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Does the Canon warrant a universal application of scriptures?

Updated on May 6, 2013
St. Augustine
St. Augustine

Many Christians most probably do not know that the early church – at least in the first two hundred or so years – did not have a New Testament. It may be equally surprising to many to know that as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the New Testament canon was still being debated from different perspectives.

For the Roman Catholic church, the New Testament canon was finally defined by the Council of Trent, in 1546. It was not until 1559 that the Gallic Confession of Faith defined it for the Calvinistic traditions. The final definition for the Church of England came in the Thirty Nine Articles of 1563. For the Greek Orthodox Church, the final definition came in the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672.

However, as early as around 180 A.D. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, referred to a Tetramorph, or a four gospel canon, and even earlier, in mid-second century, Justin Martyr mentioned "memoirs of the apostles" and "writings of the prophets" being read side by side on Sabbaths. Furthermore, as early as 200 A.D. Origen probably used a canon of 27 books in his catechetical school, but there were disputes with regard to the Letter to the Hebrews, The Letter of James, The Second Letter of Peter, The Third Letter of John and the Book of Revelation (the Antilegomena).

It is therefore, fair to say that by the beginning of the third century, most of the 27 books of the New Testament were already known, but their canonicity was still unsettled.

It was not until the latter half of the fourth century, in 367, that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter Letter, explicitly gave a list of the 27 books that would later become the canon of the New Testament. The Synod of Hippo, in 393, became the first church council to accept the list and in 397 and 419 the Councils of Carthage followed suit.

These were councils under the leadership of St. Augustine, who considered the canon closed.

There is no doubt, therefore, that the New Testament canon was a process that took many years. It was not a one time settlement and, at the blink of an eye, there was an agreed upon New Testament. Furthermore, the disputes were the result of different believing communities bringing in their particular and unique milieu, understandings and interpretations.

Even the issue of divine inspiration was variously understood and interpreted. Church councils were instrumental in forging a common understanding for the believing communities. In due time a prevailing side decided what would be orthodoxy and determined the opposite side to be heresy. Being on the losing side often carried severe consequences too.

The views of infallibility and inerrancy held by many today have no historical basis. It is true that there are some timeless lessons in all scriptures. It is equally true that contextualization and interpretation are equally necessary tools. The one-fits-all application does not have a foundation in history.

Irenaeus bishop of Lyon
Irenaeus bishop of Lyon

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