The Early Written Word
The Holy Spirit guided the apostles to put the Word into a written form. This was an expected and natural development; otherwise the redemption and revelation brought by Jesus Christ could have been lost. Luke was aware of this and searched out, as mentioned earlier, "things which are most surely believed" that were "delivered . . . unto us [Luke and his contemporaries] which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word" and wrote these in his gospel (Luke 1:1?4). The apostles were selective in writing about Christ; they had no intentions of writing a complete history of His life. We see this fact in Matthew not writing about an important event in redemptive history, the ascension, even though he was an eyewitness. Or that Mark did not mention Christ's birth. Or that only John writes about the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11), an event that played such an important part in Christ's death. Or that Luke wrote a whole special section (9:51-18:14) not mentioned in the others Gospels. Thus we see they through the Holy Spirit choose not to write a complete life of Christ. The reason for this is obvious. As John wrote that Jesus did "many other signs . . . which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (John 20:34). Latter he stated that "there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written" (21:25).
Today we believe a canon of inspired writings is a necessity, but this was not so in the early days of the church. There was a strong oral and apostolic tradition within the early church. As mentioned earlier, the apostles and their associates were the human source of the "word of God" (Acts 4:29-31; 6:2-7; 11:1; 12:24; 13:46; et al.). Many of the early Christians remembered the apostles and their associates' teachings, teachings that were deeply imbedded in their minds. At first unity and lack of controversy within the church meant brethren did not have to constantly turn to a written Word to settle issues. By the middle of the first century, some uninformed individuals caused confusion about the relation of the Mosaic Law and Old Covenant to the Gospel and New Covenant. This issue was addressed by the apostles (Acts, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, et al.). The apostles' effort largely corrected this problem, and the church was generally unified in doctrine. Also, writing and books were nothing like they are now. Today we generally think that for any idea to be authoritative, it must have come from a book, but this was not so in the early church.
As time passed, several factors made it desirable to have authoritative Christian writings and a canon of them. Some of these factors are, first, the outreach of the church brought in many new disciples. As the apostles opened work in more distant areas, one way they kept in contact with churches was through letters. The new Christians had to be nurtured; so the four Gospels, the history of the church, and letters of encouragement and correction were written. At first these writings were sent out individuality, but much later these books were brought together and sent to the outlying churches as a group. In some cases these books had to be translated into the disciples' native languages. Both the collection and translation factors required identity of which books were authoritative and belonged to the New Testament canon.
Second, the early church expected Jesus Christ to return soon, and this undoubtedly delayed the apostles' writing. But as time progressed and He did not return, the need arose to have a written record of Jesus' life and teaching and the history of redemption.
Third, persecution resulted in the Christian writings being searched out and destroyed. So the brethren needed to know which writings were inspired so they could be protected at all cost.
Fourth, it was inevitable that the apostles would die, and with time the authority of the their oral teachings would be questioned and subject to being treated as legends and myths. Because of these very real dangers, which would surely result in doctrine disunity, the need for an authoritative written Word increased.
Fifth, gradually, false teachers arose. They were present early in the life of the church, well before the end of the first century. Paul wrote that there were "empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party" (Titus 1:10 RSV). Paul asked Timothy to "charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions [promote speculations] rather than godly edifying" (I Timothy 1:3-4). These false teachings, mainly concerning the relation of the law given by Moses and the grace and truth brought by Jesus Christ, led to the writing of many of the New Testament books.
Sixth, John wrote that "as ye have heard that antichrist shall come. . . . They went out from us" (I John 2:18, 19). After the apostolic times, God knew these antichrists would question the authority of certain of the writings that did not agree with their ideas, leading to the need to clarify which books were inspired.
The preceding factors no doubt contributed to the apostles' writing the Gospels and Epistles, and the early Christians and church's bringing them together in a canon. But there is another factor. The work of the Holy Spirit was the chief cause of bringing God's Word into a written record. It was His activity working in the ordinary circumstances of the apostles' lives that resulted in the written Word being preserved for all subsequent generations.
The written Word quickly received a place of high significance; those who received it gave it special status because they knew it was the message they heard from the apostles. We have evidence that the written Word was very early placed on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul's letters were read in church gatherings with the same authority as Old Testament Scriptures (Col. 4:16. I Thess. 5:27). Peter was aware of Paul's letters to the churches and classed his letter with the Scriptures (II Peter 3:15). John presupposed that his Book of the Revelation would be read as other Scriptures (Rev. 1:3).
It is clear from the above that the written Word had great significance, and as time passed it received priority over the oral form of transmission. Actually, the written Word was a fixation of the oral form and carried the same message from God. The apostles and their associates' writings were brought together by the Christian brotherhood into the New Testament Scriptures.
The New Testament Canon
Thus far we have established a relationship between the apostles' written Word and Christ's historical redemptive events. The question arises, "How did the apostles' writings come together to form the New Testament canon, the collection of books that are received as genuine and inspired Scripture?"
First, we cannot turn to Acts, to any other New Testament book, or to early church records for an answer to this question. Neither the apostles nor the early church leaders left written records explaining how books were chosen or which ones belonged to the canon. So far as we know, the apostles did not "canonize" their books to make them authoritative. Today a written list of "canonized" books is a necessity. In the first couple of generations of the church, the need for a written list was not pressing since there was a strong oral teaching and apostolic tradition within the churches. The apostles' spoken words and established traditions were considered authoritative in the early church, and by them Christians were taught and knew which books were inspired.
We do not know why written records about the forming of the canon were not made. Perhaps one reason is that the early Christians may have decided, as just mentioned, to rely on verbal transmission of the list of books belonging in the New Testament. Thus they may not have seen the need to put in writing what everyone knew. The apostles may also have thought that it was not important for later generations to know every detail of the process by which the Word was put in writing. They may have thought that later generations would constantly be distracted from the message by turning their attention to the process. They may have also expected the Lord to return soon, eliminating any need for a written record. Furthermore, the apostles may have been too busy living and preaching the gospel and carrying out the Great Commission to make such lists.
So how was the canon formed? The answer is simple. The Christians and the church simply acknowledged the apostles' authority and accepted their writings and the writings of those closely associated with them (such as Mark and Luke) as part of the Holy Scripture. The church did not have to put together a canon by reviewing and examining prospective books and choosing those that qualified to be part of it. How would the church know which books the apostles and their associates wrote? During the opening period of church history, the apostles themselves, or those who received the books, could be asked. Oral tradition would pass the answers on to the following generations.
The next step would be to make a list of these books. Since bookmaking was not developed to where all the New Testament writings could be bound together, one would expect the canon list to develop long before many would have possessed a New Testament canon.
The third step would be for the church and individuals to gather the writings together. Would this be difficult? No, these books were treasured and preserved.
A source of the books in the early history of the church could have been the apostles themselves. One can safely assume that they kept copies of their manuscripts. The writers of the Gospels no doubt had copyists reproducing their manuscripts from the very start so they could be sent to the churches, and the copyists would have had to keep either the original or a copy to do this. One may speculate that the writer of a gospel or any other New Testament book would hardly had put such effort into a manuscript without seeing that it would be distributed. It seems unlikely that Paul would write such a major work as Romans without keeping a copy. There was too much chance that it might be lost in transit to Rome--or even misplaced by the church in Rome--for him not to keep a copy. Other authors may also have kept copies of their letters. But above all, the Holy Spirit saw to the overseeing of the distribution and preservation of the books He inspired.
Another source of a canonizing list would had been those receiving the books. They would knew right off that it was an important work since it came from an apostle or his close associate. They surely knew some of the above mentioned views that show these writings quickly were given an important position: (1) that Paul's letters were read in church gatherings on the same level as Old Testament Scriptures (Col. 4:16; I Thess. 5:27), (2) that Peter was aware of Paul's letters to the churches and classed his letters with the Scriptures (II Peter 3:15), (3) that John presupposed his Book of Revelation would be read as other Scriptures (Rev. 1:3), (4) that John's warning about adding to or taking away from the Book of Revelation showed great importance would be placed on it (22:19), and (5) that Paul's critics recognized his letters were "weighty and powerful" (II Cor. 10:10).
In summary, making a canon of New Testament books was no real problem for the early Christians since the church as a whole generally acknowledged the same writings; those questioned were few. When the some books were questioned, it was mainly in later times by individuals or in isolated areas of the church. Those receiving the books--and possibly the writers themselves--would have preserved the originals or copies. Copies must have existed from the very start and were available to the church. Those who wrote or more likely those who received the books must have copied them and passed them around the churches.
Certainly what happened concerning the list of canonical books and their preservation was tied to Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit was active in bringing the books together. As mentioned earlier, the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20?21). Christ is the corner stone, and He promised the apostles that "the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26 RSV); thus the apostles built upon Him to form the foundational truths to guide the church.
Let us mention here an interesting development concerning paper and bookmaking that may also have affected the development of the canon. At least some of the first New Testament writings may have existed in a roll or scroll form if Paul "books" and parchments mentioned in II Timothy (4:13) were New Testament. But we are not at all sure these were New Testament writings. These parchment may had been Old Testament scrolls Paul wanted to use in his defense. As Alands has pointed out, "All the literature of the period was written on scrolls (including Jewish literature . . .); yet apparently from the very beginning Christians did not use scrolls format for their writing, but rather the codex." (The codex is a "leaf" formed booklet.) They note that only four of the early known papyri were scrolls, and these four were "either opisthographs or written on used material." Roberts and Skeats suggest the papyrus codex was probably used by Christians before 100 A.D. The reason for this change to codies is unclear. It may have been for economic reasons (both sides could be written on; their use of abbreviations show the scribe wanted to shortened the text), convenience in paging back and forth in the writings, or to break from the Jewish use of scrolls, etc.
Roberts notes that of the 172 biblical manuscripts or their fragment written before A.D. 400, only 14 are in scroll form. He believes that Christians adapted the codex (leaf) form at Antioch before A.D. 100. Before the fourth century, only a few New Testament books could be put together in one codex. During the fourth century paper and bookmaking technology developed to the point where all the New Testament books could be bound together in one book, and the first "one book" New Testament likely came into existence then. This development may have been a factor in Athanasius' making his list. Canonical Books
When we look back to the early church's written records, it appears to have taken a fairly long time to "canonize" the New Testament. Currently we know of no list of canonical books dating before A.D. 170, and this list does not contain all twenty-seven books found today in the New Testament. The first list we know of containing the twenty-seven books was made in 367, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed them in his annual Easter letter to the church. It was just before this, soon after 350, that Athanasius applied the Greek term kanon to the list of books that was Scripture. It was not until the fifth century that disputes about which books belonged in the canon generally ceased. Before we conclude from these facts that the canon was slow in being recognized, we must realize that our vision into early church history related to the canon is likely very imperfect. Undoubtedly, there were many other lists earlier than that of 170, because the canon would have been fairly well-defined soon after the apostolic age, and for certain by the end of the second century.
The above is from The Authority of Scripture by Leland M. Haines. Copyright 199 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, Michigan USA. All Rights Reserved. Source of this article is bibleviews.com.