The Formation of Canon: Creation and Purpose in the Early Church (70CE-300CE)

The formation of the New Testament canon from a collection of documents that were probably written before the end of the first century[1] became an essential duty of the early Christian church. Not only was the canonization process an important means of defining a doctrinal rule of faith for the early church and its early Christians but provided an ideological orthodoxy since “the [early] church existed under the threat of false teaching and [ultimately] found it necessary to protect the truth of the gospel from heresies such as Gnosticism and Docetism and from other heterodox movements of the late first and early second centuries.”[2] While Gnosticism presented a “serious threat to Christianity throughout the second century [because church leaders] saw in it a denial of several crucial Christian doctrines, such as creation, incarnation, and resurrection,”[3] Docetism[4] was a collective representation of various Christian-Gnostic arguments about the earthly Jesus being different from the heavenly Christ. The threats from the Gnostics wasn’t the only threat to the early church’s ability to fashion a coherent, canonized message within a definitive doctrine because Marcion[5] “posed an even greater threat to the church [because, like the Gnostics,] he rejected or radically reinterpreted the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection [and, by extension] went beyond [the doctrines of the Catholic church] in that he organized a church with its own bishops and its own scripture.”[6] What makes the efforts of Marcion significant is that Marcion’s list was the first attempt to put together a canon that could read in churches and used as the basis of Christian instruction –this distinctly Marcionite canon was “compiled of a list of books that [Marcion] considered true Christian Scriptures. These [being] the epistles of Paul, [who Marcion believed was] one of the few who had really understood Jesus’ message] and the Gospel of Luke.”[7] The Marcionite canonization, then, put pressure on the Catholic church to respond and counter the Marcionite movement, and “thus the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings [but did so, in contrast to Marcion’s Paul-biased, Luke-redacted[8] canonization,] in a formal manner, through a council or special meeting.”[9]  What arose from the debate in these councils or special meetings[10] about the Christian canonized doctrine “not [being] based on the supposed witness of a single apostle or Gospel, but [instead] on the consensus of the entire apostolic message”[11] was the necessity of crafting a creed as another element for the church to respond to Marcionism and other heresies, most notably Montanism.[12]

[1] Refer to Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text, and Canon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 166.

[2] Ibid., 171.

[3] Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 60-61.

[4] These were considered Christian Gnostics because they rejected the notion that Christ had a body like ours. On this account, some of them believed that the body of Jesus was an appearance, or perhaps a sort of ghost that miraculously seemed to be a real body. This was the means by which these Christian Gnostics distinguished the difference between the heavenly Christ and the earthly Jesus, going so far as to believe, consequently, that Jesus did not have a body, but was a spiritual matter different from ours and, in some cases, denying the birth of Jesus all together. In effect, this Gnostic influenced Christological doctrine believed that the suffering and death of Jesus was only an appearance. The church ruled many of these notions under the moniker “docetism.” Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 59-60; William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 134.

[5] By developing an understanding of Christianity that was both anti-Jewish and anti-material, Marcion, who emphasized Pauline principles and stressed salvation by faith, crafted doctrines that contradicted several fundamental points in Christian doctrine. Refer to William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 331; Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 61-62.

[6] Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 62

[7] Ibid.

[8] In using the Gospel of Luke, Marcion deleted all references to Judiasm or to the Hebrew Scriptures. This was done because Marcion not only viewed the Old Testament as being the word of an inferior god but, also, thought of it as being representative of the handiwork of Judaizers seeking to subvert the original message of the Hebrew scripture. Refer to Ibid., 61-62

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] The first significant meeting was at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., which was called by Constantine, and the final meeting occurred in Constantinople in 381 C.E. Refer to William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 389.

[11] Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 63.

[12] This is the name given to the religious movement in the name of its leader Montanus, who had been a pagan priest until his conversion to Christianity in 155 C.E. Like Marcionism, Montanism provided a significant challenge to the early church. The movement of Montanism, then, was otherworldly, stressing the importance of martyrdom and awaiting the coming of the Lord. More poignantly, Montanists taught the separation from the world, which directly contrasted with the early church leaders wanting to keep the Church as open as possible to those outside it. In response to Montanism, which spread rapidly beyond Asia Minor and entered Europe and North Africa, the Church became Catholic, coming to terms with the world and leaving to live within it. Refer to Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 63-65; William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 367; Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 76 .

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