Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Canon of Scripture

            In a world where absolute truth is rejected it is not surprising that the argument continues to surface regarding the authority and authenticity of Scripture.  Can an individual be sure that the books that have been preserved are the right books to reference in relation to truth? What about the Gospel of Thomas or the book of Enoch, should not these books be a part of the Scriptures that are preached from on Sunday morning? How can one be sure that, with the variety of translations, that what is found in the text is actually what is supposed to be in the text? In this paper the formation of the Canon will be examined and explained.  Various teaching and heresies will be addressed to help present the reader not only with the reason behind the canonicity, but the authenticity and authority as well.

            It is important to realize that in all the writings held as Scripture today were never planned to be included in the Scriptures as they are known today.  The apostles of Jesus Christ were Jewish men who were raised in a tradition of oral teaching.  F.F. Bruce explains how in Galatians Paul makes it clear that he would rather deliver the context of this letter in person, but due to circumstances he takes the time to write this letter.[1]  He further explains how many scholars look at the book of Hebrews as a “synagogue homily”.[2]  However, Bruce accepts that the oral tradition could not remain as the soul method of communicating.  The books that make up the New Testament were written to prevent the “Christian tradition” from being “scholastic property alone” but available to the whole of society which was “more thoroughly literate”.[3]

            As the Apostles began to spread throughout the Roman Empire it became necessary for them to put “pen to papyrus”[4] often times to deal with various challenges that arose in the various Churches they had planted.  Paul wrote Galatians to respond to the influx of Judaizes who were attempting to persuade the Galatian believers of the need to obey the law (Galatians 3:2-3), Peter wrote his first epistle to encourage the dispersed in holy living (1 Peter 1:13), Luke wrote his Gospel account to provide certainty of belief to Theophilus (Luke 1:3-4).  This is important because all of these books were written with a set group or person in mind, and not looking 2,000 years into the future.  However, these epistles and Gospel accounts began to be circulated early and in fact the groups who received some of the epistles were told to pass them around to others (Colossians 4:15).  Also in 2 Peter 3:15 Paul’s letters are compared with other Scriptures.  Furthermore, the writings of the Apostles and the Words of Christ, as explained in the Gospel accounts, were early on accepted as authoritative, and on par with the Law and the prophets.

            Within fifty years from last book of the Bible, the four Gospel accounts, and most of Paul’s letters were used and quoted from by the Apostolic Father’s which puts their use among the various Churches within the very early second century A.D.  These books were used by the Apostolic Father’s because they contained such authority, that they simply could not be ignored.  In Reinventing Jesus, the authors quote William Barclay who said, “It is a simple truth to say the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them from doing so.”[5]

            As the teachings of the Apostles spread, and as Christianity entered into many areas that had been the dens of paganism, it is not surprise that various individuals and groups began to sprout up to provide their doctrines and beliefs of Jesus Christ.  In order to defend their doctrinal positions these individuals brought up challenges to the teachings that were circulating.  Since at the time of the Apostolic Fathers the “Canon of Scripture” was not recognized, these various doctrines began to make serious impacts on the life of the Church.  Two such teachings were the Gnostics and Marcion which lead to the Church realizing a response had to be put forth.

            Marcion was born around the beginning of the second century and was brought up around Christianity.[6]  Justo Gonzalez explains that in addition to his exposure to Christianity Marcion “disliked both Judaism and the material world”.[7]  Marcion had a deep devotion to the Apostle Paul, and believed that Paul alone was the only faithful apostle to the message of Jesus Christ.[8]  Marcion took his understanding of Christianity to Rome where, scholars believe, he was hoping to receive a good reception to what he believed were the “new teachings brought to earth by Christ”.[9] Once Marcion began to share his doctrine with the Church Fathers at Rome he found a less amicable reception of his doctrine.  In response to the unwillingness to accept his teachings Marcion instead began his own congregation.[10]

            In line with the creation of his own Church, Marcion went a step further and put together a set of books which he believed taught the true message of Jesus Christ, Marcion created a “canon of scriptures”.  The books he chose were the Gospel according to Luke, and ten of Paul’s letters.[11]  However, in what he chose Marcion applied very heavy editing and modification.[12]  If there were any references to the Old Testament Marcion removed them, and argued that they had been the result of infiltration of Judaizes.[13]  Being in one of the mega centers of Christianity at that time it seems reasonable to formulate that Marcion felt the need to justify his position not through his own authority, but to attempt to associate that authority with Paul.  Pheme Perkins from Boston College points out what might have been the reason behind Marcion’s canon; “Marcion presumed that a theological principle isolated from the Pauline tradition would provide the key to a uniquely Christian canon.”[14]

            The other teaching that was greatly affecting the development of Christianity was Gnosticism.   Gonzalez explains Gnosticism as: “not a well-defined organization in competition with the Church; rather a vast and amorphous movement that existed within and outside of Christianity.”[15]  Unlike Marcionism the Gnostics did not have a fixed set of books[16], but almost each group had a book that they followed.  It is from the Gnostics that the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, and others originated.  Additionally, many of these books cannot be dated until late second century A.D. Many of the teachings of the Gnostics were juxtaposed to the teaching of the apostles.  The Gnostics did not believe that Jesus had a physical body because they believed all physical material was evil.[17]  Many of the practices and teachings of the Gnostics are not as well known today because the Gnosticism taught that what needed to be known to obtain salvation was secret knowledge, and as a result there is limited historical information about the practices and beliefs.[18]

            As the Church began to be challenged by these and other teachings, it was deemed necessary to put forth a response.  F.F. Bruce explains: “This the leaders of the catholic church knew, was not what they had heard from the beginning.  But their followers had to be shown where those new movements were wrong.”[19]  A standard had been presented by Marcion, and other teachings offered by the Gnostics.  These fathers and church leaders had been presented with teachings past down from the apostles, so how were they going to respond? Gonzalez points out that a response was: “the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings.”[20] He further addresses the misconception that this was not done at some counsel, but as a result of consensus.[21] 

            This necessitates the question as to what consensus was made, and how was it reached.  Again the Church had spread throughout the Roman Empire.  Dr. Elmer Towns explains the four steps required for canonicity in Theology for Today.  The four questions related to canonicity were as follows: 1. Apostolic authorship, 2. “Reveled spiritual nature”, 3. Consensus among the Church, 4) “Evidence of divine inspiration”.[22]  Based off of these questions most of the 21 to 22 of the New Testament books were judged canonical.

            Many Church fathers began to address or refer to certain books as approved by the Church.  Gonzalez addresses the fact that unlike Marcion, the Church at large accepted four gospel accounts which included the Gospel according to Luke, but completed not the heavily edited version of Marcion.[23]  Acts was also universally accepted. Bruce references Tertullian who “argues that it was quite illogical for those who maintained the exclusive apostleship of Paul to reject the one book which presented independent testimony to the genuineness of the apostolic claim which Paul repeatedly makes for himself.”[24]  Instead of only ten of Paul’s epistles, thirteen were accepted including the Pastoral Epistles, as well as 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.  Bruce states that by “The Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 twenty-seven books of the New Testament were listed, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.”[25]  

            In conclusion, the Canon of Scripture was not a decision of a council or of the Church at large, but as a result of the authority contained in the twenty-seven books which combined form the New Testament.  Although the books determined always had this authority the canon was declared by the Church not as a necessity for authority, but as proof of the accuracy of the teachings of the Apostles and the Words of Christ.  The Canon was formed to combat false doctrines that attempted to overcome Christianity.  Although these authors were not writing these books for the benefit of the Church today, these books bless the Church and provide “everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3, Holman Christian Standard Bible).


Works Cited

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.


Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1, the Story of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2010.


Komoszewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Reinventing Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006.


Perkins, Pheme. "Spirit and Letter: Poking Holes in the Canon." The Journal of Religion 76, no. 2 (April, 1996): 307-27. Accessed September 07, 2013.


Towns, Elmer L. Theology for Today. 2nd ed. Mason, OH: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001.

[1] F. F. Bruce, the Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 117.
[2] Bruce, 117.
[3] Bruce, 118-119.
[4] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 121.
[5] William Barclay, the Making of the Bible (London: Lutterworth, 1961), 78. Quoted in J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 124.
[6] Justo L. Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity, vol. 1, the Story of Christianity. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 73.
[7] Gonzalez, 73.
[8] Bruce, 135.
[9] Bruce, 135.
[10] Gonzalez, 73.
[11] Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, 126.
[12] Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, 127.
[13] Bruce, 135.
[14] Pheme Perkins, “Spirit and Letter: Poking Holes in the Canon”, The Journal of Religion 76, no. 2 (April, 1996): 310, accessed September 07, 2013,
[15] Gonzalez, 70.
[16] Perkins, 319.
[17] Gonzalez, 70-72.
[18] Gonzalez, 72-73.
[19] Bruce, 150.
[20] Gonzalez, 75.
[21] Gonzalez, 75.
[22] Elmer L. Towns, Theology for Today, 2nd ed. (Mason, OH: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001), 84.

[23] Gonzalez, 76.
[24] Tertullian, Prescription, 22f. Quoted in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 151.
[25] F.F. Bruce, the Books and the Parchments, Third Rev. Ed. (Westwood, NG: Revell Co., 1963), 113. Quoted in Elmer L. Towns, Theology for Today, 2nd ed. (Mason, OH: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001), 83.

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