Christian doctrine pre-dating the establishment of the Canon of Scripture

  • Question 212, from Phil, United Kingdom

    I’ve noticed that the main Christian creeds and so on were established before the canon of Scripture – how much of Christian theology pre-dates the Bible? Is that a problem as we often say theology should be based on the Bible.

    The pivotal creeds of the Christian faith include the Nicene Creed established at the Council of Nicea in 325CE and then ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381CE. These two doctrinal statements produced by these Councils are key to the doctrines of the divinity of Jesus Christ (Nicea) and the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Constantinople). They are foundational to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, even to the point of using terms and language that are still the way the Trinity is described.

    However, as Phil has pointed out, they precede the formal establishment of the Canon of Scripture, which distinguishes between those books that are considered inspired by God and therefore authoritative, and other books that are not accorded the same importance. The status of ‘Canon’ was only formally conferred on the 27 books of the New Testament at the Synod of Hippo in 393CE, when the Trinity as defined at Constantinople had been formal orthodoxy for 12 years.

    But, as the Biblical Scholar FF Bruce points out the Synod of Hippo “did not confer upon [those books] any authority which they did not already possess.”[1] There had been many debates in the church over what constituted Scripture up until that point, with a general agreement that anything with ‘apostolic’ authorship, that is attributed to the disciples and to Paul, and with provenance dating back several generations was more authoritative. Claims made by sects for new or previously unknown works were troublesome, and effectively forced the issue of what was genuinely authoritative, resulting in a need for an official ‘canon’.

    In fact, some of the chief arguments used against the innovative language of the creeds to define the Trinity was a lack of Biblical authority. The key word of the Nicene Creed – homoousios, which means ‘same substance’ – was controversial because it never appeared in the gospels or the other writings that make up the New Testament. The debate about the Holy Spirit included a charge that those who advocated for the divinity of the Holy Spirit had no Scriptural authority to back it up – Gregory of Nazianzus summed up this approach as his opponents saying “From whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of Whom Scripture is silent?”[2]

    These examples show how even though the formal Canon was not established,people expected statements about God to reflect what was in the ‘authoritative’ books. The church historian JND Kelly notes that “it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis.”[3] (For example, Gregory of Nazianzus made several points from Scripture to back up his arguments for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.)

    The gospels and apostolic literature was therefore a bulwark against ‘novelty’ and ideas creeping in to Christianity from other religious systems. The comparatively late definitive listing of ‘Canonical’ books does not reflect the authority these writings already had, or how they informed the docrintal statements produced by the ecumenical church councils.



    [1] Bruce, FF (1991) The Books and the Parchments, p.103

    [2] St Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, in Schaff, P. & Mace, H. (Eds) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – 2nd Series, Vol VII, p.318.

    [3] Kelly, JND (1977) Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edition, p.46

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