How did the early church determine that scripture was the inspired Word of God?


The church, relying on apostolic tradition and the voice of the bishops, determined which books would be the New Testament canon. It was not an arbitrary decision that happened suddenly. But at the same time, the earliest Christians did not have a complete list, either. Most people acknowledge the NT canon being decided by the fourth century, with a few local church councils testifying to the current canon Christians use. In fact, in Catholic apologetics, we usually are glad to admit the slow and complex process, because it testifies to the authority of the church and (apostolic) Tradition.

While the church was able to decide which books were authentic, how did they decide that these books are in fact the inspired Word of God? How did they decide these books – the four gospels, acts, all the letters, and Revelation – were actually inerrant and God-breathed? It is one thing for these writings to be especially esteemed and held authoritative, being written by Apostles or their followers, and quite another thing to say these writings ultimately come from God.

Imagine, for example, that Christianity of today still didn’t have an official canon of the Bible. Pretend the church of today was much like the earliest church, which had apostolic writings that were revered and read in liturgy, but were not collected, compiled, and uniformly understood as an inerrant book of scripture. Now pretend the church of today wanted to officially decide which book were in fact * inspired* by God. Not just authoritative or inspiring but actually inerrant texts written by the Holy Spirit. How would the church decide that these special books are in fact inspired and not just special? Yes, a Catholic can say “by the church,” for Christ gave the church authority. But how would the question of inspiration come up?


The Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, led them to all truth. Through this gift of the Holy Spirit, they were able to discern which books were completely in line with Christian Doctrine…that Sacred Tradition handed on by Christ and the Apostles.

The official answer is: “It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books. This complete list is called the canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 120)


yes but why inspired?

It is one thing to determine which are sound doctrine and from the apostles or other apostolic men. But it is another thing to determine inspiration. How does the church do that? Why did the church think there would be inspired books in the first place?


The early Church had a different understanding of what “Canonical” meant. I hope this article would help:

In addition to this, there is the fact that Greek Orthodox Churches (especially) have a more fluid (less formal or legalistic) notion of how the idea of a “canonical book” should be applied. For example, in the Greek Orthodox Liturgy, they have NEVER read from the Book of Revelation. And, because of this, many modern Greeks will claim that Revelation is “not canonical.” …because they do not read from it in their Greek Liturgy. Now, the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church does read from Revelation in their, Russian Liturgy is beside the point. So, for the Eastern Orthodox, “canonical” does not really refer to a univesally-agreed upon canon, but to the common regional practice of specific Churches. Uunfortunately, this has led some modern Greek and Antiochian Orthodox to claim that the Book of Revelation is “not inspired” and/or “not binding” on them, which is a modernist revision (a heretical novelty), which no ancient Greek or Antiochian would ever claim. For, what their forefathers would say is that Revelation (or another book like it) is still Divinely inspired, but just not canonical (i.e., not approved for reading at their Liturgy). And, for those Easterners who did recognze the binding authority of the Cathaginian canon, they would of course say that Revelation is universally binding (i.e., canonical in a universal sense), but simply not part of their local Liturgical canon.


Thanks for this clarification of the process.

I still wonder about divine inspiration. Why did the early churches consider the canonical books or others to be inspired by God?


Ah, yes, that’s a different matter altogether. I’m not sure there is much a satisfactory answer other then “the Holy Spirit told them so”. Judging by the words of some of those early Christians, it is because there is no untruth in them, nothing unsound, nothing contrary to God’s Truth.

Gregory of Nyssa reminds that “all Scripture is inspired by God…” (2Tim3:16). For the Magesterium, it was just a matter of knowing Scripture from non-Scripture…the Word of God from not-the-Word of God.


Basically it means the truth. That the content of the book is true. Now there might be more than one books that were factually correct, so which one should be chosen?

Remember that Sacred Scripture must be understood together with Sacred Tradition and the teaching of the apostles. Thus the book chosen should fit that requirement. How did they determine that? I am sure it would be through a time of retreat and prayers and and allowed the Holy Spirit to help / inspire them.


All of the books were written by an Apostle or a close associate of an Apostle. They were known to be inspired by the author right away. Paul’s letters have frequent statements that reflect that he is being guided by the Holy Spirit. Some of the NT letters cite other NT works or claim that certain apostolic letters are Scripture. The earliest writings from Christianity after the Apostles’ generation, have citations from and state awareness of the NT Scriptures. There were many Gnostic writings, but those in the church knew that they were not Apostolic. A few debated the value of certain books as seen in the Church History written by Eusebius (260-341), but all of the books were used by churches in his time.

This article contains a good explanation:



Were 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus not actually written by Paul? That website under lists them being composed between AD 110-130. Same for John’s letters.

In that case, the argument for inspiration from apostolic authority doesn’t really work… If they weren’t written by apostles at all.


Are you saying that you think all books in the New Testament should have been written by the Apostles? That is not the case.
Apostolic Authority means being written by the actual Apostles or their companions/associates.


1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul. Mark and Luke were not Apostles, but were close associates of the Apostles. Also James and Jude were not Apostles, but these are attributed to the brothers/relatives of Jesus. I don’t see the dating in the link. I am curious why those dates were provided. However, I think most claim that the last NT work was John’s Revelation dated 90AD.


Yes but the point is that the early church received these letters as written by Paul, no? I understand the early church determined that is was an apostle or apostolic person that could write scripture. But if in fact Paul did not write the letters, it could have been anyone else or a forgery. The dates are at some link at the top.

But I read up just a little. Some people think they were not written by Paul because of the language and content used. For example, some think the church is “too organized” to be from an earlier date. However, to me personally, this is a bad argument because the texts seem to indicate less organization than one would think: The early second century, by the time of Ignatius of Antioch (AD 110), had a monarchical bishop structure. That is, a single bishop presided over the other presbyters (priests), deacons, and faithful of a local church community. However, Paul only refers to bishops and deacons, as the early New Testament church had a fluid use of the terms “bishop” and “presbyter.” So I do not think that argument works, for me personally. Anyway…


So is this basically how the church determined the inspiration of the NT?

  1. Scripture is inspired by God.

  2. The 27 books are scripture.

  3. Therefore the 27 NT books are inspired by God.

I guess I could then ask, how did the early church know what was authentically scripture? The notion of scripture and inspiration could be collapsed into one concept if all scripture is in fact the inspired, inerrant word of God. So the above argument doesn’t really tell us much.

So was 1 Peter, for example, passed on from apostolic times as “inspired scripture”? If so, how did the early Christians understand that to be in fact true? Did Peter have to tell them himself? Etc.


I think most Christians today accept that Paul’s New Testament letters were written by Paul. Hebrews is the only NT work that has an unknown author. It was reportedly written by Paul, but there has always been disagreement on whether he actually did.

In 2 Peter Chapter 3, Peter references Paul’s letters: “15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
Peter was aware that Paul’s letters qualified as Scripture.

The awareness of the significance of the Gospels and letters was passed on. In the first few generations after the Apostles, the Christian writings contain references to the Scriptures. This shows that they understood the significance of these writings. These charts show the references and statements of authority made in the first centuries about the NT writings:,

But in the end it does come down to faith. We need to have faith in God that He gave us His complete teaching. And this includes having faith in the Apostles and the first generations of Christians who communicated and established this teaching from God here on earth.


As the canon was decided by the Church with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, if any books included in the canon are forgeries then it would effectively mean the Holy Spirit had deceived the Church and that is not possible.


I think it’s instructive to describe the earliest formalized canon as we understand it.

The Muratorian Fragment is frequently dated to the late 2nd century AD, as it refers to Pope Pius I (142-157 AD) as recent. As it is fragmentary, it is missing some text.

It includes:
-Four gospels, with Luke and John named at the end of the list
-The 13 “Pauline” epistles
-Two letters “bearing the name John,” including a citation from 1 John.
-The Apocalypse of John (“Revelation”
-The Apocalypse of Peter, with the remark that some will not allow it to be read in church
-Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and James are not mentioned in the fragment.

Prior to that Fragment, there are writers that cited the New Testament.

Ignatius of Antioch (d. ~110 AD) quoted from:
-I Corinthians
-I Thessalonians

Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ~155) quoted from:
-I and II Corinthians
-I and II Thessalonians
-I and II Timothy
-I Peter
-I John
-III John

Justin Martyr (d. ~165) quoted the four gospels and Revelation.

Ireneaus of Lyons (d. 200/203) quoted from all the NT books except Philemon, II Peter, III John, Jude. He also considered I Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas to be of value.

Origen cited all the books of the NT, but expressed reservations about James, II Peter, II John, and III John.

Clement of Alexandria (d. ~211-215) cited all the NT books except Philemon, James, II Peter, II John, and III John.

Tertullian (d. ~220) cited everything except II peter, James, II John, and III John.

Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ~340) noted that the following books were disputed: James, Jude, 2 Peter, II and III John

A number of ancient writers also seemed to find value in the following works:
-I Clement
-Epistle of Barnabas
-Shepherd of Hermas

This table provides a cross-reference between ancient sources and NT books:


I agree that inspiration is a matter of faith in some sense, because you cannot prove it just by looking at the text. Some do make the Jesus, who rose–>founded church–>church teaches by Holy Spirit–>can determine biblical books. So at least some people to show a reasonable process.

But I guess the issue is inspiration itself. I understand the NT texts to be foundational to Christianity, but I don’t really see why they necessarily must be inspired by God in the sense that every word was intended by Him. Some early church father said something to the effect that “If we did not have the scripture, wouldn’t it be necessary to look to the tradition of the church?” In other words, the apostolic teaching could be passed down, including in the New Testament books, without having to be the inspired Words of God.

I understand the Holy Spirit led the church into determining and accepting writings as inspired. But that seems rather vague. For if we pretend, like I said before, that it was the church’s job **today **to determine the canon (having never done so before), it would be awkward for church leaders or any groups of Christians to assert that the Holy Spirit somehow told them the books were inspired.


Thanks! I wonder what was up with 2 Peter?


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