How can Christians be confident that the 27 books included in the New Testament should be recognized as divinely authoritative scripture?
Many today challenge, and even reject the authority of the New Testament (NT). In the context of an increasingly skeptical culture around the authority of the NT, Christians need to know for themselves why the NT in their Bible can be relied on as God’s revelation to us concerning himself and how to live in a relationship with him.
Christians should be confident that the 27 books in the contemporary NT should be recognized as divinely authoritative Scripture from the historical period beginning with the life of Christ for a few different reasons. One reason is the date of the writings. The entire NT was completed in about 50 years, all within the first century. This is noteworthy because we also know the events found in the eyewitness accounts (e.g. the canonical Gospels) likewise took place in the first century. This means the events described in the NT and the writing of those events are very close, within few decades. In terms of reliability, any time evidence surfaces from a historical event, the evidence has more credibility when there is a small “time gap” between the evidence (i.e. writings of the NT) and the events themselves (i.e. the events described in the NT). The canonical Gospels were written because the eyewitnesses were nearing the end of their life. They wanted to preserve the testimonies of the life of Jesus and Acts. The NT does just that.
By the end of the first century, four canonical Gospels, Acts, and most (if not all) of the Pauline Epistles were considered authoritative from the start of the early church. What this means is that from the very beginning of the early church, 20-23 of the 27 books found in the NT were already considered inspired and authoritative. There was very little debate about the other books, but the debate was there nonetheless. These were books considered “books around the edges,” or the smaller books. These would be books such as Jude, 2 & 3 John, and 2 Peter. It should be no surprise, however, that these books took longer to be recognized as authoritative. Smaller books took longer to circulate across geographical regions. They were cited less and not quoted as often, which is the major reason they took longer to be recognized as authoritative by the early church.
The question then becomes, how did the church decide if a book was to be considered authoritative? Before answering, it is important to note that the early church was more skeptical about adopting a book as authoritative than they were willing to accept a book. They were very conservative (not in the political sense) about the books they chose. The teachings of the apostles and Christ became the standard by which they were to discern if a book was authoritative. From this, there were three criteria by which this standard was met: apostolicity (written by or associated with an apostle), orthodoxy (teachings consistent with that which was taught in books already considered authoritative), and catholicity (universally accepted early on by the majority of churches). When looking at a book presented to them, the early church fathers used these to determine if a book was authoritative.
There were also books written after the first century, but they were not accepted as divinely inspired Scripture. The fundamental reason for this is they are not first-century documents. Therefore, they could not have been written by an apostle or associated with one. This automatically eliminates any book written after the first century as divinely inspired scripture. Also, anytime a book was proven to not have been written by the person who is claimed to be the author, the church automatically rejected it.
Christians can also be assured that the text has not been changed since the original writings. Although the text is not perfectly exact and there are textual variants (these account for the footnotes in modern Bibles that say “or” or “some manuscripts say”), the smallest group of textual variants is the group that is both meaningful and viable (changes the meaning of the text and likely dates back to the original). According to Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, it’s less than 1/5 of 1% of all textual variants. These are things like spelling errors, different order of words, etc. The largest group, being 99% of all textual variants, is the group that does not change the meaning at all and is not viable. Because of the vast amount of NT manuscripts we have (more than 24,000), we can determine what the original said based on these numerous copies by comparing them and checking out the errors.
A reassuring insight to think about as a final thought is once the church reached a consensus on the 27 books of the NT, that consensus has been widely longstanding since the time the consensus was reached (at least in the orthodox church). There has been no objection in the church since this, with the very few objections being nothing more than concerns about very few (probably less than five) of the 27 books of the NT. This should be an encouraging truth for Christians to stand on.
With an unusual amount of evidence graciously provided by God, Christians can be assured the books found in the NT are the books God intended us to have, for they reflect the truth of God’s heart, character, and plan for His Creation. Also, the Doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture asserts that if God wants to be understood, he can be understood. God has the power to be understood, even by fallible humans like ourselves. Therefore, God would not have led the Church through the Holy Spirit to agree on the books of the NT if he did not intend for us to have them, given the fact he wants to communicate with us through said books. The Scriptures reflect all God wants us to know about himself, and he has provided more than enough evidence for us to be confident his plan for the NT (as well as the whole Bible) has been and will be carried out in full.