By: Todd Lockwood
Did the early church determine or recognize the canonical books that make up the New Testament? The following article will prove that the early church had a consistent methodology for “recognizing” canonical books. Furthermore, it will explain how early heresies helped contribute to the discussion of canonicity and to help accelerate the process. The history of the development of New Testament canon can only be correctly understood by considering the historical and theological implications of the early church.
The earliest Christians never used the term “canon” to describe the Old Testament or the writings that eventually became part of the New Testament. Athanasius (A.D. 367), bishop of Alexandria, was the first writer known to have used the term to describe his approved list of the Old and New Testament. The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon and literally means “a rod” used as a rule. Before the word “canon” was used by the church, the phrase “rule of faith” was used to describe acceptable Christian doctrine. No doubt, the early church was accustomed to receiving this phrase from the Apostle Paul in his letters (Gal 6:16; “rule” kanon). Early Christians enjoyed the “living voice” of the teachings of Jesus through his apostles whether conveyed by word of mouth or as written gospels. The word “canon” was a late development in the church but the concept of acceptable teachings was not.
Athanasius, by making a canon list, did not impose upon the New Testament inspiration. The former bishop of Alexandria, along with the rest of the church involved in the development of the New Testament, simply recognized what God had set in place. Early Christianity birthed from the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament through Jesus Christ; it was a fulfillment and continuation of God’s “redemptive-history.” The early church was not ignorant of this fact and used it for their advantage to recognize God’s “rule of faith” and “canon” that had been handed down to them through Jesus Christ and the apostles. For this reason, Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) was able to regard apostolic writings on par with the writings of the prophets. Furthermore, this is why recent scholars like Michael J. Kruger can say that the apostolic writings were “canon” immediately after they were written. Thus, New Testament canon development research involves the intrinsic theology of the twenty-seven books just as much as it involves historical events in the early church.
At this point, it is necessary to stop and discuss some of the historical events that influenced the development of the New Testament. The topic of New Testament canon development would be oversimplified by ignoring the disagreements in the early church over the canonicity of certain books. Early Christians did not agree unanimously on the authority of every book found in the New Testament today. A few of the shorter Epistles and the Book of Revelation took longer to be accepted by the church as canonical. But the presence of disagreements did not mean that there was not a common standard or limitation for orthodoxy. The response of the orthodox church towards heresies proves that there was a working standard.
The earliest known list of New Testament books was written by the heretic Marcion in Rome about A.D. 140. But Marcion’s list did not represent the redemptive-historical methodology of the orthodox church. Marcion distinguished between the God of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus Christ. The theology of Marcion led him to reject the entire Old Testament as well as parts of the New Testament that resembled Judaism. Unlike the orthodox church, Marcion did not believe the Old and New Testament spoke of the same redemptive-history. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior God of justice compared to the God of goodness of the messenger Jesus Christ. According to Marcion, the apostle Paul and his companion Luke were the only ones who preserved the true message of Jesus Christ. Marcion edited the writings of Paul and the Gospel of Luke to rid them of any references to the Old Testament. For his unorthodox actions, Marcion was formally excommunicated from the church.
Marcion’s list may be the earliest known list of the New Testament books but he was reacting against a theology that was already in practice by the orthodox church. The fact that Marcion created his own list of New Testament books doesn’t mean that he was the first to elevate the books to the status of scripture. Of course, Marcion attacked more than just the New Testament but rejected the entire Old Testament, which by itself would have led to his excommunication. What influence did Marcion have on the New Testament canon development? Marcion did not present to the orthodox church a new concept but helped accelerate the canon development by contributing to the discussion. The orthodox church may have not had a New Testament canon list but there was still a fundamental idea for canonicity.
Another heresy that influenced the development of the New Testament canon was Montanism. Montanism was an enthusiastic and apocalyptic movement started by Montanus in the second century. After converting to Christianity, Montanus went into a trance and began speaking in tongues. Montanus taught that he was the leader of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Associated with Montanus were two woman who uttered prophetic oracles with him. Montanism taught that the New Jerusalem was arriving soon and that the prophecies spoken by the leaders were to be written down as sacred documents.
Montanism did the opposite of what Marcion did and challenged the orthodox church by adding to the redemptive-history of God handed down to them by the apostles. The orthodox church was faced with the question of whether the message of the redemptive-history of God was complete or ongoing. Montanism presented the orthodox church with a new dilemma but it also led some within the church to doubt the canonicity of books that contained apocalyptic passages. The orthodox church rejected Montanism for not being consistent with the final authority of apostolic writings but, just like Marcion, it contributed to the discussion of canonicity and accelerated the development. Both heresies helped the orthodox church think more critically about canonicity.
The orthodox church did not autonomously judge against heresies or non-canonical books but depended on the “redemptive-history” of God to guide their decisions. The history of the development of New Testament canonicity doesn’t begin at the first instance of heresy or the first church council; God established the framework for canonicity before either. Scripture has internal qualities that make it recognizably canonical. The early church did not accept books based on their usefulness, universal acceptance, or any other outside criteria that could be forced upon the books. For example, the church found some non-canonical books to be more useful than the book of James, Jude, 2 Peter, 3 John, or Philemon. How else could the early church have accepted “under-utilized” books? The only logical conclusion would be that the church did not believe that it had a choice in the matter of canonicity.
Early church documents support the idea that the church was recognizing God’s canonicity, not their own. The “Muratorian Fragment, Irenaeus, Serapion of Antioch speak of ‘receiving,’ ‘recognizing,’ or ‘confessing’ certain books and not ‘selecting’ or ‘choosing’ them.” Furthermore, the church’s dependency on God’s framework can be seen in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Serapion of Antioch, and Irenaeus when they describe how the four Gospels have been handed down to the church. Clearly, the church would not have used this terminology if it believed that it was the final judge of canonicity. The apostles, through the appointment of God through Jesus Christ, were given authority and inspiration that the orthodox church recognized.
The first ecclesiastical councils to officially classify the New Testament canonical books were both held in North Africa; the first in Hippo Regius (A.D. 393) and the second in Carthage (A.D. 397). Members of the council did not impose upon the New Testament inspiration but applied the general practices of the orthodox community mentioned in this research. Early Christianity did not jettison the Old Testament and create its own criteria for canonicity but depended on the redemptive-history of God to determine the direction it should take. The apostolic writings were a continuation of the redemptive-history found in the Old Testament. In the end, New Testament canon development cannot be accredited to a heresy or church council, only to God.
 Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 17-18, 77, 255.
 Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. (Clarendon Press, 1987), 52.
 Ibid., 6.
 Kruger, Michael. The Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 121.
 Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity, 1981), 16-24.; Hill, C.E. “The New Testament Canon: Deconstructio Ad Absurdum?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol 52.1(March 2009), 117.
 Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity, 1981), 16-24.; Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. (Clarendon Press, 1987), 90-94.
 Kruger, Michael. The Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 137.
 Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. (Clarendon Press, 1987), 99.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 106.
 Hill, C.E. “The New Testament Canon: Deconstructio Ad Absurdum?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol 52.1(March 2009), 118.
 Ibid., 118.
 Ibid., 118.
 Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity, 1981), 16-24.