The Early Heresies

by Samuel Waldron

Three early heresies assisted the church in putting together its official understanding and list of the canonical books. Repeatedly in church history God has over-ruled heresy for the purpose of making clear important doctrinal matters for his church. This is especially true with regard to the decisive doctrine of the canon. The church's native canonical instinct, its faith that God had revealed Himself with authority through certain specific men and their writings, attained doctrinal clarity in response to Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism. Gnosticism especially in its earlier forms tended to claim a direct revelation from Christ which bypassed or minimized the apostles. In response the church became aware of the importance of stressing the apostolic and written character of its authority. The fact of the canon became clear through Gnosticism. Marcionism, a later and modified form of Gnosticism, accepted parts of the New Testament, but rejected the Old Testament and any parts too clearly influenced by it. Marcionism made the church aware of the danger of diminishing the canon. The need to maintain the full extent of the canon became clear through Marcionism. Montanism claimed prophetic revelations in the late second century. In response the church thought about on the limits of the biblical canon. The closing or limitation of the canon became clear through Montanism.

Richardson is simply giving a statement which almost all church historians agree about when he remarks on this subject: "The dominant interest of the second century Church was the ordering of its life and teaching. To preserve the apostolic witness against Gnostic perversions and Montanist extravagances, the episcopate, the canon, and the creed were developed." (1) Our interest is in the way in which these heresies forced the church make clear and carefully state its canon. We begin with Gnosticism.

A. Gnosticism

1. Historical Origins

Gnosticism, it is now commonly granted, was a professedly Christian manifestation of an intellectual movement already flowing through the Hellenistic world when the Messiah was born. Richardson remarks:

Gnosticism is older than Christianity. It represents the fusion [combining--SW] of Oriental and Greek ideas into various elaborate [complicated--SW] systems whose aim is to acquire "gnosis" or knowledge of the divine. Ancient mythological material is blended with philosophic and religious ideas. Sometimes the dominating interest is the philosophic one--the problem of the one and the many. At other times the religious element is primary, and salvation is sought from the insecurity and evil of the natural world. Popular magical notions also enter in; and the vast movement of Gnosis had manifold forms throughout the Hellenistic world. Gnosis is knowledge based on revelation, but it is not intellectual knowledge. It is saving knowledge, enabling the soul to escape the flux and change of life and to find the assurance of immortality. By the true gnosis the soul is freed from the evil prison house of the body into which it has fallen, and empowered to ascend to its original home in the spiritual world. (2)

Though it preceded Christianity, it soon came into contact with and infected it. In Acts 8 the New Testament records the professed conversion, wicked ambition, and final rejection of Simon Magus. Harold O. J. Brown comments:

Gnostic motifs were already felt in Christian circles in the Age of the Apostles. Early church tradition attributes the rise of Gnosticism to Simon Magus, briefly mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. ... Later traditions tell us that he went to Rome, where he competed with the Apostle Peter and founded a gnostic sect. (3)

We also clearly meet the reply to Gnostic tendencies in the Epistles and perhaps also the Gospel of John. We will turn to those writings during the course of our discussion of Christian Gnosticism. Early tradition records a long list of Gnostic teachers who clothed themselves in the robes of Christianity. We know of Cerinthus who lived in Ephesus at the same time as the Apostle John. Also worthy of mention are Saturninus, Basilides, Valentinus, and, of course, Marcion.

2. Typical Features

Brown in summarizing the features of the system of Saturninus (also known as Saturnilus) provides us with a helpful summary of the typical features of most Gnostic systems:

In the vision of reality developed by Saturnilus, three things stand out: (1) the notion of a descending chain of intermediate, more or less corruptible spiritual powers between the unknowable Father and the world; these are called "aeons" from a Greek word usually translated "ages," but here having the special meaning of godlike spiritual entity. The God of the Jews and his angels are degenerate, base [bad--SW] aeons, Christ a good one. (2) Superimposed [placed against the background--SW] on this chain is a dualism between the spiritual world and the material world; the spiritual entities [beings], the aeons, may be good or evil, but the material world is the product of evil aeons and is itself evil. (3) The specifically gnostic idea of salvation involves the liberation of the embodied human spirits from their prisons of flesh and their return to the Father. (4)

Clearly, we have here a system embodying the two Hellenistic idea of emanation by which the infinite god is mediated to the finite world and the idea of a spirit/flesh dualism in which the flesh is innately evil and the spirit viewed as innately good.

The way in which this idea was worked out in the Gnostic systems involved fantastic, mythic, and complex pantheons. Says Brown again: "According to Valentinus, Christ is the offspring of Sophia, the last of the thirty highest aeons who make up the pleroma, or fullness, of the aeons. He reveals the Father to those who have spiritual natures and leads them to salvation by a path of enlightenment." (5)

Such a system, of course, suffered the self-inflicted fate of attempting to reconcile the un-reconcilable. If spirit and flesh are really total and infinite opposites then no number of emanations from the infinite god can span the gulf between them. Brown comments:

Nevertheless, if one begins with the presupposition that the spiritual can have nothing to do with the material, it is difficult to see how increasing the number of intermediate beings really makes the leap from spirit to matter easier or more plausible. Irenaeus lampoons the system of Valentinus in a satire in which the utterly spiritual aeon, Only Begotten, produces another spiritual aeon, Utternothingness, which in turn produces an aeon called Gourd--palpable [physical--SW], edible [eat-able], and utterly [thoroughly--SW] delicious. Gourd in turn produces Cucumber, and these four then generate all the other "delirious [crazy--SW] melons of Valentinus." (6)

3. Distinguishing Marks

When such premises were made the starting-point of a re-interpretation of Christianity, it is not surprising that they wrought havoc [chaos--SW] and generated heresy. The Epistle of 1 John is now commonly understood to be directed against Gnosticism. This Cnosticism displayed itself as a kind of super-Christianity. John Stott comments:

This has led a majority of commentators to discover the heretics in the ranks of the gnostics whose preoccupation was with deliverance from the `flesh', which they regarded as the soul's material imprisonment. `Gnosticism is a broad term embracing various pagan, Jewish and semi-Christian systems. ... Plummer sums up its two main principles as `the impurity of matter' and `the supremacy of knowledge'. (7)

1 John reveals at least three deviant tendencies of the Christianized Gnosticism troubling the churches to which John was writing.

a. Christological Docetism

The most foundational and distinctive of the heresies which Gnosticism begat in its rape of Christianity was a docetic view of the person of Christ. Docetism derived from the Greek verb, , meaning to think or seem was the view which denied the real humanity and the material reality of the Christ. Specifically, these teachers taught that the heavenly Christ was not the earthly Jesus, but descended on him at baptism leaving Jesus before he died (1 John 2:22; 4:2, 3, 15, 5:1). It is this view which makes intelligible the somewhat mysterious language of 1 John 5:5-11 (cf. Mark 1:9-11). Docetism was, of course, the natural result of the spirit/flesh dichotomy of Gnostic thought. Wherever it later influenced Christianity it almost inevitably begat Docetism. Marcion, the classic example of Christianized Gnosticism almost a century later, also had a Docetic Christology. Kelly remarks: "Marcion's Christology, too, was docetic at any rate as regards the Lord's body." (8)

b. Arrogant Elitism

An elitist as I am using it here is one who thinks that he is by inherent right one of the chosen few and despises those who are not. Gnosticism was elitist through and through. Brown remarks:

The gnostic movement has two salient [striking--SW] features that appeal to countless minds in every age, i. e. the claim to present a secret lore [knowledge--SW], explaining otherwise incomprehensible [impossible to understand--SW] mysteries, and the assertion that its secrets are accessible only to the elite--thus by implication defining as elite all who take an active interest in them. (9)

A detailed, threefold ranking of men and explanation of the origin of these divisions was often provided in Gnostic theory. Speaking of the Christianized Gnosticism of Valentinus Kelly remarks:

When he made man, he first made `the earthy man', and then breathed his own psychic substance into him; but without his knowledge Achamoth planted pneuma, or spirit, born from herself, in the souls of certain men. This spiritual element yearns for God and salvation consists in its liberation from the lower elements with which it is united. This is the task which the Savior Jesus accomplishes. According to their constitution, there are three classes of men--the carnal or material, the psychic and the pneumatic. Those who are carnal cannot in any case be saved, while in order to attain redemption the pneumatic only need to apprehend the teaching of Jesus. The psychic class can be saved, though with difficulty, through the knowledge and imitation of Jesus. (10)

The spiritual class of men were sometimes identified by means of biblical terminology as elect. It is also probable that the distinction between the psychic and the pneumatic class of men was also used to distinguish between ordinary, un-enlightened Christians and the Gnostic super-Christians.

In 1 John this arrogant elitism appears to be visible at a number of places (1 John 2:19, 20 and cf. 2:9-11, 4:20, 21). The Gnostic elitism may provide a clue to the emphatic universalism of 1 John 2:2 where Christ is said to be "the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." Arminians have often urged this text against the Calvinistic view of election. It is better understood as addressed against a Gnostic and elitist perversion of election in which the elect as naturally and by creation different from the rest of men.

As we have suggested, this elitism is closely related to the claims of the Gnostics that they have been perfected through their secret knowledge. It may be such claims of special knowledge and perfection that John is piercingly confronting when he claims for all Christians perfection and knowledge (1 John 2:5, 20, 27).

c. Moral Indifferentism

The Gnostic idea that there is an absolute contrast between the spirit and the flesh could lead (as historians commonly note) to two widely and seemingly different moral results: asceticism (the view that sees moral value in denying the body legitimate pleasures and needs) or libertinism (the view that sees nothing wrong with indulging every desire of the body). Bruce remarks:

In its practical consequences for daily life, Gnosticism was usually associated with a strict asceticism. This tendency appears as early as the incipient Gnosticism attacked in the Epistle to the Colossians, where the tendency of this teaching is summarized in the words, "Touch not, taste not, handle not." There is some evidence, indeed, for a Gnosticism which drew directly opposite corollaries [conclusions--SW] from the doctrine of the inherent [innate--SW] worthlessness of matter; the body, it was argued, is material and therefore morally indifferent [without importance--SW], and its desires may be indulged at will without any harmful consequences [results--SW] to the true life of the spirit. But this outlook was not characteristic of the main Gnostic schools. (11)

At first glance it seems to be this latter tendency which characterized the Christianized Gnosticism attacked by John in his first epistle (1 John 2:3, 4; 3:7-9). It is perhaps possible that the despising of law by the Gnostics assumed in these passages reflects not so much libertinism as a sense of moral superiority which put them above and beyond the laws and rules which bound ordinary Christians (1 John 1:6-10). Bruce remarks, "On the practical level these new teachers claimed to have reached such an advanced stage in spiritual experience that they were `beyond good and evil'. (12) Clearly, such a view was almost always a prophecy of moral disaster. Thus, we may rightly describe it as moral indifferentism.

We must now examine how these claims directly effected the subject of revelation and the canon.

4. Revelatory Claims

The name, Gnosticism, is derived from the claim of these sects to a special divine revelation or knowledge, a gnosis (). Brown comments on how this name indeed specifies a distinctive feature of Gnosticism.

The gnostic movement has two salient [striking--SW] features that appeal to countless minds in every age, i. e. the claim to present a secret lore [knowledge--SW], explaining otherwise incomprehensible [impossible to understand--SW] mysteries, and the assertion that its secrets are accessible only to the elite--thus by implication defining as elite all who take an active interest in them. (13)

Part of the subtlety and appeal of this claim to gnosis is that Christianity itself did in its own sense make a claim to possess a special knowledge of God not possessed by the un-spiritual (Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:6-16). It is this that explains the tendency of some more or less orthodox, Christian theologians like Clement and Origen of Alexandria to present Christianity as a gnosis for the spiritual and to describe mature and well-taught Christians as gnostics. (14) Because of this superficial and verbal similarity between Christianity and gnostic modes of thought. it is not surprising that gnostic teachers might easily pass themselves off as Christian and, perhaps, even think that they were.

The obstacle in the way of this gnostic reinterpretation of Christianity was the fundamental difference between the view of the universe held by Gnosticism and that held by Christianity. Both could speak of a special revelation and a savior, but these superficial similarities were grounded in completely different views of the universe. The Gnostics presupposed a fundamental and ultimate distinction between the spirit and the flesh, resolved all ethical distinctions into it, and attempted to span the gap between the spirit and the flesh by a complex theory of personal emanations. Christianity in contrast saw the fundamental distinction as that between Creator and creature, taught that the material world was a good creation of God, and taught that sin was an ethical rather than ontological (related to being) matter. Thus, it was at the point of the assessment of the flesh as it came to expression in the vital Christian doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the person of Christ that clear and irreconcilable differences were evident between authentic and gnosticized Christianity. So important and strategic were these doctrines to Christianity that it was impossible to disguise the differences between Gnosticism and Christianity to even the most simple of minds. We find, therefore, even so non-theological a soul as Ignatius taking issue with Gnostic tendencies in his letters at just these points:

For it was for our sakes that he suffered all this, to save us. And he genuinely suffered, as even he genuinely raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. It's they who are a sham! Yes, and their fate will fit their fancies--they will be ghosts and apparitions.

For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends he said to them, "Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless ghost." And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason they despised death itself, and proved its victors. Moreover, after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a real human being, although in spirit he was united with the Father. (15)

Because of this emphasis on the reality of Christ's flesh Ignatius emphasizes the necessity of being committed to Christ "in body and soul" (16) and also stresses that the Lord's Supper "is [represents?--SW] the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ" (17).

The obvious contrast between Apostolic Christianity and gnosticized Christianity forced the earliest Gnostic heretics to claim a revelation from Christ which bypassed, overruled, or generally overshadowed the gospel preached by the Apostles. Hence it is in 1 John that the Apostle lays such emphatic stress on the eyewitness authority of his preaching (1 John 1:1-3). The use of the first person, plural pronoun in this opening statement of 1 John is a clear reference in this context to the joint eyewitness of the appointed apostles of Christ. According to Acts 1:22 one technical name for the apostles was a "witness". This gives a pointed emphasis to the statement of 1 John 4:4-6 (cf. also 4:13, 14) in which John explicitly contrasts "you", "they", and "we". "You are from God" he says to the true Christians. "They are from the world" he says of the gnostic false teachers. "We are from God" he asserts of the Apostles and goes on to make this startling and emphatic claim, "he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." Here John declares that the standard by which true Christianity and false Christianity is to be discerned is the standard of the Apostolic proclamation of the gospel. There is no other, further, or secret gospel which bypasses the public proclamation of the Apostles of Christ. This is the point of the emphasis in 1 John 2 on the fact that they all know (1 John 2:20, 27).

After the Apostles died, it was no longer necessary to claim a revelation which bypassed them. Several other alternatives could be utilized by the Gnostics to give their teaching an appearance of authority. At this point it was only necessary to pen counterfeit gospels and letters which were ascribed to apostles; or they could also by means of a way of interpreting which used allegory draw their theories from the genuinely apostolic documents. (18) Finally, they could claim that the apostles themselves reserved a secret gnosis for those Christians worthy of it. Says Kelly of Tertullian who was refuting the Gnostics of this later period, "He was emphatic that no secret tradition existed, and that it was incredible that the apostles did not know or failed to pass on, the revelation in its entirety." (19)

The claims of Gnosticism to a secret revelation, thus, very early forced the church to self-consciously reflect on its sources and authorities. The response of the church to Gnosticism emphasized two important features of its canon or standard of faith and life. It was an apostolic standard. It was a public--not a secret--standard. The public nature of this standard caused the church to emphasize the Apostolic office, that is to say, the presumed orthodoxy of churches founded by Apostles and led in direct succession by men descended from the elders first appointed by the apostles. It also led the church to emphasize the Apostles' Creed, that is to say a written summary of the Apostolic faith based upon the baptismal vows taken by every Christian. Finally, and most importantly it led the church to emphasize, collect, and discriminate the genuinely Apostolic writings from writings falsely claiming apostolic authorship and especially heretical writings.

B. Marcionism

1. The Description of Marcion

What we know for certain of the heretic, Marcion is well summarized by the article in The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia:

The facts of the early career of Marcion are difficult to establish partly because of the tendency of ecclesiastical writers, from whom information of him is gained, to believe and report damaging stories concerning heretics. The principal sources for his life are the writings of Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and Tertullian, and these writers are not in entire accord. His birthplace is given as Sinope, in Pahplagonia, on the Euxine, and he is described as a shipmaster of Pontus. Tertullian tells of his coming from Pontus (c. 140) and joining the Christian community at Rome, in the first warmth of his faith making them a present of 200,000 sestertii .... He speaks of his differences with the Roman community, of his excommunication, of the return of his gift, and of his attaching himself afterward to the Gnostic teacher Cerdo .... According to the same authority the Marcionites dated the time of their master's separation from the Church .... the autumn of 144. Justin in his first apology written about 150 ... notices the great activity of Marcion. Irenaeus ... speaks of Marcion's flourishing [being active and having great influence--SW] under the episcopate of Anicetus (154-165) and tells how Polycarp met Marcion and addressed him as the first-born of Satan .... These give the few certain facts in regard to marcion's life, his separation from the church in 144, his study of Gnosticism, and his foundation of a separate Christian community. (20)

The author of this article omits some facts he considers doubtful. It is rumored in early traditions that he was the son of the Bishop of Sinope and thus raised in a Christian home. It is supposed that by means of this upbringing he became especially enamored of the writings of Paul. It is also said that his own father excommunicated him for `corrupting a virgin'. For reasons already given in the above quoted article particularly this last piece of information may need to be treated with suspicion.

2. The Relation to Gnosticism

It is plain from the information already given that Marcion was highly influenced by Gnosticism, particularly the Gnostic teacher, Cerdo. With Gnosticism he distinguished between the Old Testament god and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. He also taught docetism, the view that Christ only seemd to be a true man, at least in a modified form--denying that the Christ was born of Mary and teaching rather that he descended from heaven. His `purified' gospel begins with the words: "In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius God came down to Capernaum and taught on the sabbath days". (21)

Marcion also inculcated asceticism. The members of his rival church were expected be celibate, abstaining from sex and marriage, and engage in other ascetic practices. Thus, we may undoubtedly class Marcionism as a form of Gnosticism.

Nevertheless, it is proper to see several distinctions which show that Marcionism was distinct from Gnosticism. Primary among these distinctions must be noted a real though perverted interest in the doctrine of grace. Marcion's major original work the Antitheses. According to the article cited above, this "was a semi-dogmatic treatise [a doctrinal book claiming some authority--SW] contrasting contradictory sentences from the law and the Gospel." (22) The same writer goes on to remark:

For him Paul alone was the true apostle; yet he disregarded the Jewish elements in Paulinism. The favorite Pauline antitheses between the law and the Gospel, anger and grace, works and faith, flesh and spirit, sin and righteousness, death and life, were congenial [harmonious--SW] to his thought and germane [appropriate--SW] to his method. In Marcion's system the Gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ is given so much weight that it caused him to view the Church conception of the Gospel as an unpermissible falsification [unlawful forgery--SW]. (23)

Another feature which emphasizes the supremacy of this interest in law and grace of Marcion and makes him different from other Gnostics is his failure to develop the complex pantheon of emanations (the complicated understanding of all the different gods coming from the first god) presented by other Gnostic teachers of his own era like Valentinus and Basilides. Says the same author just quoted:

Marcion's teaching is particularly remarkable for its lack of interest in metaphysical questions [theoretical questions about God and being]. It is certain, however, that he did not regard the Cosmos [world--SW] as the creation of the supreme God; it was the production of a demiurge [a lesser god--SW] .... Marcion differs entirely from Valentinus in failing to discuss eons. Marcion's thought concerns itself entirely with the religious records of the Jews and the Christians. (24)

Marcionism differed from Gnosticism, then, in being less fantastic, more restrained and practical, and more interested in questions of a genuinely Christian character.

3. The Contribution to Canon

The relevance of Marcion to the subject of the New Testament canon is indisputable. In the words of F. F. Bruce, "Marcion is the first person know to us who published a fixed collection of what we should call New Testament books. Others may have done so before him; if so, we have no knowledge of them." (25)

Marcion's canon was, however, significantly different than the canon we know today. Says Kelly:

His dualism [the view that there are two equal and opposite gods, one good and one evil--SW], however, led him to reject the Old Testament, and it was natural that he should seek to canonize an alternative set of Scriptures for use in his church. St. Paul, so outspokenly hostile to the Law, was his hero, and he regarded such Christian writings as seemed infected [poisoned] with a Jewish outlook as suspect [questionable--SW]. Hence the list he drafted consisted of St. Luke's Gospel, with all seemingly Judaizing passages excised, and ten Pauline epistles (all, in fact, except the Pastorals) similarly expurgated [cleansed--SW]. (26)

Because of the facts given above, Marcion has sometimes been exalted into the position of the creator of the idea of the New Testament canon. (27) The facts seem more consistent with the idea that, far from being a creator, he was a mutilator of the Christian canon. Kelly perceptively remarks:

The significance of Marcion's action should not be misunderstood. He has sometimes been acclaimed (e. g. by the great German scholar Harnack) as the originator [beginner--SW] of the Catholic canon, but this is an extravagant [excessive--SW] point of view. The Church already had its roughly defined collection, or (to be more precise) collections, of Christian books which, as we have seen, it was beginning to treat as Scripture. (28)

With this limiting of the importance of Marcion in mind, we may yet allow that Marcion's heresy was of great significance to the church and its acceptance of the canon by the reaction it created. Kelly further remarks:

Nevertheless, if the idea of a specifically Christian canon was deeply rooted in the Church's own convictions and practice, Marcion played an important part in the practical emergence [coming out--SW] of one. What none of the great ecclesiastical centres, so far as we know, had done, and what his initiative [ambition--SW] seems to have provoked them to do, was to delimit [set the limits of--SW] their lists of authorized Christian books in a public, official way. (29)

At more length Orr shrewdly summarizes the significance of the Marcionite heresy for the acceptance of the New Testament canon.

The first important gain to the Church from the controversy in which it had been plunged, was the collection of a body of New Testament Scriptures, or the formation [putting together--SW] of a New Testament canon. It is not that the Church did not know itself before this time possessed of inspired and authoritative writings. The Gospels in particular had long been in use in the churches, and collections had early been made of Paul's Epistles. Such collections, however, grew up naturally, informally, with a view to purposes of edification, and with no idea consciously present of forming what we mean by a Canon of Scripture. We have only to recall how near the Church of second century stood to the Apostolic Age, and what stress was still laid on living Apostolic tradition, to see how far it would lie from men's minds to erect these writings of Apostles and Apostolic men into a permanent rule of faith and practice for the whole Church. Now under pressure of the Gnostic controversy, when the Church was faced with the mutilated Canon of the Marcion, and saw its borders overrun by pseudonymous [falsely named--SW] and apocryphal [doubtful--SW] productions, it was inevitable that it should be impelled to set about in right earnest making a collection of the books which it did regard as Apostolic--which it knew from their history and long-established use to be so--and that these should be definitely separated from the floating mass and raised to a position of exclusive [sole--SW] authority. (30)

Thus, if Gnosticism taught the church by its errors the necessity of an apostolic and public canon, the further phase of Gnosticism known as Marcionism made plain the danger of a mutilated canon. Thus, it impressed upon the church the necessity of maintaining the canon in its full extent without being diminished.

C. Montanism


As is often the case with movements which were finally rejected by the mainstream church in its earlier history, it is difficult to know how much of what the orthodox writers say about Montanism to regard as believable. Two things, however, at least tend make our information about the Montanists more believable. First, at a number of points we have statements by made by the Montanists themselves which tend to confirm the general view taken of them by the orthodox writers. Second, the opposition offered to the Montanists was more mixed. Thus, we have information from more orthodox writers which tends to be more sympathetic toward Montanism. The classic example of such sympathy is no one less than Tertullian himself who is often as to his later ministry identified as a Montanist. For these reasons we may be fairly confident that we have the facts about the Montanists right.

Church historians have frequently noted that Montanism represents an opposite reaction in the Second Century to Gnosticism and Montanism. Marcionism and Gnosticism are seen as movements of a speculative and intellectual character, while Montanism is seen as more subjective or experiential and practical in character. (31) In this case the practical, subjective extreme appears somewhat less heretical than the theoretical, intellectual one. In fact the application of the term, heresy, in its strict sense to Montanism is not right because with regard to basic content of the orthodox faith in the second half of the second century it was orthodox. Lawlor remarks:

Montanus, it is true, did not consciously deviate [depart from--SW] from ecclesiastical dogma [official church doctrine--SW]. His opponents bear witness that he accepted the canonical Scriptures and was orthodox with regard to the resurrection of the dead and the doctrine of the Trinity. But in another sphere his innovations [inventions--SW] were considerable [significant]. (32)

This statement of Lawlor must be taken with some measure of qualification since neither with regard to the Canon, nor the Trinity was the doctrine of the church very defined in the late Second Century. Yet it is certainly true that Montanism's novelties while serious were not as foundational as those of Gnosticism in their character. The deviations or departures of Gnosticism and Montanism were quite dissimilar. Richardson says, "At the opposite pole to Gnosticism stands the Montanist movement ..." (33) This drastic difference in the two deviations served, however, to underscore two distinct concerns with regard to the subject of the new Testament canon. Bruce asserts:

The Montanist challenge from one direction, like the Marcionite and gnostic challenges from other directions, made it the more important that the limits of holy scripture should be clearly defined. Holy scripture, properly defined, would provide a check on uncontrolled prophecy as it did on a undisciplined speculation. (34)

It is the significance of Montanism for the New Testament canon that leads us to take it up in the present connection. We will consider it under five headings:

1. Historical Origin

2. Distinctive Identity

3. Ecclesiastical Opposition

4. Later Development

5. Canonical Significance

1. Historical Origin

Lawlor provides us with the major facts connected with the early history of Montanism:

The movement now generally known, from the name of its founder, as Montanism had its birth at a village called Ardabau in the part of Mysia adjoining Phrygia, probably not far from Philadelphia. ... There, as it seems, about A. D. 156, Montanus, a recent convert, who had been a pagan priest, began to prophesy. His prophesyings were accompanied by strange phenomena [events--SW] resembling those associated with demonical possession. .... After a time--as seems to be implied, a considerable [lengthy--SW] time--Montanus was joined by two women, Maximilla and Priscilla, or Prisca, who with his sanction deserted their husbands, and who also claimed to possess the prophetic charisma. Their utterances were similar in matter and in manner to those of their leader. .... We are not surprised to learn that this sudden outburst of prophecy, and the claims that were made for its leaders, provoked much opposition. Many of those who heard Montanus and his companions would have silenced them. Two Phrygian bishops made an ineffectual attempt to `prove and refute' the spirit that spoke in Maximilla; another who had come from Anchiale in Thrace, attempted to exorcize [cast demons out of--SW] Priscilla. At first, we are told, the movement advanced slowly: `but few of the Phrygians were deceived.' But after a tim, it seems, the majority of the Phrygian Christians became adherents [followers] of Montanus. Thus only can we account for the fact that at an early period his followers were commonly spoken as `the Phrygians,' and their teaching as `the heresy of the Phrygians' Not long after the beginning of the prophesying Montanus crossed the Phrygian border and established himself with his followers in the city of Pepuza ... Pepuza, with the neighboring village of Tymion, he named Jerusalem. To this settlement, which was thenceforward the centre and holy city of Eastern Montanism, he endeavored to gather adherents [followers] from all quarters. these facts coupled with the lavish promises made by the prophets to their adherents [followers] and certain predictions of Maximilla ... apart from a more explicit oracle [clear prophecy--SW] attributed to another prophetess ... would lead us to the conclusion that the `new prophecy' taught men to expect in the near future, at Pepuza, the final Parousia of the Lord .... The primitive Montanists, in fact, held the doctrine of chiliasm [premillenialism], but chiliasm [premillenialism] of a new kind. It was this hope of the Parousia at their Jerusalem that gained for them the name of Pepuzians .... It is not necessary to pursue the history of Eastern Montanism in detail. For some years after the death of Maximilla, the last of the original trio, in 179-180, there were no prophets, and the church and the world enjoyed peace--facts which, as anti-Montanistic writers pointed out, disproved the claims of the first prophets. (35)

To this basic account there needs to be added only two additional comments. First, the reason that the death of Maximilla tended to disprove the Montanist prophecy is that she had associated her death with the end of the age. (36) Second, it is important to note that Phrygia was noted for a national tendency to ecstatic forms of religion. This is a kind of religion that claims direct revelation from God which causes its recipients to behave wildly. Says Bonwetsch, "Montanus, but recently become a Christian, appeared in a village of Phrygia as such a prophet. He is said by Jerome to have been formerly a priest of Cybele, and the `new prophecy' was doubtless influenced by the wild enthusiasm of the Phrygian religious nature." (37)

2. Distinctive Identity


We have already noted that in substance the Montanist tended to support Second Century Christian orthodoxy, especially as over against the Gnostic heretics. Nevertheless, their deviations or departures were serious enough eventually to draw down upon their heads the ecclesiastical censure or official rebuke of the `Old Catholic Church'. We must briefly elaborate four of their distinctive peculiarities.

a. Their New Prophetism

The orthodox writers are filled with polemic or arguments against the novel form which the Montanist prophecy took, and it seems to safe to assume that the `new prophecy' was quite different from that to which the church was accustomed or used to in its remembered experience and in its sacred writings. Lawlor remarks:

In what way his exercise of the prophetic charisma [gift--SW] was regarded by his opponents as differing from that of the genuine prophets we have various hints from nearly contemporary documents: he spoke while he was actually in a state of ecstasy; the true prophets received their message in ecstasy [a state in which one loses control of oneself--SW], but did not deliver it till their faculties returned to a normal condition. Moreover, the `ecstasy' of Montanus was kind of madness deliberately induced, whereas prophets, acknowledged as such by the Church, even when in a state of ecstasy, were of sound mind; .... In agreement with these statements an oracle of Montanus declares that the prophet is as a lyre played upon by the divine plectrum; and the form in which most of his extant utterances are cast implies that he was a mere passive instrument, and that the phrases which fell from his lips were actually the ipsissima verba [very words--SW] of the Deity. His opponents reminded him of the style of the ancient prophets, who as human agents proclaimed the will of God--`Thus saith the Lord.' (38)

The Montanist reply to the orthodox contrasts between the prophetic form of Montanism and biblical prophecy acknowledged that the contrast was real, but explained it on the grounds of its finality and supremacy of their prophecies.

There can be no doubt that Montanus maintained that this `new prophesying' differed essentially from all preceding prophecy. Thus the novelty of its form was to be explained. It was the fulfillment--so it was alleged--of the Lord's promise of the coming of the Paraclete (John 14:12-18). The apostles had not the perfection of the holy Spirit (1 Cor. 13:8-10); this was reserved for the new prophets, of whom Christ spoke in Matt. 23:34. This is stated to be the Montanist doctrine by many writers, and it is the basis of the exaggerated [extreme--SW] assertion of Eusebius ... that Montanus claimed that he himself was the Paraclete. (39)

This view of themselves and the new prophecy inevitably, though perhaps not intentionally, tended to the idea that it overruled all previous revelation. Says Lawlor again:

It is evident that the acceptance of the `new prophecy' as embodying the final teaching of the Paraclete, and as in some sense superseding earlier revelation, was the cardinal principle of Montanism. This is made manifest by the very phrase `new prophecy' constantly used by its adherents [followers]; by the title which they arrogated [usurped or siezed--SW] to themselves, as distinguishing them from other Christians () ... and by the polemics of anti-Montanist writers, whose argument is mainly directed to proving that this`so-called prophecy' was in truth a false prophecy proceeding from the spirit of evil. (40)

The implicit or subtle canonical claims of such a view of its prophecies cannot be avoided. In some sense Montanist prophecy claimed to bring to completion previous revelation. This seems to mean that it claimed a relation to the New Testament writings somewhat similar to that which the new Testament writings claim to the Old Testament. Bonwetsch agrees:

The Montanists appealed in support of their own form of prophecy to the examples of ecstasy [a state in which the prophet loses control of his body--SW] recorded in the Bible, yet at the same time claimed that their mode was a proof of the magnitude of the new revelation. It was, indeed, the completion of the law of Christ, and in it the promised Paraclete had appeared, since the time of full maturity had now replaced childhood (1 Cor. 13:11). The new prophecy, therefore, not only was a protest against suppression, but also claimed the right, in view of the approaching end of all things, to regulate life in the Church. (41)

b. Their Peculiar Chiliasm [Premillenialism]

The peculiar form of Premillenialism held by the Montanists has already been noted. Their extremes had the marked tendency to bring disrepute upon Premillenialism in the early church and may have contributed to its gradual demise. It also tended to have a specific influence on canonical matters. This happened because some reacting against Montanism began to reject the writings of John to which Montanism made such frequent reference. F. F. Bruce describes this reaction as follows:

One interesting by-product of the Montanist movement was the suspicion which it engendered [caused--SW] in some people's minds against the Johannine literature [books written by John--SW] of the new Testament, to which Montanists so confidently appealed. Their doctrine of the second advent was based on a literal interpretation of the millenium mentioned in the book of Revelation, and there were those who found it impossible to reject this Montanist doctrine without at the same time rejecting the book of Revelation. One of those who rejected the book was a Roman presbyter named Gaius, author of a Dialogue in which he maintained a debate with Proclus, leader of the Montanists in his day (c. 200). Apparently Gaius attributed the book to Cerinthus, a heretic who flourished about the end of the first century. But there is reason to believe that Gaius also rejected the apostolic authority of the Fourth Gospel, from which, of course, the Montanists drew their doctrine of the Paraclete. ... Gaius had no great following in his view of the Fourth Gospel, however; a small group of people who maintained a view similar to his, but (like him) were orthodox in all other respects, are referred to by a fourth-century writer as the Alogoi. (42)

c. Their Ancient Feminism

Montanism, because of the early prominence of the prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, was characterized by a feminism inconsistent was the views of the church in its day. Lawlor recounts:

... the association with Montanus of two prophetesses involved the recognition [acceptance--SW] that women might hold high office in the Church. Maximilla and Priscilla seem to have made independent contributions to Montanist teaching ... and they were probably in the habit of prophesying in the congregation ... There is evidence that, at any rate in later times, other women followed their example ..., or even outdid it; for we read of a prophetess in Cappadocia in the 3rd cent., perhaps a Montanist, who baptized and celebrated the Eucharist ... of female bishops and priests, and of virgins who regularly officiated [officially presided--SW] in the congregation at Pepuza ... (43)

d. Their Ethical Rigorism [Strictness]

The ethical rigorism or strictness of Montanism and its tendency to asceticism was related to its imminent or soon expectation of the end of the world. Says Bonwetsch:

The entire purpose, in fact, of the new prophecy was preparation for the approaching end, and expectation of this great event should determine the entire life of the Christian. Yet the new prophecy was seldom introduced by new forms; what had hitherto been voluntary now became duty. Thus, if the Church approved only first marriage and virginity, the Montanists regarded second marriages as impure and excluded those who contracted them. Sexual purity was a necessary condition for receiving revelations, and the voluntary fasts on the "station days" were extended from three to six in the afternoon and made obligatory [morally necessary--SW]. ... Again, wherever the Church permitted a distinction between a laxer [looser--SW] and a stricter rule, the Montanists invariably allowed only the latter, so that for example, flight [running away--SW] in persecution was forbidden and martyrdom was encouraged. All these requirements were made by the Paraclete because the last day was nigh, and the marriage should no longer be contracted. Because of the shortness of the time, the Paraclete could annul the words of Paul as Christ had abrogated [abolished--SW] those of Moses. (44)

Concluding Observations:

Montanism presents us with a remarkable combination of traits which anticipate later abnormal movements in the church. The intense, eschatological expectation; the claims to prophecy, the neglect of the created boundaries between men and women, and even the ethical rigorism have re-emerged or come out again in varying combinations again and again. One need only think of certain Anabaptist groups, the older Pentecostalist groups, and even the Charismatics of our own day. The re-emergence again and again of such groups with their unique combination of traits constrains us to ask what response and evaluation the earliest church gave to Montanism. Its response cannot but be of intense interest for us.

3. Ecclesiastical Opposition

Montanism did not long exist before it began to meet with the formal opposition of catholic bishops. Says Lawlor:

While the movement was still in its infancy, Claudius Apollinarius, bishop of Hierapolis, wrote a treatise [book--SW] against it, to which were appended the signatures of many bishops, at least one of whom came from Thrace. Other confutations of the new teaching followed it ... Many synods met in Asia and excommunicated its adherents [followers]. ... It is impossible to determine with accuracy the date of the inevitable crisis; but it is certain that in Phrygia before the year 177 the Montanists were excluded from the Catholic Church ... (45)

Swift and firm as this response appears, Montanism was not everywhere met with as unqualified and absolute disapproval. The Christians of Gaul, while opposing the Montanists, wrote to Rome pleading for moderation with regard to some of their views. (46) Even more sympathetic to the Montanist was the great African bishop, Tertullian, whom we must now consider.

4. Later Development

Despite its condemnation by catholic bishops, Montanism spread to many parts of the Roman Empire. Its spread cost it, however, both its unity and many of its distinctive features. Noting that the early Montanists were productive writers, and that among the Montanists tended to be regarded as in some sense canonical, Lawlor goes on to comment:

A necessary result of this was the tendency to division. The Montanists must have regarded the writings of their own prophets as of at least equal value with the Scriptures: they constituted in fact, if not in intention, an enlargement of the Canon. It was inevitable that they should be used, like the canonical Scriptures, as authoritative expositions of dogmatic [offially doctrinal--SW] Christianity, and that, like them, they should be variously interpreted. By the end of the 2nd cent. there were two parties of the Montanists, who took different sides in the Monarchian controversy, and both of them appealed to the oracles of the prophets as well as to the Scriptures ... Thus the authority ascribed to the writings of the prophets produced a tendency to the formation of parties differing from one another in matters of faith, and probably also in matters of discipline. This tendency would be greater if, as seems likely, such writings were not collected into a Corpus. Each community would follow the teaching of the teaching of such books as they happened to possess, without the obligation of harmonizing it with that of the books possessed by other communities. (47)

The certain or inevitable result of this kind of division was the breaking of Montanism into many different parties in different regions. Lawlor confirms: "It is perhaps scarcely correct to speak of Montanism as a sect. In its later stages it was rather a congeries [varied seris--SW] of sects somewhat loosely held together by an acknowledgment of the manifestation of the Paraclete in Montanus." (48)

It is this that forms the necessary starting-point for the discussion of Tertullian's alleged [supposed--SW] Montanism. Most of the time they somehow limit their statements. Yet, writers often assert quite emphatically that Tertullian was a Montanist. Richardson, for instance, writes: "... it passed eventually to North Africa, where it won for its cause the vehement Tertullian, in whose writings it takes on a severely puritanical note." (49) If Tertullian is to be called a Montanist at all, it should be only with the most severe limitations or qualification. The fact is that the Montanism he embraced was significantly different than that which raged in Phrygia in the late second century. Bonwetsch writes, "Montanism spread to the West with a suppression of its ecstatic features and emphasis on its ethical requirements." (50) Lawlor confirms this, but gives his opinion that Tertullian was unaware of the extent of the differences: "Montanism, as it appears in the pages of Tertullian, differs so much, and withal is so little conscious of difference, from the Montanism of Phrygia that we are compelled to suppose that his acquaintance with the teaching of the prophets was imperfect." (51)

Lawlor catalogs a number of the differences between Tertullian and the original Montanism. There is no hint of the strange phenomena which accompanied Phrygian prophecy in Tertullian. Tertullian affirms against the Phrygian Montanism that the apostles possessed the fullness of the Spirit. tertullian never mentions Pepuza. Tertullian refused to allow a woman to speak in the church, or to teach, baptize, administer the Lord's Table, or "to assume any function which belongs to a man". (52)

5. Canonical Significance

The above exposition of Montanism fully justifies the multitude of witness among church historians who confirm the important, canonical significance of the Montanist movement. Their significance was, of course, wholly negative. In other words, the early church saw in them the catastrophe which awaited if the stop sign or red light signalling the close of the canon was ignored. Richardson is, then, perfectly correct when he asserts:

The Catholic opposition to Montanism rested on the conviction that the Christian revelation was complete. Nothing new in principle could be added to the apostolic deposit of the faith. The Church, too, was cautious about ecstasies in which the prophet lost the use of his reason and identified himself with God. "I am come neither as an angel, nor as an ambassador, but as God the Father," said Montanus. Against such extravagant claims, the Church insisted on the sufficiency of the apostolic tradition. (53)

III. The Later Agreement


The sum of the preceding discussion of the Apostolic Fathers and the early heresies has been to emphasize and make clear the idea of apostolic authority. The post-apostolic church comes into our view with a clear grasp on the distinct difference between its leaders and teachers and the authority of apostles. Its comes into our view with a clear practical commitment to their writings, especially the four Gospels and the Epistles of Paul.

This original grasp on apostolic authority is strengthened by the early heresies which Providence arranged to attack the church in second century. Gnosticism's claim to a secret and secret revelation emphasized the public witness of the Apostles especially as crystallized in their writings. Marcionism's mutilation of the Apostolic tradition alerted the church to the danger of a one-sided and biased limitation of the Apostolic tradition. Thus, a sign was given emphasizing the importance of maintaining the full extent of the New Testament canon. Montanism came, however, just in time to keep the church from wrongly enlarging the canon of Scripture. Its excesses and extravagances clearly underscored the dangers associated with any failure to limit the canon to the Apostolic age and writings.

It is in the light of this making clear and carefully stating the significance of the Apostolic canon of the church that we may accept and amen the words of Brown as he summarizes the result of the controversies of the second century:

We may consider that the New Testament canon was effectively complete by A. D. 200, although a few books remained controversial until into the fourth century. The closing of the canon was of tremendous importance, because it meant that from then on theological disputes could no longer affect the source of doctrine, the text of Scripture itself. From this virtual closing of the New Testament canon in about 200, it will take two and one half more centuries for Christianity to reach agreement on two of its most fundamental doctrines: the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the one person and two natures of Christ. (54)

The words of Brown as he has qualified himself may be accepted as an accurate account of the situation at the close of the Second century. He is right to see that in the clarification of the idea of the public nature, the full extent, and the closed character of the Apostolic canon, the question and character of the New Testament canon was effectively closed by A. D. 200. We must, however, now come to consider the evidence for Brown's assertion and how these controlling and specific perspectives came to final and formal expression in the official acceptance of the New Testament canon in the Old Catholic Church. We will do this by utilizing the accepted distinction implied in Brown's words between the books of the New Testament known as the Homologoumena and those known as the Antilegomena.

A. The Universal and Early Acceptance of the Homologoumena

1. The Canon of Muratori

As if to underscore the significance of the early heresies we have noticed for the acceptance of the New Testament canon, the Canon of Muratori which may be dated "at the end of the second century" (55) provides us with the first orthodox listing of the books of the New Testament canon. The document in which this canon comes down to us is in a fragmentary condition. It begins, for instance, with the words, "the third book of the gospel; according to Luke" (56). As this illustrates, some of the problems created by the fragmentary character of the document can be solved. Obviously, the canon commenced with matthew and Mark. Assuming that the list began with Matthew and Mark, twenty-two of the books which we have received in our New Testaments are listed in this canon as acceptable. The ones missing are Hebrews, 3 John, James, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter.

Two books were included in this canon which are not in our New Testaments. They are the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. (57) There is a note, however, that Peter's Apocalypse is not regarded as canonical by some. The reference to the Wisdom of Solomon is odd because it is part of the Old Testament Apocrypha. The Shepherd of Hermas is mentioned favorably, but denied canonical status because "the Shepherd was written by Hermas in the city of Rome quite recently, in our own times, when his brother Pius occupied the bishop's chair in the church of the city of Rome; and therefore it may be read indeed, but cannot be given out to the people in church either among the prophets, since their number is complete, or among the apostles at the end of the times."

More interesting for our purposes is the mention of a number of Marcionite and Gnostic writings which are completely rejected. The fragment first mentions Marcionite forgeries: "There is said to be another letter in Paul's name to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrines, [both] forged in accordance with Marcion's heresy, and many others which cannot be received into the catholic church, since it is not fitting that poison should be mixed with honey." Later the fragment mentions other Gnostic productions: "But none of the writings of Arsinous or Valentinus or Miltiades do we receive at all. They have also composed a new book of psalms for Marcion; [these we reject] together with Basilides [and] the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians ..."

In these two parts of the Muratorian canon there is, then, explicit reference to and replies to the three distinct heresies we have dealt with above. Plainly, the existence and forgeries of these heresies was one of the factors which led to the writing of this the first, orthodox listing of the canonical books of the New Testament which we possess. This is explicit proof for the significance of these heresies in the formulation of the New Testament canon.

2. Irenaeus

Irenaeus also stands just at the close of the period of the early heresies we have discussed. We know that he was elected bishop of Lyons shortly after the year 177. Significantly for our thesis Irenaeus' main written work was a response to the gnostic heresies which he entitled, An Exposure and Refutation of the Knowledge that is Falsely So Called. [This work is commonly known from its Latin title as Against Heresies.] Bruce properly remarks, therefore, "Irenaeus is the principal spokesman of the catholic response to Gnosticism and other second-century deviations [departures--SW]." (58)

It is most significant, therefore, that obvious progress has been made in the making clear of the New Testament canon in the mind of Irenaeus. Bruce further remarks:

In all Irenaeus's argument, moreover, scripture plays a dominant part. It is the abiding witness to the one living and true God, `whom the law announces, whom the prophets proclaim, whom Christ reveals, whom the apostles teach, whom the church believes'. Irenaeus is well able to distinguish `the writings of truth' from `the multitude of apocryphal and spurious [doubtful and false--SW] writings'. ... As for the New Testament, Hans von Campenhausen describes `the critical period between Marcion and Irenaeus' as `the period in which the "New Testament" as such emerged'. Irenaeus nowhere in his extant writings sets down a list of New Testament books, but it is evident that he had a clear notion of their identity. He makes free use of the phraseology about `old covenant' and `new covenant', but does not yet use the latter expression to denote [mean--SW] the collection of authoritative writings thrown up by the new covenant, as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage were soon to do. The collection itself, however, was a reality to him. In using the scriptures to expose and refute subversive [traitorous--SW] teaching, it was important to know which scriptures might effectively be so used, and he knew them, and used them. (59)

Irenaeus' New Testament canon is remarkably close to that of the Canon of Muratori. Bruce remarks:

Irenaeus, in fact, recognized and appealed to the same collection of Christian writings as listed in the Muratorian fragment, except that he included 1 Peter, which is not mentioned there. If the Muratorian list is of Roman origin, it may have been during one of his earlier visits to Rome that Irenaeus became acquainted with the contents of the `New Testament' scriptures acknowledged in the church of the capital. Perhaps we should be warned against calling it a `closed' canon by the very fact that it was later added to; but it was envisaged as a coherent corpus [a consistent body--SW], comprising [made up of--SW] twenty-two books--all the books of the final New Testament, indeed, except Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude.

The Old and New Testaments together provided Irenaeus with a broad and secure foundation not only for the negative purpose of refuting heresy but even more for the positive exposition of what has been called `the biblical theology of St Irenaeus'. From his time on, the whole church in east and west has acknowledged the New Testament collection as making up, together with the Old Testament, the Christian Bible. (60)

3. Tertullian

Tertullian's writings belong to the period AD 196-212. It is in his writings that we first find the designation `New Testament' for the second part of the Christian Bible. (61) He did not use the word, canon, but approved of the idea it later came to express. (62) Tertullian's canon certainly included the homologoumena plus Revelation and Jude. He knows and likes Hebrews and compares it favorably to the book he called `the Shepherd of the Adulterers'. Though it had not come down to him in North Africa as canonical, he regarded it as the work of Barnabas and worthy to be ranked with the apostolic writings. (63) Thus, we see again a stable New Testament canon of 23 or 24 books similar to that of the Canon of Muratori and Irenaeus.

4. Clement of Alexandria

This Clement was a contemporary of Tertullian from Alexandria in Egypt. In some respects he echoes Tertullian. Bruce remarks, "In reference to Christian writings Clement's catholicity is equally evident. He speaks of the two parts of the Christian Bible as the Old Testament and New Testament." (64) In other respects, however, reflects the looser and more carefree attitude of Alexandria with regard to the canon. This means that he cites in addition to the canonical books a number of books not found in our New Testaments. (65)

5. Origen

Origen also sets a New Testament collection of books beside the Old Testament. Bruce comments:

That Origen did recognize a New Testament collection alongside the Old Testament is certain, although he expresses himself as if the use of the word `Testament' ... in this sense were fairly new in his circle: he be speaks of `what we believe to be the divine scriptures both of the Old Testament, as people say, and of the New {Testament}, as it is called.' (66)

Origen also advances the discussion of the New Testament canon by mentioning all the books of our New Testament and classing them as either undisputed or disputed. Undisputed are the homologoumena and Revelation. Disputed are Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude. Among the disputed he also places some books which in the end did not qualify for the New Testament canon. These included the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache.

6. The Early Versions

Westcott places not a little importance on the testimony of two early versions to the acceptance of the New Testament canon, the old Syriac version known as the Peshitta and the old Latin version of North Africa known as the Itala. (67) He begins, however, by admitting that enormous difficulties beset any inquiry into or study of these early versions. Thus, some measure of caution is necessary with regard to their contents. It does appear, however, that in Syria and North Africa even as early as around the middle of the Second century versions of the New Testament were used which confirm the early and universal acceptance of the homologoumena. Westcott concludes that the early Peshitta included a canon of 22 books and omitted only 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, the Epistle of St. Jude, and the Apocalypse of John. (68) The canon of the Itala according to Westcott also witnesses to the acceptance of the homologoumena. It certainly contained 24 books, may also have contained Hebrews, and omitted only James and 2 Peter.

Westcott argues that the canon of the Eastern churches suggested by the Peshitta and that of the Western churches represented by the Itala should be combined. He says:

To obtain a complete idea of the judgment of the Church we must combine the two Canons; and then it will be found that of the books which we receive one only, the second Epistle of Peter, wants the earliest public sanction of ecclesiastical use as an Apostolic work. In other words, by enlarging our view so as to comprehend the whole of Christendom and unite the different lines of Apostolic tradition, we obtain with one exception a perfect New Testament, without the admixture of any foreign element. (69)


Westcott contends for an almost perfect canon by the middle of the Second century. But even if we do not agree with him, there are a multitude of witnesses confirm that the homologoumena were the assured canonical possession of the Christian church by the end of the Second century.

B. The Universal and Later Acceptance of the Antilegomena

1. An Explanation of the Delay

At this point a factor which accounts for the delay in the universal acceptance of the Antilegomena must be mentioned. The question may be raised: If canonical books possessed original authority with the church because of their apostolic authorship, why were some so seriously questioned before being universally accepted? Unlike the Old Testament people of God, the church was of vast geographical extent. Unlike the Old Testament people of God, it had no center like Jerusalem to promote with authority the recognized canonical books. Jerusalem was destroyed and the mother church there scattered while the New Testament was still being written. We must, therefore, take into account the hindrances of geographical limitation and poor communication in delaying the acceptance of certain books universally. (70) Because of such factors some writings (which had complete acceptance in the region of the church where they had originated) were questioned in another region.

2. An Explanation of their Acceptance

Why and how did the Antilegomena gain acceptance? Two factors seem to have been vital. First, the growing unity of the church in the Roman Empire removed questions about some books because their complete acceptance by the rest of the church became known. Second, the character, the actual self-authenticating truth and content, of the genuine books exercised a great influence.

3. An Explanation of the Difficulties

Here we shall show that the reasons the different books of the Antilegomena were questioned are consistent with their original authority and authentic canonicity.

a. Hebrews and Revelation

These two of the seven Antilegomena contain over 80% of their content. For this reason the fact that they were questioned may raise the most severe problems in some minds. There is good reason, however, to conclude that the difficulties raised over them came up later. Herman Ridderbos properly remarks:

Uncertainty about some of those writings, it should be noted, only arose later, as a result of certain actions that occurred within or against the church. That is the case, for example, for two of the most widespread instances of uncertainty: doubt about canonicity of hebrews in the West and about the Book of Revelation in the East. Opposition to the Book of Revelation in the East, as is well known, was late in origin and was the result of dogmatic, antichiliastic [doctrinal convictions which rejected premillenialism] considerations. Apparently, objections to the canonicity of Hebrews were not "original" nor did they occur primarily because its Pauline authorship was doubted. Rather, those objections were late and arose because of the Montanist appeal to Hebrews 6:4. Indeed, the Book of Hebrews was already in use sometime between A. D. 90 and 100 by Clement of Rome and later was also cited by Tertullian. Moreover, as Van Unnik has recently demonstrated between A. D. 140 and 150 in Rome all sorts of expressions from Hebrews were a part of the language of the church in the same manner as phraseology from other writings that were never contested in the West. Thus here, too, it appears that only later reflection damaged the authority a document had from the beginning and destroyed the original certainty of the church. (71)

b. 2 and 3 John and Jude

Though there is good historical evidence for these books, it may be of less extent than that which supports the Homologoumena. The very probable reason for this is simply their brevity. This made it easy for them to be overlooked and improbable that they should be quoted as extensively as the larger books of the New Testament.

c. James

There is early historical evidence for the canonicity of James. "Clement of Rome uses the Epistle of James, as does Hermas. It is included in the Peshitto version." (72) The questions over the canonicity of James may have arisen, according to Harris, may have arisen due to confusion over the exact identity of the James which authored it, since there are at least three James in the New Testament with apostolic claims.

d. 2 Peter

The external, historical evidence for 2 Peter is the most limited of any of the New Testament canonical books. Origen is the first to mention the book by name and seems to regard it as canonical, though he mentions that some Christians had doubts on this matter. Guthrie cites a number of very early Christian writings which may manifest dependence on 2 Peter and thus support to some extent an apostolic source for the epistle. (73) Among such books are Clement of Alexandria's Hypotoposes. Others who may allude to 2 Peter are Theophilus of Antioch,, Aristides, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. The pseudepigraphical [falsely named--SW] Apocalypse of Peter which dates from the first half of the second century alludes [refers--SW] repeatedly to 2 Peter. Some have argued, however, that the dependence is in an opposite direction. Guthrie concludes his survey with these remarks, "It would seem a fair conclusion to this survey of external evidence to submit that there is no evidence from any part of the early Church that this Epistle was ever rejected as spurious, in spite of the hesitance which existed over its reception." (74) In light of our commitment to a presumption in favor of the received canon and the universal reception of this letter as canonical during the fourth century, the historical evidence appears to be consistent with the canonicity of 2 Peter.

Several reasons may be assigned which explain the origin of the questions regarding 2 Peter. There was a large corpus [body--SW] of pseudepigraphical [falsely named--SW] literature bearing the name of Peter. This may have cast its shadow on 2 Peter. There were certain obvious differences in language style between 1 Peter and 2 Peter. This may have caused some to look with suspicion on 2 Peter. Such differences im style may be explained in a number of different ways which have been suggested by interpreters. Probably the best explanation is that Silas helped Peter write 1 Peter (and cleaned up his Greek). Notice 1 Pet. 5:12. 2 Peter's rough style of Greek may indicate that Peter wrote that letter without help.

Culminating Observations:

The final movement of the church to agreement on the New Testament canon may be sketched by brief reference to two men that summarize the process that was taking place throughout the church in the Roman Empire.

Eusebius of the Bishop of Caesarea marks the transition from the Ante-Nicene to the Post-Nicene Fathers. He provides us with a representative sample of the state of opinion with regard to the New Testament canon at the close of the era of persecution and at the opening of the Constantinian period. His statements are explicit, although not without some uncertainties. He divides the books making a claim to New Testament canonicity into three categories: the acknowledged, the disputed (questioned), and the spurious (false). The acknowledged are exactly equivalent to the homologoumena. Also within this category he places John's Apocalypse adding the words, "should it seem right". The disputed are exactly equivalent to the remaining six books of the antilegomena. Of them he says that they are disputed, "but recognized by the majority." The spurious books include the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd, Barnabas, and the Didache and also John's Apocalypse of which he again says, "should it seem right". Why Eusebius places the Apocalypse of John among the acknowledged and also the spurious books, but not among the disputed is a difficult question, but the explanation is probably connected with Eusebius dislike of its apparent Premillenarianism. (75) In Eusebius we see how swiftly the church was moving to consensus on the New Testament.

As Eusebius represents the next to last stage of canonical development, so Athanasius represents the last stage. Bruce tells us, "Athanasius is the first writer known to us who listed exactly the twenty-seven books which traditionally make up the New Testament in catholic and orthodox Christianity, without making any distinction of status among them." (76) This occurred in AD 367.


Excerpt from The Canon of Scripture by Samuel Waldron

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