[Part 1], [Part 2], [Part 3], [Part 4], [Part 5], [Part 6], [Part 7], [Part 8], [Part 9], [Appendix]
The Biblical and Patristic Witness to the NT Canon (I)
In the next couple of articles we will be looking at the formation of the NT canon, the methods used to determine canonicity, and the testimony of the early Church demonstrating their awareness of an authoritative list of books functioning as their rule of faith.
To begin with, the word canon, as used in connection with the books making up the Holy Bible, is derived from the Greek word kanoon. Kanoon essentially means rod, ruler, staff, measuring rod etc., and in time it came to refer to a standard or a norm. The Apostle Paul uses the word in this sense when speaking to the Galatians:
"And as for all who walk by this rule (kanooni), peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God." Galatians 6:16 ESV
Some also believe that the Greek word kanoon may be a derivative of the Hebrew word kaneh (reed), a word used in the OT in reference to a measuring rod. (Cf. Ezekiel 40:3; 42:16)
The canon, therefore, refers to those books which determine the faith of true believers, a rule which measures out the extent of faith and morals.
Conservative and informed Christians believe that the Church did not create the canon of Scripture, but that God created the canon. The Church, being guided by the Spirit of Christ, discovered the canon. The canon was created the moment God breathed out his Word and caused it to be written. The duty of the Church was to discover which books God in fact breathed out as a rule to be followed in the area of faith and doctrines.
CRITERIA FOR CANONICITY
The following criteria have been adapted from Norman L. Geislers and William E. Nixs book, The General Introduction to the Bible (Moody Publishers, August 1986; ISBN: 0802429165), pp. 203-204. For a similar list see also Lee Martin McDonalds article, "Identifying Scripture and Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question," in The Canon Debate (Lee Martin McDonald & James A. Sanders eds., Hendrickson Publishers, 2002; ISBN: 1-56563-517-5, hardcover), Chapter 25, pp. 416-439.
These are some of the criteria which the early Fathers used in discovering the NT canon.
Prophets and Apostles were individuals that proclaimed whatever God spoke to them. (Cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Numbers 22:18; Jeremiah 26:2; Amos 3:7-8.)
As such, no one could add or take away any word from any prophetic instruction or book, unless of course they were inspired spokespersons of God who could either add to or ratify previous commands. (Cf. Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 12:32; Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:18-19.)
The people were required to accept all that the Prophet or Apostle brought to them. (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15.)
This is why it was important to demonstrate whether a book came from an inspired spokesperson of God. The people of God couldnt and wouldnt simply accept a book claiming to be prophetic or apostolic in origin:
"Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction." 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3
Hence, it was crucial to show that a book came from the Apostolic period, otherwise it would be rejected from the canon. As one writer puts it:
From early times the churchs most important weapon against gnostics and other "heretics" was its claim to apostolicity, which guaranteed that its oral and written tradition were genuine. "Apostolic succession" represented a claim that the faith received by the apostles from the Lord was passed on by successive leaders in the church. After listing the succession of leaders in the church, Irenaeus explains the implications of apostolic succession:
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the church committed into the hands of Linus the office of episcopate [he then lists twelve successive leaders] ... In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us. And this is the most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
Again he writes: "How should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they handed over the leadership of the churches?" The authoritative New Testament literature reflected the "apostolic deposit." The church upheld the apostolic witness in its sacred literature as a way of grounding its faith in Jesus, represented by the apostles teaching, and insuring that the tradition was not severed from its historical roots and proximity to Jesus, the primary authority of the early church. Scholars differ, of course, on how successful this was.
... In the early church, the concern for apostolicity essentially had to do with the proximity of the apostles to Jesus and their presumed first hand knowledge of him and his ministry. Since Jesus was the ultimate "canon" of the church, in the sense that he was the primary authority figure of the church, the opportunity to glean information from those closer to him was highly valued. This is why Tertullian relegated John and Matthew to higher positions of authority than Mark and Luke. When the apostolic authorship of ancient writings was doubted, typically their canonical status was also questioned.
... If it was believed that an apostle wrote a particular book, that writing was accepted and treated as scripture. There is no doubt that several books of the New Testament were placed in the canon because the majority believed that they were written by apostles or members of the apostolic community. (McDonald, "Identifying Scripture and Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question," The Canon Debate, Chapter 25, pp. 424-425, 426, 427)
The Muratorian Fragment, which we will mention in the next section, provides an example of how this criterion was used in determining the extent of the canon:
... But Hermas wrote "The Shepherd" very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time...
God used miracles as a way of supernaturally authenticating and authorizing a prophet or an apostle. (Cf. John 3:2, 10:37-38, 14:11, 15:24; Acts 2:22; Romans 15:17-19; 1 Corinthians 9:1-2; 2 Corinthians 12:11-13; Hebrews 2:4.)
But one must be careful here. Miracles in and of themselves dont establish canonicity since even the Scriptures warn of false prophets, false Christs, and false apostles performing miracles to deceive people. This leads to the next criterion.
In other words, does the book in question contradict the previously established scriptures, giving a completely different message? The Scriptures state that consistency with the previous revelation is essential in establishing canonicity. (Cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Jeremiah 28:7-9; Matthew 24:23-24; Acts 17:10-11; Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:2-4, 13-15; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 1:7-11.)
Scriptural consistency stems from the immutability of God, i.e. because God cannot change or lie his revelations will never contradict. (Cf. Malachi 3:6; Titus 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 6:17-18; James 1:17.)
False prophecies were also an indication that a person wasnt inspired or that a book wasnt canonical. (Cf. Deuteronomy 18:20-22; Jeremiah 28.)
This functions more as a negative criterion, indicating non-canonicity, rather than a positive criterion. For example, just because a book does not contain false prophecies, or is not inconsistent, doesnt automatically mean that it is canonical.
Conservative Christians, for these reasons, reject the Quran since its core teachings are not consistent with the message of the prophets which came before Muhammad.
Inspired, authoritative scriptures have the power of God to transform, edify and empower the people of God to walk in obedience to the commands of Christ. (Cf. John 15:3, 17:17; Romans 1:16, 10:13-15a, 17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:22-25.)
The true people of God recognize, confirm, and accept the books God inspired through his spokespersons. Note for instance the following examples:
This criterion doesnt imply that the people of God would recognize and accept an inspired writing the moment it was written. Rather, the Holy Spirit would guide the Church to eventually recognize which books contained the voice of her risen Lord and Savior, accepting only those books which were breathed out by God. (Cf. John 10:25-26, 16:13.)
Furthermore, there was always the possibility that others would later reject a book that was initially received as canonical by one particular community. The reason this may occur is because one community may have been eyewitnesses to an Apostle and received directly from him an inspired book, whereas the later generations may have had some doubts over whether this was the case. This would have been a natural reaction since by the time it took for them to receive the book they wouldnt be able to verify whether it was Apostolic in origin seeing that they were not eyewitnesses. They would then have to ascertain whether in fact the book was received early on by the apostolic Churches (Churches established by the Apostles or their immediate followers) and passed on as such by subsequent generation of believers.
Part of the recognition of a book included how extensively it was used throughout the Church as an authoritative text. In the words of the great medieval theologian, Augustine:
Chapter 8. - The Canonical Books.
12. But let us now go back to consider the third step here mentioned, for it is about it that I have set myself to speak and reason as the Lord shall grant me wisdom. The most skillful interpreter of the sacred writings, then, will be he who in the first place has read them all and retained them in his knowledge, if not yet with full understanding, still with such knowledge as reading gives,-those of them, at least, that arc called canonical. For he will read the others with greater safety when built up in the belief of the truth, so that they will not take first possession of a weak mind, nor, cheating it with dangerous falsehoods and delusions, fill it with prejudices adverse to a sound understanding. Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume II; online edition)
Books that were universally accepted, being acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world as coming from the apostolic period, insured their inclusion in the canon. For instance, the four Gospels, the book of Acts, and the thirteen Pauline Epistles were universally accepted from the very beginning. 1 Peter and 1 John were also received and transmitted early on.
The books that were called into question by some (many?) are Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.
Note carefully that all the above books are thoroughly orthodox in doctrine. In fact, books like Hebrews and Revelation have a very high view of the Lord Jesus, affirming his perfect Deity and humanity, his vicarious death, and his bodily resurrection. This shows that the Church didnt simply reject a book solely because it wasnt in agreement with their particular doctrinal positions. They also called into question books which perfectly agreed with their theology. Their concern was to insure that the book came from inspired writers, persons who were commissioned by Christ to speak authoritatively to the Church.
Finally, a book wasnt necessarily required to fulfill all of the criteria to be accepted, nor were all of the criteria necessarily equal in importance. For instance, an author wasnt necessarily expected to perform miracles so long as he was either an eyewitness to Christ, or had the approval of the eyewitnesses, and what he wrote was consistent with the message already established by the prophets or eyewitnesses. The Church, in deciding and discovering the NT canon, did not use all these criteria equally.
Yet the care and honesty in which the Church took to insure the authority and authenticity of the books is noted by Dr. Bruce M. Metzger:
"The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic. But, while the collection of the New Testament into one volume was slow, the belief in a written rule of faith WAS PRIMITIVE AND APOSTOLIC ... In the most basic sense neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to perceive and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church." (Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content [New York: Abingdon Press, 1965], p. 276; bold and capital emphasis ours)
An indication of the Churchs care and honesty can be found in the very names of the canonical Gospels. Many forgers and false witnesses, such as the Gnostic groups, would forge documents in the name of the Apostles of Christ, i.e. Gospel of Thomas, Apocryphon Gospel of John etc. These groups realized that by so doing there was a greater chance that their forgeries would be accepted if they could convince their audiences that the Apostles themselves personally penned these writings. Yet, in the case of the four Gospels found in the NT, two of them are attributed to disciples of the Apostles as opposed to the Apostles themselves, i.e. Mark and Luke. Now if the Church was simply making these names up it would have been more convenient for them to have attributed these Gospels to the Apostles such as Peter and Thomas rather than to their immediate followers. Hence, even the naming of the canonical Gospels is an argument supporting both their authenticity and the Churchs honesty in trying to accurately preserve their own religious history.
We now examine the historical data.
The earliest evidence we have for a list of NT books reckoned as having canonical, or authoritative, status comes from the NT writings themselves. Certain NT authors cite the writings of other NT writers as Scripture:
1 Timothy 5:18 "For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward."
The second quotation is not from the OT, but contains the words of the Lord Jesus found in the Gospels, specifically Luke 10:7, which Paul classifies as Scripture.
2 Peter 3:15-16 "And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction."
Here Peter puts the letters of Paul on the same par with the OT Scripture. The context also shows that Peter was familiar with Pauls first letter to the Thessalonians. Note for instance the following passages:
"Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2
"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." 2 Peter 3:10
It is quite obvious that Peter had read 1 Thessalonians regarding the day of the Lord. In fact, the entire chapter of 2 Peter 3 deals with the day of the Lord, a theme touched on quite often by Paul in his letters.
The next generation of Christians, commonly referred to as the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians after them, viewed and cited many of the NT books as authoritative Scripture. Writing about the development of the NT canon Philip W. Comfort states:
The first notable church fathers - Clement, Ignatius, Papias, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp (all writing before A.D. 150) - used the material of the New Testament as authentic, apostolic SCRIPTURES. In A.D. 95 Clement of Rome wrote to Christians in Corinth using free rendering of material from Matthew and Luke. He seems to have been strongly influenced by Hebrews and was obviously familiar with Romans and Corinthians. Since Clement's letter was addressed by the entire church of Rome to the church of Corinth, it can be assumed that both of these audiences knew these writings. Therefore, these books that later became part of the New Testament canon were circulating among the churches prior to A.D. 90.
Ignatius, when quoting from the Gospels or Paul's epistles, made a distinction between his own writings and the inspired, authoritative apostolic writings. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (ca. 130-140), in a work preserved for us by Eusebius, specifically mentions the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. His use of them for exposition indicates his acceptance of them as canonical. Near the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr, in describing the worship services of the early church, put the apostolic writings on a par with those of the Old Testament prophets. He stated that the divine voice that spoke through the prophets was the same voice that spoke through the apostles of Christ. Justin was also free in his use of "it is written" with his quotations from the New Testament Scriptures.
Polycarp of Smyrna personally knew some of Jesus' eyewitnesses, particularly the apostle John. Near the end of his life, just prior to his martyrdom (155), he wrote his Epistle to the Philippians. In this epistle he used a combined Old Testament and New Testament quotation, introduced by the statement "As it is said in these Scriptures" (Polycarp 12:4, emphasis mine). There are NO CITATIONS from the Old Testament in this epistle, but there are quotations from and allusions to Matthew, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter.
Other writings of the first half of the second century (A.D. 100-150) affirm that the New Testament writings were regarded AS SCRIPTURES. The Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve), perhaps even earlier, makes references to a written Gospel. The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130) has the formula, "it is written" (Barnabas 4:14), with reference to Matthew 22:14. (Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions [Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton Il 2000], pp. 57-58; italic and capital emphasis ours)
Christian Philosopher and Apologist Norman L. Geisler writes:
"Of the four gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. This includes 268 by Justin Martyr (100-165), 1038 by Irenaeus (active in the late second century), 1017 by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 155-ca. 220), 9231 by Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254), 3822 by Tertullian (ca. 160s-ca. 220), 734 by Hippolytus (d. ca. 236) and 325 by Eusebius (ca. 265-ca. 339...) Earlier, Clement of Rome cited Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians in 95 to 97. Ignatius referred to six Pauline Epistles in about 110, and between 110 and 150 Polycarp quoted from all four Gospels, Acts and most of Paul's Epistles. Shepherd of Hermas (115-140) cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, I Corinthians, and other books. Didache (120-150) referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the Gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive." (Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics [Baker Books, Grand Rapids; 1999], pp. 529-530; bold emphasis ours)
Speaking of the criteria for canonicity, Lee Martin McDonald writes:
Several factors indicate when Christians viewed certain writings as sacred scripture. First, of course, is the manner in which the New Testament writings are cited in the various communities of faith. When the citations or allusions recognize the authority of the writing to settle issues of faith, mission, and disciplinary matters, or when they are used in worship in a liturgical setting, we can be assured that they carried a sacred authority not found in other writings of the time. An example is Justin Martyrs description of a worship service around the middle of the second century. He describes how the prophets and the "memoirs of the apostles" were read as the community gathered together for worship on the first day of the week (1 Apol. 67). In 1 Apol. 66, Justin actually identifies these "memoirs" as "gospels." Most scholars agree that the "memoirs of the apostles" are probably just the Synoptic Gospels. He does not specifically say, however, that the Gospels were read in worship services alongside the "Prophets" (a common reference for the Old Testament scriptures in the churches of his day), but rather that they were sometimes read instead of the Prophets! He writes that "on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits." This, of course, speaks of the stature that these writings had attained by that time. This may also refer to a longstanding practice in the church, namely, that of giving special attention to the "teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). (McDonald, The Canon Debate, p. 420; bold emphasis ours)
This provides strong proof that the first and second generations of Christians accepted many of the NT books as inspired Scripture.
With that said, we proceed to quote directly from the Fathers themselves. All quotes from the Fathers can be accessed online at www.ccel.org/fathers2/.
We begin with Apostolic Father Clement of Rome (c. 96 AD.). Many believe that this Clement is the same individual mentioned by Paul:
"Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." Philippians 4:3
Clement wrote a letter to the Corinthians where he quotes Paul and says:
Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under THE INSPIRATION OF THE SPIRIT, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter XLVII (Early Church Fathers Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I; online source)
Clement also wrote:
Let us therefore, brethren, be of humble mind, laying aside all haughtiness, and pride, and foolishness, and angry feelings; and let us act according TO THAT WHICH IS WRITTEN (FOR THE HOLY SPIRIT SAITH, "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, neither let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in the Lord, in diligently seeking Him, and doing judgment and righteousness"), being especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spake, teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus He spoke: "Be ye merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you ; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure ye mete, with the same it shall be measured to you." By this precept and by these rules let us establish ourselves, that we walk with all humility in obedience to His holy words. For the holy word saith, "On whom shall I look, but on him that is meek and peaceable, and that trembleth at My words?" (Ibid., Chapter XIII)
Clements citation from the Lord Jesus is a mixture of Matthew 6:12-15, 7:2 and Luke 6: 36-38. Christian Apologist and philosopher Glenn T. Miller highlights why Clements quote is so significant:
Notice carefully the parenthesis in the first sentence. Let's remove the parenthetical material and examine the sentence structure:
"Let us, therefore, be humble-minded, brethren, putting aside all arrogance and conceit and foolishness and wrath, and let us do that which is written (...), especially remembering the words of the Lord Jesus which he spoke" [Loeb]
Notice several thing about this:
1. the immediate antecedent of "especially remembering" is "that which is written"!
2. the "written" things are imperatives--thing which we are to do (as opposed to the previous chapter, in which the 'written things' were a historical example given, without an imperative to follow). This argues that the "written" refers to the subsequent list of imperatives from Jesus.
3. That Jesus is said to be "speaking" is not argument against this, because the parenthetical clause ("for the Holy Spirit says,") introduces OT written Scripture with the similar "saith" as well. The "spoken" aspect could very easily be understood as an attempt at forcefulness, or even simply as stylistic variation. In fact, when Scripture is mentioned at the end of this passage--in citation from Isaiah--it uses a definite 'speaking' word (from the verb phemi).
4. The word "especially" (malista, superlative of the adverb mala) is located BETWEEN the verbs written and remembering (not AFTER 'remembering'), indicating that something (words of Jesus) is being selected from out of the preceding superset ("that which is written")--NOT in addition to. Notice that it does not say "that which is written, and also remembering the words of Jesus"; this would have required some copulative like "and" (kai) in the passage, but there is none.
5. That the written refers forward to the words of Jesus is also plain from the very subject in the introduction. Clement begins the passage with an injunction to "be humble-minded" which is the core content of the words of Jesus later in the passage.
6. Attempts to make 'written' refer to the parenthetical unit (rendering it non-parenthetical) flounder on the grammar surrounding malista. Richardson renders the post-parenthetical unit "Especially let us recall", but malista cannot introduce an independent clause without there being an 'independent' verb (as opposed to the participle "remembering", which is a modifier of "let us do that which is written"). [1 Clement 43.6 shows how malista can be so used, when followed by a finite verb form.]
7. The use of the word 'remembering' does not count against written material either, since, as we have noticed earlier, it was customary to 'remember' the written words of the OT scrolls--instead of looking them up. Thus Clement, who obviously cited the OT often from memory, might be alluding to this practice of remembering the written material in this case as well.
What this nets out to is that Clement is explicitly claiming that the words/teachings of Jesus that he is about to give later in the passage is from a written source! [We will come back later to notice that this written source, containing synoptic material, is at the same 'authority level' as is OT scripture.]
So, in this first of two passages in which the words of Jesus are referred to, we have both textual data (i.e., some word forms clearly from synoptic material) and literary data (i.e., the explicit statement that these words are written) to support the position that Clement was familiar with the Synoptics in a written form. (Source: http://christian-thinktank.com/dumbdad2.html)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107-112 AD.) was a disciple of the Apostles such as John. On his way to being martyred in Rome he wrote seven Epistles to various Churches. This is what he had to say about the authority of the Apostles Peter and Paul:
I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chapter IV (Early Church Fathers Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I); online source)
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (69-155/156), was another disciple of the Apostles. He wrote this about Pauls writings:
These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because ye have invited me to do so. For NEITHER I, NOR ANY OTHER SUCH ONE, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, "is the mother of us all." For if any one be inwardly possessed of these graces, he hath fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that hath love is far from all sin. (The Apostolic Fathers, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, Chapter III (Early Church Fathers Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I); online source)
The next citations are from the second century Church Fathers, commonly called the Apologists. Our quotations are taken from David T. King and William Webster's three-volume defense of the Protestant Reformation principle sola scriptura titled Holy ScripturesThe Ground and Pillar of our Faith, published by Christian Resources - 1505 NW 4th Avenue - BattleGround, WA 98604. These books can also be ordered online. All italic and capital emphasis is ours, unless noted otherwise.
Webster begins Chapter 1 of Volume II by noting:
It is in the mid-second century in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian that we encounter the first clear articulation of the concept of tradition. Prior to this, we find little use of the word by the earliest fathers, known as the Apostolic Fathers, and the apologists such as Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch and Athenagoras. Rather, we find a constant appeal to the Old and New Testaments as authoritative sources of doctrine. These fathers held a very high view of the authority of the Scriptures because they believed THEM to be inspired by God. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome wrote that the Scriptures are the oracles of God. He made reference again and again to the authority of Scripture with the prefix, it is written, and quotes BOTH the Old and NEW Testaments as inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the same Epistle, he quotes the New Testament book of Hebrews:
FOR IT IS THUS WRITTEN, Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.
Polycarp quoted the writings of Paul, calling them Scripture and including them under the general title of sacred Scriptures..." (Holy Scripture, Volume II, A Historical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura, p. 21)
We now turn our attention to the Apologists and their quotes.
1. Justin Martyr (wrote after 151 AD.)
For I have showed already that Christ is called both Jacob and Israel; and I have proved that it is not in the blessing of Joseph and Judah alone that what relates to Him was proclaimed mysteriously, but also in the Gospel IT IS WRITTEN that He said: All things are delivered unto me by My Father; and, No man knoweth the Father but the Son; nor the Son but the Father and they to whom the Son will reveal Him. Accordingly He revealed to us all that we have perceived by His grace OUT OF THE SCRIPTURES, so that we know Him to be the first-begotten of God, AND TO BE BEFORE ALL CREATURES; likewise to be the Son of the patriarchs, since He assumed flesh by the Virgin of their family, and submitted to become a man without comeliness, dishonoured, and subject to suffering. Hence, also among His words He said, when He was discoursing about His future sufferings: The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the Pharisees and Scribes, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. ANF, Volume 1, Dialogue of Justin, Chapter 100. (Ibid., pp. 13, 15-16)
Note that Justin Martyr quotes from the Gospels and calls them Scriptures.
Another interesting feature about Martyrs view of the writings of the Apostles is his statement that Christians would read them in place of the OT writings in their worship, whereby implying the Churchs view that these documents were on par with the OT. Writer Everett Ferguson says:
... Justin mentions the "Memoirs of the Apostles," a title his pagan readers would have understood from works like the Memoirs of Socrates. He testifies that Christians call them "gospels" (1 Apol. 66.3) and read them in their Sunday assemblies on a par with the Old Testament (1 Apol. 67.3). Many think these were only the Synoptic Gospels and profess to find no evidence that Justin knew the Fourth Gospel, but this reflects a curious scholarly blindness. If we may press the exact words of Justin, "the memoirs, which I say were composed by his apostles [plural] and their followers [plural]" (Dial. 103.8), he knew at least two gospels by apostles and two by their associates. Quotations drawn from Matthew and Luke are frequent; there is a quotation from Mark 3:16-17 ascribed to the "Memoirs of Peter" (Dial. 106.3). Moreover, one passage may put John among he Memoirs: "For I have already proved that he was the only begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner as Word and Power by him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the Memoirs" (Dial. 105.1). The virgin birth comes from Matthew and Luke, but the language of "only begotten" (monogenes) and designation as "Word" are found only in John. (Ferguson, The Canon Debate, "Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon," pp. 302-303; underline emphasis ours)
Earlier we had cited the following quote from McDonald, which bears repeating:
Several factors indicate when Christians viewed certain writings as sacred scripture. First, of course, is the manner in which the New Testament writings are cited in the various communities of faith. When the citations or allusions recognize the authority of the writing to settle issues of faith, mission, and disciplinary matters, or when they are used in worship in a liturgical setting, we can be assured that they carried a sacred authority not found in other writings of the time. An example is Justin Martys description of a worship service around the middle of the second century. He describes how the prophets and the "memoirs of the apostles" were read as the community gathered together for worship on the first day of the week (1 Apol. 67). In 1 Apol. 66, Justin actually identifies these "memoirs" as "gospels." Most scholars agree that the "memoirs of the apostles" are probably just the Synoptic Gospels. He does not specifically say, however, that the Gospels were read in worship services alongside the "Prophets" (a common reference for the Old Testament scriptures in the churches of his day), but that they were sometimes read instead of the Prophets! He writes that "on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits." This, of course, speaks of the stature that these writings had attained by that time. This may also refer to a longstanding practice in the church, namely, that of giving special attention to the "teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). (McDonald, The Canon Debate, p. 420; underline emphasis ours)
2. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD.)
We have learned from none others the plan of salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us IN THE SCRIPTURES, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge, as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually POSSESS the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down TO US IN WRITING what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book THE GOSPEL preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3.1.1. (Ibid., p. 17)
Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the DICTATED UTTERANCES of the apostles, and the ministration of the law - all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [this works] to the natures and tendencies of the material dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father - are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things. But that I may not be thought to avoid the series of proofs which may be derived from the Scriptures of the Lord (since, indeed, these Scriptures do much more evidently and clearly proclaim this very point), I shall, for the benefit of those at least who do not bring a depraved mind to bear upon them, devote a special book to the Scriptures referred to, which shall fairly follow them out [and explain them], and I shall plainly set forth from these divine Scriptures proofs to [satisfy] all the lovers of truth. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 2.35.4 (Ibid., p. 21)
Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case], to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?... Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, AND IS PERMANENT AMONG US, let us revert to THE SCRIPTURAL PROOF FURNISHED BY THOSE APOSTLES WHO DID ALSO WRITE THE GOSPEL, in which they RECORDED the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus is the truth, and that no lie is in Him. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3.4.1; 3.5.1. (Ibid.)
Such, then, are the first principles of the Gospel; that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law, - [principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him. So firm is the ground upon which THESE GOSPELS rest, THAT THE VERY HERETICS THEMSELVES BEAR WITNESS TO THEM, and, STARTING FROM THESE [DOCUMENTS], each one of them endeavors to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew's Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel of Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book. Since, then, OUR OPPONENTS DO BEAR TESTIMONY TO US, and make use OF THESE [DOCUMENTS], our proof derived from them IS FIRM AND TRUE. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3.11.7. (Ibid., pp. 21-22)
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel, and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by ONE SPIRIT. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3.11.8. (Ibid., p. 22)
But those who are from Valentinus, being, on the other hand, altogether reckless, while they put forth their own compositions, boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing the Gospel of Truth, though it agrees nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy. For if what they have is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us FROM THE APOSTLES, any who please may learn, as is shown from THE SCRIPTURES themselves, that that which has been handed down FROM THE APOSTLES can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth. But that these Gospels are alone true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminution of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such [arguments]. For, since God made all things in due proportion and adaptation, it was fit also that the outward aspect of the Gospel should be well arranged and harmonized. The opinion of those men, therefore, who handed the Gospel down to us, having been investigated, from their very fountainheads, let us proceed also to the remaining apostles, and inquire into their doctrine with regard to God; then, in due course we shall listen TO THE VERY WORDS OF THE LORD. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3.11.9. (Ibid., pp. 22-23)
But that ALL HIS EPISTLES are consonant to these declarations, I shall, when expounding the APOSTLE, show from THE EPISTLES themselves, in the right place. But while I bring out by these proofs the TRUTHS OF SCRIPTURE, and set forth briefly and compendiously things which are stated in various ways, do thou also attend to them with patience, and not deem them prolix; taking this into account, that proofs [of the things which are] contained in THE SCRIPTURES cannot be shown except from THE SCRIPTURES themselves. ANF, Volume 1, Against Heresies 3:12:9 (Ibid., p. 23)
3. Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD.)
One Lord God does she [i.e. the Church] acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus (born) of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks her faith. ANF, Volume III, The Prescription Against Heresies, Chapter 36. (Ibid., pp. 32, 34)
Tertullian is clearly aware of a set of writings from the evangelists and Apostles which are combined with the Old Testament books.
The foregoing citations demonstrate that many of the books which eventually became part of the NT canon were already considered inspired revelation within the first two generations of Christians. We find the Church recognizing and accepting as authoritative revelation the four Gospels, the book of Acts, and all of the Pauline Epistles by the latter part of the first century (and the beginning of the second century). This means that roughly 18 out of the 27 books were already received and passed on as inspired and authoritative scriptures without any disputes whatsoever.
These 18 books form the basis of conservative, orthodox Christian beliefs and establish the following doctrines:
It is rather evident that the books that the Church received without objection are sufficient to establish that the faith that the Lord Jesus and his followers passed on is that which conservative believers have affirmed throughout the centuries.
We now move on to our next section.
Responses to Islamic Awareness
Responses to Answering Christianity
Articles by Sam Shamoun
Answering Islam Home Page