Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 30, 1964
NUMBER 51, PAGE 3,11c-12a

How Did We Get Our New Testament Scriptures?

Edward Fudge IV.

How did we get our Bible? This question has probably been in the mind of every Bible student at some time in his life. This question involves a great deal more than one might think at first glance. How were the books of the New Testament gathered together? How and when were they decided upon as the inspired and complete Word of God for this Age? These questions and others will be discussed in this series of articles.

The word canon comes from the Greek kanon and has at least three meanings. (1) Literally it means a straight rod or bar, as a ruler used by masons and carpenters; then as keeping something straight; then as testing straightness. (2) Metaphorically it means that which serves to measure, a rule, norm, standard;.... (3) Passively it means that which has been measured and accepted.

An extensive study of the canon would include many things with which we shall not attempt to deal in these articles. For an idea of the generality of the subject, let us refer to McClintock and Strong, who state that:

In order to establish the Canon of Scripture, it is necessary to show that all the books of which it is composed are of divine authority; that they are divine and incorrupt; that, having them, it is complete without any addition from any other source; and that it comprises the whole of those hooks for which divine authority can be proved. It is obvious that, if any of these four particulars be not true, Scripture cannot be the sole and supreme standard of religious truth and duty.

Since this subject is so broad in nature, we shall limit these articles to what may be termed "the history" of the Canon. We shall show (i) the attitude of the churches toward the early writings, (ii) the evolution of the idea of a "canon" as such, (iii) the standards used in determining the canonicity (canonical nature) of these writings, and (iv) how this "canon" developed from the day of the Apostles until the time when the church would universally accept the New Testament as we now have it.

The Situation In The Early Days

In order to appreciate properly the situation at the time of the writing of the earliest Christian literature, we must realize that:

"the early Christians had in their hands what was a Bible to them, viz. the O. T. Scriptures. These were used to a surprising extent in Christian instruction. For a whole century after the death of Jesus this was the case....When the actual work of writing began no one who sent forth an epistle or framed a gospel had before him the definite purpose of contributing toward the formation of what we call "the Bible." All the New Testament writers looked for "the end" as near. Their words, therefore, were to meet the definite needs in the lives of those with whom they were associated."

This does not change the fact that the Holy Spirit did understand what was being written. This very fact, though perhaps not understood by the men whom the Spirit chose to use in the actual writing, makes the Bible a book for all men of all ages.

The attitudes of the recipients of Scripture varied.

"It seems to have been the custom for the inspired writers to deliver their writings to the priest to be placed by the side of the Law for safekeeping. Josephus tells us that this practice was always followed, copies being made for personal use by kings and others (Dent. xvii.18). But when first these sacred utterances were made and put into writing, they were in some cases only recognized as "the word of the Lord" by "the poor of the flock" (Zech. xi.11), while by others they were often indignantly repudiated, and the writers themselves were imprisoned and slain (Jer. xxxvi.5, 23, 24)."

Since Christians evidently had little intention of collecting the various writings for the sake of posterity, our next consideration should be to determine the reasons involved in their distinguishing between inspired and uninspired books, and for their commencement to form collections of inspired ones.

When civil authorities began to persecute the church severely, and especially when they demanded that all "sacred writings" be destroyed, the Christians began to do some fast deciding. Indeed, "persecution....had a potent influence on the fortunes of the Bible text....(for) an edict such as that of Diocletian in 303, ordering all the sacred books to be burnt, would lead men to distinguish between the sacred and non-sacred books, and so assist the formation of an authoritative Canon."

On What Grounds Was The Canon Decided?

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-63) decided to include in the Canon some books which today are not accepted, except by the Catholic Church. "Any child can see that that decision cannot really alter the true character of those uninspired books, which were written nearly two thousand years previously, any more than spurious metal can be converted into gold by being hall-marked!"

"The Canon....was decided by the internal testimony and intrinsic value of the writings themselves — just as the true character of a tree, though questioned, and even vehemently denied, for a time in the dead months of winter, will, nevertheless, soon be established beyond all doubt — not on the authority of some expert gardener or association of gardeners, but by its own answerable evidence in the flower and fruit it bears. So with ....Scripture."

"The problem (of how a book was evaluated as canonical) is one which may be approached along three main lines: (i) there are a few scattered references within the books of Scripture to a completed body of writings; (ii) there is a limited amount of external historical evidence; and (iii) there is the fact of the inherent authority, which is carried by the books themselves."

These may be more simply stated as: "(i) internal evidence; (ii) external evidence; and (iii) what theologians call the testimonium internum Sancti Spiritus — i.e. an inward witness of the Spirit in the believing reader's heart which accords with the claims made concerning its authority in the text of Scripture itself."

This article is the first of a series. It will serve as an introduction to the whole study, and also answer a few of the questions raised in the beginning. So far we have seen that the writers of the New Testament Scriptures believed "the end" might come at any time, and so did not write with the intention of forming a "Bible" for future generations; that the early Christians (also the first readers of N. T. Scripture) also expected the Lord to return soon, therefore felt no need to gather the writings of inspired men for their own posterity. We have also seen one reason for the collections of sacred literature and the differentiation of books, epistles and gospels on the grounds of authority and inspiration — the Roman edict against "sacred writings."

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