Did we Really not have a New Testament Canon till the Fourth Century?

by Ryan Leasure

Is it true the New Testament documents weren’t Scripture until the fourth century? That is, the books weren’t authoritative until church councils conferred authority upon them? Liberal scholars make this suggestion since it removes any supernatural explanation for the New Testament canon. To them, scriptural authority can be explained merely on human terms.

Some of our Roman Catholic friends make a case for the fourth century also, but for other reasons. For them, ultimate authority resides in the church. Therefore, without the church’s stamp of approval, the New Testament wouldn’t carry any authority.

But is this an accurate representation of the New Testament documents? Were they not Scripture until the church pronounced authority on them in the fourth century? In order to answer this question, we need to look at how the early church viewed these documents.


For starters, let me say that no fourth century councils gave authority to the New Testament documents. The DiVinci Code was wrong when it said that the Council of Nicea (AD 325), under the direction of Constantine, formed the New Testament canon. The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the canon.1

In fact, we have no church-wide council from the fourth century that determined which books should be included in the New Testament canon. What we have are, instead, regional church councils affirming the books which had already functioned as Scripture for the church. In other words, these church councils didn’t grant authority to any New Testament books. Rather, they merely recognized which books were already authoritative. This distinction is crucial.

Perhaps you’re wondering what took so long? Why didn’t the church make a list much earlier? One explanation is that for the first three centuries, Christianity was, for the most part, an illegal religion which faced ongoing persecution. In fact, in AD 303, Emperor Diocletian ordered all Christians to sacrifice to the pagan gods or else face imprisonment or extermination. Moreover, he ordered them to hand over all their Scripture to be burned.

For these reasons, the church couldn’t…


Did we Really not have a New Testament Canon till the Fourth Century?