By its very nature, Holy Scripture, whether Old or New Testament, is a production given of God, not the work of human creation. The key to canonicity is divine inspiration. Therefore, the method of determination is not one of selection from a number of possible candidates (there are no other candidates, in actuality) but one of reception of authentic material and its consequent recognition by an ever-widening circle as the facts of its origin become known.
In a sense the movement of Montanus, which was declared heretical by the church of his day (mid-second century), was an impetus toward the recognition of a closed canon of the written Word of God. He taught that the prophetic gift was permanently granted to the church and that he himself was a prophet. The pressure to deal with Montanism, therefore, intensified the search for a basic authority, and apostolic authorship or approval became recognized as the only sure standard for identifying God’s revelation.
Even within the Scripture record, first-century prophets were subordinate and subject to apostolic authority. (See, for example, 1 Cor. 14:29-30; Eph. 4:11.) When in the Protestant Reformation all things were being reexamined, some of the Reformers sought means of reassuring themselves and their followers about the canon of Scripture.
This was in some ways an unfortunate aspect of Reformation thinking, because once God in his providence had determined for his people the fixed content of Scripture, that became a fact of history and was not a repeatable process. Nevertheless, Luther established a theological test for the books of the Bible (and questioned some of them)—“Do they teach Christ?” Equally subjective, it would seem, was Calvin’s insistence that the Spirit of God bears witness to each individual Christian in any age of church history as to what is his Word and what is not.
Actually, even for the initial acceptance of the written Word, it is neither safe nor sound (as far as Scripture or history teaches us) to say that recognition and reception was an intuitive matter. It was rather a matter of simple obedience to the known commands of Christ and his apostles. As we saw at the outset, our Lord promised (John 14:26; 16:13) to communicate all things necessary through his agents. The apostles were conscious of this responsibility and agency as they wrote. Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 2:13 is apropos: “In telling you about these gifts we have even used the very words given to us by the Holy Spirit, not words that we as men might choose. So we use the Holy Spirit’s words to explain the Holy Spirit’s facts” (TLB).
Hence the early church, with closer ties and greater information than is available to us today, examined the testimony of the ancients. They were able to discern which were the authentic and authoritative books by their apostolic origin. Mark’s association with Peter and Luke’s with Paul gave them such apostolic approval, and epistles like Hebrews and Jude were also tied in with the apostolic message and ministry. Incontrovertible consistency of doctrine in all the books, including the sometimes contested ones, was perhaps a subordinate test. But historically the procedure was essentially one of acceptance and approval of those books that were vouched for by knowledgeable church leaders. Full acceptance by the original recipients followed by a continued acknowledgment and use is an essential factor in the development of the canon.
The church’s concept of canon, derived first of all from the reverence given the Old Testament Scriptures, rested in the conviction that the apostles were uniquely authorized to speak in the name of the One who possessed all authority—the Lord Jesus Christ. The development from there is logical and straightforward. Those who heard Jesus in person were immediately subject to his authority. He personally authenticated his words to the believers. These same believers knew that Jesus authorized his apostles to speak in his name, both during and (more significantly) after his earthly ministry. Apostolic speaking on behalf of Christ was recognized in the church, whether in personal utterance or in written form. Both the spoken word of an apostle and the letter of an apostle constituted the word of Christ.
The generation that followed that of the apostles themselves received the witness of those who knew that the apostles had the right to speak and write in the name of Christ. Consequently, the second and third generation of Christians looked back to apostolic words (writings) as the very words of Christ. This is what is really meant by canonization—recognition of the divinely authenticated word. Hence, the believers (the church) did not establish the canon but simply bore witness to its extent by recognizing the authority of the word of Christ.
This is an excerpt from The Origin of the Bible by F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Philip Comfort, and Carl F. H. Henry. To read more, you can purchase this book from many Christian bookstores and online retailers, including Tyndale.com: https://www.tyndale.com/p/the-origin-of-the-bible/9781414379326
Milton, C. F., et al. The Origin of the Bible. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.