Musings about the Canon and Orthodoxy:

Orthodoxy Demands Canonization:

From Jesus to the present day there has been an unbroken chain of tradition, a veritable standard against which beliefs could be tested. The length and breadth of this standard however has not always been the same. Basic doctrines and practices have been inherited since Jesus and the Apostles. “The first Christians, then, were Jews who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, thereby vindicating his message.”[1] Oral tradition or the rule of faith by preaching the Gospel was common early on and many Christians were basically just a part of Judaism since many still had little differentiation. They held dear to those traditions given them by those intimate with Christ, the Apostles, or companions. Christianity however thrived on Old Testament teachings and soon the letters from the Apostles and companions of the Apostles such as Luke and Paul.

Sacred Writings:

These writings were kept sacred, just as they did the Hebrew Bible (See 1 Timothy 5:18; 1 Peter 3:15-16). They were read in daily worship, communal meals or in Eucharist celebrations on the first day of the week. It became necessary to preserve the tenets of the Christian faith. In Mark 7:5 the same Greek word for “traditions” of the Pharisees is the same Greek word later used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:15. Here though Paul refers to a “tradition” that has been passed down by the Apostles and should be held to firmly. These letters were considered sacred by believers and were read as far as they could be copied and sent.

B.L. Shelly says, “Since the first Christians were all Jews, Christianity was never without a canon, or as we say, Scripture.”[2] By the first century, in the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian, Christians believe that they also possessed writings by the Apostles and their companion disciples such as Luke and Paul, or the brother of Jesus—James.

Concise Examination of a Need for Canonization:

The need for authority and standardization of specifically Christian doctrine and faith is mostly why a canon of Scripture was eventually fully established. Orthodoxy demanded the canon in some sense. Since many groups existed very early on that taught a variety of beliefs (Docetism, Montanism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, and Marcionites). The early believers were already familiar with the standard authority of the Old Testament; Paul made this clear in 2 Timothy 3:15. Outside of that the Pauline Epistles and the Gospels were probably held to be sacred. Historically churches, groups, writings, or individuals that diverged from, what we would later call the canonized Scriptures, were considered heretical. Some writings were considered pure heresy and needed to be dispelled, while others were deemed deuterocanonical, a secondary canon. For the most part, outside the Catholic Church this second canon (LXX; Apocrypha: Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, First and Second Machabees; also certain additions to Esther and Daniel) however is not recognized. It is not included in most Bibles realized as Divine Scriptures.

For the sake of discussion we will look at some negative reasons for the canon. As Christianity grew and flourished heresy grew along side. Therefore there is a negative aspect as well. There are certain dates and people that gave impetus to the canon.

Geisler and Nix suggest “At least as early as a.d. 140 the heretical Marcion accepted only limited sections of the full New Testament canon. Marcion’s heretical canon, consisting of only Luke’s gospel and ten of Paul’s epistles, pointed up clearly the need to collect a complete canon of New Testament Scriptures.” [3] The need is clearly pointed out here. The New Testament canon process lasted 100-220 AD.[4] The Old Testament canon is much earlier but harder to articulate precisely without more detail. The canon of both Testaments known to us as the Bible comes later. Concerning the New Testament canon however Geisler-Nix note, “Although the church did not give official recognition to the canon prior to the late fourth century, it is misleading to say there was no recognition before then.”[5] In the meantime and even until today aberrant theologies emerge.

Montanism is just such a one. It emerged in the second half of the second century. It did not hold many beliefs that early church objected to, at first, but they relied too heavily upon revelation and prophecy coupled with a tendency to exalt revelation over reason. Indeed Tertullian, the one to coin the Latin term trinitas, (Trinity) was himself a Montanist. In fact, Geisler and Feinberg note, “It is true, nonetheless, that Tertullian exalted revelation above human reason. In one famous passage he cried out: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?”[6]

Hill states that mystical rites, once based upon Christian ones, began to imitate ecstatic trances of their prophetesses. Before long it resembled a pagan mystery religion rather than Christianity. Montanus claimed to be the leader of the church, with new revelation, until Christ returned. After his death and non-appearance of Christ the movement suffered vitally.

Ebionism was more severe. It was a mixture of Christianity and Judaism. Ebionism is first mentioned by Irenaeus in 175 AD. “This view asserted that the law of Moses was equal to the doctrine of Christ”[7] H.F. Vos says “it was in reality only a continuation and amplification of the Judaistic opposition to the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Galatians he sternly rebuked those who sought salvation through law keeping.”[8]

Hill states that Gnosticism “was without doubt the biggest and most controversial movement within Christianity.” Gnosticism was everywhere. It was not a single sect, but a whole host of movements with similar views while some were extremely variant. Hill notes that the basic conviction was in dualism. This meant that there are two overarching principles. The good and the evil, and of course diametrically opposed. It is suggested that Gnosticism is indebted to Zoroastrianism and Platonism.

Canonization: Its Place and Process

Obviously such aberrations indicate a need for a standard. Greek religion believed that God had actually spoken through men. Such men as Homer or Hesiod, early Greek poets, were just such ones. Christians believe that God had spoken to them as well through the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, the evidence for the Christian texts is decidedly overwhelming in comparison to any other ancient piece of literature. Even Homer and Hesiod.

Apostolic approval was just as important though, not just Apostolic authorship. Books were canonized by God and man discovered them. In discovering this there was a process. Geisler and Nix suggest these questions, or the like, are at the very foundation of this discovery process:

1. Was the book written by a prophet of God?

2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?

3. Did the message tell the truth about God?

4. Does it come with the power of God?

5. Was it accepted by the people of God?

The books we have now are divinely inspired. It is the prophecy of many that indicate its inspiration and need for canonization. As the church grew it had demands. Theological and practical problems in the Christian lifestyle needed addressing.

When Christians were preaching the Gospel they could have a standard by which all other beliefs or books were judged by, the canon of Scripture. The New Testament canon was not fully completed until the 4th Century. Interestingly, many of the early church fathers, dating from the 1st Century, cite or quote from nearly every book. As alluded to earlier, the primary reason for accepting a writing or book into the canon of Scripture was whether or not it had been written by an apostle or an immediate disciple.

In 1546 the Council of Trent was held. It was not until this council, a council dominated predominately by the Roman Catholic Church, the acceptance of canonization actually took place. Trent essentially adopted the list that had been drawn up at the Council of Florence in 1442. This canon however does include the second canon, also called the Apocrypha. George Reid, from the Catholic Encyclopedia states: “In the mind of the Tridentine Fathers they had been virtually canonized, by the same decree of Florence”. As Reid suggests, at Trent we witness first acts solemnly declaring as "sacred and canonical" all the books of the Old and New Testaments, the two Testaments that Protestant and Evangelical churches hold dear.[9]

Protestant Churches have always continued to exclude the dueterocanon and deem them as apocryphal. At times deuterocanonicals are included as an appendix in Protestant Bibles, this tradition however is not found largely in English speaking countries.


[1] Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Hill. Pg. 24

[2]Shelley, B. L. (1995). Church history in plain language (Updated 2nd ed.) (58). Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub.

[3]Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996, c1986). A general introduction to the Bible. Includes indexes. Includes a short-title checklist of English translations of the Bible (chronologically arranged). (Rev. and expanded.) (278). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] Reid, G. (1908). Canon of the New Testament. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 14, 2008 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm

[5]Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. (1996, c1986). A general introduction to the Bible. Includes indexes. Includes a short-title checklist of English translations of the Bible (chronologically arranged). (Rev. and expanded.) (282). Chicago: Moody Press.

[6]Geisler, N. L., Feinberg, P. D., & Feinberg, P. D. (1980). Introduction to philosophy : A Christian perspective (262). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

[7]Sell, H. T. (1998, c1906). Studies in early church history. Willow Grove, PA: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing.

[8]Vos, H. F., & Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Exploring church history. Originally published in 1994 under title: Introduction to church history; and in series: Nelson's Quick reference. Nelson's Christian cornerstone series. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[9] Reid, G. (1908). Canon of the Old Testament. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 15, 2008 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm

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Adversus Trinitas

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