An interesting point made by the late Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware is that the books that were selected to be contained in the Bible are a tradition that developed within and passed on by the Proto-Orthodox Church. The process by which that tradition solidified into official canon was a gradual (and messy) one. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, biblical scholar and BYU professor Thomas Wayment discussed that process of canonization of the New Testament (in connection with a chapter in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints). What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
Now, a big part of the discussion revolves around the fact that it took several centuries to formally establish the Christian canon. As he states in the interview:
One of the key points of conversation about the canon is the idea that it took several centuries for the church to firmly establish its own textual canon. The process was messy in many ways, and as one might expect, problematic statements were made about specific scriptural texts.
It seems to me that much of the interest in this topic is to destabilize the notion of a binding scriptural canon because the process itself was not direct.
Another problem in the conversation is that the duration of the conversation seems to give the impression that Christians were widely diverse in their opinions about the canon. The issue with this notion is that Christians simply didn’t address the problem directly for quite some time.
In other words, they did not directly convene councils to decide the matter. Instead it was initially a matter of peripheral concern for the early church councils.
So, yes the process took time to formally canonize the specific set of books that constitute the New Testament. That doesn’t mean, however, that the books within the New Testament were not regarded as authoritative before they were officially made canon.
Indeed, part of the process of getting there was a developing tradition of texts that were widely regarded as authoritative across the early Christian communities. As Wayment put it:
There is something akin to an official canon and an unofficial or functional canon. We all recognize this most obviously in the way we give weight to certain books of scripture over others.
Within the Latter-day Saint canon, the Song of Solomon has been functionally decanonized as a result of prophetic statements about its contents. The book still exists in the canon, but it does not really appear in curricular materials.
This approach to canon is less pronounced in other ways when communities favor texts, such as the Gospel of Matthew over the Gospel of Mark. The process manifests itself in early Christianity as well. The Gospels of John and Matthew were always part of the conversation about canon, as were a corpus of Paul’s epistles.
We don’t know a great deal about the functional canon that existed prior to the official canon being decided upon in the mid-fourth century, but the reality is that people were reading a widely distributed corpus of Christian books that looked similar, but not exact, in almost all Christian communities. …
The way I see the issue is that the official canon followed the functional canon—and it eventually solidified the scriptural preferences of the communities which believed in Christ. Certainly there were moments when specific texts were called out as a result of their teachings (the Gospel of Peter comes to mind), but as Christian communities came together for the purpose of churchwide councils, they were able to see similar usage patterns across other communities. Those shared texts formed the agreed upon scriptural canon.
The creation of a functional canon – a set of documents viewed as important to the Christian community – preceded agreement on a formal canon.
There were many books that were valued in early Christian communities that ultimately not selected as part of the New Testament. For example, two well-known ones were an epistle from Clement and a vision called Shepherd of Hermas. One of the points that Wayment discussed relative to these was that they were used and quoted, but not necessarily regarded as canonical. He compared this use to some practices in the modern Church by stating that: “I believe that this occurrence, namely quoting from books outside of the canon to express beliefs, is not at all different than a modern believer quoting C.S. Lewis in the shaping and expression of their own beliefs.” Part of what he had in mind here is that the fact that they “enjoyed wide readership, and key early church fathers (patristic writers) quoted from these letters” can sometimes lead to the “impression that authors of the first two centuries had a much larger canon than the one agreed upon in the fourth century and beyond.” Dr. Wayment countered this impression, however, noting that: “It overlooks a reality that these same authors drew upon a wide variety of sources and cultural influences, not all of them canonical.” Hence his stating that it’s not all that different from Latter-day Saints quoting from C. S. Lewis.
A key talking point in the process of canonization was a 367 CE letter written by Athanasius of Alexandria. The letter was “a famous Easter letter—a letter meant to determine the proper date for celebrating Easter—in the which he shared his view of the canon. The letter was a watershed moment for the canon in that it established a Hebrew Bible canon and a canon for the New Testament.” That being said, Wayment indicated that: “The canon was peripheral to his overall agenda in drafting the letter.” He also noted that: “There is a healthy debate regarding whether Athanasius’s thirty-ninth Festal Letter is really ground zero for the canon of scriptural texts most widely accepted today.” As far as his position, he wrote that:
I think it’s likely more accurate to say that he forced a conversation on the topic. By sharing his own convictions about canonical and non-canonical boundaries he forced his successors to either agree or disagree with his list.
Thus, Athanasius’s letter sparked conversation that resulted in more formal discussion about what books were considered official and which were not, with the the Council of Laodicea (363–64 CE) laying out two decrees in which scriptural texts were to be accepted for use in the churches were defined.
For more discussion on the canonization of the New Testament, head on over to read the full interview with Thomas Wayment at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. Also, check out my review of the book that the discussion was centered around here.