage in A.D. 397. The "council" only "confirmed" what was already known to be true.

A legitimate question to ask is: Do we have all the New Testament? In other words, are we sure that all of the writings that should have been included were, in fact, included when the canon of Scripture was compiled? The answer is, YES. In order for books to be considered New Testament Scripture, they had to be confirmed as the work of an inspired apostle or of a prophet so closely associated with the apostles as to imply apostolic approval of their writing. (This accounts for the inclusion of the writings of Mark and Luke.) While there are some other writings that claim apostolic authorship, they are easily shown to be forgeries. They contradict the acknowledged and genuine apostolic writings. And, furthermore, it has been proved that most of them were written long after the apostles died. Actually, scholarly attacks against the New Testament canon have always been in regard to the books that are included, not those that are excluded. It is hard to find a scholar who says that more books should be added to the New Testament. No other writings come even close to bearing the marks of true inspiration and apostolic authority. A strong defense can be made for each of the 27 books that we find in our New Testament today. They are not there because some "church council" decided to put them there. Rather, they are there because they were accepted by a consensus of early Christians and churches that knew the apostles and prophets who actually wrote the books, We repeat that the question of the canon of Scripture had long been settled before the first "council" was held to discuss the subject. That council only went on record as approving what was already acknowledged.

We have been looking at the process by which our New Testament came into existence. Actually, the title "New Testament" was apparently not used until near the end of the second century. But, the sacred writings that make up our New Testament were well known. They were widely circulated among Christians of that era. It is interesting to study the history of how these writings were handed down to us today.

There is one very important point for us to remember as we ponder this subject. Namely, we should never forget that God's hand of providence was guiding the process of preserving His Word. Look at His promises about this:

Isaiah 40:8, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever."
Matthew 24:35, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."
1 Peter 1:25, "But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you. "

It is clear that God was and is determined that His Word will not be destroyed. Regardless of the actions that men may take, God's Word will stand. We know that there were several attempts throughout history to obliterate God's word. For example, Diocletian, emperor of Rome, decreed in 305 A.D. that all Christian literature be destroyed throughout the world. His idea was that if the Scriptures could be destroyed, then the new faith would also vanish. He was probably right (remember that "faith cometh by hearing" the word of God - Romans 10:17). But God would not allow this to happen. Think of it -- the most powerful and cruel of political forces could not remove God's Word. When we pick up our New Testament and begin to read, we can be sure that we have the literal and infallible Word of God. Written by inspired men, handed down by faithful Christians, preserved by the mighty God - it is the "engrafted word which is able to save your souls" (James 1:21).

By Greg Gwin
From Expository Files 7.6; June 2000