Second-Century Heresy Did Not Force the Church into Early Canonization -- By: James B. Joseph

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 18:3 (Summer 2001)
Article: Second-Century Heresy Did Not Force the Church into Early Canonization
Author: James B. Joseph

Second-Century Heresy Did Not Force the
Church into Early Canonization

James B. Joseph, Ph.D.

Student in Biblical Studies (New Testament)
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587


An unsettled issue that still plagues scholars today is whether or not Marcion and his canon substantially effected the formation of the Canon of Scripture that was eventually ratified by the western church through the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393)1 and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419).2 Recently, in a cover story for the “Science and Ideas” section of U.S. News and World Report, Jeffery Sheler, writing on the formation of the early church, stated that the controversy involving Marcion had a profound impact on the formation of the New Testament.3 As Sheler writes to a popular audience and reflects the majority view of scholars, he is promoting an idea that first and second-century evidence does not support. Marcionism and other second-century heresies did not force the early church to produce its own set of authoritative writings in self-defense. By early to mid-second century, many churches already had their own collections of inspired writings, writings that had canonical authority and were similar to each other. These collections were regarded as authoritative and distinct from all other religious writings.

Our earliest evidence of a canonical list that was later collectively agreed upon by the West comes from a list of twenty-seven authoritative books that comprised a New Testament listed by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, as part of his A.D. 367 Easter letter. Later, under Augustine’s guidance, the West collectively agreed on the same books of the New Testament under Augustine’s guidance at the councils of Hippo in A.D. 393 and Carthage in A.D. 397 and 419.4 This canon has been used by most of Christianity up to the present time with the exception of the Revelation of John in the East. An important consideration regarding this issue is that there did not appear to be an urgency for leaders of the various areas to come to a collective agreement on a definitive canon during or shortly after Marcion proclaimed his false teachings in the second century.5 In fact, after hearing Marcion’s view of God and Scripture at a special hearing before the church leaders at Rome, they immediately excommunicated Marcion from the church.6 If Marcion and other heretics had been such an imminent<...

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