The Bible is one of the best selling and most influential books of all time. It has inspired movies, television shows, literature, art, education, healthcare, politics… the list could go on and on. The Bible has such an impact on our daily lives and culture that it is hard for us to imagine a world in which it did not exist. Yet even with its great influence and inspiration, the Bible has been, and continues to be, highly controversial.
As we continue to see in the history of the church, heresy was something the people of God were continually battling. In the fourth verse of his letter, Jude writes, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed... who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of his surprise and worry regarding the Galatians’ desertion of the gospel for another. He writes, “not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” These letters, written by early apostles and church leaders, show that false teaching was entering into the Jesus communities before the end of the first century. Among one of the earliest recorded heresies was what has been labeled as Marcionism, and its chief proponent was a man named Marcion.
Little is known about Marcion, except that which we can gather from his work “Antithesis.” The writings of his contemporaries, most notably that of the early church father Tertullian (who wrote “Against Marcion”), also provide some insight. It is believed that Marcion was the son of a bishop in Pontus, and was born around 85 A.D. Eventually, he grew up to become a seafarer. At some point in his sailing career, Marcion landed in Rome where he came under the influence of gnostics.
While in Rome, Marcion began to develop a rather complex theology. At its core were two fundamental errors: his view of the Scriptures, and his view of God. Marcion came to reject the validity of the Old Testament. He claimed that the Old and New Testaments must be referring to two different gods; a wrathful creator god in the Old Testament, and a redeemer god who sent Jesus. Due to this ditheistic (two gods) scheme, Marcion compiled his own collection of texts which he deemed “scripture.” He rejected all Jewish scriptural texts, believing they were not compatible with the traditions of Christianity. Additionally, he accepted only the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. So, here is Marcionism in a nutshell: A ditheistic gnostic sect. It denies the law while requiring strict self-denial and self-discipline, and includes a scriptural collection of 14 books which had to be “corrected” by Marcion.
With God and Jesus Christ coming under attack, Marcionism did not go unnoticed by the church. Actually, the church believed that Marcionism was the most dangerous form of gnosticism in the second century. Upon meeting Marcion, it is believed that Polycarp (the disciple of John the Apostle, not the Pokémon fish) called him the “first-born of Satan.” To say that Marcion and the early church were on less than friendly terms would be a severe understatement.
To combat the spreading influence of Marcionism, the church began a slow but faithful process. This process would result in the canonization of authorized and accepted works from a vast amount of available material. The culmination of this work is what we now know as the Bible.
Unlike other strategies to combat heresy, the church did not hold a council to determine the books that would be contained in the Holy Scriptures. Instead, canonization was a process spanning roughly 300 years. By the time the church found it necessary to compile an official collection of Scripture, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were already considered to be authorized and complete. By the end of the second century, all but seven New Testament books were canonized. In the book of 2 Peter, Peter seems to testify to the fact that very early on many of the New Testament books were considered Scripture, stating that people were twisting the words of Paul as they did the rest of the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16, emphasis mine). By the end of the fourth century, all 27 books of the New Testament were accepted as Scripture.
With heresy being so prevalent, especially heresy such as Marcionism, how did the early church leaders choose the books that should be included and the ones that shouldn’t be? The simple Sunday School answer is this: God ultimately chose those books which would be included in the canon of Scripture. As faithful followers of God sought the Spirit, they were guided into all truth in compiling the Bible.
To answer the question more specifically, there were at least three criteria for determining which books were authoritative and which were not. Initially, the church looked for prophetic authorship. In order for a book to be considered to be canon, it had to be written by one in a prophetic or apostolic office, or one who was in close proximity to a prophet or apostle (such as Mark or Luke). Second, the church depended on the witness of the Spirit. As mentioned above, the church was lead by the Spirit into all truth. Last was universal acceptance. Because the church is a body of believers and not just individuals, the acceptance of the books by the body was crucial in the canonization of the books of the Bible.
How we understand and what we believe about the Bible is extremely important. As we see in the example of Marcion, our understanding of the Bible directly influences what we believe about God, and therefore what we believe about virtually everything else. The primary teaching of Scripture is on what man is to believe concerning God, and what man must do to be saved.
Because we believe that the Bible is the word of God, we believe that the Bible cannot err. God does not lie and therefore his word cannot lie. We believe that the Bible is incapable of being wrong because God cannot be wrong. Because God has spoken to us through the Bible, we believe the Bible is authoritative and sufficient. I could go on, but let me just let the Apostle Paul take over. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
The Bible was controversial in the first and second centuries, and it continues to be controversial today. As long as truth is considered relative and morals are subjective, the Bible will stand opposed to culture. But Jesus prayed that we would be able to stand in God’s truth. In John 17, Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” God has set us apart in the truth which is His word. Be encouraged that the Bible is true, and we can trust what it says about God and everything else.