Thus far in our study of the formation of the Old Testament canon we have seen, in the first place, that the Old Testament has the sanction of Christ Himself and of His apostles, so that it is impossible to believe in Christ and not to believe the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament, which Be believed. In the second place, we have seen that it can also be determined which books were included in that Old Testament canon. We cited one historical witness in this connection; and more could be mentioned.
We may now ask some further questions as to the history of the formation of the Old Testament canon. First of all, there is the question: when was the Old Testament canon fixed? And, secondly, by whom was the canon fixed?
As to the first question, no exact date can be set. The prophet Malachi closes the Old Testament canon. This was approximately four hundred years before Christ. Broadly speaking, therefore, we may say that the Old Testament canon was fixed sometime between the year 400 B.C. and the birth of Christ. Historical evidence, however, permits us to narrow this down to the period between 400 B.C. and 100 B.C. And recent discoveries, it is claimed, point more and more to a date as early as 200 B.C. The exact date and the exact manner, however, are unknown. Nor are they important. The fact itself is the important element. And that fact is clear. By the time of Christ and the apostles the Old Testament canon had long been closed and fixed—so long that the authentic Old Testament was generally known and distributed and acknowledged not only in Palestine, but wherever the Jews were found in the Roman world. This is indeed a remarkable fact. It points us very clearly to the truth that the formation and the fixing of the canon took place under the very special guidance and control of God Himself, in such a way and at such a time as He willed it. Perhaps we may also find a negative significance in the fact that we have no precise knowledge of the time and the manner in which this took place. At least our present lack of such precise information is rather noteworthy. And it is at least worthy of consideration when Prof. G.C. Aalders writes in his “Bijbelsch Handboek, O.T.,” p. 339: “It is, we would almost say, as though God wanted to guard us against fastening ourselves upon a certain human factor.”
As to the second question, that is, by whom was the canon of the Old Testament fixed, there is but one possible answer: the church—in this case, the church of the old dispensation. We must say more about this presently, when we view the fixing of the canon from a principal point of view. And certainly, we must understand that the fixing of the canon is the work of God Himself, the Author of Holy Scripture. But when we ask this question in the sense that we inquire as to who was instrumental in that fixing of the canon, it is very plain that the answer is : the church. I call attention to this because there are those who strongly deprecate this idea as being Romish, and who even like to insist that the Bible is before the church, not the church before the Bible. But this is altogether incorrect, both principally and historically. After all, while we by all means confess that the canon is of divine origin, we nevertheless must face the question realistically: how was that divinely determined and planned canon of Holy Scripture brought into being and recognized in time, historically? God did not simply drop a complete Old Testament out of the skies. Nor did the Lord make an explicit declaration by direct revelation, by an angel, or by a vision or a dream, as to which books were canonical and which not. No, already in the old dispensation the Lord operated through His church in such a way that His church acknowledged and declared which books were the inspired books of Scripture. And when we take this fact concerning the Old Testament canon into consideration, along with the fact that Christ Himself sealed the authenticity of the Old Testament Scriptures, then we need not be surprised when the same thing takes place in the new dispensation with respect to the New Testament canon. It is usually in connection with the canon of the New Testament that the objection is raised that we must not appeal to the stand and the decisions of the church in connection with the fixing of the canon. But there is no fundamental difference in that respect between the old and the new dispensations. There is a difference in another respect. After the Old Testament canon was fixed, Christ Himself and His apostles authenticated it; but when the New Testament canon was fixed, the Scriptures were finished, and direct revelation was at an end. Christ was no more on earth, and no apostles were on earth to say explicitly that those New Testament books were indeed the only canonical books. This does not change the fact, however, that both in the old and in the new dispensation the church was the agency through whom the completed canon came to be acknowledged as closed, and that therefore a legitimate appeal may be made to this action of the church. And again, while unbelief will never acknowledge this, he who would be one in faith with the church of all ages will have to be one with the faith of the church concerning the canon of Scripture.
We turn now to the history of the New Testament canon.
This page of history is much briefer.
In the first place, it did not take centuries for the books of the New Testament to be written, as it did with those of the Old Testament. All the books of the New Testament were written within the space of approximately fifty years—in round numbers, between the years A.D. 50 to 100. This is rather significant. For it means not only that the writing of the various books, as well as the preservation of the various individual books until the time of the closing and fixing of the canon, took place in a relatively short period; but it also means that the actual fixing of the complete New Testament canon was a process that involved only a couple generations. With the Old Testament this was different. Moses, for example, was recognized as canonical long centuries before Malachi. But with the New Testament the situation was thus, that within the span of a couple, or, at most, a few generations, a stand was taken by the church with respect to the canonicity of all twenty-seven books.
In the second place, while the time-span was much shorter, the opposite was true geographically. The books of the New Testament were written in widely scattered places; and they were written, initially, for various and widely scattered congregations. The church was scattered throughout the civilized world of that time, whereas in the old dispensation it was limited to one people, and, largely, to one country. And the various books of the New Testament had to be spread throughout the church; and as they were spread, they had to be collected into one book and acknowledged as authoritative. Besides, these books had to be reproduced and spread and preserved frequently under very adverse circumstances of adversity and tribulation. From this point of view, the fixing of the New Testament canon, as well as its preservation and collection, is indeed wonderful.
In the third place, the twenty-seven books that now constitute our New Testament came into existence gradually and as so many individual books at first. The apostles were called chiefly to preach, rather than to write. And the contents of their preaching centered around the great facts of the ministry and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is very evident, for example, from the book of Acts. The apostles were sent out with the gospel of the death and resurrection of the Christ and with the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in His name. To this calling they were equipped, and to it they were faithful. They had received the Holy Ghost as apostles; and they had authority to forgive and retain sin, and to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. They were, moreover, clothed with special powers and gifts as apostles. And they were infallibly guided in their teaching and preaching. They had the promise that the Spirit would lead them into all the truth, and that He would bring to their remembrance the things that the Lord taught them. Thus, first of all, in the preaching of the apostles the gospel narrative took form. And in connection with that preaching it presently also received written form, and that too, from various viewpoints and in connection with various addresses and upon various occasions. When the various congregations came into being, as the church spread out from Jerusalem, the occasion also arose for the writing of the various epistles. This occasion lay in the peculiar problems and strifes and heresies which each congregation had. As the things which Jesus began both to do and to teach during His earthly sojourn were continued by Him through the apostles after His exaltation, Luke was moved to write the record which we have in the book of Acts. Finally, the apostle John received his visions of the things, that must shortly come to pass, and the book of Revelation was written. But all these books existed at first as individual writings. It was not long, however, before these writings began to spread from one congregation to the other. They were copied, and in process of time they were spread throughout the church. Gradually and spontaneously the church in general came to the awareness that these books had a testimony in themselves, belonged together, and together belonged with the books of the Old Testament as the one grand testimony of the Word of God.
We shall not go into detail concerning all the history of the fixing of the New Testament canon. We may briefly call attention to the following:
1) Already in the very first period of church history after the apostles, the so-called period of the Apostolic Fathers, dating from A.D. 70 to A.D. 120, there is clear evidence that most of the New Testament writings were known and used by the church as profitable, and some of them are expressly referred to already as “Scripture.”
2) By the end of the period of the Greek Apologists (A.D. 120 to A.D. 170) the combined evidence from the eastern and western sectors of the church furnishes abundant proof that all of our present New Testament, with the exception of II Peter, was already accepted. During this period there are heretics who refer to various New Testament books as “Scripture,” a fact which shows not that heretics determined which books were canonical, but rather that the orthodox church already recognized various New Testament writings as “Scripture”—writings to whose authority the heretics would appeal for support in the knowledge that the church recognized the authority of those books.
3) Finally all our present New Testament books gained universal recognition. There is a writing of Athanasius, for example, which dates from A.D. 367, in which our present canonical books of the New Testament are mentioned by name. By the end of the fourth century two Councils expressed themselves as to which books might be read in the church as canonical. The Council of Hippo Regius in A.D. 393 expressed itself on the canon. And while the proceedings of this council are lost, they are cited by the Council of Carthage, A.D. 397. And the list of New Testament books cited by these councils as canonical is precisely the same as that of Athanasius. The significance of the work of these councils is clear. They did not canonize the New Testament, but they merely confessed and expressed officially what had for a long time lived in the consciousness of the believing church.
If we remember that the Old Testament canon had long been closed, and that through the above process the New Testament canon was fixed, then the result is the closed and complete canon of the Bible as we still have it today, with its sixty-six canonical books.