The first time that the 27 books currently taken to constitute the New Testament show up, all together in an authoritative statement, is in the Festal Letter of Athanasius in the year 367 AD. Many are surprised to hear that the Christian church had been functioning for nearly four centuries before the final form of the New Testament was settled. Here is how Athanasius put it (just before this quote, he had listed the Old Testament books):
Continuing, I must without hesitation mention the Scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: the four according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after them the of the Apostles and the seven so-called epistles of the apostles—namely, one of James, two of Peter, then three of John and after these one of Jude. In addition there are epistles of the apostle Paul written in the following order: the first to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians and then after these the one to the Galatians, following it the one to the Ephesians, thereafter the one to the Philippians and the one to the Colossians and two to the Thessalonians and the epistle to the Hebrews and then immediately two to Timothy, one to Titus and lastly the one to Philemon. Yet further the Revelation of John.
Regarding the role of these scriptures, along with those of the Old Testament, Athanasius leaves no doubt:
These are the springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them. In them alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them.
He does not stop with this list of texts, but goes on to recognize the importance of certain other writings to salvation and the life of faith:
But for the sake of greater accuracy I add, being constrained to write, that there are also other books besides these, which have not indeed been put in the canon, but have been appointed by the Fathers as reading-matter for those who have just come forward and which to be instructed in the doctrine of piety...
Already we see an important number of insights. First, it is fascinating to reflect on how God, through the Holy Spirit, was guiding the growth of the church at the same time as he was directing the canonical process whereby the church's authoritative writings were being identified. Second, we find in Athanasius in particular and the early church more generally, a very winsome connection between the Scriptures and human salvation. Metaphors such as used here (springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself) are frequent. People, to use Matthew's words, "hunger and thirst after righteousness," and it is in the Scriptures that they are fed and their thirst is sated. Third, while the canonical books are afforded a special place amongst Christian writings, Athanasius is but one of the early fathers who remind us of other books appointed by the church to serve in the deepening life of faith and discipleship. The strong distinction between the Scriptures and other holy writings would be the product of a much later age.
Ways of Reading Scripture
Perhaps one of the most prolific theologians and biblical scholars of the early church was Origen. His work, OnFirstPrinciples, was one of the earliest to develop a more formal biblical hermeneutic, and as McGuckin notes, "Origen is not the originator of the idea of a biblical canon, but he certainly gives the philosophical and literary-interpretative underpinnings for the whole notion." Origen was born circa 184/5, probably in Alexandria to Christian parents. His father, Leonides, provided his education. He made sure Origen had access to the standard educational fare of the day, but in addition, saw to it that Origen was trained in the Scriptures. As with Basil the Great (whom we meet later), Origen's father was martyred for his faith during a period of Christian persecution under Septimius Severus in 202. Origen's passions were stirred at the death of his father so that he desired to join him in martyrdom. In an interesting twist, Origen's mother saved him for us by hiding his clothes so that he could not leave. While the family fell into poverty at the death of Leonides, Origen was able to survive by a life of extreme asceticism and, initially, the income generated by the sale of his library. He went on to become an exceptional scholar of the Christian faith. The bulk of his teaching career was spent in Alexandria.
As we move into Origen's writings on the Scriptures, let us begin with his idea that they must be read in a "three-fold" way. Consider this quote from Book IV of FirstPrinciples: