The foundation of Christian orthodoxy and canon are so entwined so that you cannot have one without the other; both drawing support from the other to establish details and outline its parameters. In the years that followed after the death of the apostles, there was a desire by the early Christian movement to consolidate, catalogue, and share the teachings of Jesus among the churches. Before there could be a collection of important writings however, there needed to be an agreement on what was considered worthy of high regard, useful for teaching, and what could be verified as legitimate or apostolic in nature, this would provide for foundation of what was to be considered canonical literature. These early attempts of establishing the canon also required the defining of orthodoxy. Today we recognize the definition of orthodoxy as the “acceptance of the truth, especially about Jesus Christ, that is revealed by the Holy Spirit in the gospel and is passed on through the teaching of sound doctrine.” Since the revelation of truth can result in speculation based on ones perspective, it was of the utmost importance that rules be established and maintained when considering what documents would be affirmed within the body of the church to become what we call canonical literature.
To understand the word canon, we must look at the words origin. According to Chadwick, “The Greek word kanon meant a ruler for measuring, and so, as a metaphor, any sort of rule or norm. So ‘the canonical books’ were the books which established a ‘rule of faith’ as distinct from other books which might be good but did not have the same authority.” Similarly, it would be this definition of the word “rule” that the Apostle Paul would imply when using it in his letter to the Galatians, stating “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” The recognition of a set of rules would provide for debate, yet begin the conversation of, what was to be considered worthy of becoming a part of the canon. The primary test of canonicity was determining if the writings contained apostolic or prophetic authority. To be an apostle, one had to be a commissioned messenger of Jesus, from whom an apostle’s authority is given. One way that apostolic authority could be established was by noting the frequency and presumptive authority; the early church Fathers quoted the writings of the Apostles and the letters of Paul.
A look at the second letter of Peter illustrates that even he recognized that Paul letters contained scriptural authority. It appears that even in the time of the Apostles that they accepted that what they were witnessing carried the weight of authority as they saw the fulfillment of messianic prophesy in Christ Jesus worth documenting in writing. In regards to prophetic authority, there was the repeated instruction that some writings should be read to other congregations. For example, Paul closes his first letter to Thessalonica with the command, “ I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.” This level of instruction, coupled with letters such as Revelation, which promised a blessing to all who read the words of the prophecy, and kept it, illustrate the importance of prophetic works. “The key to canonicity implicit in those injunctions appears to be authority, or prophecy. If a writing was prophetic, it was to be read with authority to the churches.” It should be noted though that apostolic or prophetic authority was not the final measure by which the early church fathers identified the canon.
While developing consistent theology may not have been their intent, letters that were considered useful for teaching were circulated and collected; providing multiple copies, which in later years would support the creation of the canon. Hence, many of the early church fathers, such as Clement of Rome, have referenced these letters and documents in their own writings. “His only specific references to the New Testament are from 1st Corinthians and Hebrews. However, there is evidence of his familiarity with a wider range of the canonical materials.” Clement of Rome was not the only one to demonstrate such recognition; Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria have all referenced these documents in their correspondence. It is clear that along with apostolic and prophetic authority, that the support of the early church fathers was given to these early documents as well. This would prove to be of great importance as the years following the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers would need to combat various heresies from both within and outside of the church that would lead people away from the truths they had been taught.
One of the great heresies of the early church was propagated from within the church by Marcion of Sinope, who established a rival church in Rome based on his argument that there was not one God, but two – the first god a creator, the second god a redeemer. The creator god was responsible for the Old Testament, and was viewed as evil. The redeemer god was a god of love and redemption, synonymous with Jesus Christ. Because of his differing views, Marcion developed his own brand of canon that rejected the Old Testament and only accepted portions of what would become the New Testament, including his own revision of Luke’s Gospel, and the letters of Paul. It is believed that “Marcion included Paul’s letters because he wanted to claim Paul’s reputation for his own movement.” Due to his great wealth, He was able to establish his own church that supported his teachings, but not without consequence. “Marcion was excommunicated in A.D. 144 by the Church of Rome for his heretical views, but his following thrived until the fourth century, particularly in the East.”
To further combat against this heresy, Justin Martyr would write a letter (which is now lost, but confirmed by Irenaeus) against Marcion that rejected his dualist ideas and defended the unity of both Testaments. Another dangerous heresy, similar to Marcionism, also having roots within the church was born from the idea that there was a deeper or secret knowledge that was necessary for salvation, known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism predates the time of Jesus and “contains doctrines of certain pre-Christian pagan, Jewish, and early Christian sects that valued the revealed knowledge of God.” Teaching that this deeper knowledge would lead them to the true revelation of God, Gnosticism found within the early Christian teachings an ill defined theology, ripe for manipulation. Even though the first letter of John specifically teaches against this idea of deeper teaching, those blinded by the Hellenistic pursuit of knowledge couldn’t seem to shake their Gnostic interests.
Gnostic teachings had a “dualistic outlook, seeing a sharp dichotomy between spirit and matter, good and evil, often taking a negative view of creation” It was precisely this line of thinking that would resonate with those whom shared the Hellenistic ideas of syncretism and therefore allowed Gnosticism to spread with little public resistance. “Valentine was one of the first Gnostics who taught in Rome, about the same time with Cerdo and Marcion;” was recognized for his intellect and eloquence. Valentine was one of the best-known teachers of Gnosticism because he founded a school and shared his doctrines publicly, supported by claims that he had “received revelations from the Logos in a vision” The results of his teachings and influence motivated the early church fathers to clearly identify and intensify the teaching of the Apostles and adhere strictly to those teachings. Ultimately Valentine was excommunicated and fled to Cyprus where he would later die about A.D. 160.
In summary, it was early heretical movements such as these that required the swift and decisive movement of the early church fathers to establish not only the specific criteria for the Biblical canon, but also its implementation into orthodoxy. Ludovico Antonio Muratori discovered the earliest list of canonical documents in A.D. 1740 in a fragmented manuscript in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. While there is some controversy surrounding its date of origin, “it is generally held to date from the (later) 2nd century,” due to who the author lists as contemporaries, noting that the episcopate of Pius I of Rome had recently died in A.D. 157. This find is of major significance to the issue of the early canon because it lists all of what we know as the New Testament, taking exception to only, Hebrews, James, and 1st and 2nd Peter. Furthermore, it rejects documents such as “the ‘Shepherd’ of Hermas, the Marcionite Epistles of Paul to Laodicea and Alexandria, and a series of other Gnostic and Montanist writings.” This list complements that of Melito, the Bishop of Sardis during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180), provides a clear and consistent train of thought as to the early canon.
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