Was the Early Church Concerned about the Canon and What Role Did Marcion Play?

My reading lately has been focused on the issue of the canon. One of the books I’ve been rereading is Evangelicals and Tradition by D.H. Williams. I was reminded of two important observations Williams makes. 1) The early church was not that concerned with a set canon and, 2) Marcion was not that influential in the church’s interest in the canon. Here’s how Williams describes it:

“What is remarkable about the historic emphasis on the canon of the Bible is that terminology of ‘canon’ or ‘rule’ is virtually never used for sacred books until the later fourth century, and even then there is only sparse mention. The fact that there was very little interest on the part of the patristic church to formulate a canonical list of books testifies to its lack of importance. The comment by F. F. Bruce that the earliest Christians did not trouble themselves about the criteria of canonicity of texts rings true. Marcion’s insistence that only the Pauline Epistles and an expurgated version of Luke’s Gospel presented true Christianity is easily overinterpreted to mean that he was propounding a scriptural canon and thereby instigated the early church to do likewise. Despite the prevalent theory that Marcion prompted, at least indirectly, the growth of the biblical canon, we know of no second- or third-century writer who responded to Marcion’s considerable theological challenge with a fixed canon of books.

In the case of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ephrem of Nisibis, and the many others who responded in writing, the Marcionite position was attacked through highlighting the canon of truth or the rule of faith. While it is true that the majority of churches were using the four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and some other epistles as Scripture by the early second century and found Marcion’s ‘Bible’ unacceptable, there was nothing like a unity about the extent or parameters of the biblical books. Opposition to Marion, [sic] therefore, could not have been in the form of an alternate, ‘orthodox’ canon of texts.

The same generally applies to the patristic approach to Gnosticism. Serapion of Antioch complained that the gospel of Peter was being read (i.e., as Scripture) in the worship services of some churches. The problem was that the text carries manifestly docetic ideas about Christ, ideas that were unacceptable for an orthodox view of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. Serapion declared that the ultimate rejection of the heretical gospel was not because it was missing from the lists of scriptural books but because it violated the traditional faith of the (Antiochene) church. Down the coast in Alexandria, a Christian thinker named Clement (c. 220) faulted the Gnostics with an inability to understand the Bible because they failed to understand the tradition. In his words, the Gnostics needed to explain Scripture according to the ‘canon of truth’ (or the ‘ecclesiastical rule’), which entailed a proper understanding of the harmony of the Old and New Testaments.” (80-81)

The F.F. Bruce quote is from his book Canon of Scripture (IVP) page 255.

Evangelicals and Tradition


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Was the Early Church Concerned about the Canon and What Role Did Marcion Play?

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    I would highly recommend that Dr. Michael J. Kruger’s books on the Canon be read, ***The Question of Canon*** and ***Canon Revisited.****

    Suffice it to say that Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 7 regarding the authority of Jesus and his own authority is that they were equal NOT one of lower authority (Paul’s) and higher authority (Jesus); cf also II Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16.

    This is what would be considered “intrinsic” model of canon (Kruger, The Question of Canon) in contrast to the “external” or “ecclesiastical” model of canon (4th Century AD) or “functional” model of canon (2nd Century AD).

    The early church councils only affirmed what was already recognized what was considered canonical in the churches, but not formally declared until “The Council of Trent” (ca. 1550). That Council did it to counter the attacks on the Apocrypha, for which the Roman Catholic Church had based some of its doctrines, by the Reformers.

    There is more that could be said, but Kruger’s 2 books and the discussion on his Blog: http://www.michaeljkruger.com (Canon Fodder) will clearly deal with the question.

    BTW, Marcion clearly was anti-semitic, some what gnostic regarding the God of the OT and the God of NT as being different and dualistic. Interesting that some of his teaching (heresy) is still around today.

    En Xristwi,

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III


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