The "Church Fathers" and Their Testimony
The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series
[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible. We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).
The writings of early Christians sometimes referred to as the “Church Fathers” provide important primary evidence for the history of early Christianity. This body of literature helps provide a glimpse of significant people, issues, and challenges facing the church during the early decades of its existence following the New Testament period. From these writings we know how Christians in that period thought about and explained the great doctrines of the faith, how they understood Christianity in a sometimes hostile world, and how they used and regarded the Scriptures.
Most discussions of the New Testament canon focus a great deal of attention on the testimony of these early Christian writers. The conclusions they drew about what books belong in the New Testament canon are, and should be, included in any serious study of the subject. It is important, however, that we are careful not to create the impression that those conclusions are the primary basis of our confidence in the integrity of the New Testament canon as we have it. The Church Fathers did not determine the New Testament canon.
The beginning place for any study of the New Testament canon must be Jesus Christ and his own words. Jesus himself anticipated the New Testament canon when, for example, he promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles in what they would teach: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you…. (John 14:26; 16:13-14). Additionally, the inspired writers of the New Testament were conscious that they were speaking and writing the word of God himself. So Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37). The message he taught was “the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13) and should be regarded as having authority (Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Thess. 2:15). Other writers including Peter and John regarded the words spoken by the apostles and prophets as “the commandment of the Lord” (2 Pet. 3:2; Rev. 1:3). All of these men were convicted that their written words were authoritative even for future generations (Eph. 3:4; 2 Pet. 1:15). Furthermore, the original recipients of these writings immediately recognized that they were divinely inspired and regarded as Scripture, on par with the Old Testament (1 Thess. 2:13; 4:2; 2 Pet. 3:15-16).
For this reason, it was understood by the authors of these documents and their recipients that they should be circulated as widely as possible. Internal evidence shows that the New Testament documents were intended to be circulated among other churches. Several of the New Testament epistles were specifically addressed to multiple churches. Galatians was addressed to the churches throughout the region of Galatia (Gal. 1:1-2). 1 Peter was addressed to Christians “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1). James was addressed to Christians generally who were “dispersed abroad” (Jas. 1:1). Other epistles include statements that indicate they were to be circulated to others besides the original recipients. To the Colossians Paul wrote, “And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part ready my letter that is coming from Laodicea (Col. 4:6). Among the most “occasional” of epistles was 1 Corinthians, intended to deal with specific issues in the church in Corinth. Yet Paul clearly meant for these letters to be circulated among other churches. First Corinthians he addressed “to the church of God which is at Corinth…with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). The second epistle he addressed “to the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia” (1:1; Col. 4:6). Clearly, the writers of the New Testament intended and expected their writings to be duplicated and distributed widely. Internal evidence shows that this process of distribution was in fact taking place very rapidly. By the time 2 Peter was written (ca. A.D. 64), the Christians throughout Asia Minor already knew about the letters of “our beloved brother Paul” (3:15-16).
The Apostolic Fathers
The “Apostolic Fathers” is the description commonly applied to early Christian writers whose works date from the end of the first century to about the middle of the second century. Their works, concerned mostly with practical and moral issues, provide glimpses of the progress of Christianity in the decades closest to the New Testament period.
Their testimony provides external evidence that from the beginning, the church recognized the authority of the apostolic writings, and that the distribution of those documents was widespread. This is true from as early as the end of the first century. Their writings are important evidence because of their early date, where they lived, where their recipients lived, and the large number of New Testament references they contain.
Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the church at Corinth in about A.D. 95. The letter was written to address problems in the church including insubordination to the elders. Clement quotes from or alludes to the following books: at least one of the synoptic gospels, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Hebrews, and possibly John, Acts, James, and 1 Peter. He quotes the words of Jesus as being at least as authoritative as those of the prophets (Bruce 121).
Ignatius (d. c. A.D. 110) was a bishop of Antioch in Syria around the beginning of the second century. Most of what we know about him is found in the account of his martyrdom. Ignatius was condemned by the imperial authorities in about A.D. 110 and sent to Rome to die. As he passed through Asia Minor on his way to Rome, Ignatius wrote seven letters to churches and individuals along the way. From Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop, Ignatius wrote letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans. From Smyrna he was taken to Troas, where he wrote to the Philadephians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp. In these letters Ignatius cites Matthew, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and possibly Luke, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
Polycarp (c. A.D. 110-35) was possibly a disciple of the apostle John and a bishop of the church in Smyrna. In his letter to the Philippians (A.D. 110-120), he used Matthew, Luke, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, and possibly 2 John. He included many quotations from these writings, sometimes introducing them with expressions like “the Scripture saith.” He cites Ephesians 4:26, where Paul quoted Psalm 4:4, and then makes an additional comment of his own, introducing the reference with the words, “It is declared in these Scriptures” (Epistle to the Philippians 12).
These writings were all written between A.D. 95 and 110. The authors and recipients of the letters lived in areas of the Roman Empire including Rome, Macedonia, Achaia, Asia Minor, and Syria. The evidence shows that within about a decade of the writing of the last New Testament document (if we accept the late date for Revelation), the majority of the New Testament documents were being widely duplicated and circulated. The books of the New Testament were not intended only for limited and local application, as Pickup argues:
It is particularly interesting to note how extensively 1 Corinthians was circulated. Though perhaps the most “occasional” of the New Testament books, the evidence for its widespread circulation is actually greater than that for any other book. This analysis clearly refutes the idea that it took many generations before the New Testament books came to be widely used among the early churches. (178)
Also in this early period, writers were quoting from or alluding to the New Testament documents in a way that acknowledged their apostolic authority. The Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (c. A.D. 130), a work falsely ascribed to the Barnabas who was Paul’s associate in Acts, cites Matthew 22:14 and 26:31, using phrases such as “God saith” (5:12), “Scripture,” and “it is written” (4:14) to describe those references. At about the same time (c. A.D. 100-120), a document called the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve) was written. This document loosely quotes from the New Testament. Papias (c. A.D. 130-40) wrote a book with the title Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, the same expression used by Paul in Romans 3:2 to refer to the Old Testament scriptures. And the so-called Epistle to Diognetus (c. A.D. 150) makes numerous allusions to the New Testament.
All of these examples of the use of the New Testament documents by the early church fathers show that that they uniformly considered these documents to be divinely inspired and on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures (Geisler and Nix 50). “In the first half of the second century, then, collections of Christian writings which were due one day to be given canonical status were already taking shape—notably the fourfold gospel and the corpus of Pauline letters” Bruce 123-124).
The Response to Heresy
The second century witnessed the rise of numerous heretical groups that threatened the unity and purity of the church and its teaching. Gnosticism was an esoteric movement that emphasized that true redeeming knowledge went beyond Scripture and was available only to certain recipients of special revelation. The effect Gnosticism had on the church was to call attention to the need for faithful adherence to apostolic teaching as an authoritative standard. This ultimately meant more clearly studying and defining the limits of New Testament Scripture.
Marcion was a particularly influential teacher who taught a radical dualistic doctrine that made a sharp separation between the cruel Creator God of the Old Testament and the merciful Father God of the New Testament. One result of this was his rejection of the Old Testament in its entirety as well as those parts of the New Testament he considered to be tainted by Judaism. He thus put forth an abridged New Testament canon that consisted of an edited version of the gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul (not including the Pastoral Epistles). For the church, the teachings of Marcion and other heresies had the effect of hastening more careful study and discussion of what writings truly possessed apostolic authority and should thus be regarded as Scripture. Early Christian writers also began to acknowledge a fourfold collection of gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-165) was one of the first of the Fathers to respond to Marcion and the Gnostics. Like those who came before him, Justin emphasized the importance of holding to the apostolic witness—a written witness consisting of what he calls their “memoirs.” Around the middle of the second century, Justin described the worship of the early church, stating that in the Sunday worship assemblies, the “memoirs of the apostles” were read together with the “writings of the prophets” (First Apology 67). Concerning the Lord’s Supper, he states, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them…” (First Apology 66). He regarded the gospels as the “voice of God” (First Apology 65). He said the best answer to heresy is “to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, on which the passion has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved” (To the Smyrneans 7).
An early indication that the four gospels were becoming recognized as authoritative is the work of Tatian (c. A.D. 110-180). Tatian produced a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatessaron around A.D. 165-170. This work, which consisted of a continuous, chronological gospel narrative based upon the four individual gospels, attests to the equal, authoritative status the four gospels had by this time (Bruce 128).
Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-202) was the leading spokesman of the church’s response to Gnosticism and other heresies. He was the first of the church fathers to make full use of the New Testament in his writings. In responding to the Gnostics, who wanted to keep the Old and New Testament separate, he shows their unity. In his Against Heresies he quotes 1,076 passages from all the books of the New Testament except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude (Metzger 154).
His appeal to the New Testament is made on the basis of its apostolic authority. The apostles were “invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down…and had perfect knowledge…who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God” (Against Heresies 3.1.1). “For the Lord of all gave to his apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have come to know the truth…” (Against Heresies 3). “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of the truth” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).
Irenaeus gives us some insight into how the early church regarded the gospels in particular. While the Gnostics produced their own gospels that supported their own doctrinal beliefs, Irenaeus recognized four gospels and only four, arguing that they actually constitute one gospel in four aspects:
It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars… He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit…. (Against Heresies 3.11.8)
Using the four living creatures of Revelation to symbolize the four gospels, Irenaeus argues that while each gospel presents Jesus Christ from a different perspective, together they comprise a unity. “For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.11.8). While his use of symbolism may be questioned, what is clear is that his regard for the four gospels of the New Testament was ultimately based upon their apostolic origin.
While there is no evidence that Irenaeus ever made a list of New Testament books, he had a clear concept of their identity. He recognized and appealed to twenty-two books—all the books of the New Testament except Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude.
Defining the New Testament Canon
One of the earliest extant lists of New Testament documents considered authoritative was found in the Muratorian Fragment. The original document dates to about A.D. 170, but a fragmentary eighth-century copy was discovered and published in 1740 by librarian L. A. Muratori. “The document is best regarded as a list of New Testament books recognized as authoritative in the Roman church” at the end of the second century (Bruce 158-59). The list originally included the four gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 and 2 John, and Revelation. Only Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter and 2 were omitted. This list was identical to the books recognized by Irenaeus, except that he did not include 2 Peter. Again, as Bruce goes on to point out, “the primary criterion of inclusion in the list was prophetic inspiration” (164).
Clement of Alexandria was a presbyter and head of the catechetical school in the city of Alexandria. He was a great scholar who combined his knowledge of the Bible with classical learning. Whereas Tertullian saw little in common between Christianity and pagan culture (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”), Clement saw much good there, at least where it seemed to point to Christ. His writings include citations of a broad spectrum of Christian and pagan literature. But he made a clear distinction as to what writings he regarded as authoritative, citing every book of the New Testament except Philemon, James, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John (Metzger 131, 134-35).
Tertullian’s writings belong to the period A.D. 196-212. Tertullian also denounced the heretic Marcion and his truncated canon, defending Acts, the Pauline epistles, Hebrews (which he ascribed to Barnabas), 1 John, 1 Peter, Jude, and Revelation (Against Marcion 5.1-21). He cites every New Testament book except 2 Peter, James, and 2 and 3 John (Metzger 159-60). It is in his writings that we see for the first time the designation “New Testament” for these documents collectively.
One of the greatest writers of the early third century was Origen (c. A.D. 185-254). Origen was a prodigious biblical scholar, exegete, and teacher, spending most of his life in Alexandria, Greece, and Caesarea. His vast works include critical studies of the New Testament text as well as commentaries and homilies on most of the books of the New Testament. He referred to these writings as “the New Testament,” regarding them as “divine Scriptures” because they were written by evangelists and apostles who were inspired by the same Spirit and were thus given by the same God as the Old Testament (De Principiis 4.11, 16). Origen discussed issues of authority and canonicity of many of the New Testament books. Tertullian mentions all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, regarding as undisputed the four gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.
Noteworthy are his views on Hebrews. In his many writings he quotes from it more than two hundred times, often attributing its authorship to Paul (Metzger 138). But near the end of his life he admits that, though it contains the thoughts of Paul, no one but God knows who wrote it. In a homily on Hebrews preserved in Eusebius’ Church History, Origen states:
If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. (5.25.11-14)
Eusebius (c. A.D. 270-340) was bishop of Caesarea before 315. In his Church History he makes a straightforward statement of the acceptance by the church of the New Testament documents in the early fourth century (3.3-25). He accepts all twenty-seven books of the New Testaments but acknowledges that a few, including James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, were disputed by some.
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. A.D. 295-373) was the first to use the word canon to refer to the New Testament books regarded as authoritative. In his Festal Letter for the year 367, Athanasius lists all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, then states, “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these” (39.5-7). He adds that there are other writings that may be read with profit but are not part of the canon; other apocryphal books he rejects for use as heretical.
Summary of the Fathers’ Testimony
The first thing to remember about the Church Fathers is that they did not determine the New Testament canon or in any sense authorize the documents of the New Testament. Canonicity was based on apostolic authority. It is more accurate to say that the early Christian writers recognized that the documents of the New Testament had apostolic authority behind them (Dunbar 356).
Every New Testament book is quoted by the Apostolic Fathers (the early Christian writers down to A.D. 150). Almost every book of the New Testament is explicitly cited by the Church Fathers as Scripture. By around 300, nearly every verse in the New Testament was cited in one or more of over 36,000 citations found in the writings of the Church Fathers. Not every New Testament book is cited by every Church Father, but every book was cited by some of them (Geisler and Nix 108, 155).
A few New Testament books were questioned or disputed by some of the Fathers, but that does not mean those documents lacked initial apostolic authority, or that the earliest Christians did not acknowledge them. The fact that they were disputed over uncertainty concerning questions of authorship shows that the early Christians understood the guiding principle of canonicity to be apostolic or prophetic origin.
Some writings of the post-apostolic era were widely read and respected by Christians of that period (e.g., 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache).While these were regarded by some as Scripture, such views were only temporary and localized. Ultimately, their late production and lack of apostolic origin led to these writings being accorded secondary, non-canonical status. Other writings known as pseudepigrapha and apocrypha were never accepted because of their late production and lack of apostolic authority.
Heresies such as Gnosticism hastened more careful study and discussion of the New Testament canon. Marcion drafted his own abridged canon to support his peculiar teachings. Montanus claimed to be the Paraclete promised by Jesus in John’s gospel and to possess the gift of prophecy. Such movements led the church to define more explicitly what constituted Scripture than what had been necessary from the beginning.
Finally, the lists produced by the Fathers from the mid-second century until the early fourth century simply recognized and acknowledged what was implicit from the beginning—that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were of apostolic origin and thus should be regarded as the word of God.
Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 10 vols. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993-1996.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1988.
Dunbar, David. “The Biblical Canon.” Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. Ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986. 299-360.
Fisher, Milton. “The Canon of the New Testament.” The Origin of the Bible. Ed. Philip Wesley Comfort. Weaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992. 65-78.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.
Hamilton, Tom. “How Can I Be Sure the Bible Includes the Right Books?” Challenges of Our Times: Some Answers for Young Christians. Ed. Daniel W. Petty. Florida College Annual Lectures 2008. Temple Terrace, Fla.: Florida College Bookstore, 2008. 77-97.
Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 1. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 4. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Pickup, Martin. “The Canonicity of the Bible.” Reemphasizing Bible Basics in Current Controversy. Ed. Melvin D. Curry. Florida College Annual Lectures 1990. Temple Terrace, Fla.: Florida College Bookstore, 1990. 161-79.
Scott, Shane. “The Problem of the Canon.” A Place to Stand: Apologetics in an Uncertain Age. Ed. Ferrell Jenkins. Florida College Annual Lectures 1999. Temple Terrace, Fla.: Florida College Bookstore, 1999. 131-45.
The Apostolic Fathers. Ed. J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer. 1891. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Westcott, Brooke Foss. A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament. 7th Ed. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1896.
By Dan Petty
From Expository Files 20.4; April 2013