“Who chose the books of the New Testament canon?”
Among the countless questions I have heard over the years about the origins of the canon, this may be the most common. And that’s totally understandable. The Bible didn’t drop from heaven on golden tablets, perfectly complete and intact. It was delivered through normal historical channels, and people want to know the details of how that happened.
The problem, however, is that the wording of the question already presumes the answer (or at least part of it). Most people don’t realize this, of course. They are just honestly asking a question, probably using words that come most natural to them (or that they’ve heard others use). But, this particular framing of the question has a number of built-in assumptions that need to be recognized.
Most notably, there is a problem with the word “chose”. It assumes that the church proactively, overtly “decided” which books belonged in the canon. This usually conjures images of some meeting, or council, where people voted on books—some books making the cut, and others left out.
Moreover, the word “chose” also gives the impression that there would not be a canon unless the church acted. It’s almost as if a group of people got together and an individual said, “Hey everyone, don’t you think we need a canon of books?” Then, after everyone nods their head in agreement, the individual says, “Ok then, let’s go find the ones we like the best!”
But, as you might imagine, the problems with this whole scenario are legion. For one, the earliest Christians did not view themselves as choosing books, nor did they view themselves as having the right/power to do such a thing. Instead, they viewed themselves as receiving the books that had been handed down to them by the apostles. It would not have dawned on them that they could just pick whatever books they happened to prefer.
If you had lived in the second century and asked the average Christian on the street, “Why did you guys pick Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?,” I think you would have received some very strange looks. Indeed, I don’t think the question would have made any sense to the average Christian. They didn’t view themselves as choosing anything.
As my friend Chuck Hill likes to say, asking Christians why they chose the Gospels would be akin to asking someone why they chose their parents. No one chooses their parents. They were just kind of “there” from as far back as they can remember. (See Chuck’s book, Who Chose the Gospels? for more).
In a sense, one might say that the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, chose themselves. What I mean by this is that they were recognized as the books bearing the voice of Christ by the earliest believers. For more on this, see my article “What do we mean when we say the Bible is ‘self-authenticating’?”
Of course, this idea is fundamentally at odds with the common cultural perceptions of the way religion works, and the way religious power is utilized. The reason most people use the word “choose” is because they assume (even if they don’t realize it) that religious books are ultimately man-made enterprises. It’s always a group of humans somewhere that are imposing their religious views on others.
And if the canon is merely the (arbitrary) choice of a bunch of humans, then it can be edited, reworked, rewritten, or even just ignored.
Now, it is true that in later centuries there were church councils that made declarations about the canon (e.g. Hippo, Carthage, Laodicea). But these councils did not view themselves as creating or deciding the canon, but merely affirming what they believed the canon had always been.
For more on the issue of “choosing” the book of the New Testament, here’s my recent Crossway podcast on exactly this question: