The Canon of Scripture. How was it arrived at?

The second phase: How false doctrine causes a reappraisal of the canon of scripture.

Everything seems to be progressing well when suddenly a wealthy man raised in a Christian home with an excellent education is excommunicated following an act of adultery with a virgin. He moves from Sinope, Pontus Asia, to Rome, where he tries to establish a ‘canon’ of scripture that is anti-Jewish, Gnostic, polytheistic, and amoral, under the guise of New Testament grace. He removes portions of the Pauline epistles that refer to Judaism, and the three Gospels written by Hebrew Christians. He retained only the Gospel of Luke, and proceeded to add his own opinions to Luke’s writings. His name is Marcion, circa. 140 AD. His writings thus violated the decrees of Christ with regards to New Testament writings. This alerted many Christians to the need of finalizing the canon of scripture according to the Evangelion and the doctrine of the Apostles. Marcion is later labelled a heretic, and banished from the church of Rome.

Several men were raised up by God to defend the faith, and to reject the doctrine of Marcion. In 185 AD, Irenaeus, 130-202 AD, defended the doctrine of salvation through faith, that the New Testament was the fulfilment of the Old Testament, and that Christ is God manifest in flesh. He recognized twenty-one books and reaffirmed the authenticity of the four Gospels. Tertullian, 160-220 A.D., also rallied to defend the scriptures. Thus, the churches were galvanized to continue their work of selecting books for the canon as guided by the Comforter, and as prophesied by Christ Himself. Another stalwart for the preservation of sound doctrine was Hippolytus, 170-235 AD, who recognized twenty-two books. A little before 180 AD, Melito of Sardis makes the distinction between the ‘books of the old covenant’ and the ‘books of the new covenant’. The first time that a ‘canon’ is noted is in AD 170 by an anonymous writer. The manuscript was found in the Ambrosian Library by an antiquities historian, Muratori. It included 24 books, missing only Hebrews, James and 3 John. It is known as the Muratorian Canon, named after its discoverer. Thus, by 180 AD, the canon of scripture was virtually complete with minor variations involving the absence or addition of three or four books.

In 203 AD, Origen, a child prodigy, became head of the prestigious Alexandrian Christian school at age 18. After a dispute with the bishop of Alexandria, he was expelled, and opened up a new school in Caesarea. He declared the New Testament to be equally inspired as the Old Testament. He also included the writings of Clement, and the Didache, and the Epistle of Barnabas as scripture. He also regards the book of Hermas as inspired. He accepted Hebrews as authentic. Thus, by 250 AD, the present canon was almost entirely accepted.

The third and final phase occurs after another false doctrine is introduced, Arianism, c. 320 AD.

Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter, taught that Christ was created in time and did not exist previously. Arius was a student of Origen. Origen believed that Christ eternally existed, but that His substance is different from that of the Father. Arius, and others before him, had begun teaching that a ‘different substance’ required that the incarnate Christ be specially created in time. God then raised up another teacher, Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, who further refined our understanding of the deity of Christ. He taught that Christ is co-existent, co-substantial, and equal with God. Athanasius was taught in the scriptures from his childhood. He was also a careful student of apostolic doctrine, and of the four Gospels. He was a skilled student of Greek and wrote in both Greek and in Egyptian. He is one of the first to carefully develop the Trinitarian doctrine that we hold today. It was precisely his formulation of these doctrines that were acclaimed at the council of Nicea in 325 AD This required that he defy the highly respected teachings of Origen, and directly oppose Arius. He vehemently rejected Arianism. Athanasius’ definition of Christ’s deity, and of the doctrine of the Trinity triumphed in the council of Nicea, 325 AD; Arianism was soundly defeated. The majority of bishops changed from supporting Arianism to that of the doctrines taught by Athanasius of the Egyptian Coptic Church. The Christology of John’s Gospel and Paul’s apostolic writings then came into clearer focus. The criterion that Christ had originally decreed1 was now better understood under the Spirit’s guidance. The canon of scripture was now ready to be completed, based on a deeper understanding of Christ. Eusebius and Athanasius, and many others of the bishops of that day, now better enlightened, again sifted through the books still held in question. Athanasius, in his 39th Paschal letter of 367 AD, published the ‘final’ list of books that now comprises our New Testament. The basis for the final selection of which books were inspired is described by Athanasius in that same festal letter. He quotes John chapter 5 verse 39 as his guide: ‘these are they that testify of ME’, capitals for emphasis as written by Athanasius. He also states that he vigorously studied the writings of the apostles, the proto-canon formerly described. The Holy Spirit moved among all the leaders of that day. Eusebius, the most powerful supporter of Arianism, capitulated to the scriptural pleadings of Athanasius. The final books for the framework of God’s building was finally based on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Eph. 2. 20. Finally, our Lord’s prophecy had been fulfilled.

After this major agreement was reached among the bishops regarding the canon of scripture, Emperor Constantine commissioned Eusebius, in 331 AD, to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius (Apol. Const. 4) recorded around 340 Alexandrian scribes preparing Bibles for Constantine. It is now believed that the Codex Sinaiticus, found in Egypt at the foot of Mt. Sinai in St. Catherine’s Monastery, is one of the 50 Bibles that Constantine commissioned. The oldest Bibles are the Codex Vaticanus, the Codex Sinaiticus, the Peshitta, and the Codex Alexandrinus. These are the earliest extant Christian Bibles. The Codex Sinaiticus was handwritten in Greek uncial letters at about the time of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great more than 1,600 years ago. The work of four scribes, it was written on vellum parchment made from the skins of donkeys or antelopes. It was preserved for centuries by the dry desert air in the 4th century Monastery, the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery. The Codex was discovered at the monastery in 1844 by the German biblical scholar and archaeologist Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-74). It is now available in digital form on the internet under codexsinaiticus.org.

The aftermath of the canonization of the Bible

Ever since the biblical canon of scripture was completed, the doctrine of salvation, the deity of Christ, and of the Trinity has remained until this day. Millions of souls have been saved eternally. The gospel is announced to the world by a Bible that was designed by the Holy Spirit for this very purpose.

Detailed word studies in the Hebrew and the Greek and the Aramaic have shown the absolute precision of the word of God known as the Bible. ‘Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar’, Prov. 30. 5-6. May we read and obey the word in our hearts, minds and bodies. Its value for us eternally is incalculable!

The main references for this writing were F. F. Bruce’s books, The Canon of the New Testament and The New Testament documents, are they reliable? Also, quotations of Athanasius, available on the internet.

Endnote

1

In John 14. 26, and John 15. 26.

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