When the Holy Spirit moved a man of God to write, that writing at that very moment became the inspired word of God. The New Testament did not become the word of God when the church fixed its contents. The New Testament did not become the word of God when the church accepted it as such; it was Scripture the moment the Holy Spirit breathed out the words.
The gradual process which led to the full and formal public recognition of specific New Testament books takes us to roughly A.D. 394. Critics of Christianity are happy about this later date because they believe it supports their positions. But this does not mean that these Scriptures were lacking in recognition before that time.
A need for officially defining the canon was not pressing until a later date because heretical movements introducing extra-biblical materials had not yet infiltrated the church. To combat heresy, the church found it necessary to declare which books had been recognized as authoritative.
Analogous to this would be the way certain theological doctrines have been pronounced at particular periods of church history. For example, why debate the deity of Christ if it was broadly accepted by all until roughly A.D. 300? No reason to argue if there is no debate.
There were several books vying for canonical status that were not included in the canon. The overwhelming majority of these rejects were spurious works written by late-coming Gnostic heretics. These books were never given serious consideration. The point that is missed by our critics is that these books were not written by the apostles or approved by the apostles.
The earliest church leaders used the bulk of the New Testament in their own writings and sermons. It has been said that one could essentially reconstruct a New Testament Bible identical to ours by extracting the Scripture from the preacher’s discourses.
To name a few, we have Clement (died circa A.D. 98), Ignatius (died between A.D. 98-117), and Polycarp (died circa A.D. 155) who quoted liberally from our New Testament. Papias (died circa A.D. 140) in a work preserved for us by Eusebius, mentions by name the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and uses them as the basis of an exposition. Justin Martyr (died A.D. 165) was a great defender of the Christian faith using the New Testament as proof texts. There are many others.
These men were either first generation or second generation disciples. Some studied at the feet of the Apostle John himself. Not counting Papias’s and Polycarp’s writings, we have documented 4, 555 quotations from the New Testament cited in sermons dating fifty years from the time the last Apostle died.
The John Ryland’s Library possesses the oldest extant New Testament manuscript from the Gospel of John. It dates to A.D. 130. It is not insignificant that it was discovered in Egypt, some distance from its earliest place of composition.
Conversely, there is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good and early textual attestation as the New Testament.