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Article 29 - N.T. Books Recognized As Inspired

When Were the Books of the New Testament Recognized as 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 had already been taught by the apostles (John 14:26; 16:13) and, thereafter, became the perfect guide for the Christian system (II Tim. 3:16,17; Jam. 1:25; 2:12).

The question is, however, at what point did the early church recognize these twenty-seven books to be inspired?

One widely accepted idea 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 view says that with the passing of time, the first century church somehow came to understand that these letters were inspired. However, if it took an extended period of years for the inspiration of these books to the determined, this brings up several important issues.

First, it can be rightly assumed that the early Christians were not necessarily anticipating the reception of inspired letters, hence, they would not have been engaged in seeking out and identifying such letters. This being the case, what was it that motivated the early church to gradually determine some letters to be 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? Would not this conflict with God's purpose in giving these inspired writings?

Third, would God give an inspired writing and then leave it to human judgment to determine it's inspiration? If so, how did the churches do this? What method did they use? Did they 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 church independently decide their inspiration? Did some churches base their decisions on what other churches had already concluded?

This view is an inadequate answer to the question: "When did the early church recognize 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 the New Testament letters are such that the recipients were compelled to understand these letters 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 these 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 a common 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 - "charge...that this epistle be read..." This suggests the superior, inspired content of this letter.

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 direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.

II Pet. 3:15,16 - By speaking of Paul's writings as "scripture," Peter recognized them to be inspired. If he did not immediately know them to be inspired how long was it before he understood this and what led him to believe they were inspired?

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..."

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)

And also, 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 addition to this it should be remembered that there existed within the early church those who had the capacity to identify inspired writings.

First were the apostles themselves. Obviously an apostle could understand writings that were inspired. The apostle Peter, viewing Paul's letters as inspired, is a perfect example (II Pet. 3:15,16).

Second were the prophets who were part of the church's foundation (Eph. 2:20). Surely they, along with 
the apostles, could identify inspired writings (Eph. 3:5).

Third were those with 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.

Fourth were angels who could identify inspired writings. Their involvement in the reception of the writings of Old Testament is evidence of this (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). Also, Jesus speaks of an angel confirming the words in Revelation (Rev. 22:16).

No doubt, copies of these inspired letters were quickly distributed among the early congregations. Within approximately fifteen years (54AD - 70AD), as they were being penned, these books became a part of the canon we now know as the New Testament.