How We Got Our New Testament

I have written on this subject before, but this time I want to approach it backwards. Rather than explain and defend my viewpoint, which is that the 27 books which make up our “New Testament” were chosen for one reason and one reason only: the churches believed they were written by an apostle or apostolic companion.

The backwards approach I’m talking about is that I want to refute the common modern belief that there were several factors used to determine whether a booklet or letter should be included in the “canon” (the books accepted as Scripture).

This came up because I was reading an introduction to the New Testament, and the author, Dr. Henry Clarence Thiessen, discusses the canon of the “New Testament,” and though he defends the standard model, his defense is one of the best proofs I’ve run across that the standard model is incorrect.

Two Comments

First, I looked up Dr. Thiessen on the internet. He appears to have been a diligent student of Scripture and a disciple of Jesus Christ. I mean him no disrespect. Even a good disciple can be wrong, especially if he’s been trained to accept tradition over proper reasoning. (Such training does not happen on purpose, but it does happen because of example in many denominations.)

Second, the reason that I put “New Testament” in parentheses is because the 27 books that comprise our “New Testament” are not the new covenant, and they should not be called that. God has made a new covenant with us, and it is a spiritual covenant, not written on paper. Our 27 books are inspired writings that came from apostles, or their companions, who were under the new covenant. They are not the covenant itself.

I prefer to call those 27 books “the apostles’ writings.”

Dr. Thiessen writes:

There were four things which aided in the determination of which books should be accepted as canonical.

The quotes I am discussing are on page 10 and 11 of Introduction to the New Testament. I included an Amazon link to the right so you know which book it is, but don’t buy the book there. Look at the price! Crazy! I got mine at McKay’s—an excellent, huge used bookstore—for about $8.

The four things he says helped the church determine which writings belonged in the canon were:

  1. Was the book written by an apostle?
  2. Was the content of a given book of such a spiritual character as to entitle it to this rank?
  3. Was the book universally received in the church?
  4. Does the book give evidence of being divinely inspired?

My position, as I’ve stated, is that the church determined whether a book was Scripture based solely on the first question.

Question #2 could be used to help determine whether a book was really written by an apostle or whether it was a fraud. Question #3 was important, but each church received a book based on whether it was written by an apostle, so this is really the same as #1. Question #4 is an anachronism. No early Christian would have been able even to ask that question.

Let’s examine each of these additional qualifications for being ranked as Scripture with help from Dr. Thiessen himself.


Was the content of a given book of such a spiritual character as to entitle it to this rank?

Dr. Thiessen gives no evidence or argument that this question was used to determine whether a book belonged in the canon. He simply states that it is so.

For the question of apostolicity (whether it was written or approved by an apostle), he gives both evidence and examples. Mark, Luke, Acts, and Hebrews are given as books for which the question of apostolicity was important.

That’s true. Mark was the companion of Peter in Rome, and Luke was Paul’s companion. Thus Mark, Luke, and Acts carried the authority of Peter and Paul and were accepted as inspired.

There were a lot of questions about the authorship of Hebrews, but those who treated it as Scripture believed it to have been written by either Barnabas or Paul.

Accepted universally by the church

Whether a book was accepted by churches was definitely important. Even as late as A.D. 400, Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) taught students of Scripture “to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority” (On Christian Doctrine II:8:12).

However, why did churches accept books as Scripture?

Because they were written by apostles.

Dr. Thiessen writes:

It is clear that no one regarded [the seven general epistles] as written by James, Peter, John, and Jude and yet rejected them.

In other words, the letters of these four men were not accepted as Scripture by all churches, but only by some. However, Dr. Thiessen points out here that everyone who believed they were written by James, Peter, John, and Jude accepted them as Scripture.

Here, right in Dr. Thiessen’s text, is one of the strongest evidences there could be that the only criteria for accepting a new covenant writing as Scripture was whether it was written by an apostle or apostolic companion.

Does the Book Give Evidence of Being Divinely Inspired?

How does a book give evidence of being divinely inspired? Does it emanate a feeling? Does it say something none of us could know?

It’s hard to present an argument against this line of thinking because it just did not exist in early Christianity. You can probably imagine that it is hard to find a quote that says, “We don’t have that kind of thinking in this day and age; that won’t be invented until centuries later.”

From long experience of reading the writings of the early church for over 20 years (I have read everything written by the church before A.D. 220 at least twice, and much of it many more times than that), I can tell you that no one thought along the lines of writings that just felt “anointed” or “inspired.”

Some Early Christian Quotes on What Really Mattered: Apostolic Authority

The early Christians were not looking for an “ooh and ahh” feeling of divine inspiration. They were submitted to apostolic authority.

Cyprian writes: “From where is [his] tradition? Does it descend from the authority of the Lord and the Gospel or does it come from the commands and letters of the apostles? For God witnesses and admonishes that those things which are written must be done” (Letter to Pompeius, c. A.D. 250).

Tertullian writes: “Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, [our rule is] that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for ‘no one knows the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son wishes to reveal him’ [Matt. 11:27]. Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach” (Prescription Against Heretics 21, c. A.D. 210).

Irenaeus, the great second century overseer and missionary in Lyon, Gaul (modern Trier, Germany), writes: “The church … has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith” (Against Heresies I:10:1). He adds, “We have learned from no one else the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they proclaimed at one time in public, then, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (ibid. III:1:1, emphasis mine).

I think these few quotes serve as examples of how the early Christians saw inspiration. Inspiration was in the apostles. There are at least dozens, perhaps hundreds of quotes like this, because to the early churches, it was the apostles that were the authority of God. They delivered the Gospel to the churches, and the job of the churches was to deliver it unchanged to the next generation.

Some Scriptures on the Authority of the Apostles

Contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was spoken to us by the Lord at first, then confirmed to us by those that heard him. God also testified to them, both with signs and wonders and with various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his will. (Heb. 2:3-4)

If anyone considers himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things I write to you are the commandments of Christ. (1 Cor. 14:37)

Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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2 Responses to How We Got Our New Testament

  1. Ken Mullins says:

    On point # 4 (Does the Book Give Evidence of Being Divinely Inspired?). I take that as more along the lines of does it agree with the rest of Scripture, that is–is it consistence both with itself and the Old and New Testaments. Do the “facts” match history? For example most scholars know that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the second century. So while the authorship claims an apostle, the facts refute such authorship.
    In reality all 4 of these closely relate, however Hebrews would likely have been excluded based solely on # 1.

    • Shammah says:

      It is true that these points are closely related. My point, however, is that the “New Testament” is not, by early church a standards, a collection of “inspired” writings. Instead, they collected the writings of the apostles because the apostles were sent by Jesus to give us the Gospel. That’s why I included the early Christian quotes at the end of the post.

      I know that scholars tend to disagree, but I have never seen even one quote from any early Christian writer suggesting that the issue was “inspiration” rather than apostolic authorship. Note that Dr. Thiessen points out that even on the questionable books, no one rejects those books if they accept the authorship of Peter, James, John, or Jude. It’s only apostolic authority that mattered to the early churches. I know other things matter to us, like “anointing” and “inspiration.” Applying that to the early churches is anachronistic, though. They only cared about apostolic authorship, and every other criteria was to establish apostolic authorship, not to establish “inspiration.”

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