There are 27 documents (we will call them 'books') in the New Testament ('NT'). The first recorded instance of someone listing exactly these 27 books as the books of the NT is the 39th festal letter of the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in 367 AD. Prior to this, on account of an inability to convene and determine the canon, different areas of Christendom used different sets of books.
There was great overlap among the books used and few, if any, disputes existed about most of them: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, and 1 John.
The 7 under scrutiny were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. So when someone argues that the New Testament might contain books that it shouldn't, the are referring to these 7. As a quick aside, I would like to point out that no essential doctrine, not even a remotely essential one, would be jeopardized if these books had not been included the canon. Of course, I'd be really sad to see Hebrews and James go, and most of my Baptist friends would be really depressed about losing Revelation :-) But there would be no effect on essential orthodox Christian theology.
The Importance of Clarifying Semantics
During a class discussion about the canon this January, my professor, Bart Ehrman, emphasized that no ecumenical council in antiquity ever convened to officially canonize these books. I immediately responded that the Council of Hippo in 393 presented and approved the canon. Without skipping a beat, Dr. Ehrman responded by saying "I said 'ecumenical council'. I smiled. Semantics :-)
Though he was technically correct, the impact of his statement was quelled with a proper understanding of the semantics. The same can be said for the question "Did the early Christians choose the right books to put into the canon of the New Testament?" My answer is simple: "No. God did."
Before you get upset with me for wasting your time, hear me out. The concept of a "canon" refers to a list of someone's works. The canon of William Shakespeare includes all the works he has written, period. But what we recognize as his canon may differ from his true canon. For example, if Shakespeare were to write a sonnet he never shared with anyone, that sonnet would still be a part of his canon. If we discovered it in 2012, and we debated its authenticity day in and day out, it would not change the fact that it is a part of his canon simply by virtue of the fact that he wrote it. Even if we incorrectly concluded that it was not Shakespeare's, that would not change the fact that Shakespeare wrote it. Our "recognized canon" would inaccurately reflect the true canon, but at no point could anyone do anything to alter the canon of Shakespeare. Other than Shakespeare, that is.
So let's go back and apply this semantic clarification to the history of the NT. The early Christians were not "choosing the books that belong in the canon of the NT". They were setting out to recognize which books were written, or inspired, by God. God determined which books belong in His canon. At no point could anyone do anything to alter the canon of the New Testament. Other than God, that is.
Therefore, the question cannot be "did the early Christians choose the right books to put into the canon?" but rather "did they correctly identify the books which were written by God?" In order to even ask that question, we have to presuppose the existence of God. A methodologically agnostic historian might object:
- Methodologically Agnostic Historian: "But we can't presuppose the existence of God when doing history. Even if we could, we can't assume that he inspires books!"
- Me: "Correct."
- Historian: "So how are we supposed to determine, historically, whether the early Christians correctly identified the books that belong in the New Testament?"
- Me: "You're not. That's a theological issue that presupposes the existence of God."
- Historian: "Well what if God does not exist?"
- Me: "Then of course the canon is flawed; you can't have an accurate list of books written by someone who never existed."
- Historian: "So how can I, as an historian, investigate whether Christians put the right books in the New Testament?"
- Me: "You can't."
When historians even question the accuracy of the New Testament canon, let alone when they cast aspersions, they are trespassing in foreign territory and their conclusions are necessarily illegitimate. This is a question for theologians.
The correct formulation of the question is "Did Christians accurately recognize books written by God?" There are two options: either God does not exist (at which point no question remains) or God does exist. In the case of the latter, we must necessarily ask more questions:
- Is God a being who would inspire books?
- Could we expect Him to inspire books at this juncture of history?
- Has He inspired books in the past?
- What is His purpose for inspiring books?
- If He has a purpose, would He see it to completion?
- Would He guide the early Christians into collecting the right ones?
- Would He allow non-inspired works to be collected by His people?
I'm not even going to begin to answer these questions here :-) But let's be clear where the work of an historian ends and the work of a theologian begins. And let's be clear with our semantics: If there is a canon as the early Christians envisioned it, then it can only be God who chooses what books go in it, and no one else.