It has often been said that great heresy produces great theology; and in the case of Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160 A.D.), the old adage has once again proven to be true. Early on in the second century A.D., Marcion had risen to become a powerful voice for “reformation” within the Church. Ironically enough, just a few short decades after the John the Revelator had penned the closing words of Scripture, Marcion was already convinced that the Church had gone astray. Based upon his personal study of the Jewish Scriptures and the Pauline epistles that were widely disseminated, the Bishop of Sinope came to believe that the teachings of Jesus were simply incompatible with the actions of YHWH in the Old Testament. Whereas Jesus was marked by grace, compassion and mercy, Marcion saw YHWH as little more than an overly jealous, tribal deity whose legalistic demands for justice condemned all to death. Consequently, Marcion began to advocate for a form of Christianity that positioned itself in direct opposition to the Jewish people. Furthermore, in his efforts to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, he proposed the first “Christian” canon, a heavily edited collection of texts that included only portions of Luke and 10 of Paul’s epistles. In short, what he really produced was a warped and decidedly anti-Semetic rendition of Scripture that caught on like wildfire and raged until Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. and systematically worked to stamp out the Marcionite communities.
What’s In, What’s Out, and Who Decides?
While the influence of Marcion upon the nascent church community cannot be overstated, it would be a gross mischaracterization of history to suggest that no one saw through his erroneous assertions. But the problem wasn’t going to disappear by simply ignoring it. When it came to producing a definitive canon of Scripture, Marcion had the distinction of being the first horse out of the gate; and he was charging hard to spread his vision far and wide throughout the Empire.
Clearly, the time had come for the early Church Fathers to finally assess the vast array of writings that were being produced under the banner of Christian theology. Broadly speaking, these writings were classified into three distinct categories. First, there were the books that were widely acknowledged to be both authoritative and canonical. Secondly, there was another class of books that were openly debated by church leaders, with some pastors accepting their legitimacy even as others rejected them. Finally, there was third group of writings that were generally considered to be illegitimate and hardly worthy of discussion. For the purposes before us today, we will focus our attention on the first two categories.
With regards to the non-disputed writings, we find little that should surprise us. These uncontested works included: the four Gospels, The Acts of the Apostles, and the thirteen epistles of the Apostle Paul. By virtue of their Apostolic origin, these documents had been widely distributed throughout the East and the West, and they were all commonly read aloud in church services. Put simply, outside of Marcionite enclaves, there was little question as to the legitimacy and validity of these books.
But then there was the second category of books; and it is this category that should give modern Evangelicals reason to pause. For while Protestants are often prone to claim that their faith is grounded solely upon the Bible, there is no list of “approved books” to be found in the 27 canonized texts of the New Testament. In other words, in the absence of such a hypothetically inspired list of works that should be included in the Bible, it was left to the leaders of the early Church to decide what to do with this second class of books that were often in open dispute.
Amongst these contested books, we find: James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Hebrews, Jude and even the Apocalypse of John, better known to the world as Revelation. More troubling than that, we also find works such as: The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Gospel according to the Hebrews, St Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans, and The First Epistle of St Clement.
As any open-minded reader can easily see, this should raise numerous questions amongst God-fearing Evangelicals. Looking back upon it now, it is easy to say, “Well certainly James belongs,” or “Why would anyone doubt Revelation?” But the merits of these books weren’t always so obvious to everyone in the early Church. Moreover, other books, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, were wildly popular; and some saw them as being more worthy of inclusion than books such as Hebrews, which had an unknown author, or Jude, which is an almost word-for-word restatement of portions of Second Peter.
Towards a Stronger Ecclesiology
So the questions that face Evangelicals today are complex and thorny. Why were certain books accepted while others were rejected? On what authority did the early Church Fathers make these decisions? If the Holy Spirit was providentially guiding the canonization process, as some Protestant theologians are prone to suggest, how do we know this apart from the Great Tradition that has been passed down through the ages? Did the Reformers get it “right” when they tried to place the Scriptures over and above the authority of the Church? Or is the relationship between the Church and the inspired, canonized text more complex than that?
No matter where the reader comes down on these many and varied questions, the fact remains that it is logically inconsistent for modern Evangelicals to assert that they need the Bible and nothing else. For as has been clearly demonstrated, the Bible contains no internal testimony as to which works ought to be canonized and which works ought to be excluded. And so long as such a list is absent, there can be no denying the simple truth that the relationship between the authority of the Church and the interpretation of its holy text is far more nuanced than many of our cherished maxims would allow.
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Previous Readings in this Series Include:
 This claim is attested to by men such as: Eusebius, Jerome, and Epiphanius
 Works in this category would include approximately 50 “Gospels” (such as The Gospel of James, The Gospel of Thomas, etc…), 20 “Acts” (e.g. The Acts of Pilate, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, etc…), and a few random epistles and “apocalypses.” In each case, these writings were marked by such grotesque historical inaccuracies and absurdities that they were never truly considered for inclusion.
 In the cases of Mark and Luke, both of the writers were known associates of Peter and Paul respectively; and thus, the Gospels were believed to be “Apostolic” in the sense that their writers were heavily influenced by Apostle’s recollection and teaching.
 The first list of scriptural texts to include all 27 books of the New Testament and no additional works was produced by Athanasius in 367 A.D. This informal list was codifed 32 years later at the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D.