A gracEmail subscriber writes: “You said that ‘the question of which books belong in the Bible is ultimately one of faith in God’s providence as manifested through the church fathers of the first five centuries.’ Do you apply this statement to all that was established by the early church fathers? If not, why pick and choose? There was also the role of Pope, Bishops and so forth.”
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This is a reasonable question, to which I believe there is a reasonable answer. The selection of Scriptures to be included in the New Testament canon (alongside the older Jewish Scriptures which Jesus used and approved) was decided gradually, not in a moment, and from the grassroots “up,” not from the top of the hierarchy down. In other words, over a period of centuries it became clear which books the church in general in all places regarded as apostolic in authority and which spoke with power to the needs of the individual churches.
In 367 A.D. the church father Athanasius wrote a letter to the churches under his care, acknowledging the same 27 books in our New Testament as being uniquely authoritative. Shortly afterward, a Synod at Rome (382 A.D.) also recognized these 27 books exclusively. African synods at Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage (397 A.D.) ratified the synod at Rome. Although these church councils made an “official” decision for the “official” Church of that time, they simply acknowledged what was already recognized. It is therefore more accurate to say that the New Testament books were determined by the “church catholic” (universal) rather than by the Catholic Church.
Besides the Scriptures, the “church catholic” (the undivided church of the first 400 years, before the Bishop of Rome claimed his eventual position as supreme pontiff and vicar of Christ) also contributed to the later universal church the so-called Rule of Faith as expressed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. These gifts also were from “the church catholic” and not from the institutional Catholic Church which was not yet officially or fully formed.