The church father Athansius wrote an Easter letter in AD 367 that listed all of the 27 books that we find in our New Testament. The Council of Hippo Regius in North Africa (AD 393) and the Third Council of Carthage (AD 397) affirmed these same 27 books.
How did the early church come to choose which books should be included in the canon of the New Testament? The criteria were fourfold: apostolicity, antiquity, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical usage.
Apostolicity: Was a book written by an apostle? This would be the case for all books in the New Testament except for Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude. For these books, however, though their authors were not apostles, they were closely associated with the apostles in some way. Mark worked with Peter (1 Pet 5:13) and Paul (1 Tim 4:11). Luke traveled with Paul (notice he says “we” in Acts; e.g., 16:11; 20:6; 21:1). The author of Hebrews knew Timothy (Heb 13:23) and sounded “Pauline” in his theology. James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus (Matt 13:55).
Antiquity: Was the book written during the time of the apostles? If not, it was not included. This criterion excluded later writings such The Shepherd of Hermas and The Gospel of Thomas.
Orthodoxy: Did the content of a book conform to books that were already accepted as Scripture? The early church debated whether or not to include letters such as Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. However, because the context of these books did not contradict the other books of the New Testament, the church accepted them in time.
Ecclesiastical Usage: Was the book helpful to the church as a whole? If the book was helpful to the church as a whole, its use was widespread.
No one criterion was enough to include a book. The 27 books of the New Testament meet all of the criteria above, and God providentially led the church to recognize these books in time. God preserved them for the church because of their necessary instruction (2 Tim 4:2; cf. 1 Tim 3:15), ongoing authority (John 10:35), and promised permanence (Matt 24:35).
Pastor regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our staff page.