Reading: Unit 6 Lecture Transcripts
Unit 6 Lecture 1
I am continuing this week to consider the development of the New Testament canon in the early church. I am convinced that this is necessary in the light of what has been happening in the last five decades as archaeologists have unearthed many manuscripts of gospels which appear to give us new and interesting details of the life, actions, and words of Jesus our Lord. Many of these were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They constitute a tremendously valuable insight into early Christianity in Upper Egypt. The question is, do they give us any authoritative information about Jesus?
For example, in the gospel of Phillip, there is the following
. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you as (I love) her?"
In recent years there has grown a mythology surrounding Mary of Magdala that she was indeed the companion of Jesus, some even suggesting that these gospels from Nag Hammadi teach that Jesus was married to Mary. These suggestions call into question many of the authoritative teachings of the Scriptures as we have them. So, are these actually books of the New Testament that were left out due to political infighting among the Christian leaders of the day? Are we to look to them for help in understanding the four gospels which we call Scripture?
Those are the questions which continue to raise their head as more and more people and organizations take it upon themselves to produce materials to post on the internet about the development of the New Testament canon. I just did a google search of the words the development of the New Testament canon and found literally millions of postings on the subject. This is a very real issue for many of us who seek to be leaders in the church of Jesus because those who have access to the internet will be looking for some such information and will be led into a very confusing flood of material. What is more, so much of it is put together by people who are using big name scholars who will tell you that the canon was a politically motivated collection. These scholars at prestigious institutions will tell us that it is not a scholarly attitude to think that the four gospels are really inspired for us to know Jesus. So it is very important for us to have a little understanding of how the four gospels came to be known as Scripture.
I am going to be using some of the material from the article I posted in this week’s readings by Nicolas Perrin.
Mr Perrin notes that before the year 100 already, Clement of Rome in his letter we know as first Clement, uses words which appear to be a quote from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. He goes on to mention that Papias, who wrote sometime in the early 100’s and who quotes parts of all four gospels. While we cannot know for sure that this mentioning of quotes from the gospels means that they were already a collection of the four authoritative gospels, it does help us to know that a leader in the church saw that these documents were to be honored among the members of the churches.
By the year 150 Justin Martyr was calling the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the memoirs of the apostles. Justin gives us another insight into the status of the gospels when he tells us that these four apostolic memoirs were read in the churches during the weekly services. This would indicate that these four memoirs were already being given a canonical status.
I would add here that in the churches which carefully adhered to the traditions of the apostles, these were the only accounts of Jesus that were read. The other accounts which we find in archaeological digs today, are from churches which were under the influence of teachers who were themselves influenced by the teachings of the mystery religions which had proliferated in the whole Roman cultural world in the decades leading up to the time of Jesus and after. They were much more speculative in nature – seeking to accommodate their pagan past with the good news of Jesus. So we have the gospel truth mingled with pious thoughts from other religions and what comes out is not worthy of Jesus nor is it to be considered the gospel of Jesus. Yet there were many such gospels that were circulating in the early church, but which simply did not find the acceptance of those who were ardent followers of Jesus.
I think in our own day we do well to be aware of how often we want to mix in some of the teachings we find around us in other faiths so we can make the gospel more compatible with other religions. The early church as it struggled with who it was and what the truth of Jesus was, found that one had to commit to Jesus and leave behind all other attempts to make the faith palatable to those who were tasting the gospel for the first time. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good, it tells us in the psalms. But when we mix in the odd flavorings of other faiths, the lord will not taste good either. So the early church needed to learn how to distinguish between God’s inspired word for our faith and that which was the speculations of people.
Dr. Perrin goes on to mention that it is in the writings of Irenaeus that we find the first mention of the four gospels by name. It was Irenaeus that gave us the assurance that these gospels were the pillars on which the church would stand. It was these four that revealed Jesus. These four gave us a look at God in the flesh. These four were authoritative for faith and life.
As we ourselves think about the book we call the Bible, it is essential that we are confident that these are the sacred writings for us to follow. In the mid 1500’s, a confession was written for the protestant reformation which states the reasons for our acceptance of the various books of the Bible as inspired. (The Belgic Confession, article 5) It says,
We receive all these books
and these only
as holy and canonical,
for the regulating, founding, and establishing
of our faith.
And we believe
without a doubt
all things contained in them—
not so much because the church
receives and approves them as such
but above all because the Holy Spirit
testifies in our hearts
that they are from God,
and also because they
to be from God.
For even the blind themselves are able to see
that the things predicted in them
What the confession is saying is that, when we read these books, we know in our hearts that God has inspired them. Sure, they have been handed down by the Church as holy and canonical. But for us, we realize that when we read these books, unlike any other writings which may be thoughtful and good and true, are not holy and authoritative like the Bible. These books prove themselves to be from God. It is these books and no others which open our eyes to the truth of Jesus. These are the books which stir our hearts in ways no other book ever has.
So we are committed to teaching all our students how to rightly handle God’s word of truth. It is God’s word which is to be honored and valued above all. That means, these writings are God’s way of revealing himself and calling us to follow Jesus.
Unit 6 Lecture 2
For this lecture I want to read you some of the writings of the early Apologists and make some comments on them as I go.
Justin Martyr was an early church father whom we call an apologist because his writings which have come down to us were composed as careful explanations and defenses of the Christian Church. Most of his works are lost, but two apologies and a dialogue did survive. The First Apology, his most well known text, passionately defends the morality of the Christian life, and provides various ethical and philosophical arguments to convince the Roman emperor, Antonius, to abandon the persecution of the fledgling sect. Further, he also makes the theologically-innovative suggestion that the "seeds of Christianity" (manifestations of the Logos acting in history) actually predated Christ's incarnation. This notion allows him to claim many historical Greek philosophers (including Socrates and Plato), in whose works he was well studied, as unknowing Christians.
It is those arguments that I want to take a look at with you for the next few minutes.
In the early sections of his first apology Justin says this to the Emperor as he challenges the idea that Christians are a danger to the empire’s peace.
Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is.
Justin wants the Emperor to compare the lifestyles of those who profess faith in Jesus and those who deny faith in the Christ. Rather than be judging on mere accusation, the emperor should, in the name of justice, only judge by what a person does. He continues ….
For as some who have been taught by the Master, Christ, not to deny Him, give encouragement to others when they are put to the question, so in all probability do those who lead wicked lives give occasion to those who, without consideration, take upon them to accuse all the Christians of impiety and wickedness.
Justin is asking the emperor to consider whether the accusations against Christians are made because the accusers are immoral people and not because the Christians are. What is more, just as the Christians give encouragement to each other when facing the judge, so too do those who are evil give each other encouragement to do evil.
And this also is not right. For of philosophy, too, some assume the name and the garb who do nothing worthy of their profession; and you are well aware, that those of the ancients whose opinions and teachings were quite diverse, are yet all called by the one name of philosophers. And of these some taught atheism; and the poets who have flourished among you raise a laugh out of the uncleanness of Jupiter with his own children. And those who now adopt such instruction are not restrained by you; but, on the contrary, you bestow prizes and honors upon those who euphoniously insult the gods.
Justin is asking the emperor to consider whether the comedians of his day who made the populace laugh by insulting the gods of the roman state are not rather more guilty of atheism than the Christians. The emperor has been trying to coerce the Christians to adopt the lifestyle of the roman leaders, but they are laughing along with the whole population at the antics of those who are their entertainers and not only does the emperor not seek to silence them, he gives them awards! How can this be fair, asks Justin.
In the next section, Justin goes out on a philosophical limb, we might say, by making the assertion that the great Greek philosophers were themselves taught by the Christ who is the logos – the word and wisdom of the true God. He says..
Why, then, should this be? In our case, who pledge ourselves to do no wickedness, nor to hold these atheistic opinions, you do not examine the charges made against us; but, yielding to unreasoning passion, and to the instigation of evil demons, you punish us without consideration or judgment.
Justin is here saying that it is because of spiritual warfare that the charges are being levied against the Christians. He says, we have pledged to do no wickedness. The followers of Jesus were to be those who lived upright lives and not people who violated the civil laws of the roman state. It is because, Justin tells the emperor, of the instigation of demons that this persecution of the church is going on.
For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting visions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself.
Justin comes right out and tells the emperor that it was demons who led the ancestors of the Roman populace to call them gods by terrorizing them. And each demon had a name for himself and that is how the gods came to be feared. It was not that the people wanted to serve demons, they were deceived into worshiping demons.
And when Socrates endeavored, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that he was introducing new divinities; and in our case they display a similar activity.
Here Justin calls to mind the history of Socrates who had attempted to get the Athenians to realize that they were worshipping demons. What happened to him was that these demons could not allow themselves to be exposed for what they are, so they incited men who loved , Justin says, iniquity to have Socrates killed for being an atheist and a profane person. By the time that Justin was teaching – around 140 AD, Socrates was not looked upon as an atheist nor a profane person, but as a great philosopher. Justin wants the same treatment for the Christians. Then he goes on to say that it was the Jesus Christ himself who had given the spiritual insights that Socrates had. He writes …
For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons
Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to everyone who wishes to learn, as we have been taught.
Justin makes the case that the Christians are atheists as far as the worship of the gods of demonic origin are concerned. But the Christian worship the most true God who is the father of righteousness temperance and the other virtues. It is interesting that he invokes the concept of virtue to the roman emperor because to the romans, mankind’s highest calling was to be a person of virtue. 200 years later St Augustine would write that, "Virtue is a good habit consonant with our nature." That was what the romans often were seeking in their lives- to acquire the habits which would make them the best human being possible. Justin lets the emperor in on a secret, the virtues which you seek are found in the God we worship.
But some one will say, Some have ere now been arrested and convicted as evil-doers. For you condemn many, many a time, after inquiring into the life of each of the accused severally, but not on account of those of whom we have been speaking. And this we acknowledge, that as among the Greeks those who teach such theories as please themselves are all called by the one name Philosopher, though their doctrines be diverse, so also among the Barbarians this name on which accusations are accumulated is the common property of those who are and those who seem wise. For all are called Christians. Wherefore we demand that the deeds of all those who are accused to you be judged, in order that each one who is convicted may be punished as an evil-doer, and not as a Christian; and if it is clear that any one is blameless, that he may be acquitted, since by the mere fact of his being a Christian he does no wrong. For we will not require that you punish our accusers; they being sufficiently punished by their present wickedness and ignorance of what is right.
Justin’s defense of the Christians relies on the good judgment of the emperor. He is giving the emperor his due as the one who reigns in Rome and who holds the power of life and death over the Christians. A few sections later we find this very interesting assertion
And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments. For those who, on account of the laws and punishments you impose, endeavor to escape detection when they offend …. those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing, whether actually done or only intended, can escape the knowledge threatened, as even you yourselves will admit. But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish. Such would be the concern of public executioners, but not of good princes.
It seems that Justin relies on a little humor here to break the tension that is sure to have been arising in the emperor as he heard this appeal read to him. He tells the emperor that it seems he is afraid that all his citizens will become righteous and so he will have no one to have executed. Oh, what a problem that would be!
But, as we before said, we are persuaded that these things are prompted by evil spirits, who demand sacrifices and service even from those who live unreasonably; but as for you, we presume that you who aim at a reputation for piety and philosophy will do nothing unreasonable. But if you also, like the foolish, prefer custom to truth, do what you have power to do. But just so much power have rulers who esteem opinion more than truth, as robbers have in a desert. And that you will not succeed is declared by the Word, aside from whom, after God who begot Him, we know there is no ruler more kingly and just. For as all shrink from succeeding to the poverty or sufferings or obscurity of their fathers, so whatever the Word forbids us to choose, the sensible man will not choose. That all these things should come to pass, I say, our Teacher foretold, He who is both Son and Apostle of God the Father of all and the Ruler, Jesus Christ; from whom also we have the name of Christians He beforehand foretold should come to pass, is seen in fact coming to pass; and this is the work of God, to tell of a thing before it happens, and as it was foretold so to show it happening. It were possible to pause here and add no more, reckoning that we demand what is just and true; but because we are well aware that it is not easy suddenly to change a mind possessed by ignorance, we intend to add a few things, for the sake of persuading those who love the truth, knowing that it is possible to put ignorance to flight by presenting the truth
So Justin continues to explain the position of the Christians to the emperor. It is a fine example of how we ourselves are to honor and give respect to those who are in authority in our lives. It does not mean they are right, nor that they are wise. But it does mean that we recognize the office the authorities hold and we will give our obedience to them, but only to a certain point. Thanks for joining me in this little examination of the first apology of Justin Martyr.
Unit 6 Lecture 3
One of the most compelling things we learn from a study of church history is that none of us are always right. As pastors and teachers we want to be those our listeners can trust and can follow. But the truth of the matter is that none of us is infallible. Church history shows us that even those who are brilliant teachers of the truth of God can at times tumble into a teaching and way of thinking that is less than orthodox. One can stand in the orthodox faith for most of one’s thinking and fall away from the Scriptures in a small part. Now that does not disqualify one from being listened to and learned from. But what it does do, is remind us all that we need each other to help us in our pursuit of our faithful teaching of the truths of the Christian faith.
There is a tendency to be wrong in our analysis of what it means to be a follower of Jesus if we resist having our teaching be compared to the rule of faith that has been derived from the Word of God. For example, as we all seek to make the Word be understandable in or own cultures, there is a danger that we will wander from the truth of God. We all have this in us. So we need to be, again and again, making ourselves aware of the faithful tradition of the church. That is why we at CLI want to be careful in our teaching so that we are all making an attempt to be faithful to the historic Christian faith. We want to hand that on to you as well.
As I promised last week, we need to take a deeper look at the teaching of the Montanists. I had mentioned them in connection with the wonderful theologian Tertullian. Tertullian was one of the great apologists and theologians of the church in North Africa in the second century. His fertile mind gave us the word trinity to speak of our God who is one God who exists in three persons. Tertullian made numerous contributions to the establishment of orthodox teaching for the church, but as his life went on, he became enamored of the teaching and practices of the Montanists.
The Montanists are named after the originator of this movement in church teaching named Montanus. He was a man who challenged the church to come to a decision regarding the authority of the words of pastors and prophets in the churches. What Montanus believed and taught and his followers picked up on, was that the Holy Spirit was continuing to reveal new things to the churches by means of prophetic utterances made in what is described as an ecstatic state. While this is not the same as the phenomenon of speaking in tongues which we see today all around the world, what it did do was challenge the church to discern whether the utterances of those in an ecstatic state were the words of God to them.
For example, I know of people who in their conversations with others have said, the Spirit of God has told me that I have to tell you that this church needs to begin a ministry to homeless boys in our city and that you are to appoint me to lead this and you are to pay my salary and so on. Are those words the authoritative word of God to us or not? What the church of the second century had to ask itself was, did the Spirt of God stop issuing new teaching with the close of the apostolic age or are we to hear these words as calling us to a new understanding of God?
Here is what Montanus taught as recounted for us in the dictionary of Christian biography.
He taught that God's supernatural revelations did not end with the apostles, but that even more wonderful manifestations of the divine energy might be expected under the dispensation of the Paraclete a term for the Holy Spirit from the gospel of John. It is asserted that Montanus claimed himself to be the Paraclete; but we believe this to have merely arisen out of the fact that he claimed to be an inspired organ by whom the Paraclete spoke, and that consequently words of his were uttered and accepted as those of that Divine Being. We are told that Montanus claimed to be a prophet and spoke in a kind of possession or ecstasy. He held that the relation between a prophet and the Divine Being Who inspired him was the same as between a musical instrument and he who played upon it; consequently the inspired words of a prophet were not to be regarded as those of the human speaker. In a fragment of his prophecy preserved by Epiphanius he says, "I have come, not an angel or ambassador, but God the Father." It is clear that Montanus here did not speak in his own name, but uttered words which he supposed God to have put into his mouth; and if he spoke similarly in the name of the Paraclete it does not follow that he claimed to be the Paraclete.
His prophesyings were soon outdone by two female disciples, Prisca or Priscilla and Maximilla, who fell into strange ecstasies, delivering in them what Montanus and his followers regarded as divine prophecies. They had been married, left their husbands, were given by Montanus the rank of virgins in the church, and were widely reverenced as prophetesses. But very different was the sober judgment formed of them by some of the neighboring bishops. Phrygia was a country in which heathen devotion exhibited itself in the most fanatical form, and it seemed to calm observers that the frenzied utterances of the Montanistic prophetesses were far less like any previous manifestation of the prophetic gift among Christians than they were to those heathen ecstasies which the church had been wont to ascribe to the operation of demons. The church party looked on the Montanists as wilfully despising our Lord's warning to beware of false prophets, and as being in consequence deluded by Satan, in whose power they placed themselves by accepting as divine teachers women possessed by evil spirits. The Montanists looked on the church leaders as men who did injury to the Spirit of God by offering the indignity of exorcism to those whom He had chosen as His organs for communicating with the church. It does not appear that any offence was taken at the substance of the Montanistic prophesyings. On the contrary, it was owned that they had a certain plausibility; when with their congratulations and promises to those who accepted them they mixed a due proportion of rebukes and warnings, this was ascribed to the deeper art of Satan. What condemned the prophesyings in the minds of the church authorities was the frenzied ecstasy in which they were delivered. The Asiatic bishops, then, decided to excommunicate the Montanists because of the manner of their prophesying.
We have no reason to think of Rome as then enjoying such supremacy that its reversal of an Asiatic excommunication would be quietly acquiesced in. Yet the Asiatic bishops might well be anxious how their decision would commend itself to the judgment of a stranger at a distance. To such a one there would be nothing incredible in special manifestations of God's Spirit displaying themselves in Phrygia, while the suggestion that the new prophesying was inspired by Satan might be repelled by its admitted orthodoxy, since all it professed to reveal tended to the glory of Christ and to the increase of Christian devotion.
The most fundamental innovation of Montanist teaching was the theory of an authorized development of Christian doctrine, as opposed to the older theory that Christian doctrine was preached in its completeness by the apostles and that the church had merely to preserve faithfully the tradition of their teaching. The Montanists did not reject the apostolic revelations nor abandon any doctrines the church had learned from its older teachers. The revelations of the new prophecy were to supplement, not to displace, Scripture. They believed that while the fundamental truths of faith remained unshaken, points both of discipline and doctrine might receive correction. "A process of development was exhibited in God's revelations. It had its rudimentary principle in the religion of nature, its infancy in the law and the prophets, its youth in the gospel, its full maturity only in the dispensation of the Paraclete. Through His enlightenment the dark places of Scripture are made clear, parables made plain, those passages of which heretics had taken advantage cleared of all ambiguity" (Tert. de Virg. Vel. i.; de Res. Carn. 63). Accordingly Tertullian appeals to the new revelations on questions of discipline, e.g. second marriages, and also on questions of doctrine, as in his work against Praxeas and his treatise on the Resurrection of the Flesh. Some have thought it a thing to be regretted that the church by her condemnation of Montanism should have suppressed the freedom of individual prophesying. But each new prophetic revelation, if acknowledged as divine, would put as great a restraint on future individual speculation as words of Scripture or decree of pope or council. If Montanism had triumphed, Christian doctrine would have been developed, not under the superintendence of the church teachers most esteemed for wisdom, but usually of wild and excitable women. Thus Tertullian himself derives his doctrine as to the materiality and the form of the soul from a revelation made to an ecstatica of his congregation (de Anima, 9). To the Montanists it seemed that if God's Spirit made known anything as true, that truth could not be too extensively published. It is evident from quotations in Epiphanius and Tertullian that the prophecies of Maximilla and Montanus were committed to writing. To those who believed in their divine inspiration, these would practically form additional Scriptures. Hippolytus tells that the Montanists "have an infinity of books of these prophets whose words they neither examine by reason, nor give heed to those who can, but are carried away by their undiscriminating faith in them, thinking that they learn through their means something more than from the law, the prophets, and the gospels." Didymus is shocked at a prophetical book emanating from a female, whom the apostle did not permit to teach. It would be a mistake to suppose that the Montanistic disputes led to the formation of a N.T. canon. On the contrary, it is plain that when these disputes arose Christians had so far closed their N.T. canon that they were shocked that any modern writing should be made equal to the inspired books of the apostolic age. The Montanist disputes led to the publication of lists recognized by particular churches, and we consider that it was in opposition to the multitude of Montanist prophetic books that Caius in his disputation gave a list recognized by his church. The controversy also made Christians more scrupulous about paying to other books honours like those given to the books of Scripture, and we believe that it was for this reason that the Shepherd of Hermas ceased to have a place in church reading. But still we think it plain from the history that the conception of a closed New Testament canon was found by Montanism and not then created.
Retrieved and excerpted from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wace/biodict.toc.html?term=montanus
One of the most important issues that the Montanists helped to raise for us all is how strictly to take some of the Scriptural assertions. Are they always true or might they be overruled by the church as she weighs historical situations. The prime example was the reaction against the edict of pardon given by the bishop of Rome to all persons guilty of adultery and fornication if they did a proper acts of penance. Tertullian sneered at such a thought and action. He wanted the church to be much more careful in offering absolution to those who were guilty of sin. He taught that the church should not offer absolution, but that only God could forgive and not humans.
Over the years of the later second century it happened that the Montanists were gradually sidelined from any strong influence in the churches. Their teaching remained in various places until under Emperor Justinian, three centuries later, they were persecuted with the intention of stamping out their teachings as a heresy. The story is told of how the Montanist believers gathered themselves and their families into their churches and then burned the churches to the ground. That was the end of the Montanism.