The impression is often given by Roman Catholics that their church decided which books should go into the New Testament. Critics of the Bible claim that the New Testament can’t be taken seriously because the choice of books was made by men. Some were rejected, some were accepted.
These claims all depend upon setting up an impression that a group of men sat down at a conference, with a pile of books in front of them, and decided which ones they would put into the New Testament canon- throwing some into the bin, and accepting others as Divinely inspired.
However, this is simply not what happened! There was no single ‘Council’ or conference which decided which books should be put into the canon [i.e. the list of inspired books which make up the New Testament]. The history of those ‘Councils’ makes it clear that they were more a case of confirming that the books already widely accepted as inspired were in fact inspired and should be included in the canon of the New Testament which was then being produced. Initially, Christianity began amongst largely illiterate folks. They heard the words of the Old Testament prophets read to them, and then they had copies of the Gospels and letters read to them. But as everything had to be copied out by hand, producing a whole copy of the New Testament was a major job. As things became more organized in the church, there had to be a decision as to which set of documents was going to be copied out and made into a ‘book’. And so decisions had to be made. But they were largely a confirmation of the books which were already widely accepted as inspired. In any case, those Councils usually only had local authority over a few churches- none of them universally decided once and for all for the whole world, which books should be accepted: “ Synodal judgments and episcopal pastoral letters concerning the contents of the Bible become usual only in the fourth century, and at first are of only local importance. They encourage uniformity between the various areas of the church, but are unable to bring about a completely uniform canon until the Middle Ages” (1).
How, then, did it come about that the early church knew which books were inspired and which weren’t? Paul and Peter were aware that there would be false prophets within the early church as well as true ones (2 Pet. 2:1). These false prophets wrote down their false teachings and claimed they were inspired. So there had to be a system of deciding whether a prophet was true, or false. There was a Holy Spirit gift which enabled the early church to ‘discern the spirits’- to know for sure who was inspired and who wasn’t (1 Cor. 12:10; 1 Jn. 4:1). 1 Cor. 14:29 suggests that as soon as a person claimed to be ‘prophesying’ from God, then the person with the gift of discerning spirits was to be present with them and to confirm their words. And Paul goes on to say that anyone who doesn’t submit to this, doesn’t really have the Holy Spirit gifts.
There were other tests of these prophets- if they didn’t accept that Jesus was Lord, they didn’t have the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). If they held false teaching about whether Jesus came in the flesh, and walked in hatred of the other Christians, they also were to be rejected (1 Jn. 4:1-10). When Paul says that God and the Holy Spirit witness to the truth of what he is writing, he is presumably referring to how those with the gift of discerning spirits had tested and approved what he was saying (Rom. 1:9; 9:1 cp. 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:7). What all this means is that as soon as a genuine New Testament prophet gave a prophecy, it was immediately recognized as such, because all these methods of ‘testing the spirit’ had been followed. This, by the way, explains the very ‘dogmatic’ and self-assured tone of some of the writers. They insist that their commands have God’s authority (1 Thess. 4:2; 2 Thess. 2:15), and therefore must be obeyed (2 Thess. 3:14). They can insist that what they are saying is actually the will and command of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37); and their inspired preaching was “of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). These claims would have come over as arrogant and baseless- unless there had indeed been the process of confirmation of their words explained above. The writers can ask for their letters to be read at the gatherings of the early church- which initially would have been based around the synagogue practice of reading from the Old Testament Scriptures. Their writings were clearly accepted on a par with those writings- as soon as they were issued (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:3).
The testings of the various claims to Holy Spirit inspiration are to be found in Gal. 1, 1 Cor. 14 etc. But the letters of John, written at the end of the New Testament period, have the most warnings about the need to test the various claims of Holy Spirit inspiration- understandably, as John was writing towards the end of the period when inspired writings were being given (1 Jn. 4:2,3; 5:6; 2 Jn. 7).
All this is why we find a very significant feature in both the New Testament itself, and in the historical, uninspired writings of the early Christians: they speak about the New Testament writings as being inspired Scripture just as they speak of the inspired Old Testament writings. So Peter, writing in A.D. 68, speaks of Paul's letters as being amongst " the other Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16), i.e. on the same level of acceptance as the Old Testament Scriptures. In 1 Tim. 5:18, Paul combines two quotations, one from the Old Testament and another from the Gospel of Luke, and calls them both “Scripture”: " For the Scripture saith ' 'Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn ' [Dt. 25:4]; and, 'The labourer is worthy of his hire'" (Lk. 10:7). Polycarp, writing in about AD115, combines the Old Testament Psalms and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in a similar manner: " In the sacred books.... as it is said in these Scriptures, 'Be ye angry and sin not,' and 'Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." ' Some years later, the [uninspired] second letter of Clement (2:4) quotes Isaiah and then adds: " And another Scripture, however, says, 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners'" -quoting from Matthew. The first epistle of Clement, dating at the latest to AD95, quotes from many of Paul’s letters and from the Gospels; but very significantly, it doesn’t quote from any of the books which later were rejected at the Councils. So, the ‘new’ writings of the New Testament were accepted on an equal footing as the Old Testament Scriptures, from soon after they were first circulated. Notice that this was all before the Councils met to assemble the canon. The books were widely accepted as inspired before them! They didn’t give those books an inspired status. It’s also apparent that the ‘new’ books didn’t go through much of a process of being recognized as inspired. As we outlined earlier, they were accepted as inspired immediately.
There were a few books which were debated at the Councils, especially the letter to the Hebrews. All of them have one thing in common: they don’t make clear, or there is debate about, who actually wrote them, and whether the writers were apostles of Jesus. Hebrews doesn’t mention who wrote it within the text of the letter. But it had been accepted as inspired from the beginning, using the tests explained above. The Councils discussed it, only because of the lack of stated authorship. But there was no debate over the majority of the books that entered the canon. Again, the picture of men agonizing over whether or not to include every book we now have in the New Testament is simply a caricature of the situation. Even from the beginning of the second century, there were references by early Christians to a collection of books called the “Gospel and apostles”. Clearly a body of letters and the the four Gospels had already developed- well before the Councils even met (2)!
Roman Catholics make the point that their church not only decided what went into the New Testament but also added the Apocrypha, which Protestants don’t accept. But it’s historically inaccurate to say that the Roman Catholics decided what went into the New Testament- the decision was made well before the founding of Roman Catholicism as we now know it. This religion started from the church at Rome. Their leaders claimed that their church should have universal (‘Catholic’) control over all other churches. They decided that the leader of the church of Rome, now known as the Pope, spoke directly from God; his decrees were to be treated as the word of God. They showed by this that they utterly failed to take into account the Biblical teaching about ‘discerning the spirits’. In this and many other matters, they showed themselves to be completely out of harmony with the word of God. It is therefore a baseless claim to suggest that they, who consider their leader to speak God’s word, should have any right to define what is or is not inspired. The simple fact is that the canon of the New Testament was fixed well before the development of ‘Roman Catholicism’.
A few concluding thoughts. God wants to communicate with us His creatures. It would make no sense for Him to inspire some books but allow them to be mixed up with books which He didn’t inspire. He wants to speak to us clearly. There can therefore be no doubt that He worked through the various church Councils, towards the end result of us having the New Testament which we now have.
God has shown us throughout the Old Testament how He works. Yes, He can do great miracles. He could have made the New Testament float down from the sky, complete with printing apparatus. But He didn’t. He has always preferred to work through the ‘still small voice’ rather than through anything dramatic (1 Kings 19:11). He is of course God and not man, and He does and can do miracles; but He works with what has been rightly called ‘an economy of miracle’. He works through normal historical processes, through people, misguided people, bad people, good people. They all play their role. Given this, how He worked in order to give us the New Testament is exactly in keeping with how He has worked before. There was the miraculous, Divine element- in the writing of the books and the gift of ‘discerning of spirits’. And then there was the normal historical process- the books being gathered into groups, and then published more widely, and finally being fixed into the canon of the New Testament which we now have.
(1) Hans Von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968) pp. 331,332.
(2) There was a collection of " New Books" (Ignatius), called the " Gospel and Apostles" (Ignatius, Marcion), seen even then as part of the " Oracles" of God (Polycarp, Papias, 2 Clement), or " Scriptures" (1 Tim., 2 Pet., Barnabas., Polycarp, 2 Clement), or the " Holy Books" or " Bible" (Testimony of the 12 Patriarchs). All these writers quoted were writing before the Councils met.