One of the best books available on the subject of how the NT canon was formed is Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture. Allert is an evangelical, but he became troubled with the “dropped from the sky” view of scripture that evangelicals hold. He came to believe “that a high view of Scripture should take account of the historical process that bequeathed to us the Bible, and that examination of this issue should actually precede an investigation into what the Bible says” (p. 10).
Though it may be hard for evangelicals to grasp, “the Bible” (as an accepted delimited collection of authoritative writings) was not known until the fourth century. For hundreds of years, there was no canon of scripture. Yet the Church functioned in its absence.
Here is an excerpt from Allert’s fine work, which adds much needed human context to the story of how we got our Bible and what that means for our “view of scripture.”
Evangelicals have typically given little consideration to the formation of the New Testament and its possible implications on a doctrine of Scripture. Most evangelical consideration of canon history, if considered at all, assumes the existence of a New Testament canon from the very beginning of Christianity itself, or at least when the first document of the New Testament was completed. Many assume that as soon as a New Testament document was available, it was consciously separated from all other noncanonical documents and added to a growing New Testament canon. In this understanding, the closing of the New Testament canon occurred when the final document was received and added by the apostles, resulting in our twenty-seven-book New Testament. This understanding of the formation and closing of the New Testament canon, however, pays little attention to the historical details.
…I have called the type of understanding represented by [Benjamin] Warfield and others a “binder mentality” concerning New Testament canonicity. The picture here is that of an open three-ring binder: the church simply accepts and receives as authoritative a canonical document and then places the received document, without judgment, into the waiting binder. Once the last document has been written, received, and accepted, the binder is snapped shut forever, making the New Testament a closed collection, a closed matter.
…[With a more accurate understanding,] one can see three phases of the formation of the New Testament canon.
Phase 1. The central core of the present New Testament is already beginning to be treated as the main source for Christians. This stage was completed quite early, certainly before the end of the first century.
Phase 2. A leveling out occurs in the second and third centuries. Books in the second class now start to be cited more often, and Old Testament Scripture and New Testament Scripture come to have a more equal status. But here we still need to affirm that there is no clear distinction between books in the New Testament and books outside it. The distinction is, rather, between much-cited books and little-cited books plus books whose use is discouraged or that are explicitly directed to be used only for special purposes, such as instruction of catechumens. Here the core has long ceased to grow, but still no one thought of Scripture as forming a fixed collection. Thus, there is no simple “canonical” versus “noncanonical” distinction.
Phase 3. Fourth-century rulings about the canon become firm. But there is a paradox here. Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39 (367) is recognized as the first document to list our present twenty-seven-book New Testament as “canonical.” Yet even there the threefold distinction alluded to in phase 2 still appears. Alongside the canonical (much-cited) books and the rejected (little-cited) books are books like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache (along with apocryphal books like Wisdom of Solomon), which are stated to be useful for catechism.
In this understanding we can conceive of an authoritative body of Christian Scripture in the first century, but even into the fifth century, we cannot claim that this body of literature was closed. This has direct implications for the argument that the early church appealed to the Bible and the Bible alone for its doctrine: one cannot properly speak of a Bible in the first several centuries of the church’s existence.