One of the arguments that Michael Kruger makes in his work Canon Revisited, (Michael J. Kruger, “Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books”, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books © 2012), is that not only did the church passively “receive” the canon, but because of the intrinsic, “divine” qualities of the New Testament writings, (and their clear apostolic origins), that the canon of the New Testament actually imposed itself upon the early church (pg 115).
Did they do this “imposing” early or late? Another “misconception” that Kruger addresses is that it was “late”, and the notion that Irenaeus somehow invented the concept of a New Testament canon.
In recent years, … , somewhat of a quasi-consensus has been building that the canon was first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century (c.200). McDonald is representative of this view, ‘[New Testament] documents were not generally recognized as Scripture until the end of the second century C.E.’
Rather, he cites evidence of canon-think prior to the year 200, in the form of an emerging “canonical core” – works collected even in the first century, even during the lifetimes of the Apostles, and recognized as “core” Scriptural works of an emerging New Testament, such as the four gospels and Paul’s letters:
Justin Martyr (c.150): He refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels. The fact that he actually cites from the Synoptics and John shows that he had a fourfold gospel in mind.
Papias (c.125): Papias tells us that the early church had received the gospels of Mark and Matthew and valued because of their apostolic status. In fact, Papias even affirms that Mark received his information from Peter himself—a very ancient tradition of the church. Although Papias writes c.125, he actually refers to an earlier time (c.90) when he received this information from “the Elder” (who is no doubt John the Elder, one of Jesus’ disciples). Papias also knew 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and some Pauline epistles.
Barnabas (c.130). The Epistle of Barnabas (4.14) explicitly cites Matt 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Barnabas clearly regards Matthew as Scripture because he introduces his citation with “It is written” (the same language he uses when citing OT books).
1 Clement (c.95). 1 Clement charges the church to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… To be sure, he sent you a letter in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos.” Scholars agree that Clement is referring here to the letter of 1 Corinthians which he said Paul wrote “in the Spirit,” no doubt showing the high authority he gave to the book. 1 Clement also makes likely allusions to other epistles of Paul including Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians; and also Hebrews.
2 Pet 3:16 (c.65). One of the earliest examples comes from the well-known passage in 2 Pet 3:16 where Paul’s letters are regarded as on par with “the other Scriptures” of the Old Testament. Most notably, this passage does not refer to just one letter of Paul, but to a collection of Paul’s letters (how many is unclear) that had already begun to circulate throughout the churches—so much so that the author could refer to “all his [Paul’s] letters” and expect that his audience would understand that to which he was referring.
The church today has warrant for accepting the 27-book New Testament canon as a fait accompli, because the God-breathed Scriptures – a literal “act of God” – were recognized as Apostolic, regarded as Scripture from the first, were dutifully collected, meticulously copied, and patiently handed on, from the hands of the Apostles, to their disciples, and so on, and so on…
That’s an “apostolic succession” we can count on.