The Deposit of the Faith (Part 5)

The History of Christianity #40

Our Scripture verse today is 2 Timothy 3:16 which reads: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

Our quote today is from William Barclay. He said: “It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.”

Today, we are looking at “The Deposit of the Faith” (Part 5) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Response: Canon
Marcion’s list was the first attempt to put together a “New Testament.” When early Christians spoke of “Scripture,” what they meant was the Hebrew scriptures, usually in the Greek version known as the Septuagint (Syriac-speaking Christians used a similar translation into their language). It was also customary to read in church passages from one or several of our present four Gospels, as well as from the Epistles — particularly Paul’s. Since there was no approved list, different Gospels were read in different churches, and the same was true of other books. But Marcion’s challenge required a response; and thus the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings. This was not done in a formal manner, through a council or special meeting. What actually happened was that a consensus developed gradually. While very soon there was general agreement as to the basic books to be included in the canon of the New Testament, it took a long time to come to an absolute consensus on every minor detail.

There was no question, except among Gnostics and Marcionites, that the Hebrew scriptures were part of the Christian canon. This was important as proof that God had been preparing the way for the advent of Christianity, and even as a way of understanding the nature of the God who had been revealed in Jesus Christ. Christian faith was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, and not a sudden apparition from heaven.

As to what is now called the “New Testament,” the Gospels were the first to attain general recognition. It is important to note that those early Christians decided to include more than one Gospel in their canon. Apparently, churches in some cities or regions had a particular Gospel which was most closely connected to their history and traditions. Such was the case, for instance, with the Gospel of Luke in Antioch and the surrounding area. As contact among these churches developed, they began sharing their manuscripts and traditions, and thus the acceptance and use of a variety of Gospels came to be seen as a sign of the unity of the church. At a later time, many have pointed out the inconsistencies among the four Gospels in matters of detail. The early Christians were well aware of these differences, and that was precisely one of the main reasons why they insisted in using more than one book. They did this as a direct response to the challenge of Marcion and Gnosticism. Many Gnostic teachers claimed that the heavenly messenger had trusted his secret knowledge to a particular disciple, who alone was the true interpreter of the message. Thus, various Gnostic groups had a book that claimed to present the true teachings of Jesus. Such were, for instance, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth of the Valentinian Gnostics . Marcion used the Gospel of Luke, from which he had deleted all references to Judaism or to the Hebrew scriptures. In response to this situation, the church at large sought to show that its doctrines were not based on the supposed witness of a single apostle or Gospel, but on the consensus of the entire apostolic tradition. The very fact that the various Gospels differed in matters of detail, but agreed on the basic issues at stake, made their agreement a more convincing argument. Against Marcion’s expurgated Gospel of Luke, the church offered the consensus of a number of Gospels — sometimes three, and sometimes four, since the Fourth Gospel was somewhat slower in gaining universal acceptance. Against the secret traditions and private interpretations of the Gnostics , the church had recourse to an open tradition, known to all, and to the multiplicity of the witness of the Gospels.

It is important to realize that in the first four or five centuries of Christianity there were dozens — perhaps hundreds, most of them now lost — of Gospels and writings about the acts of Mary and the apostles. It is not true, however, that such writings were trying to find their way into the canon, and that the church suppressed some of them. The truth is that the non-canonical Gospels fall into two categories. Some of them, dating mostly from the second century — with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, some of whose material may have been earlier — are Gnostic Gospels. Each of these was considered scripture by a particular group which rejected all others, and therefore had no interest in including their book in the nascent canon of the New Testament. They were never considered part of a canon either by the orthodox Christian community — which rejected them — or by their own proponents — who rejected the notion that there could be more than one inspired Gospel. The second category, mostly dating from the third century of later, includes pious stories about Jesus. The church never rejected these. It simply did not include them in the canon — the list of sacred books — of the New Testament. They continued to be read, with little opposition, for centuries, and it is not uncommon to find in medieval cathedrals depictions of episodes taken from such documents. One example of many is the Protoevangelium of James, which tells the story of Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim — a story that came to be an accepted part of Christian tradition, and which is often found in medieval art and literature.

Next to the Gospels, the book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles enjoyed early recognition. Thus, by the end of the second century the core of the canon was established: the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles. On the shorter books that appear toward the end of the present canon, there was no consensus until a much later date; but there also was little debate. The book of Revelation, widely accepted by the third century, was questioned after the conversion of Constantine, for its words about the prevailing culture and the empire seemed too harsh. It was in the second half of the fourth century that a complete consensus was achieved regarding exactly which books ought to be included in the New Testament, and which ought not to be included. Even then, this was not decided by an official council nor by any other decision-making body, but was rather a matter of consensus — which in itself shows that very few considered this a burning issue. Furthermore, in this entire process the guiding concern was not theology in the abstract sense, but the life of worship, for the main question was, is this book to be read when the church gathers for worship?

Next time, we will look at The Response: Creed in The Deposit of the Faith.

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