Last week I asked the question, do you know how we got the Bible?
It is important for every Christian who says he or she believes in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures — and who holds the Bible as the final authority — to know where it came from and how it was compiled. How can you say that the Bible should be the voice that determines such things as the proper basis for good government policy if you yourself don’t know how we got the Bible?
Two weeks ago I began a four-week series, “How We Got the Bible,” to answer that question.
This series was authored by the late Dr. Robert Thomas, a seminary professor of mine who gave me permission to publish and teach this work of his in my ministry. Dr. Thomas was considered an expert in this field, and, as you’ll see, the work is chock-full of references from other experts.
This week, Dr. Thomas delves into the first of three periods in which the New Testament canon was recognized by the church — A.D. 70 to 170.
This first period of collection went slowly because communication was poor compared to today’s standards. Additionally, oral testimony from the apostles and other eyewitnesses was preferred over writings, but this changed in time.
Dr. Thomas tells us about an early church father, Clement of Rome, who gave great legitimacy to the burgeoning New Testament by regarding its authority as equal to the Old Testament. But during his time, there was still not a formal New Testament canon, and a distinction between oral and written tradition had not yet been made.
Another early work is the Didache, also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” which was probably written during the first half of the second century, possibly by A.D. 120. It introduces itself as “the Lord’s teaching to the heathen by the twelve apostles.”
Dr. Thomas notes, “This document blends together apostles and prophets and emphasizes the need to distinguish between true and false prophets. The issue is to identify what is authentic and apostolic. To the author of the Didache, the standard of a New Testament canon involves something written. The principle of apostolicity led to the production of written works over oral tradition.”
Moving through history, Dr. Thomas discusses the contributions of Ignatius of Antioch, who argued that Christian prophets should be heard because they had “lived according to Jesus Christ” and were “inspired by his grace.”
Going even further than Clement and Ignatius in comparing the authority of the two testaments was Polycarp, who died around A.D. 155. The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians contains more references to New Testament books than any other literature of the period.
By the end of this first period, the New Testament canon was known to include the four Gospels and the epistles of Paul, and the remainder was still vague.
Next week, Part 4 will investigate the second period of recognition of the New Testament canon by the church.
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