Contextual Theology: Before there was a Christian Canon, there was a Church

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.[1]  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.[2]  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,[3] 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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Previous Readings in this Series Include:

Contextual Theology: Why We Study Ancient Theology

Contextual Theology: The Didache and the Fight for Life


[1] This claim is attested to by men such as: Eusebius, Jerome, and Epiphanius

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

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19 Responses to Contextual Theology: Before there was a Christian Canon, there was a Church

  1. Rich Bennema says:

    “Did the Reformers get it “right” when they tried to place the Scriptures over and above the authority of the Church?”

    “the fact remains that it is logically inconsistent for modern Evangelicals to assert that they need the Bible and nothing else”

    If you intend to tear down Sola Scriptura, you need stronger arguments than to simply question the merits or basis of the decisions. Yes, there was a church before there was a canon. However, you yourself began by making the argument that there was a need for a canon because some included too many books while others included too few. But then you suddenly flip that around by making the charge that the canon possibly has too few books.

    This was not a casual decision. It was not decided by a coin flip. “Heads Jude is in and The Shepherd of Hermas is out.” It took centuries to decide and has stood with nearly unanimous acceptance for nearly two thousand years. You have often made the case that the danger of the modern Evangelical church is that they throw out church history in favor of writing and teachings of the last century. How are you not attempting to do something similar right now? Unless I’ve completely missed your point, you are sounding like those Time articles that discover shocking new Bible books or rediscovery coming from the emergent church.

    Personally, Jude bothers me. It’s weird. I sometimes wonder why it got in. But even in that, I find comfort. If Jude is in, then there are reasons why the others are not. If you want to argue that these some of these books should be accepted as supplemental in the same manner as writing of the church fathers on up through the latest Tim Keller book, then I’ll all good with that. But I’m not convinced that these are Scripture or that 66 book Bible is unable to stand alone.

    • Hey Rich …

      The goal of this series is actually quite simple. Evangelicalism was largely birthed by a series of circuit riding preachers that put on big shows to attract the masses. Men like Charles Finney were actively rejecting the “old school” tenets of Calvinism in favor of emotionally driven revivals that focused on getting people “saved.” The problem is, 150 years down the road, Evangelicalism has largely been disconnected from its theological roots in historical orthodoxy. And what we have left, by way of heritage, are a series of maxims and adages that have been stripped of much of the nuance that originally gave them their power.

      In the case of sola scriptura, the Reformers never meant for the Bible to be severed from ecclesial authority. Indeed, Calvin himself wrote the following in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

      “As it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels . . . Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation can be hoped for . . . The paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal” (Institutes, IV, I, 4).

      But today, we have modernist Evangelicals arguing that all we need is the Bible. And so I point to the history of canonicity alone to refute the truth of that claim. The Bible doesn’t tell us which 27 books should be included in the New Testament. Rather, the church, after decades (and even centuries) of debate, finally codified what it believed to be true to the Apostolic teachings that had been passed down from the Apostles to a successive line of bishops. So the Church played a vital role in the construction of the Scriptures; and as such, it needs to be recognized that the Church was once far more important to the life of the believer than it is today.

      So my argument here is not to tear down the Bible, but to raise questions as to why Protestants have such an anemic view of the Church when it was the Church that was ultimately responsible for codifying Scripture.

      • Rich Bennema says:

        When you said “it is logically inconsistent for modern Evangelicals to assert that they need the Bible and nothing else,” it was not clear to me what you were proposing the “else” to be. Based on the original post (and thus the motivation for my first comment), I took the “else” to be that books like The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas should be given the same weight and place as James, Hebrews, and Revelation. But based on your reply, I now take the “else” to be the Church. If the latter is the case, then I am for that and appreciate the clarification.

        Also, I’m beginning to wonder that the Bible and Church relationship is less a chicken and egg which came first and more of a Batman and Joker from Batman 1989. The Church as it was when Paul wrote several of his epistles (Corinthians specifically, but also Galatians, Colossians, and Timothy to name others) was nothing to be emulated. And if it’s correct to say that these books were accepted and used early on, then it should be fair to say that the Church that formed the canon was itself formed by the some of the books that were eventually included in the canon. I’m not sure you can say one made the other, but rather that they made each other.

        • I think we’re on the same page, Rich. For me, this post is all about trying to help Christians move beyond the idea that it’s just “me and my Bible.” While I unreservedly and enthusiastically endorse a heartfelt love for the text of Scripture, I fear that our Modern individualistic tendencies have left us with a distorted conception of sola scriptura, and little felt need for the Church that was so vital in the construction of the text we purport to love.

          Having said that, there was a time when I wondered why 1 Clement didn’t “make the cut.” If you’ve never read it, it reads a lot like the Apostle Paul’s writings; and it’s the source of the early Christian adoption of the phoenix as a symbol of the faith. In the end, I had to let it go and acknowledge the fact that for whatever reason, the early Church Fathers did not see it as theopneustos – God-breathed.

    • Sola Scriptura is not Solo Scriptura. The Reformers were well aware of and utilized tradition to augments their arguments. They were deeply concerned that their theology was rooted in what the Church had said; they did not want to be theological cowboys roaming the range on their own. While Rome wanted to preserve tradition as a magisterium, as still does today, the Reformers wanted tradition serving a ministerial role in our reading of scripture. Contra modern, American evangelicalism that is rootless and roaming the range on its own, practicing solo scripture. So the utilization of tradition in a ministerial fashion does not overthrow sola scriptura is serves it.

    • Mark Notestine says:

      Sola Scriptura is not fully understood by many Protestants. It is charicatured by Roman Catholics for strawman arguements.

      Sola Scriptura is:
      1. Sole infallible rule of faith
      2. No other revelation is needed for the church
      3. There is no other infallible rule of faith outside of Scripture
      4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation
      5. All traditions, confessions and creeds are subject to Scripture

      Sola Scriptura is NOT:
      1. claim that the Bible contains all knowledge
      2. claim that the Bible is an exhautive catalog of all religous knowledge
      3. denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth
      4. denial that God’s Word has, at times, been spoken
      5. rejection of every kind or use of tradition
      6. denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church

  2. Rebecca says:

    [Editor’s Note: These comments were originally posted by Rebecca under a different article. But she stated that these thoughts would also apply to this article as well. Thus, I am posting them here for convenience.]

    Protestants screen the church through the Bible. Orthodox Christians screen the Bible through the Church. The Bible exists because of the Holy Tradition of ancient Christianity as handed down and handed down and defined at the Councils and handed down, etc. We do not expect the Bible to explain the Church. We believe the Church explains the Bible and all that is in it is best understood through the lens of Holy Tradition, of which Scripture (including the other OT books) is a part.
    Does that make sense?

    • Bec … Is it possible that the interplay between Church and Scripture is even more nuanced than either of our traditions allow? Rather than placing one with distinct authority over the other, I find myself wondering if the entire process is not far more circular with the church charged with task of contextualizing and interpreting the Scriptures for the current culture even as the Scriptures themselves interpret the Church and prevent it from going astray.

      • Rebecca says:

        I don’t think so. The whole of the Church interprets the Scriptures, and that includes ALL of Holy Tradition–the Councils, the Creeds, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and the Scriptures. There is where the circle lies–those things all working together through the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep the Church alive, to keep the theology consistent and to keep us all from going astray.

        • A few honest questions for you. And please, don’t take this as me challenging you. I know a little about your background as a Baptist and your current beliefs as a member of an Eastern Orthodox church. So I am truly just curious. Consider this an opportunity to educate a Protestant on the journey you have made.

          Would you agree that some of the things that Church Fathers have said are in error? If so, what measuring stick do you use to judge that error? I presume the Bible would be one of your tools. But would there be others? And if so, are they, in your estimation, on par with Scripture in determining what is “true” for the Church and what is “false?”

      • TruthSeeker says:

        Scott William Bryant,

        What does the church do today that is in harmony with The Scriptures? I will tell you that vertually nothing. Traditions of men long ago replaced commanents of Yahweh. The Church was not an institution or an organization or a building. The church is the body of Messiah – Us. Eklessia long but lost its meaning. I believe that 27 books of NT are in tune with the OT. Tanakh is less of a concern, however. The corruption of the teachings were already detected in the first century. Paul is explicit about false teachings of realized resurrection and Gnosticism in his epistles to Timothy. I believe Ruach haKadesh definitely intervened in canonizing the books of NT. The good method of determining whether the institution of the church is relevant to our walk with Yahweh is to compare ITS practices and teachings with the teachings of Father and The Son. Much is what is showeled down our throats and sold for the “tithes” in form of money – a biblical fallacy, by the way. I find nothing that few out of 30,000 “Christian” denominations that I know of teach, is an accordance with what Father asks of us. Therefore, I know the institution of the church is nothing but human made tradition concocted for the purposes of exploiting masses, gaining power and brainwashing unruly children of Yahweh who hear no voice of His. I do, however, understand, that those who risksed their lifes and gave their lives for The Faith in Messiah are never to be forgotten and remembered. Our job is to learn the beginnings of the Scriptures journey and weeding out those “church fathers” who happened to be bought by the persuasions of Satan himself. There were bad fruits and good fruits. There were/are corrupt manuscripts, likewise there were/are Yahweh breathed. There were/are those who were Sola Scriptura only and those who seek interpretations and assurance from organized religions. There is an overwhelming amount of data available on line regarding different bible versions, lexicon, concordances, apocrypha study, deutoronical books, Hostory of the church, history of Jidaism you name it. I’d say seek Yahweh on your own, search Scriptures daily, ask The Holy Spirit to lead you in the right direction, fellowship with your brethren, persist in desire to get to The Truth. Institutionalized church does not know and won’t know the whole Truth nor is it interested to bring people closer to Yahweh, in majority of instance.

        • Rich Bennema says:

          Wow. I would tread more carefully. I know that anyone who would talk about my bride this way had better be looking over their shoulder when they do it.

          • TruthSeeker says:

            Rich Bennema,
            I won’t nor do I have desire to be be looking over my shoulder. Those institutions that brainwashed the masses better be looking over their shoulders as The Wrath of Yahweh is something no one wants to partake in.

        • Truth Seeker …

          While I think I understand what you are trying to say (and feel free to correct me if you feel that I’m wrong), I think you are making far too strong a case. Yes, there are many things the modern church does that do not line up with Scripture. But that is a far cry from your assertion that we do “virtually nothing” that is in harmony with the Scriptures. Consider the following:

          1. Scripture is read aloud in a corporate gathering.
          2. New believers are baptised in community.
          3. The eucharist or communion is taken regularly in remembrance.
          4. The Gospel is proclaimed to all in attendance.
          5. The body is charged with the Great Commission to take the news out into the world.

          This is just a very abbreviated list; and I would argue that all of these things are in absolute harmony with Scripture. Would you deny this?

          • TruthSeeker says:

            No. I would not. The attendance of Eklessia is essential part of any believer. The fellowship and the studying of The Scriptures are a must. What I am saying is that majority of institutionalized churches do not do what first century Eklessia did. Majority teach false doctrines that are not found in the Bible. Majority abuse the masses financially and give very little or no knowledge of what the walk with Christ is and should be, like likewise many believers make no effort of seeking Yahweh on their own, which is a shame. For many the “wisdom” of pastors is never to be questioned nor is their knowledge of The Scriptures to be challenged.

          • As I said above, I think I know what you’re trying to say. I just think you’re using really strong language to make your point. I, for one, would not be remotely comfortable asserting that the “majority” of churches teach false doctrine and abuse the masses. I wonder if we don’t sometimes get disillusioned because certain famous churches get all the attention, and we lose sight of the small, local churches that continue to preach the Word faithfully, in season and out. Take heart brother. Scripture teaches us that Christ loves His bride, and He will never abandon her to the wolves.

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