The Supernatural Formation of the New Testament Canon

Well, I do not usually post my work, but this information gave me a completely new understanding for the solidity of the New Testament. Please feel free to check it out. I am sure that there are some mistakes, let the professor take care of that. 🙂 Just don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!



Name of Student:  Leonard Tomlin

Student ID: L22215506

Class:  CHHI520 B08

Instructor’s Name:  Dr. Robert Olsen

Date Submitted:  03/06/2011

Table of Contents

Cover Sheet                     1

Table of Contents            2

Research Paper                3

Bibliography                    15



The purpose of this paper is to explain the formation of the canon of the New Testament, specifically in regard to the supernatural evidence that this extraordinary list of books was not chosen by man, but chosen by God. This paper will first summarize the objective history of the canonization of the New Testament and then focus on the evidence that confirms its supernatural formation.

The debate of the canonicity is one that has been ignored by most. It is often assumed by believers that some religious scholar in the past has done the work to prove the authority and accuracy of scripture and therefore many believers seem to blindly trust in the New Testament canon under the guise of “faith” without knowing anything about the history of its formation. Conversely, many non-believers assume that the scripture of the New Testament is dated and irrelevant, not to mention inaccurate because of what they have read on a few un-sourced and misguided websites. The objective truth of this study is one that is not found without hard work. There have been many different opinions, perspectives, and downright lies about this study which have caused much confusion and uncertainty around this topic. Whether or not one is a believer, there are several different objective truths in history that give credibility to the canon of the New Testament. Each of these truths is important in understanding the purpose, and authority of our New Testament canon. To completely understand the issue of New Testament canonicity, one must start at the beginning. Although it may seem that this historical information lacks any supernatural influence, by the end, one will discover that as in the Old Testament story of Esther, although God is not mentioned his supernatural power and divine providence directs each step.

“The determination of the limits of the canon went through four stages, and failure to distinguish these stages has produced much confusion in efforts to write the history of the New Testament canon”[1] “The first stage was marked by the transition from the oral to the written form of the Christian message.”[2] “Preachers and evangelists many of whom had witnessed the events of Jesus’ life and had heard his teachings, shared their vivid memories and proclaimed the message of the death, burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah.”[3] These ancient believers had seen the miracle worker and could not help but share their own personal experience about the time that they met Him. “The teachings of the apostles – those who had been closest to Jesus – were deemed especially authoritative.”[4] Over time, as the memories and the lives of the apostles faded, the written accounts of these men became increasingly important. “It was both desirable and inevitable that the oral tradition should be committed to writing if it was not to be lost.”[5] For one that may be interested in a more thorough study of the oral tradition they will find that this foundational rule in canonization is under assault from the very beginning through ideas of form criticism. This summary will not go into specifics, but in short, “form critics claim that the early Christians transmitted the words and actions of Jesus by word of mouth for a considerable length of time. Only after two decades or so did the material begin to be put into written sources with the gospel themselves coming shortly afterwards.”[6] They use this length of time as an initial step to question the accuracy and authority of scripture, especially of the gospels. Although, the formation of the New Testament was a slow process, this delay did not hinder the authority or accuracy of the scripture. “It is known from second-century sources that Paul’s letters were being copied and widely circulated among the churches of Asia Minor by no later than the early decades of the second century, along with what were described as memoirs of the apostles, which later would become known as the gospels.”[7] The oral tradition was an effective way of sharing the personal experience of the apostles and there is no objective evidence that these traditions lessen the accuracy of scripture.

“The second stage in the formation of the canon is marked by the transition from recognition of written authority to the explicit recognition that the number of authoritative written documents is limited.”[8] Further, “at this stage the canon is theoretically a closed canon but practically still open… for there may be other documents unknown at the time or about which a final determination has not been made.”[9] This simply means that after the first stage when many oral traditions were written down, there was a period where it had to be determined which writings were a part of the New Testament canon and which writings were not.

During this stage, people begin to create their own ideas about the canon of the New Testament, even before the actual term for “canon” was used. It appears that the idea of canonicity was established about AD 180 by Tertullian although the word is not actually used until the fourth century. Before one gets too far into this study it is important to understand the definition of the term canon in reference to that of the New Testament. “The word canon has come into our language (through Latin) from the Greek word kanōn. In Greek it meant a rod, especially a straight rod used as a rule; from this usage come the other meaning which the word commonly bears in English – ‘rule’ or ‘standard’.”[10] The term canon was established to refer to the standard of which books would and would not be accepted as Holy Scripture. Tertullian became involved with the canon of the New Testament because he became aware that a man by the name of Marcion had established his own canon that was “influenced by Syrian dualism.”[11] “Marcion is the first person known to us who published a fixed collection of what we should call the New Testament. Others may have done so before him; if so, we have no knowledge of them.”[12] Marcion created this canon on a false basis of theology which let him to pick and choose what books and passages fit his personal ideas. “Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only one gospel – a highly edited edition of Luke – plus his edition of ten letters of Paul excluding the Pastorals.”[13] Marcion was known for his many heretical beliefs and “was excommunicated as a heretic.”[14] The formation of Marcion’s canon “prompted church leaders to begin compiling their own larger lists of accepted writings.”[15] Tertullian was responsible for writing our main source of information about Marcion titled: Against Marcion.[16]

“In the same vein, the Montanist movement, which sought to elevate the voice of prophecy to a supreme authority in the church – a level it did not enjoy even in Paul’s day (1 Cor. 14:37 – 38) – also served to force the church to make public decisions as to the standards of orthodoxy.”[17] “Like the Marcionite and Gnostic challenges from other directions, made it the more important that the limits of Holy Scripture should be clearly defined.”[18] Each of these issues with the early formation of the scripture seem to be extremely problematic as to the confidence of the modern canon, however one will see that as each heresy falls by the way side, the canon of the New Testament is on the way to being revealed and discovered.

The third stage that the canon went through was the closed canon stage. This stage is “the logical move from the recognition of a canon to the attempt to define its exact limits, from an ‘open canon’ to a ‘closed canon’.”[19] The final stage is the recognition of the same closed canon.[20] These two stages are very similar in that as the canon was universally agreed upon and accepted it was also accepted as complete in most circumstances. This canonical agreement began as a response to Marcionism as already mentioned, and this occurred as early as the second century. “By the end of the second century, the Muratorian list, though virtually valueless as a guide to the origin of the New Testament books to which it refers, reflects the view of the great church in recognizing a New Testament canon, not very different from our own.”[21] “The Gospels, Acts, the thirteen Paulines, I Peter, and I John are universally accepted very early; most of the remaining contours of the New Testament canon are already established by the time of Eusebius.”[22] Eusebius was the Bishop of Caesarea from about 314 to 339. As a church father, he is known for many things, mainly his greatest work: Ecclesiastical History. In regard to canonization, Eusebius is responsible for distinguishing all of the popular writings into three categories.[23] “Early in the fourth century Eusebius of Caesarea divided the most widely circulated books into three categories: ‘recognized’ books, ‘disputed’ books, and ‘heretical’ writings. Among those recognized were the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) The Acts of the Apostles, fourteen epistles of Paul, (Eusebius included the book of Hebrews), the epistles of I John and I Peter, and the Apocalypse (Revelation). Among the disputed books he listed as “generally accepted” James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John. Thus, all twenty-seven books of what would become the canonical New Testament were listed favorably by Eusebius.”[24]

Some skeptics argue that there was no clear New Testament canon until as late as the 5th century. This is simply not the case. “Despite some exceptions, there is early and widespread attestation of our twenty-seven New Testament documents being bound together in various configurations.”[25] One example of this is found in the Muratorian fragments also referred to as the Muratorian canon. “The Muratorian canon, dating from A.D. 170, did not mention James, Hebrews, and the Petrine epistles, and expressed doubt about the revelation of John, but it accepted the other New Testament writings as canonical.”[26] Although this is an earlier canon, it is not complete. “The manuscript is mutilated at the beginning. Since its first complete sentence mentions Luke as the ‘third book of the gospel’”[27] This was not a complete record of all twenty-seven books of our canon today. “One of the first clear configurations that we can still observe and study today was written by Athanasius. “Any lingering doubts or lack of knowledge of the books in Eusebius’s second category were soon removed, for the contents of his first and second categories are combined without any reservations in the canon list of Athanasius of Alexandria.”[28] Athanasius was the first writer to actually use the word canon.[29] One writer explains in detail the events around this first complete canon:

“One of the minor decisions of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) was that, to guard against any disagreement about fixing the date of Easter, the bishop of Alexandria should have the privilege, year by year, of informing his brother bishops (well in advance) of the date of the following Easter. Throughout his long tenure of that see (328-373) Athanasius issued forty-five such ‘festal letters’. In each he took the opportunity of dealing with some other matter of current importance. In the Thirty-ninth letter announcing the date of Easter in 367, he dealt with the canon of the Old and New Testaments. He was concerned about the introduction by some people of heretical or spurious works (which he calls ‘apocryphal’) among the books of holy scripture.”[30]

Many argue that this was not a universal decision, but only a decision for the churches in the East. While this is partially correct, the West followed the example just a short time later. “In the East it was done in the Thirty-Ninth Paschal Letter of Athanasius in AD 367. In the West the canon was fixed at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.”[31] By the end of the fourth century the church overall knew and agreed which books were a part of the canon, and more specifically, which documents were divinely inspired.
With this objective understanding of the history of the canon, one can more clearly understand how God supernaturally directed the formation of His word. This paper will take the information already explained and add in a more clear understanding in what could be observed as a subjective approach to understanding canonizations. However, this subjective approach was and is recognized as highly probably and extremely logical.

Although there were many historical events that led to the formation of the canon we know and respect today, there were also many things that we can look back and observe that were less historical, however, still obvious and important. F.F. Bruce puts it this way: “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired.”[32] Modern canonical criticism has focused on a few outlandish minorities to convey the idea that almost no churches agreed on the canon, however “the councils did not impose something new upon the Christian communities but they sought to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.”[33] This places a high value on the fact that instead of man choosing the documents of the canon, instead God selected which books would and would not be accepted. This was not a man made decision, but a God made decision. The question may be asked: “Was the New Testament canon disputed? Not really. Virtually all the books were immediately accepted. Did the church canonize the books? Not at all. Rather, they recognized and confirmed their canonical status.”[34] J.I. Packer explains: “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”[35]

One might ask: Was there any kind of criteria that the early church used to recognize scripture as canonical? The church fathers recognized three primary criteria. These three criteria have been labeled many different ways, but each label has been defined in the same way. The three criteria are: Conformity, Apostolicity, and Catholicity or Universality.[36] It is important that each one of these criteria are understood as this is very important for understanding Gods working in forming the New Testament canon.

Conformity is a criterion that the early church used to determine whether or not a document was qualified to be a part of the canon. “This meant that the teaching of the book followed the beliefs the church regarded as acceptable and correct.”[37] At first glance this could almost seem like a form of historical circular reasoning; however one must remember that some of the books were being written until the end of the first century. If we fail to recognize the short time span here then it could seem like this point is not legitimate, however, many of these people had been taught the doctrines of Christ from their parents of friends who had walked with Christ. This was not centuries later, but a short enough time span where the doctrines that were written down could be compared to the doctrine taught by Christ.

Apostolicity was one of the most important and commonly mentioned criteria in choosing the books for the New Testament canon. This asks the question: “Was the writer of the book an apostle or did the writer of the book have immediate contact with the apostles?”[38] The apostles carried a level of authority and therefore if they were not responsible for a writing a document, then it could not be considered for the canon. “When the Muratorian Fragment rejects the Shepherd of Hermas for public reading, it does so on the ground that it was too recent and therefore cannot find a place ‘among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles.’”[39]

Catholicity or Universality was the final criteria required for consideration of a document into the canon. This was in reference to how broad the acceptance was around the world. This once again could be seen as a method of circular reasoning, however when applying the cultural influence it seems to make much more sense. In a modern context, there are so many opportunities for false information to be created and to stagnate until someone rediscovers them on a website, or in a magazine article or something similar. During this ancient culture, it was not a simple process to attain many different writings, and if one did receive some kind of heresy, when it was destroyed, there was not an “undo” button. In other words, because of the time and culture, it was easier for truth to be spread around in a broader sense. Of course it took longer to relay the content, but when it did not match the doctrine of Christ, it would simply be destroyed.

It must be remembered that “the fact that the church accepted the present twenty-seven books as canonical does not suggest that the church created the canon or that the church caused the books to be thought of as inspired.”[40] “Christians did not use the criteria for canonicity in a mechanical fashion… These criteria, however, came to be generally adopted in the church during the period of the second century, and the church did not vary widely from them in succeeding centuries.”[41] Some have suggested that the criteria have been made up and overlaid on church history, but the evidence suggests otherwise. “In sum we might say that the grounds of canonicity are to be found in an interplay of subjective and objective factors overruled by divine providence”[42] In other words, there are both tangible facts and spiritual workings that all validate the fact that man did not select the canon, but God did.

In Conclusion, there are three incredibly impacting and popular quotes that sum up this issue of the supernatural formation of the New Testament canon. Wenham concludes:

“This was not a collection of books blown together by chance; nor was it a collection that ‘forced itself’ upon the church. In the gentlest way it quietly and unhurriedly established itself in the churches life. There was no noticeable change of attitude before and after the Festal Letter of Athanasius, no flourish of trumpets at Hippo or Carthage…. Neither the decree of Carthage, nor that of Trent, nor Thirty-Nine articles, nor the Westminster confession is infallible, but in the case of the New Testament canon they unite in testifying to the collective witness given by the Spirit to the church, thereby giving an immense presumption in favor of the New Testament canon as we have it. We have not here a mathematical precision, but we have evidence of weight and authority, more than sufficient to justify us in humbly taking up the books that God has put into our hands and receiving their teaching as his truth.”[43]

“Indeed, it is important to observe that although there was no ecclesiastical machinery like the medieval papacy to enforce decisions, nevertheless the worldwide church almost universally came to accept the same twenty-seven books. It was not so much that the church selected the canon as that the canon selected itself.”[44]

“The fact that substantially the whole church came to recognize the same twenty-seven books as canonical is remarkable when it is remembered that the result was not contrived. All that the several churches throughout the empire could do was to witness to their own experience with the documents and share whatever knowledge they might have about their origin and character. When consideration is given to the diversity in cultural backgrounds and in orientation to the essentials of the Christian faith within the churches, their common agreement about which books belonged to the New Testament serves to suggest that this final decision did not originate solely at the human level.”[45]


The history of the formation of the New Testament canon was not recorded perfectly, and thus there are some areas with questions and confusion; however, the information that is known, is enough for any scholar to consider the supernatural and divine intervention involved in its formation. It must be acknowledged that a work so critically important was not just thrown together by the opinions of man, but was designed and orchestrated by God.








[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 114.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jeffery L. Sheler, Is the Bible True?: How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures, 1 Reprint ed. (San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2000), 18.


[4] Ibid.

[5] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1988), Kindle Electronic Edition: Loc. 1718.


[6] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2 New ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 79.

[7] Sheler, 18.


[8] Ferguson, 115.

[9] Ibid., 116.

[10] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2009),  Kindle Electronic Edition: Loc. 206.


[11] Carson, 732.

[12] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 1948.

[13] Carson, 732.

[14] Sheler, 19.


[15] Ibid.


[16] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 1984.


[17] Carson, 732.

[18] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 2439.

[19] Ferguson, 117.

[20] Ibid., 118.

[21] Carson, 732.

[22] Ibid., 734.

[23] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 2873.

[24] Sheler, 19.

[25] Carson, 734.

[26] Thomas Lea, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2 ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2003), 73.


[27] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 2302.

[28] Ferguson, 118.

[29] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 1105.

[30] Bruce, The Canon, Kindle Edition: Loc. 1115.

[31] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2010), 53.

[32] Bruce, New Testament Documents, Kindle Edition: Loc 22.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Driscoll, 53.

[35] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 109.


[36] Driscoll, 53.

[37] Lea, 71.

[38] Driscoll, 54.

[39] Carson, 736.

[40] Lea, 72.

[41] Ibid.

[42] John Wenham, Christ and the Bible (publication place unknown: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 126.

[43] Ibid., 163.

[44] Carson, 494.


[45] Glenn Barker, “The New Testament Canon,” Bible Research, (accessed February 13, 2011).



  1. Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1988.


  1. Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2009.


  1. Barker, Glenn. “The New Testament Canon.” Bible Research.   (accessed February 13, 2011).


  1. Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2 New ed.       New York: Zondervan, 2005.


  1. Comfort, Phillip, J.I. Packer, F.F. Bruce, and Carl Henry, The Origin of the Bible. Edited by Philip W. Comfort. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.,             2003.


  1. Driscoll, Mark, and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe.     Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2010.


  1. Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The      Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context.           Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.


  1. Sheler, Jeffery L. Is the Bible True?: How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the      Essence of the Scriptures. 1 Reprint ed. San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2000.


  1. Packer, J. I. God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible. 3 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker    Academic, 1994.


10.  Wenham, John. Christ and the Bible. publication place unknown: Wipf & Stock     Publishers, 2009.


11.  Wescott, B.F. A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament. (city/   state unknown as of yet): Macmillan & Co, 1870.






One thought on “The Supernatural Formation of the New Testament Canon

  1. :o) – Yep – Way over my head – I know I like it/understand it much more when you just explain it to me 🙂

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