The Emerging NT Canon, Inspiration, and the “Inner Cannon” Bias – Part II

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Apostolic Bias, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and the Catholic Canon

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The problem of apostolic bias is more directly felt by a modern church that derives its methodologies and standards of belief from the inerrant nature of stable, unshakeable written tradition.[1] Dobschütz is convinced that “from the beginning there had been degrees of authority.  The Lord was more than the apostle; a letter of Paul was appreciated more than an anonymous epistle.”[2] It is this gradation of authority that leads some to deny the inspiration[3] of documents that did not share clear proximity to apostolic authority, but they did so on the basis of defending the integrity of a written, and consequently fixed, document.  Indeed, some even went to great lengths to wed the works of Luke and Mark to apostolic writers like Peter and Paul even though these Gospels claimed eyewitness authority and were widely accepted by tradition.  While few of the apostolic and Ante-Nicene fathers rejected large portions of the canon,[4] some excluded certain documents.  These exclusions were presumably based on a hierarchy.[5]

The primacy of the Gospels and the Pauline epistles is widely recognized by the Ante-Nicene fathers.  There is no proof, to speak of, that calls the inclusion of the Gospels[6] or the Pauline epistles into question.[7] This, of course, is representative of the hierarchy held by the early church, and comes as no surprise.  What may be surprising to most is the scant objection by the orthodox leaders to most of the New Testament documents.  Critical scholarship has grossly overestimated the case against these documents.

“Critical scholarship has grossly overestimated the case against these documents.”

The remaining material to be covered also follows the hierarchy noticed by scholars.  The Catholic Epistles were disputed by only two noticeable writers, though.  Cyprian lavishes praise on the Gospels and Pauline epistles but does not mention the Catholic Epistles.[8] Interestingly, Origen calls 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude disputed books, and will not endorse them as Scriptural.[9] Origen, largely a speculative theologian and given to Gnosticism, appears as a surprising opponent to the Catholic Epistles because he so freely utilizes documents that are universally denied by the rest of the church.  Also not included in the Pauline corpus by those who would not recognize it is the letter to the Hebrews.  Cyprian, however, is the only father to object seriously to the letter to the Hellenistic community.[10]

The only remaining document to receive criticism, which is of special interest to the present study, is also the only document that contains large amounts of prophecy and apocalyptic literature, the Revelation.  Dionysius, a former pupil of Origen, rendered the Apocalypse the work of the Apostle John, but still refused to hold it in the same light as the other canonical works.[11] This is perhaps one of the clearest examples of bias toward a document, and, accordingly, the establishment of an inner canon in the patristic writings.[12] As such, it is interesting that Eusebius[13] also lists the Apocalypse as a spurious book, not because of apostolicity, but because of content.  According to Bruce, “he could not reconcile himself to its millenarian teaching,”[14] and concludes, “He would simply prefer it not to be in the canon.”[15] This is certainly not enough to justify an affect on either the framing of the canon or the doctrinal beliefs of the church.  Why is there not a fragmented canon, or an inner canon for that matter, evident in the writings of the early church, then?

First, it should be increasingly clear that the very notion of a canon is contrary to the preference of one document over another or of one author over another.  Apostolicity, and the inspiration it precluded, is a better criterion for inclusion than originally thought.  While there were a few documents within proximity to Christ or the apostles not included in the canon, their content was largely Gnostic.  These documents were dismissed on conditions subsidiary to apostolic authority, and the bishopric disallowed their consideration.  Additionally, in the framework of the canon, each document stood on its own authority and did not rely upon outside sources for consideration.  Under such circumstances, it would be difficult to label a document canonical if it did not posses the same attributes as the others.

Second, the rejection of Marcion’s list that spurred the organization of the canon was an event that drove the early fathers toward solidarity.  Marcion’s list was a direct affront to the catholic church, and as such, it was necessary for the church to re-evaluate its standing on material fit for consumption.[16] Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament and of three of the Gospels constituted the greatest attack on what the church felt was the heritage of Christological doctrine.  Though certain individuals may have questioned the suitability of certain documents, their intent was still to participate in the gathering of all suitable documents, not to deviate from it.  As such, the response to Marcion on behalf of the early fathers makes a purposeful identification of special or more inspired material a non sequitur.


Many of the early fathers did express preference for the Gospels and Pauline corpus as those documents best expressed the standard of apostolicity; however, the careful process and widespread acceptance of the canon made the presence of an inner canon a virtual impossibility.  Undoubtedly, Dionysius and Eusebius exhibited the preference for some documents over others within the canon of Scripture.  For reasons that may be considered inconsequential by some, these writers held the Apocalypse in lower regard than the rest of the canon.  Their solidarity with the community of believers made it untenable that this would have affected the outcome of the canon or of doctrine, however.

“Many of the early fathers did express preference for the Gospels and Pauline corpus as those documents best expressed the standard of apostolicity”

The early church’s reliance upon apostolicity as a criterion for canonization, and later inspiration, proved to be exceptionally insightful if not providential.  The criteria for canonization ultimately shifted into the criteria for inspiration as the doctrine developed in the Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers.  As such, a shift from the authority and influence of a person to that of a document and written tradition was inevitable.  Thankfully, though, this progression leaves recourse for discussion and elaboration on the intent of those founding leaders.  The development seems inevitable in hindsight.  Therefore, the process for canonization of apostolic material seems to have been as thorough and as reliable as the process of declaring those writings inspired in later centuries.  This leaves the modern reader with the assurance the sacred writings of the Christian bible are truly reliable and that the canon is justifiably closed.

[1] See Robert Morgan, “Can the Critical Study of Scripture Provide a Doctrinal Norm?” The Journal of Religion, 76 (April 1996): 206-232.  Morgan discusses the many pitfalls that the demand of written tradition has had on doctrinal norms and methodologies not only for theological study but also for daily spiritual living.

[2] Ernst Von Dobschütz, “The Abandonment of the Canonical Idea.” The American Journal of Theology, 19 (July 1915): 419.

[3] Again, it is important to read apostolicity here.

[4] Charles H. Cosgrove argues that Justin Martyr had no use for any of the Pauline writings because of the supremacy of the teaching of Jesus.  See Charles H. Cosgrove, “Justin Martyr and the Emerging Christian Canon: Observations on the Purpose and Destination of the Dialogue with Trypho.” Vigiliae Christianae, 36 (September 1982): 209-232.

[5] E.g., Origen thought that the canon was given by the Spirit of God, but that he could discern levels of inspiration within the Old Testament and New Testament.  See Commentary on John 1.41.6  in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds, The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 9, Gospel of Peter, Diatessaron, Testament of Abraham, Epistles of Clement, Origen, Miscellaneous Works, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1999), 297-298.

[6] John’s Gospel was questioned by some, but none placed it on a disputed or spurious list.

[7] Justin Martyr is a notable exception with his denial of Paul, but his writings may have come before a time when scholars can make a serious examination of canonical study in the fullness of its cultural impetus.

[8] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds, The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325: Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 5, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1999), 267-575.

[9] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds, A Select Library of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1, Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1994), 273.

[10] Roberts, The Writings of the Fathers Vol. 5, 267-575.

[11] Schaff, A Select Library, 309-311.

[12] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 196.

[13] Eusebius is included in the list to be considered because of his extensive work in communicating the Ante-Nicene Fathers to the modern reader.  It is through his lens that we receive much of this content.

[14] Ibid., 199.

[15] Ibid., 200.

[16] Some have argued that this liturgical sense is the only way to understand “canon” in the early church.


  1. Shawn,

    Excellent posts again. Yet I am not at all convinced of all parts of your argument. I feel that it’s too neat and tidy. But I’m already under fire for my “scriptology” so I’ll leave it.

    Plus I didn’t like the quick and easy dismissal of Origen. Who, for all his speculation, remained tied tightly to the Scriptural narrative in a way that Clement of Alexandria never did, and Clement didn’t get anathema’d! A man who is such a literalist as to cut off his penis and die a martyrs death defending the Catholic church cannot be gnostic.


  2. Tony,

    “Excellent posts again. Yet I am not at all convinced of all parts of your argument. I feel that it’s too neat and tidy. But I’m already under fire for my “scriptology” so I’ll leave it.”

    I am sorry you feel like you have worn out your voice on this, because I would love to hear why you think that my argument is “too neat and tidy.” I did my best to merely report on a topic from primary sources.

    “Plus I didn’t like the quick and easy dismissal of Origen.”

    Think of it as the result of the topic and not my personal feelings. I think Origen is fascinating (one of my favorites, in fact). However, his analogous interpretation of Scripture is widely recognized by scholars as correlative to the Gnostic thinking of the time. In fact, this Gnostic leaning (analogous interpretation that is) is one of the few things shared between him and Clement of Alexandria. Both men seemed to be very fond of it. So, I think I would be willing to defend this point in my post, though it could probably be better qualified.




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