This post is part of a series, click back to the home page to review any part of it you may have missed.
Last time I talked about two (of six) criteria that were used, though likely not consciously, by the early church to determine which books, letters, and other writings would be considered part of Scripture. This time, I’m going to talk about the remaining four. As a reminder, I’ve based these criteria (though slightly modified) off of F. F. Bruce’s found in The Canon of Scripture.
While this seems to put the cart before the horse (doesn’t Scripture establish what is, in fact, orthodoxy), it is a useful criteria. In this case, what it means is that nothing that directly contradicts another section of already accepted Scripture could be included in the final product. This is a way to explain why Marcion’s canon, which wanted to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, failed: Marcion contradicted what was already accepted as orthodoxy.
Also keep in mind that the Scripture were written as a response to the actions of God as they were observed. First and foremost in the writers’ minds was that Jesus was truly God, and truly human, and that he really died and was raised from the dead. Anything that contradicted that (as many of the “Gnostic” texts did) could not be considered part of the canon. Again, this wasn’t something they decided to sit down and apply, but came about likely due to common sense.
This should be understood in terms of “universality.” In other words, the only things that were considered part of the canon were things that could be (or had been) accepted widely. An example might help.
The letters of Clement were widely accepted and highly praised in parts of the Roman Empire, particularly near Rome. However, they did not enjoy much acceptance in other parts of the Empire (and beyond) where the Church was well established. In short, these letters didn’t seem to apply to everyone. That is an important criteria for the Scriptures: they are universal in their scope. That also means that the Scriptures we read today are, in that same way, timeless. Yes they may have been written for a specific situation at a specific time, but early on people recognized that they could apply well beyond that narrow purpose to the broader purpose of Scripture.
Use as Scripture
I’ve argued this a few times already in this series so I won’t belabor the point. The main thing I want to keep in mind here is that before any Church council acknowledged what was, in fact, already Scripture, these documents had already begun to function in that way. These books showed evidence of all of these criteria mentioned so far and had already begun to be used with some authority. The final criterion, though, is probably the most significant. Because of that, I’m giving it its own post.
So come back next time as I talk about the many nuances behind what we mean when we say Scripture is “inspired.” Yes, the next post will be all about Inspiration.