What We Can Learn from Early NT Canonization

Beginning this journey into understanding my faith better, I decided it’d probably be a good idea for me to understand church history a little better. For as much as I know about systematic theology today, I’m admittedly blind toward the history about how those doctrinal topics were established.

A few Google clicks away, and I come across Church History in Plain Language by Dr. Bruce Shelley. Thankfully, there’s an audiobook version for my outdoor running self, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to it over these past few weeks. I’m nowhere near done, but if I had to write a review for it today, I’d say you should probably get it if you’re interested in the topic in general. Dr. Shelley really does a pretty solid job at explaining the topic in plain language. (Just like the title suggests! It’s magic!)

Anyway, I recently listened to the chapter on New Testament canonization, and it left me with a LOT of thoughts. Let me quickly summarize what Dr. Shelley had to say about it, and forgive me if I don’t get it 100% right…

In the second century, there was a guy named Marcion of Sinope who established some Gnostic beliefs that eventually became known as Marcionism.

(Quick note for those curious, Christian gnosticism is essentially this concept that Jesus and other key figures revealed “hidden knowledge” to select, small groups of folks, so the Church at large generally deems these Gnostic beliefs to be heretical.)

The core belief in Marcionism is that Jesus was/is the Savior sent by God, but the “god” of the Old Testament was NOT the same God that sent Jesus but rather a jerkish, wrathful demigod. Surrounding this belief, Marcion set out to create his own biblical canon, and you can guess that this probably didn’t sit well with the general “Catholic church”. (Catholic church being in quotes since the group wasn’t formalized yet at this point.)

Stepping back for just a second, Marcion created his own version of a canon because he believed there needed to be an inspired, authoritative source to ground their beliefs on. Marcion, of course, wasn’t the only person to believe this. Other influencers at the time, including Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus, all felt it important to have an authoritative source, and that probably stems from the fact that the Jews find authority even to this day within the Torah. And you might know the Torah as the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

As we already touched on, Marcion’s canon didn’t sit well with the Catholic church. Because the fourth century church felt the need to address Marcion’s version of an authoritative source (due to his wacky beliefs), the canonization of the New Testament was sort of expedited to put down Marcionism. (Side note: Marcion doesn’t account for 100% why the church sought canonization, but he does account for a sizable piece.) The NT canon has since undergone some changes over time, but the bulk of the canon started here with folks like Marcion.

If this general concept sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one that remains to this day. Go pick up almost any Bible today, and you’ll almost assuredly find it contains all the same sorts of books, regardless of translation.

I bring this up because of how biblical canonization relates to the doctrine of inerrancy and inspiration. In a big nutshell, these doctrines basically state that the Bible was given to us by God, so we shouldn’t question / correct it. Period.

These doctrinal statements go much higher than just canonization, but for around the topic of NT canonization… understanding the actual history makes inspiration and inerrancy seem kinda goofy. (Goofy is a theological term, btw.) As much as the church will tell you they were “inspired by God” to form the New Testament the way it is formed, they’re leaving out the big fact that it was partly due to shutting down Marcion and his Marcionite canon.

That doesn’t seem very “inspired” to me.

Okay, I know what you might be thinking now. “Does this mean you don’t believe in the authority of Scripture?” No, nor do I believe the New Testament is poorly organized in the slightest. I like the Bible, and “inspired” or not, I don’t see any reason to toss it out.

What I do think, however, is that if we understand history a little better, we might understand things aren’t as sacred as they might seem. And if we hold things less sacred, we might be open to talking about them more.

What do I mean by that? I can’t help but wonder in very, very select times if our beliefs need to better adjust over time. There was a time when women were thought lesser in the church. There was a time when slavery was A-OK in society.

The question for me then is, are there issues today where we need to “evolve” our beliefs?

Maybe, and understand that I say that maybe with the UTMOST cautiousness in the world. I am NOT interested in tossing out all beliefs tomorrow. What I am interested in doing, however, is opening that dialogue to discuss the hard issues the church as a whole doesn’t like to talk about due to “sacredness” because of “inspiration”.

For now, I hope this post opens your mind to think differently about your faith, and know that this is sort of a “safe space” to do that thinking. I am not at all on the side of destroying the faith, and if anything, this blog is all about exploring the faith to promote the faith. Personally, I find this thinking to be more comforting because it’s further grounded in reality.

Let’s end it here for now. We’ve unpacked a lot today. I’m looking forward to learning more through Dr. Shelley’s book and uncovering more gold nuggets of knowledge while I sweat my tail off running in this hot, Midwestern summer weather!

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David Hundley

David Hundley

Principal machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Org Leadership, PMP, ChFC, CSM