Question: How were the books of the New Testament selected?
Answer: Critics of the Bible sometimes call into question the process of how various books got selected (or rejected) for inclusion into the New Testament. Since faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17), this is an important question. Do the New Testament books we have really belong in the Bible? Were inspired books left out? Were the books of the New Testament selected by the Roman Catholic Church? These are some of the questions that need to be answered as we examine this subject.
God’s Role. God's plan to give mankind His word, both orally and in written form, involved using man as an instrument by which that word would be written (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). God promised us that He would be in the process of preserving His word, at least indirectly by way of His providential care (1 Peter 1:23-25).
Canonization. The process of compiling the New Testament from a set of available letters and books is called canonization. To canonize something is to attribute authoritative consent or approval to it. This process began in the first century when inspired writings were viewed as authoritative, were read in the assembly of saints, and were exchanged between congregations (2 Peter 3:16; Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). The only thing that took time after the death of the apostles and the original epistles were lost was the recognition of the authenticity of the copies of those writings as representing the inspired originals and thus worthy of inclusion into the canon. Several tests were used including claimed authorship by an alleged inspired writer and especially consistency with the Old Testament and already accepted works.
Forces Encouraging Early Development of the NT Canon. In addition to believers wanting to know what books in circulation were truly inspired, other events also encouraged the development of lists of authentic New Testament books. For example, around 144, a renegade teacher by the name of Marcion rejected the Old Testament scriptures, denied the crucifixion of Christ, started his own church, started circulating a list of books he considered authoritative. The early Christians realized that due to the wide circulation of Marcion's canon, there needed to be a list of the books that were recognized as being inspired. Also during this time, many leaders in the church were starting to accept uninspired books such as the "First Epistle of Clement", the "Didache", the "Epistle of Barnabas", and the "Shepherd of Hermas". Still later around 303 A.D., the church experienced another period of persecution at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian. The Emperor set forth an edict to have all the books viewed as sacred by Christians destroyed by fire. Obviously this made deciding which books needed to be protected from this atrocity very important.
Early Lists of NT Books. Twenty of the twenty seven books that are a part of the New Testament were acknowledged by the second century. The remaining seven (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation) were slower to be accepted.
The Role of Church “Councils”. In 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine I called a meeting of representatives from various local congregations in an attempt to attain consensus on a number of issues of the day. The resulting Council of Nicea and the Creed of Nicea set the precedent for a number of subsequent “ecumenical councils” or “synods” of “bishops” to create “doctrinal orthodoxy”. Such represented a departure from the New Testament pattern of local congregational autonomy and was representative of the digression that would eventually result in the appointing of Boniface III as the first universal bishop (the “pope”) in 607 A.D. Early councils that addressed the canon of the New Testament included the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. and Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils simply recognized or acknowledged those books that had already obtained prominence from usage among the various early Christian communities.
Conclusion. Several extreme positions are offered regarding the development of the New Testament canon. These include it was fully formed by the end of the first century, the Holy Roman Catholic Church through its Councils and Synods was responsible for the complete New Testament, and/or the process was politically motivated and error-prone. The truth lies between these extremes (as is often the case).