Subscribe to this page via e-mail here - Subscribe
Article 29 - N.T. Books Recognized As Inspired
When Were the Books of New Testament First Known to be Inspired?
Jon Gary Williams
The books of the New Testament did not constitute the beginning of God's teachings for Christianity, because they did not exist for several years after the establishment of the church. Rather, as these books were penned, they served as a permanent confirmation of the inspired truths that were already being taught by the apostles (John 14:26; 16:13) and, thereafter, became the perfect guide for the Christian system (II Tim. 3:16,17; Jms. 1:25; 2:12).
At what point did the early church recognize these twenty-seven books to be inspired? One widely accepted view is that in the early 4th century an ecclesiastical council of men decided these writings were to be accepted as inspired. For obvious reasons this view must be rejected.
Another popular view says it was not until after the first century that the early church "providentially" came to understand these letters were inspired and put them together in canon form. However, if it took such an extended period of years for their inspiration to the recognized, this brings up several important issues.
First, it can be rightly assumed that early Christians were not anticipating receiving inspired letters, hence, they would not have been seeking to identify such letters. This being the case, what was it then that motivated the early church to gradually determine that some letters were inspired writings?
Second, since these letters were inspired from the time they were written and since they contained essential information for the church, what reason would God have in delaying awareness of their inspiration? And would not this conflict with God's purpose in giving such inspired writings?
Third, would God give inspired writings and then leave it to human judgment to determine their inspiration? If so, how was this done? Did the churches spend time studying these letters over and over before concluding they were inspired?
Fourth, as copies of these letters passed among the churches, did each one independently decide that they were inspired? Or did some churches base their decision on what other churches had already concluded?
Obviously, this view is an inadequate answer to the question: "When did the early church first know that the books of the New Testament were inspired?"
A more reasonable and compelling view is that these twenty-seven letters were identified as inspired when they were initially received. Statements found in some of the New Testament letters are such that the recipients were compelled to understand they were authoritative.
They would have had no doubt about their inspiration. Notice the following examples.
I Cor. 7:17 - "And so ordain I in all the churches," and I Cor. 14:37 - "...the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord." Such statements obviously identify this letter as inspired.
II Cor. 1:1 - "...unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia." Clearly, this epistle was designed not only for the Corinthian church but also for other churches in the general area of Achaia. Since the apostle wanted other churches to also see the contents of the letter, this implies it was not a common letter, but rather one of special significance.
Gal. 1:2 - Similarly, the Galatian letter, being addressed to multiple congregations, implies that it was of much greater importance than an ordinary letter.
Col. 3:16 - "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans..." The requirement that this letter be read by a sister church is an indication of its inspired nature.
I Thess. 5:27 - "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren." Such a charge suggests the superior, inspired content of this letter.
II Thess. 3:14 - "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed." Here, again, the command element found in this epistle, denotes its inspired nature.
I Tim. 2:8-12 - "I will therefore that..." I Tim. 3:2ff - "A bishop must..." Such imperative statements distinctly call inspiration to mind.
I Tim. 4:1 - "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly..." This specifically points to the writer's direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.
II Pet. 3:15,16 - By speaking of Paul's writings as "scripture," Peter obviously recognized them to be inspired. If he did not immediately identify them as such, what procedure would he have used to so determine? Also, since Peter spoke of "other epistles," it is again obvious that there were more inspired letters he had read.
When Revelation was initially received by the seven churches, it contained marks of inspiration. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1). "Blessed are they that...keep those things which are written therein..." (1:3). Jesus said, "...what thou seest write in a book, and send it to the seven churches..." (1:11). "Write, for these words are true and faithful" (21:5). "I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things to the churches..." (22:16).
There were severe warnings not to add to or take from the words of this book (22:18,19). If Revelation was not initially known to be inspired and it's meanings, therefore, not acknowledged as inspired, how could anyone know what not to add to or take from?
In his accounting of the life of Jesus, Luke specifically mentions that, "many have taken into hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us..." (Luke 1:1). Evidently, many accounts of the life of Jesus had been written. However, that Luke's account remained extant, shows that it was of special significance. Since all other accounts eventually became unknown, this confirms Luke's record of the life of Jesus was regarded by first century Christians as inspired. The same, of course, can be said of Matthew, Mark and John.
In addition to such textual evidence, it should be remembered that there existed within the early church those who had the ability to identify inspired writings.
Obviously the apostles could understand writings that were inspired. The apostle Peter, referring to Paul's letters as inspired, is a perfect example (II Pet. 3:15,16).
The prophets were part of the church's foundation (Eph. 2:20). Surely they, along with the apostles, could identify inspired writings (Eph. 3:5).
Some had the gift of knowledge (I Cor. 12:8). With this gift (which the apostle Paul also possessed, I Cor. 13:2) such people, no doubt, could identify inspired writings.
Angels could identify inspired writings and make them known to the early church. Their involvement in the reception of the writings of the Old Testament is evidence of this (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). Also, Jesus spoke of an angel who was to confirm His words to the early church (Rev. 22:16).
It is my studied opinion that these twenty-seven letters were penned within approximately fifteen years (54 A. D. - 69 A. D.). As these letters were received and recognized as inspired writings, no doubt copies of them were made and began to be distributed among the early congregations. As time passed, they were assembled and became known as what we now call the New Testament.
To believe, as I once did, that it was not until after the first century when these letters were known as an inspired canon does not fit God's purpose for which such inspired writings were given - to help the early church mature and expand. 10).
These inspired letters began to be written about the mid-50s A.D. If they were not recognized as inspired until after 100 A.D., this means that for 50 years or more, the church had no written authority to follow. It is reasonable to conclude that very early these letters were identified as a group. As the temporary, partial things were vanishing, the "perfect" thing, God's final message (in the form of the twenty-seven letters) was being brought together and circulated (I Cor. 13:10).