Most Christians in our world today really have no idea where the New Testament came from or how it came to be known as Holy Scripture. Most folks don’t even ask that question, they simply refer to it as God’s Word and they loudly proclaim that they „stand on the Word of God alone.” That phrase comes from the one of the battle cries of the Reformers of the 16th Century: „Sola Scriptura!” If one reads the statement of Faith of many of the Christian Churches today, often the first thing mentioned has something to do with this concept of „Sola Scriptura.”
Standing on the Word of God alone can sound like the right thing to do. In fact, who could argue against such an ideal? The problem that immediately arose and continues to plague Christendom since the 16th Century is not the Holy Scriptures being God’s Word. The problem is with the interpretation of that Word. On one intersection there can be 4 different Christian Churches all proclaiming that they stand on the Word of God alone: „Sola Scriptura” they will shout. Sadly, each of them will be in serious disagreement with the others on matters of very important beliefs, doctrines, and practices.
In today’s world, some have estimated there are now over 60.000 different schisms within Christendom…looking very much like a shattered mirror. People may shout „Sola Scriptura” but the truth of the matter is that they are really proclaiming „Sola Interpretation!” The Holy Scriptures are not to blame. It comes down to the interpretation of those Holy Scriptures. Many Churches spring up every day because someone decided that the Bible says something different than what the Church they are currently in believes. The picture of Christianity begins to sound much like the last verse in the Book of Judges: „In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” That didn’t work out at all in the Book of Judges and it certainly isn’t working out in today’s world with the interpretation of the Bible.
An understanding of where the New Testament came from is really foundational to how we interpret it today. It didn’t simply fall from the sky one day. The extent of the Canon of the New Testament is not a matter of Direct Revelation… God didn’t write the list on the wall!!! Here is a very brief summary of what happened in history to bring us the Canon of the New Testament.
For the first hundred years or so of the Christian faith, documents like the letters written by Paul and the four writings about the life of Jesus, which we call „the Gospels”, had been circulated and copied throughout the Churches for use in teaching. Very quickly, these documents came to be regarded as Holy Scripture, of equal importance (or more, in the eyes of some) as the Jewish scriptures, which are referred to today as the Old Testament.
Around 140 A.D. (Over 100 years after Jesus’ death and His Glorious Resurrection), a man named Marcion began teaching a version of Christianity which viewed the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful God incompatible with the loving God of the New Testament. He therefore rejected the theology of the Old Testament. To support his teachings, Marcion published a canon – a list of documents which he considered to be Holy Scripture – which included only an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (along with his own writings). This brought to light the need for a consistent understanding in the Church of what documents (or books) were indeed Canonical (i.e. accepted as Holy Scripture). It is important to note that Marcion did not actually start this process of forming the canon, rather the controversy he started simply accelerated an already existing process.
At the time of Marcion, two sets of documents had already been assembled and circulated among the Churches. The first set was called the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The second set was the collection of the letters by the Apostle Paul. Both sets were quoted as Scripture by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, around 115 A.D. They had no doubt been in circulation for quite some years before that date. A collection of other letters, those of Peter, John, James, and Jude – along with the Acts of the Apostles (which had been separated from the Gospel of Luke), were eventually included.
By 200 A.D., the majority of the New Testament was established. A document called the „Muratorian Fragment” refers to Luke as the third Gospel (assumedly listing Matthew and Mark before it), then lists John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, two epistles of John and the Book of Revelation as Holy Scripture. In the early 300’s, Origen lists the four Gospels, Paul’s 13 letters, one letter each of Peter and John, and Revelation. He also notes that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, amongst other documents were debated by some. Around that same time, Eusebius lists all of the New Testament documents except James, Jude, Peter’s second letter and John’s second and third letters, which he says are disputed by some, but recognized by the majority.
In 367, Athanasius is the first to list the 27 documents of the New Testament as we know it today, and he is quickly followed by Jerome and Augustine in the church in Europe. At the councils of Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397, the Church in the west as a body approved the 27 documents alone as Holy Scripture. The process farther east took a little longer; it was not until 508 that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were included in a version of the Syriac Bible in addition to the other twenty two books.
All of that history is important because it reveals to us that the Holy Scriptures did not give us the Church. The Church was established by Jesus Himself and that Church, over the next 300-500 years, identified those 27 Books of the New Testament that we have today. Indeed, it is the Church that gave us the New Testament!
It is this same Church which also handed down the correct interpretation of that New Testament. Seven times the Church had to come together in what is called an Ecumenical Council. These Seven Ecumenical Councils came together because of the great heresies which were attacking the Church. Often these attacks were not simply debates, but the heretics were actually torturing and killing those who held firm to the Truth. True Christians shed their blood to hand down the correct interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, as it had been handed down to them from the beginning.
These Councils did not come up with some new doctrines but they only sought to identify that which had always been believed…that which was handed down from Christ to His Apostles, then to their disciples, and then to each generation. These Councils took seriously the words of Jude 3: „Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Today, the cry goes out to all of Christendom to „contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”… not some new doctrines that sound nice…but what has always been believed and taught from the beginning.
„Sola Scriptura” or „Sola Interpretation” was never a part of Christianity until the 16th Century. Truth was never some subjective thing that changed with every breeze that drifted through Christianity. The Bible is God’s Word and the interpretation of it has been handed down from the beginning of the Church. If someone comes up with a new interpretation in the 21st Century, we should run…not walk…away from them. There is no new truth…the Truth has not changed for almost 2000 years. May we seek it out and walk in it alone: ”Sola Truth”…which has been handed down and is available to each of us.
This article was first published by Fr. Stephen Powley