10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #7: “Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century.”

orthodoxy and heresy

This is the seventh installment of a blog series announced here.

Ever since Walter Bauer published his now famous Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity there has been a widespread obsession amongst modern scholars with the theme of early Christian diversity.  Study after study has explored how different, contradictory, and divergent early Christian beliefs were.  And it is on this basis that the terms “heresy” and “orthodoxy” are declared to be unintelligible prior to the fourth century.  After all, we are told, there was no Christianity (as we know it) prior to this time period, but only a variety of different Christianities (plural) all claiming they are the true and original version.   Thus, on what basis could the earliest followers of Jesus have ever adjudicated such varied claims?  How could they ever have known who was right and who was wrong?  It wasn’t until the fourth century, when a particular version of Christianity “won” the theological wars and declared their books were declared to be canonical, that we really can begin to speak of heresy and orthodoxy in a meaningful way.

But is it really the case that pre-fourth century Christians had no basis or standard by which they could distinguish heresy from orthodoxy?  Were they really wandering around blind without a reliable guide?  There are good reasons to doubt these claims.  On the contrary, we shall argue here that early Christians would have had three solid guideposts as they navigated the doctrinal complexities of their faith:

a. The Old Testament.   Routinely overlooked by those in the Bauer camp—ironically in a Marcionite fashion—is the decisive role played by the Old Testament amongst the earliest Christians. M.F. Wiles once declared, “There was never a time when the Church was without written Scriptures.  From the beginning she had the Old Testament and it was for her the oracles of God.”[1]   Aside from the numerous examples of Old Testament usage within the New Testament itself, quotations from the Old Testament are abundant within the writings of the apostolic fathers and other early Christian texts. Thus, right from the outset, certain “versions” of Christianity would have been ruled as out of bounds.  For example, any quasi-Gnostic version of the faith which suggested the God of the Old Testament was not the true God but a “demiurge”—as in the case of the heretic Marcion—would have been deemed unorthodox on the basis of these Old Testament canonical books alone.  As Ben Witherington has observed, “Gnosticism was a non-starter from the outset because it rejected the very book the earliest Christians recognized as authoritative—the Old Testament.”[2] So, the claim that early Christians had no Scripture on which to base their declarations that some group was heretical and another orthodox is simply mistaken.   The Old Testament books would have provided that initial doctrinal foundation.

b. “Core” New Testament Books.   Although all New Testament books are orthodox, not all of them needed to have this expressly established prior to their recognition by the early church (or at least portions thereof).  As we discussed in a prior blog post, some New Testament books, especially Paul’s major epistles and the four gospels, would have been recognized as authoritative from a very early time period. They were received not so much because they measured up to some standard of orthodoxy but primarily on the basis of their obvious apostolic origins—these were the books that were “handed down” from the apostles. Gamble notes, “The letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels…had been valued so long and so widely that their orthodoxy could only be taken for granted: it would have been nonsensical for the church to have inquired, for example, into the orthodoxy of Paul!”[3]   Thus, there appears to have been a collection of core New Testament writings that would have functioned as a norm for apostolic doctrine at quite an early point.   This explains why the vast majority of later “disagreements” about the boundaries of the New Testament canon appear to be focused narrowly on only a handful of books; apparently the core of the New Testament was intact from a very early time period.

c. The “rule of faith.”  The authoritative apostolic tradition in the first century came to be summarized and known by a number of names such as the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), or “the canon of truth”).  This summary was used as a key weapon in the early church’s battle against heresy by church fathers such as Dionysius of Corinth, Hipploytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.  The rule of faith was a particularly effective weapon because it was oral (in a mostly illiterate world), it was relatively brief (and therefore easily employed), and it was widespread (and thus available to a broad range of churches). The rule of faith did not contain new teachings or doctrines that were not found in the Scriptures, nor was it unduly separated from the Scriptures as if they were two entirely independent sources for orthodox teaching.  Instead, it was understood to be “a summary of Scripture’s own story line”[4] or “the principle and logic of Scripture itself.”[5]  Or, as Irenaeus put it, the rule is “the order and the connection of the Scriptures.”[6]

In sum, we can agree that the earliest Christians did not have a completed New Testament canon from the start.  It took time for this to fully develop.  However, this does not mean that early Christians were drifting aimlessly in the theological ocean of the first few centuries.  They had the Old Testament, the earliest “core” of the New Testament, and the rule of faith to guide them.

[1] M.F. Wiles, “Origen as Biblical Scholar,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: From the Beginnings to Jerome (ed. P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 454.

[2] Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magadelene, and Da Vinci (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 115.

[3]  Gamble, The New Testament Canon, 70.

[4] Vanhoozer, The Drama Of Doctrine, 206.

[5] John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 120.

[6] Haer 1.8.1.


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #7: “Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century.” — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: Michael Kruger on the basis of distinguishing heresy from orthodoxy in the early church | Secundum Scripturas

  2. Dear Mike,

    I would add that Jude already claimed that “faith once delivered to the saints” was already known even before the completion of the NT Canon in the 1st Century AD. Also Paul in Galatians 1:6-10 is quite vehement in his denunciation of those who taught a different gospel than that he taught.

  3. Pingback: Who Decided Which Books Were Going to Be in the Bible? | CC Philly - Young Adults Fellowship

  4. Pingback: 10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #7: “Christians Had No … | Christian Dailys

  5. Pingback: What I Read Online – 07/14/2012 (p.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  6. When commenting on some bloggs, usually faith v reason. the New Testament is targeted as unverifiable & then the Old for its lack of relevance…As these things digest mentally I cant help but think about evolution & the big bang which has many unanswered questions…yet the accusation of sleight of hand comes quite quickly when faith arguments are presented…

    Its not that I am not happy to quote & trust Scripture, but I am trying to gain a better understanding of how all these things interact.

    Another helpful article…

  7. Dear Dean,

    Frequently, if not always, there is the idea behind “faith” that it is “blind faith.” Now, think about it. Faith cannot be blind. Faith requires not only an object, but also knowledge. In fact, faith and knowledge are both intuitive, intellectual and experiential.

    One of the problems with the discussion at hand is the idea that “the victor wrote the history.” In one sense that is true, but on the other hand it is false. We know from the NT alone that there were plenty of problems and controversies that occurred that did not fit the Baur model.

    For example:
    A. NT.
    1. Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council.
    2. Acts 15 and the feud between Barnabas and Paul regarding Mark.
    3. The Corinthian “super-apostles” and Paul.
    4. Judaizers in Galatians 2 & 3.
    5. Early Gnosticism is Colossians 1-2.
    6. The use of the OT in the debates and arguments regarding the Christ and other issues with the Jews both in the Gospels and in the Epistles. In fact, all debates were settled by the use of the Tanakh.
    7. II Timothy 3:16-17.

    B. Second-Third Century.
    1. The various church fathers who quoted from the OT and the NT to settle the issues regarding Heresy, etc.
    2. Tertullian, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Papias, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome,to name a few, were the key figures against heresy.
    3. The one person that is a problem is Tertullian. He had already figured out the Latin equivalent to the HOMOOUSIAS debate a century before, but due to his joining the Montanist Controversy (a reaction against Pastoral authority not what it claimed to be, a revival of the gifts of the Spirit; but that is another issue entirely to this discussion), he fell out of favor. Also is the fact that Tertullian’s writings are all in Latin NOT Greek.

    Finally, the major problem in the current debate is that the antagonists have a late dating of the NT, a low view of Christology developing so soon after the Ascension of Christ and UNBELIEF.

  8. Regarding “Core” NT books, was Peter’s books considered core? If not, do
    we know why not?

    • Thanks, Corey. The historical evidence indicates that 1 Peter was part of the core and received from an early time. 2 Peter, of course, is a different story and struggled to be accepted. Eventually, however, 2 Peter was accepted and received as canonical. For more on its journey, see my article in JETS 1999.

  9. Thanks for sharing Bryant. It’s small steps for me, hopefully it will come together & take shape in my understanding.I am probably not seeking the depth of insight of some but a general overview to get a better idea.

    I have turned up late on the scene & am grateful that these kinds of discussions & input is available. Its not what I had in mind when considering…”growing in knowledge & truth” I was convinced of the Bibles/Gospels power in my life…But for reasons I cant explain I have been drawn in to the areas of faith v reason…I really enjoyed Francis Schaeffer (How should we live then)I studied visual art as a mature age student some years back,it was making & observing art though, not studying its history that had my inspiration

    Some bloggers tend to deliberately bamboozle arguments with technicalities, & the formation of the canon(which is apparently a book)comes up from time to time…As if things arent difficult/bamboozling enough….

    As much as the church has its difficulties its a great place to recieve encouragement also…

    All in Gods time…Thanks again…

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