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The Catholic Church

1. Emerging from the theological conflicts with Gnosticism and Montanism was a normative "early catholicism" which represented a fresh development of Christian tradition. One sign and form of this development was the increased prominence and authority given to credal or confessional formulas. Up to this time, of course, such formulas had played a role in the church and had been taken from the teaching of Paul (1 Cor 15:3ff) or the writing of Justin Martyr (1 Apol 42.4). Most central was the confession of faith which constituted the formula of baptism. By the middle of the second century, the baptismal confession was triadic in shape: Candidates were asked three questions, to each of which they replied "I believe", and with each of these affirmations and the washings which accompanied them, the candidates were understood to be baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19).

2. It is not surprising then that in second century debates about the meaning of the Christian belief appeal was made to the baptismal confession as embodying necessary commitments in formulation. This appeal took the form of insistence upon a "rule" (greek: kanon), and was variously called the "rule of truth", "rule of faith", "ecclesiastical rule", "tradition" and "kerygma". The "rule" was essentially the syllabus of the instruction through which new believers learned the meaning of the church's baptismal faith. Not surprisingly, such the structure of such "rules" often followed the triadic formulation of the baptismal confession.

3. Alongside the Kanon or rule provided by traditional confessional formulas, the second century church, through its debates with Gnosticism and Marcionites established the core of another rule, namely the "canon" of New Testament Scriptures. The procedure by which the formulation of this collection came about was informal and decentralized, a drawn out affair of increasing consensus which was completed in the fourth century. This development involved three simultaneous processes. The first was a growing recognition of the need for a fixed written tradition, especially where the teachings of Jesus were concerned. The second was a process by which such Christian writings as the Gospels and the apostolic letters were acknowledged to have the same essential place in the life of the churches as the Jewish Scriptures and so came to be cited and treated in the same way (i.e., as God's inspired Word). The third was the complex business of deciding which Christian writings qualified for this status. On this last issue, two criteria were employed. Books were established as "canonical" if they were regularly read at the liturgical assemblies of the churches, and if they were thought to be apostolic, that is, if they could reasonably be regarded as written by an apostle or by some other person of the founding generation whose testimony was identical with that of the apostles. These two criteria did not always agree, and there were debates about such writings as the Epistle to the Hebrews (which the Roman church rightly suspected of not being an authentic Pauline letter) or Hermas' Shepherd, which, while clearly not apostolic was established in liturgical use. A third more informal criterion was that of doctrine. The Fourth Gospel (John) was for a time suspect because of the delight Gnostics and followers of the New Prophecy had taken in it. Its establishment as canonical was no doubt owed both to its widespread use and to the fact that an apostolic name was associated with it.

4. The central core of this developing canon of the New testament were the Pauline letters and the four Gospels, together with the Acts of the Apostles (the second volume of Luke's writings, the first being the Gospel of Luke). There was apparently a collection of Pauline letters in use fairly early in the second century and they were already (by some) being thought as "scriptures" and as "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16).

5. From evidence we find in 1 Clement, even after the four Gospels had been composed, people continued to appeal to oral tradition rather than to the written documents regarding the teachings of Jesus. By the time of Justin Martyr, at least the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were in liturgical use at Rome, and it seems probable that by the opening of the last third of the second century, all four Gospels were widespread in use.

6. By the turn of the third century the basic canon of the New testament was firmly established, and in fact churches also knew and used others of the books which finally came to be included in the canon. In the end, the New testament included works that represented most of the significant streams of tradition in primitive Christianity, though it excluded books which were explicitly Gnostic.


Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at Amazon.com)

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