Last week’s article, What is the Biblical Canon?, was my first in a series on the Canon. This week I’m researching why a written canon exists. There are two aspects I want to discuss related to this. The first one seems to be a critical reason to have a canon, but is actually the less important of the two. The second reason to have a written canon will be my next article, and is actually foundational to Christianity.
Christians need to have some way of learning what God taught the Israelites in the Old Testament and what Jesus taught the disciples in the New Testament. For thousands of years, the primary method of teaching has been oral. Even in modern times, most students sit in classes with a teacher speaking (and I certainly remember being reluctant to do any assigned reading). YouTube and other video sites are very popular because many people prefer to watch and listen rather than reading (the people reading this blog are special). If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a video with?
If oral (and visual) teaching is so common, why have a written canon?
The early church (about A.D. 100-400) faced many pressures, including heresies that were creeping into the church. There were three major (and many minor) heresies making their ways into the church, and having a list of authoritative books which accurately described the relationship God wants to have with his creation helped the church deal with them.
Even before Jesus was born, there were the signs of a philosophy we call Gnosticism1. The name comes from the Greek word γνῶσις, or gnōsis, meaning knowledge. The Gnostics believed the physical world was evil, and the spiritual world was good. In this philosophy, a body was considered a prison for the soul, and only a secret spiritual knowledge, or gnōsis, could lead to salvation of the soul.
Some Gnostics claimed to be Christians, but denied essential truths of Christianity, such as Jesus being human (a specific heresy called Docetism). A human Jesus would have a physical body, which would have made him evil. Therefore, Jesus was a spirit or phantom who appeared to be human. Gnostic teachings were creeping into the church even during the Apostolic era, and some books, such as the Epistles of Colossians (ESV) and 1 John (ESV), may have been written to Christians who had been influenced by Gnostics philosophy. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy to be in guard against Gnostic teachings in 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (ESV): “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”
After the Apostles died, there were books written which had Gnostic teachings in them, but the books claimed to have Apostolic authorship (Acts of Paul, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, etc.). Some people accepted the teachings in the books because of the claimed authorship, but most Christians rejected the books because of the inconsistencies with books known to have been with the authority of the Apostles.
Marcion of Sinope was born about A.D. 85 in Turkey. He was the son of a Bishop, and went to Rome when he was about 50 years old. The Roman Church initially accepted him, but within a few years he was excommunicated because of his heresies, some of which were based on Gnostic teachings.
Marcion believed many heresies, but most of them stemmed from a single over-arching one: Marcion refused to believe the wrathful, judgmental God of the Old Testament was the same as the loving, merciful God in the New Testament. Because of this apparent contradiction, he considered them two separate gods.
Marcion’s solution was to break off the Jewish heritage from the Christian faith. He did this by throwing away the Old Testament entirely, and only kept selected parts of the New Testament, parts which didn’t refer to Jesus as a Jew, or make references to the Old Testament. He kept portions of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, but removed the rest of the New Testament. What was left were some writings about God’s goodness and how people could be saved, but no explanations for the existence of sin, why people needed to be saved or why Jesus was the only one who could save us.
Thus, if Gnosticism taught the church by its errors the necessity of an apostolic and public canon, the further phase of Gnosticism known as Marcionism made plain the danger of a mutilated canon. Thus, it impressed upon the church the necessity of maintaining the canon in its full extent without being diminished.2
Montanus was a self-proclaimed prophet who lived in the late second century. The Old Testament prophets often used the phrase “Thus says the Lord” (ESV) to indicate they were speaking with the authority given to them by God. Jesus frequently used the phrase “I say to you” (ESV) to indicate he was speaking under his own authority. Montanus seemed to believe he was literally the voice of God when he stated “I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete [Holy Spirit]….” Montanus may have believed he was the helper Jesus promised in John 14:16 (ESV): “And I [Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever….” And in John 16:7 (ESV): “Nevertheless, I [Jesus] tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” The second-century Orthodox Christians considered the prophecies by Montanus to be heretical, but enough of the other teachings by Montanus were consistent with Apostolic teachings that some Christians followed him.
The Catholic3 opposition to Montanism rested on the conviction that the Christian revelation was complete. Nothing new in principle could be added to the apostolic deposit of the faith. The Church, too, was cautious about ecstasies in which the prophet lost the use of his reason and identified himself with God. “I am come neither as an angel, nor as an ambassador, but as God the Father,” said Montanus. Against such extravagant claims, the Church insisted on the sufficiency of the apostolic tradition.4
Christians needed to address these heresies, and others, by proclaiming the genuine Word of God. The Prophets (Old Testament) and the Apostles (New Testament) were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down or authenticate the special revelation God gave them5. These heresies show its easy for people to twist any teachings that doesn’t confirm to their beliefs and preferences, a problem which the church is still fighting today. These heresies existed even though God’s teachings had already been written down; it’s difficult to imagine what might have happened to God’s word if it had only been transmitted orally.
The books of the Bible are the Church’s authoritative sources used to combat false teachings. These sources can be traced back to what Jesus taught the disciples, so we know they accurately represent what Jesus taught them. Although information can be faithfully transmitted through word-of-mouth (see my article Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally?), it’s much more difficult to change information, either accidentally or deliberately, in written sources. The books of the Bible have been copied many times over the past two thousand years, so finding changes in the Bible is possible; this is a field of study called Textual Criticism (likely a topic of future articles). It’s possible the early church fathers used similar methods to ensure they received accurate copies.
This original grasp on apostolic authority is strengthened by the early heresies which Providence arranged to attack the church in second century. Gnosticism’s claim to a secret and secret revelation emphasized the public witness of the Apostles especially as crystallized in their writings. Marcionism’s mutilation of the Apostolic tradition alerted the church to the danger of a one-sided and biased limitation of the Apostolic tradition. Thus, a sign was given emphasizing the importance of maintaining the full extent of the New Testament canon. Montanism came, however, just in time to keep the church from wrongly enlarging the canon of Scripture. Its excesses and extravagances clearly underscored the dangers associated with any failure to limit the canon to the Apostolic age and writings.6
All of these heresies have persisted until today, in one form or another. The Apostles Paul and Peter both warned against false teachers:
As I [Paul] urged you [Timothy] when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1:3-7 ESV)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV)
This end note is something of an apology. When I started researching the canon about two months ago, I found few resources which discussed why we have written canon. There are many books and articles that attempted to identify when it was created, but I found little information on why it was created. I read some books and many on-line articles, and the few resources I found that discussed why the canon exists consistently cited the attempts to stop heresy from infiltrating the church. That didn’t seem like a satisfactory answer to me. I do most of my research by reading, but while looking for a better answer, I started searching podcasts for specific people whom I know have done research in this area. Three days before I had planned on posting this article, I finally found a short series of podcasts with a reason which finally made sense to me. Now that I had a starting place, I was able to find a few other resources which agreed with what I’d heard in the podcasts. I didn’t have enough time to write a completely different article for this week (I usually work on them on-and-off for several weeks before posting), so you’re getting the one I had originally planned (with a few changes), even though it’s the weaker of the reasons. Come back next week for Why Create a Biblical Canon? Part 2.
- The name Gnosticism came into use after the Testament was written.
- Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 1886. (Monergism)
- Catholic in this sense means the universal church, as the Roman Catholic Church didn’t exist during Montanus’s lifetime.
- Richardson, Cyril C. Early Christian Fathers (Phildelipha, USA: The Westminster Press, 1953) Accessed 19-Jul-2019. (Archive.org) Quoted in: Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 2053. (Monergism)
- Some books were written by known associates of the Apostles. Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul.
- Waldron, Samuel. The Canon of Scripture. Location 2061. (Monergism)