Canonicity: Events and Forces in Relation to the Formation of the New Testament Canon

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There were two events in history during the period between 303-379 A.D. that were largely instrumental in the recognition of the extent of the canon:
(1) The Diocletian Persecution: Great attempts at destroying the Scriptures were made.
(2) Emperor Constantine: He ordered fifty copies of the Bible for use in the churches in Constantinopleand during this period the great church councils took place.
There were several forces which contributed to the formation of the New Testament canon: (1) Confrontations with heterodoxy (2) The usage of certain books in the churches (3) Persecution (4) Influence of certain Christian teachers. (5) Development of the book.
The early church’s confrontation with heterodoxy was one of the major contributing factors in the formation of the New Testament canon.
The major conflicts were with Marcionism, Gnosticism and Montanism.
Marcionism was a movement which began with Marcion in the second century, which rejected the validity of the Old Testament witness for Christians because the God of the Old Testament was believed to be incompatible with the loving God revealed through Jesus.
The heretic Marcion had excluded everything except ten Pauline epistles and certain selected portions of the Gospel according to Luke.
The Gnostics were introducing secret “Gospels,” attempting to advance them as authoritative Scripture.
One of the earliest writers to respond to the Gnostics was Irenaeus.
His writings assume the authority of the books of the New Testament in common use during the second century, although his citations are from only 23 of the 27 New Testament books.
Gnosticism is a system of false teachings that existed during the early centuries of Christianity.
Its name came from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis.
The Gnostics believed that knowledge was the way to salvation.
Our knowledge of Gnosticism comes from several sources.
First, there are the Gnostic texts, which are known as the New Testament Apocrypha.
These texts are not recognized as Scripture because they contain teachings, which differ from those in the Bible.
Then, there are the refutations of the Gnostics by the early church fathers.
Some of the more important ones are Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Hippolytus, Refutations of All Heresies; Epiphanius, Panarion; and Tertullian, Against Marcion.
Montanism is a second-century prophetic movement that emphasized the imminent return of Christ and imposed a strict morality on the faithful as they waited and prepared for the end of the world. The designation Montanism arises from the leader of the movement, Montanus, who together with several women served as prophet to the group. Although its leaders did not intend their prophecies to undermine scriptural authority, the movement was nonetheless considered heretical by the emerging church authority. The church father Tertullian eventually joined the Montanists.[1]
Montanus claimed that the age of revelation continued in his own day, and that he himself was the Paraclete described in John’s Gospel. With his two prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla, he led a religion marked by ecstatic outbursts, speaking in tongues, and prophetic utterances. He established a new community in Phrygia, where his disciples awaited the coming of the new Jerusalem. The movement spread abroad rapidly and won some Church leaders such as Tertullian. Montanism caused the Church to determine the limits of divine authority. The prominence of apostolic writings for the rule of faith became evident.[2]
Another major force in the formation of the canon is the use of certain writings in the early church.
This is mentioned by Eusebius in drawing up his list of acknowledged books.
He appealed nearly always to the traditional usage of these writings in the churches from an early time or even to their use by certain Christian writers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen.
In his work “Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon of Early Christianity,” John Barton has found that when one counts the number of times the New Testament and other books are actually cited by the Fathers in proportion to each book’s length, he discovered that there are three clear groups:
(1) New Testament books that are quoted frequently such as the four gospels and the major Pauline letters.
(2) Books quoted less frequently, namely the rest of the New Testament.
(3) Books quoted hardly at all, namely those that were excluded from the canon.
Therefore, what Barton brought out is that there is a sharp demarcation in actual frequency of usage between the New Testament books and all other claimants.
Thus, actual usage was establishing the canon.
Another major influence in the formation of the canon is that of prominent Christian thinkers such as Athanasius.
Of course, the persecution of the church compelled the church to determine which writings were inspired by God and which were not.
The persecution under Diocletian is an example of this since the Emperor ordered the confiscation and destruction of Christian books (303-305 A.D.).
Even the technology of book production had some bearing on the canonical formation of the NT. Early codices were not capacious, normally running to a maximum of about two hundred leaves, and most were much smaller. Christian Scriptures could not be collected and provided together in one volume, and early codices usually contained only one or two documents or a discrete collection. Not until the fourth century was it possible to manufacture codices that could contain many writings, and even then it was rare that whole Bibles (pandects) were produced. In their absence, the importance of lists or catalogs of Christian Scriptures is obvious. Still, any effort to produce a whole Bible or even a whole NT raised the practical issue of what should be included in it. All of these considerations belong, with varying importance, to the formation of the NT canon, but none of them had the fundamental and decisive consequence that followed from traditional use.[3]
Carson and Moo write “Christians early adopted the codex (i.e., books bound more or less as ours are, glued or sewn down one edge) over the scroll. As a result they could put many New Testament books together-and, despite some exceptions, there is early and widespread attestation of our twenty-seven New Testament documents being bound together in various configurations.”[4]
There were four great church councils that addressed the issue of canonicity:
(1) The Council of Laodecia (336 A.D.): Recognized and accepted all books of the New Testament except Revelation.
(2) The Council of Damascus (382 A.D.): Recognized and accepted all books of the New Testament including Revelation.
(3) The Council of Carthage (397 A.D.): Recognized and accepted all books of the New Testament including Revelation.
(4) The Council of Hippo (419 A.D.): Recognized and accepted all books of the New Testament including Revelation.
[1] Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F. (1999). In Pocket dictionary of theological terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. [2] Raquel, S. T. (2012). New Testament Canon. In (J. D. Barry & L. Wentz, Eds.)The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. [3] Gamble, H. (2000). Canonical Formation of the New Testament. In (C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, Eds.)Dictionary of New Testament background: a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. [4] Carson, D.A. and Moo, Douglas J., An Introduction to the New Testament-Second Edition; page 734; copyright 1992, 2005; Zondervan
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