Have you ever thought about what caused the early church to decide what works should be included in the New Testament? It is a question that has been asked of me numerous times, and surprisingly enough, I often respond by saying that the books in the New Testament that we consider to be canonical came about in part through the actions of a person determined to be a heretic.
Just so we are all on the same page, I am using the word “canonical” to mean an official or authoritative list of books in the Bible. Before the time of Marcion, the early church had not determined a canonical listing of books, which would comprise what we refer to as the Holy Scriptures. Marcion developed a strong dislike for Judaism and materialism and gathered a following in Rome around 144 A.D. Through his dislike of Judaism and materialism, he determined his own definition of who the Lord is and concluded that there was an inferior god (demiurge) who was the creator and made mankind to dwell on the Earth, whom he referred to as Jehovah. This Jehovah (his definition) was arbitrary and vindictive, but was not the same as the Father of Christians, whose purpose was that there be only a spiritual world. Because Jehovah was the God who chose a particular people as his own and was vindictive and a god of justice, there had to be another god who would not be vindictive, but only loving — the Father of Christians.
Marcion therefore decided that he would reject the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament, Tanakh) and determine what books would be appropriate in the New Testament. Marcion decided that the only Gospel he would accept was the Gospel of Luke, from which he deleted most references to Judaism, and the epistles of Paul, excepting the Pastoral Epistles. He rejected all other works, and throughout time, established his own church with its own bishops and its own version of what was canonical. Unfortunately, this church existed for centuries, causing innumerable difficulties. The early church fathers, including Tertullian, Origen and Irenaeus, all rejected Marcion as a heretic, and he officially was excommunicated in 144 A.D.
The history and efforts of one man, however, did contribute to the early church’s desire to determine exactly which works were canonical. Marcion, the heretic, affected not only the canonical works, but also the Creeds and the meaning of Apostolic Succession. Marcionism was involved in attempting to change our concept of the Lord, how Jesus Christ could be defined and how He will judge the world, and went so far as to challenge the authority of the early church. Marcion forced the early church to determine precisely what was and what was not canonical, and for that, and that alone, we owe him a debt of gratitude. Who would have thought that we would be indebted to a heretic for the formation of the New Testament?
The Rev. Bain White leads St. Mark’s Episcopal Church/Lutheran Church of Grace.