Did the Roman Catholic Church Canonize the New Testament?


When we read certain historical books, we may find something like the following narrative, as adopted from sources published on the Internet:

The process of canonization was complex and lengthy. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was no New Testament canon that was universally recognized. Nevertheless, by the 2nd century there was a common collection of letters and gospels that a majority of church leaders considered authoritative. These contained the four gospels and many of the letters of Paul. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian (all 2nd century), held these to be on par with the Hebrew Scriptures as being divinely inspired. Other books were held in high esteem, but were gradually relegated to the status of New Testament apocrypha.

In about 170 AD, Irenaeus cited 23 of the 27 New Testament books, omitting only Philemon, James, 2 Peter and 3 John. The Muratorian fragment, written about the same time, attests to the widespread use of all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 Peter and 2 Peter.

However, other church fathers had already cited those omitted books in various writings defending against Gnostic doctrines. The Codex Barococcio from 206 AD includes 64 of the 66 books of today’s Bible. Esther and Revelation were omitted, but they had already been declared as inspired scripture by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian and the Muratorian Canon. In 230 AD, Origen declared that all Christians acknowledged as scripture the four Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation.

By the early 300’s, all of the New Testament books were being used in the mainstream church body. The New Testament canon as it is now, including all 27 books, was first listed by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367, in a letter written to his churches in Egypt. The Synod of Hippo (393 AD) and the third Synod of Carthage (397 AD) also recognized these 27 books as canonical. In addition, during this time, the highly influential church fathers, Jerome (340-420 AD) and Augustine (354-430 AD) published their lists of 27 books completing the New Testament.

Certain books continued to be questioned, especially James and Revelation. As late as the 16th century, theologian and reformer Martin Luther questioned (but in the end did not reject) the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. Today, German-language Luther Bibles are printed with these four books at the end of the canon.

Even many of those who claim that the canonization of the New Testament books took place, as described above, admit that the recognition of the sanctity of Scripture was not the result of any pronouncement by Roman Catholic Church officials in the late fourth century. Rather, they clarify that the canon was determined by the authoritative use of these books by the first and second century church. It is claimed that the New Testament canon was merely a process of formal recognition of already recognized Scripture.

We do not believe that God gave the Roman Catholic Church the task to decide which books of the New Testament were inspired and should be included. Even though it RECOGNIZED their inspiration at a later date, the “canonization” took place much earlier–that is, in the lifetime of the apostles Peter, Paul and John (compare our Q&A in Update 374, discussing the completeness of the Bible).

In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul asked Timothy to “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.” This appears to be a reference to letters which Paul had written, and which he wanted to be preserved. The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown states:

“He was anxious respecting these that he might transmit [the books] to the faithful, so that they might have the teaching of his writings when he should be gone… ‘especially the parchments’ — containing perhaps some of his inspired Epistles themselves.”

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter considered the letters of Paul, which can be found in the New Testament, as part of the Scriptures. He also stated in 2 Peter 1:15 that he was anxious to ensure that the brethren would “always have a reminder of these things after my decease,” referring to his death. He went on to explain in 2 Peter 1:18, in regard to the transfiguration on the mount, that “we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” Only three apostles were on the holy mountain when Christ was transfigured and when, in that vision, Elijah and Moses appeared. These disciples were Peter, John and James. By the time of Peter’s writing, James had died, and only John and Peter were still alive.

Peter continued, in verse 19, that “we have the sure word of prophecy” (Authorized Version). The use of the word “we” would have to be a reference to Peter and John. It would be Peter and John who preserved and would leave behind the inspired “word of prophecy” or “inspired writings”–the word “prophecy” can also refer to inspired preaching. Peter said that John and he had, or possessed, the inspired writings–the New Testament. This referred to the writings of the New Testament which were already in existence at that time, but it also allowed for those writings, which would still be added by the apostle John, before his death.

At the time of Peter’s writing, Paul had died, and Peter spoke of Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” showing that they were recognized as such. Who recognized them? Obviously, Paul must have recognized them before his death, and subsequently, they were recognized by the last remaining two original apostles, Peter and John, and they did so under godly inspiration.

After Peter’s death, John survived as the last of the early apostles. Before he died, he wrote the gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the book of Revelation, which concluded the sacred writings of the New Testament.

That the book of Revelation was meant to be the last and final book of the New Testament can be seen by its very claims. We read in Revelation 22:18: “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.”

In other words, those would have to face God’s punishment who would claim that additional future writings should become part of the inspired Scriptures of the New Testament. We also read in verse 19 that punishment would befall those who would try to take away from the words of the book of Revelation–who would claim that portions of the book of Revelation, or the entire book, was not inspired.

We have every reason to believe that the books of the New Testament, as we have them today, were recognized as inspired by the apostles Paul, Peter and John, as they were guided by the Holy Spirit. And as we explained in the Q&A in Update 377 on the Preservation of the New Testament, God saw to it that the New Testament books would be preserved, as He also preserved the sacred writings of the Old Testament.

Jesus Christ Himself promised that God would ensure that His Word would be preserved for all eternity. He said in Matthew 5:18: “… one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

Peter explained that “the word of the LORD endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25). Paul instructed Titus to only ordain an elder if he would hold “fast the faithful word as he has been taught” (Titus 1:9), expecting, of course, that “the word” would be preserved. Jude challenged the brethren to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Again, true brethren were asked to stand up for the faith which had been taught and preserved in the sacred writings.

We read that God’s end-time disciples would keep His Word (Revelation 3:8)–which requires that God’s Word had been preserved and would be available in the end time. In fact, some, living in the end time, would even be killed for keeping the Word of God (Revelation 20:4).

Jesus is the personified Word of God (Revelation 19:13; John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1). As He is still alive today, so He made sure that His written Word–the entire Bible–would stay ALIVE as well. After all, the Word of God is “LIVING and powerful” (Hebrews 4:12).

Who canonized the New Testament? It was God, but He inspired His apostles Paul, Peter and John to pronounce the decision which books and letters should be considered as sacred and infallible. And so, God ultimately used the apostle John to canonize the writings of the New Testament.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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