The Deposit of the Faith (Part 5)

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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 –