It is claimed that the New Testament canon didn’t come into existence until the fourth century. Although the church, as a body, did place their authoritative stamp-of-approval on the exact 27 books NT canon in the fourth century, these individual books were being identified by the early church as soon as they received them.
First of all, Jesus promised to give His Apostles a new and authoritative revelation to take worldwide:
- And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20; all quotations in ESV)
Jesus’ Word was to take precedence of Moses’, and His Apostles were to carry His Word forth. They would have to teach “all that I have commanded you.” Clearly, Jesus’ Words carried at least the same authority as did the rest of the Scriptures. Therefore, they could not pick-and-choose which they preferred.
Clearly, He had specially ordained them for this ministry:
- You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:48-49)
They would be supernaturally equipped by the Spirit so that what they taught would be entirely the Word of God:
- But the Helper, 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 have said to you. (John 14:26)
Because these teachings came directly from the Spirit, they were Spirit-inspired. As such, they were Scripture. Through the Spirit, Jesus would now instruct them clearly and precisely:
- “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you... I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. (John 16:12-15, 25 ESV)
Did this Spirit-inspiration include the writing of the NT Scriptures? Commenting on these verses, Norman Geisler writes:
- The question must be asked: What else could Jesus have been referring to but the New Testament? The New Testament writings are the only writings we have ever seen from these apostles. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to believe that these very New Testament writings are the inspired “all truth” revelation Jesus promised. If Jesus had a high view of Old Testament written revelation (and he did) he certainly would have a high view of this future “all truth” written revelation. In this way Jesus affirmed beforehand that the New Testament was coming— and that it would be just as authoritative as Old Testament. (Evidence of an Early New Testament Canon)
How else could the Apostles fulfill their mission “to the ends of the earth” and “to the end of the age” unless they wrote down the teachings that they had been divinely given!
Even though Jesus didn’t explicitly mention “writing,” the Apostles understood that their “Grand Commission” included the written word:
- So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
For the Apostles, their oral teachings were equivalent to the written ones.
- When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:4-5)
Did the Apostles understand that they were writing Scripture? Yes! They placed their writings on the level of the Hebrew Scriptures:
- So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:19-20)
- And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Peter also placed the Apostolic writings on the same level as the Hebrew Prophets:
- You should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles... And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:2, 15-16)
Peter also regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture. For one thing, when Paul’s writings are distorted, they do it to their own destruction. This can only be said about Scripture. Besides, Peter refers to Paul’s writings and to the “other Scriptures,” signifying that he regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture.
John also regarded his writing as Scripture. He wrote about it in the same veneration as the Hebrew Scriptures:
- I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
Such a warning is only given regarding Scripture (Deut. 4:2; 12:32). The only possible conclusion is that John was aware that he was writing Scripture. Meanwhile, Paul quotes Luke 10:7 as Scripture, and Jude quotes 2 Peter 3:2, indicating that he regarded it too as Scripture.
In many other ways, we see that the Apostles treated their writings as divinely inspired. They directed their letter to be read by other churches (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16). They spoke as if they were backed by the authority of God (1 Tim. 6:3-4; Gal. 1:8-9; Titus 3:10).
Were the Apostles faithful to commission? Had they gone astray? One powerful indication that they hadn’t gone astray was that the Lord was endorsing their teaching by signs and wonders:
- For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; (Romans 15:18-19)
Why did the church regard Paul as an Apostle even though he hadn’t been a companion of Jesus? His ministry was attended by the signs of his Lord:
- For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. (2 Corinthians 12:11-12)
For the early church, there was no guess-work regarding who bore the Gospel of Jesus:
- And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)
- So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. (Acts 14:3)
The Lord also bore witness to the other Apostles:
- For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:2-4)
Skeptics insinuate that the writings of the NT can’t be trusted because they had been written after the Apostles had passed by those who weren’t eyewitnesses. However, Geisler cites a skeptic who believe that the NT was written a lot earlier:
- John A. T. Robinson, leader of the “Death of God” movement revised his dates saying all books were written between AD 40 and 70, with Matthew as early as AD 40, Mark AD 45, Luke AD 57 and John AD 40. Robinson’s concluded that “ all the various types of the early church’s literature … were coming into being more or less concurrently in the period between 40 and 70.” Renowned archaeologist William F. Albright said that “every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75 ).” This would put the writing of all New Testament books during the lifetime of the apostles and eyewitnesses.
However, the Church Fathers – some of them actually had had with the Apostles - are far more credible than our modern day skeptics, two thousand years removed from the actual events. According the Geisler:
- Apostolic Fathers confirm [the Apostolic] authorship. The Apostolic Fathers were the next generation of believers after the Apostles (AD 95 to c. 150). They were either direct disciples of the apostles or had personal knowledge of them. There is considerable evidence from these Fathers (and many more after them) that the Apostles were in fact the source of the New Testament writings.
In fact, Geisler claims that by 110 AD, the Fathers had cited 19 of the 27 NT books as Scripture. By 300 AD, the Fathers had quoted “nearly every verse of the NT.” Only 11 verses gone unquoted.
Perhaps the leading NT scholar of his day, Bruce Metzger, concluded:
- Neither individuals or councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.
The commentary writer, William Barclay, who was by no means an inerrantist, admitted:
- It’s the simple truth to say that the NT books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so.
And the church councils? Hadn’t they decided which books were to be included in the canon? It had already become patently obvious.