Standards for Selection of the NT Books
The thinking student would raise the question, “What standards were used to determine which books to be excluded and which can be included?” I am convinced that the early Christians were guided by the Holy Spirit as they used three standards to determine the acceptability of the book: apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity. Broadly understood, apostolicity meant that the book was written either by an apostle or an apostle’s companion, such as Luke, who traveled with Paul. In some cases, apostolicity meant little more than conformity with the apostolic teachings. The books are considered apostolic because of the content, even by those who do not believe Paul or any of the apostles wrote. Closely related to this is the concept of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy means that the content was in agreement with the mainstream teaching. Writings that had a theological ax to grind, such as the works of the Gnostics, were excluded. One such writing that is often referenced today is the Gospel of Thomas. Some will even call it the fifth gospel. The 3rd category of catholicity means that the content was common to the whole church. You need to understand catholicity with a small “c”, holding the idea of universal. Someone could call into question letters like first Corinthians because of their focus on particular historical situations. It could be concluded that Corinthians may have been included because of the Apostolic and Orthodox content. However, even though it was specific to a certain historical situation, the teaching was applicable to the entire church. Understand that there was some flexibility in this in that the book could be accepted even if it was not equally strong in all three areas. The loose interpretation would leave room for a book of apparent, apostolic quality. “It should be clear that the principles of canonicity adduced in the ancient church were numerous, diverse, and broadly defined, that their application was not systematic or thoroughly consistent, and that they were used in a variety of combinations (3).
The Bible itself tells us very little about the development of the canon. We believe that God inspired the New Testament writers to write what they wrote. The quality of these books became apparent, however slowly, to the whole church, and the church recognized what God had done, resulting in writing of the apostolic teachings about Jesus. This is essentially a faith position; but then what isn’t?" (4)
I believe that the evidence is substantial indicating that the early Christians considered the books themselves to become the embodiment of the rule of faith. As such, we have substantial evidence on which to base our acceptance of the Bible as the witness to the authentic teaching of the New Testament church, founded on the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).
(1) The term Synoptic means to view beside. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, many times having the same text. A good resource to study is Robert Stein’s Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapid, MI:
Baker Academic, 2001).
(2) James White, “The Early Transmission of the NT,” Alpha and Omega Ministries, 30 January 2008.
(3) Gamble, Harry. The New Testament Canon: It’s Making and Meaning,
Guides to Biblical Scholarship, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 71.
(4) Bridges, Carl. New Testament Introduction: Course Guide. (Knoxville, TN: Johnson Bible College, 1992), 4-8.
Last update: 25 September 2015