Monday, January 17, 2005

This Post Calls Someone a Heretic!

I have discussed this before, but it never really donned on me to cast it in this incendiary way.

In the following imaginary yet familiar debate:

Non-Christian: Homosexuals are born that way.

Christian: No they aren’t.

What do you call the Christian? Well, in a certain way you call him a heretic. For his premise in holding fast to the position that homosexuals are not born that way is not just semi but full Pelagian. The heretic Pelagius, in arguing with the first half of Augustine’s prayer:
Grant what You command, and command what You desire.
held that God would never give the moral responsibility without the moral ability to comply. According to Pelagius, it was absurd that God would have to "grant" that which He commanded. Augustine argued that the moral responsibility remained after the fall, even though the result of the fall was an inherited moral inability. In other words:

Pelagius: God would not punish us for how we are born.

Augustine: Yes he would, which is why grace is required.

Am I wrong in seeing a perfect mapping?

Everything I know about Augustine and Pelagius tells me that in the little debate above over homosexuality, Augustine would agree with the non-Christian and Pelagius with the Christian.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

How Dare They Proselytize?

The Washington Post is reporting, as newsworthy, the fact that WorldHelp, a Christian relief organization, will evangelize while providing tsunami relief in Indonesia. Their insidious plan is to run an orphanage in a Christian environment.

WorldHelp, as to be expected, is reacting defensively. According to the Post, WorldHelp (presumably under pressure) has removed from its website an earlier appeal to take advantage of this opportunity to "plant Christian principles as early as possible" in the 300 Muslim children, all under 12, who were orphaned by the tsunami. Indeed, when I checked their website, the portion devoted to tsunami relief made no mention of spreading the gospel. Apart from a brief mention that some churches it helped plant (in India) had been destroyed, it could have been an appeal from NOW or MADD or the AARP for their relief efforts.

Also according to the Post, Franklin Graham has offered assurances that his organization, criticized for offering the gospel in addition to relief in Central America in 1998 and in Iraq, has made great efforts to be "sensitive to local concerns."

I missed the Pauline epistle that taught us to avoid spreading the gospel to non-believers and to instead be "sensitive to local concerns."

The Post also wrote, approvingly, that "many of the larger [Christian relief organizations] -- such as WorldVision, Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service -- have policies against proselytizing."

Shame on those organizations.

It is not enough that victims see that Christians are nice people. They will also see that many humanists providing relief are nice people. Christian relief organizations must do more, no matter if feathers are ruffled, they must present the gospel. (Now what they don't have to do is get the children to say a magic prayer, but that, as they say, is a whole "nother" story.)

Now, I agree that first you need to attend to the victims’ needs of medicine, food, clothing, and shelter. But if that were all that I was interested in, I’d give my money to the Red Cross; it has more experience and better infrastructure. When I contribute money to a Christian relief organization, it is with the expectation that they find time to present the gospel.

The repulsive Indonesian government, which deserves to be Coulterized, but which which, alas, was itself spared the ravages of the tsunami, will no doubt move against the organization that the Washington Post has outed. The Post can be proud their assistance.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Derbyshire is Wrong on ID

Today John Derbyshire of NRO took a break from tradition, which is to say that he wrote a post in which he did not refer to himself in third person. It was refreshing not to read about "the Derb." However, he completely mangled his subject matter, Intelligent Design.

Now I limit myself to ID as it applies to cosmology. That, to me, is a much more fascinating question than the biological ID debate. Why argue evolution vs. ID in biological systems when the real question is, how is it that life is even possible? Evolutionists don't want to deal with this puzzle. They are content to accept that (1) the earth was here and fertile and (2) life originated somehow. From that starting point, which they don't find particularly amazing, they employ evolutionary theory to explain life's diversity. Fair enough, and certainly a proper avenue of scientific research.

Cosmological ID looks at more fundamental questions:
  1. Why is there a universe at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
  2. Given that there is a universe, why are there galaxies, stars, and planets and not just hydrogen gas or a big clump?
  3. Given the cosmos as we know it, how is it that a planet with the delicate balance needed to support life formed?

These are the questions that ID tries to address, or at least highlight.

Derbyshire makes an incorrect and (by necessity) unsubstantiated claim:
the whole ID outlook has very little appeal to well-informed scientists

He has, of course, relegated me to the category of uninformed scientist. But personal insult aside, ID actually has a great deal of appeal to many well-informed scientists, at least in the sense that it asks interesting questions. Even those who scoff at the ID conclusion recognize (and this is where physics is so different from biology) that the questions posed by IDers are legitimate —and so if ID is not acceptable then alternative, mulitiverse theories must be developed in their place. Contrary to what Derbyshire implied, a great deal of research is conducted to answer the questions uncovered by ID research.

Derbyshire shrugs off the fact that "big-name scientists occasionally sound off in an ID-ish sort of way" as "neither here nor there." He is wrong. The fact that anti-theists such as Hawkins acknowledge the "appearance" but not the fact of design is significant, and it motivates their research, if only to prove the fanatics wrong.

I have to believe that Derbyshire, on this issue, has an outlook that is isomorphic to that of elitist liberal political thinkers. The latter will say: "Every smart person thinks as I do." When it is pointed out that some smart people think differently, they come up with explanations. Oh yeah, but everyone knows he is a racist, or a homophobe, or a greedy capitalist. Derbyshire believes that all serious scientists discount ID. I get the feeling that if you point out some who negate his premise, he'd argue, Oh yeah, but everyone knows he’s a Christian, so he doesn't count.

Finally, Derbyshire makes a theologically incorrect statement, at the very beginning of his post:
It is possible to believe in God and not believe in ID;

That is incorrect. While you might take issue with the arguments of any particular ID proponent, I suggest that it is not possible to believe in God and not believe that He intelligently designed the universe, even if only in the minimalist/deist sense that He set the initial conditions and then stepped away. At the end of the day, at least in classic monotheism, there are really two choices: the universe is a random accident and there is no God (atheism) or, regardless of the mechanisms employed and the degree of His subsequent involvement, God designed and created the universe (theism).
UPDATE: Derbyshire confirms my speculation in his latest post in which he writes:
None of the ID people I have encountered (in person or books) is an open-minded inquirer trying to uncover facts about the world. Every one I know of is a Christian looking to justify his faith.
This is the same reasoning used by evolutionists: No serious scientist believes in ID. Therefore, if you believe in ID you are not a serious scientist.

Monday, January 10, 2005

My Book is Available

A stunning novel that brilliantly evokes modern Christian challenges. It's a full-bodied, humorous novel sure to be savored by many.
—Joshua Claybourn, InTheAgora

For more information, go here.

Lesson 14: Early Christian Heresies


Before the end of the first century, indeed before John wrote his gospel, the Greek belief that matter was inherently evil manifested itself in an early heresies. The name of one earliest being docetism, from the Greek dokein, which means “to seem.” It was especially a problem in the region of Asia Minor.

There were variants, but the common theme was a denial that the Son of God really became a man and really died. The incarnation, according to Docetic thought, was an illusion. John goes out of his way to address this heresy (attesting to its early appearance) and to affirm the humanity of death of Christ. In his gospel he wrote:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christ did not assume “the appearance” of flesh, but actual flesh. He also wrote:
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (John 19:34)

Which emphasizes that Christ died in the flesh. John also addresses Docetism in his epistles:
this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7)

One school of Docetism followed Cerinthus, a contemporary of John. Cerinthus taught that the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and left him at the crucifixion. According the Docetic Gospel of Peter:

10 And they brought two malefactors, and crucified the 11 Lord between them. But he kept silence, as one feeling no pain. And when they set the cross upright, they wrote 12 thereon: This is the King of Israel. And they laid his garments before him, and divided them among themselves and 13 cast the lot upon them. But one of those malefactors reproached them, saying: We have thus suffered for the evils which we have done; but this man which hath become the 14 savior of men, wherein hath he injured you? And they were wroth with him, and commanded that his legs should not be broken, that so he might die in torment. 15 Now it was noonday, and darkness prevailed over all Judea: and they were troubled and in an agony lest the sun should have set, for that he yet lived: for it is written for them that the sun should not set upon him that hath been 16 slain (murdered). And one of them said: Give ye him to drink gall with vinegar: and they mingled it and gave him 17 to drink: and they fulfilled all things and accomplished 18 their sins upon their own heads. And many went about with 19 lamps, supposing that it was night: and some fell. And the Lord cried out aloud saying: My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me. And when he had so said, he was taken up. (The Gospel of Peter)

F. F. Bruce comments:
The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, 'remained silent, as though he felt no pain', and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he 'was taken up', as though he - or at least his soul or spiritual self - was 'assumed' direct from the cross to the presence of God. Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.

Other tidbits about the Gospel of Peter: It is quite anti-Semitic, and completely whitewashes the complicity of Pilate.

Another form of Docetism taught that Jesus’ humanity was of a “phantom” nature, and that those who crucified him were deceived. Jerome (~340-420) would later write:
While the apostles were still surviving, while Christ's blood was still fresh in Judea, the Lord's body was asserted to be but a phantasm. (adv. Lucif. 23)

Finally, there was also a school that taught that it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified while Jesus looked on from a place of safety.

Docetism is even found in the Koran’s teaching on Jesus:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)


Gnosticism is another early Christian heresy, and in fact the most dangerous, but its roots are much older (and new research keeps pushing back the origins.) Gnosticism is best described as a mythology that collided with Christianity and then absorbed some of its features and attempted to carry the mantle forward.

Perhaps the origins can be stated thusly: There was, even before the Christian era, a mythological belief regarding the structure of the universe, or cosmology. This view, in addition to corrupting early Christian thought, bifurcates into Astrology and the quasi-scientific astronomy of the second century astronomer Ptolemy. The former line continued the Gnostic way of thought, alive and well today as “New Age” thinking, while the latter ultimately lead to true Astronomy.

This early, pre-Christian cosmology taught that the universe was comprised of clear, hard, earth-centered concentric spheres. Each planet had its on sphere upon the surface of which it was constrained to move, and beyond these was the sphere of the “fixed” stars. Beyond the sphere of the stars lay the realm of the supreme god.

Each of these astronomical objects was the spirit ruler of its particular sphere. In scientific terms, this represented an advancement over earlier cosmologies that, for example, viewed the earth as the floor of a giant tent.

The theology associated with the cosmology held that the lords of the spheres served as intermediaries between god and man, and that the supreme god could have no direct contact with man.

This new way of thinking was given the name gnosis, from the Greek word for knowledge. However gnosis was used in a more substantive way—much like we sometimes use Science instead of science—as in “Science tells us.”

Those who possess gnosis were called Gnostics. When Christianity arose, they attempted to shoehorn its beliefs into their schema. There were many sects of Gnosticism, and they despised one another as much as they hated the orthodox. In general, however, they agreed that garden-variety orthodox Christianity was for the unenlightened, and only they, the intellectual elite, could attain the truth.

The material world was the mistaken creation of a demiurge, not the supreme god. The supreme god had created and intended only a spiritual world. So to Gnostics, unlike Christians, the earth is not of divine creation, but the mishap of a far lesser being. Some Gnostic sects identified this demiurge with the God of Israel, which brings to mind the teachings of Marcion that we discussed last week.

However, since the creation was the work of a (flawed) spiritual being, there are still bits and pieces of the spirit realm sprinkled here and there, trapped in the flesh. The Fall, to the Gnostics, was the fall of this divine element into the material realm. Our spirits are “asleep” in our bodies, and Christ is the spiritual messenger who has come to reawaken our true nature. Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul, but more of a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before an error (on the part of a lesser god) brought matter into existence
The Gnostics and Docetists had much in common, including their disdain for the material. But the Gnostics went much, much farther, for they believed that gnosis lead to salvation. In other words, they possessed a special, secret knowledge, reserved for the enlightened, and that knowledge was the key to salvation.

Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the one obtains salvation by obedience of mind and will to the God, i.e. by faith and works, (in Christianity, of course, by faith alone through grace alone) it is Gnosticism that uniquely ties salvation to the possession of knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge.

What the Gnostics borrowed from Christianity was a bastardized notion of redemption. Christ was the redeemer, but not by His blood. Instead the Gnostic Jesus descended the lower world (earth) in order to release the divine element that had become imprisoned in the flesh, and to lead it back to its true home.

Gnosticism lacks the idea of atonement. There is no sin to be atoned for, except ignorance, which in Gnosticism is the equivalent of the unforgivable sin. Nor did Christ in any sense benefit the human race by his sufferings. Nor does he immediately and actively affect any individual human by the power of grace. He was a teacher, he once brought into the world the truth, the knowledge of which alone can save.

Many Gnostics did not claim to be Christians, only those that proclaimed Jesus as the spiritual messenger come to reawaken the essence trapped within the flesh. Some sects proclaimed other redeemers, including one branch prevalent among the Samaritans that proclaimed Simon Magus (Simon the magician of Acts 8) as the redeemer. Thus many afford Simon the dishonor of being the first Christian heretic (for this Simon, according to scripture, believed and was baptized.)

However, even the Christian Gnostics are, in fact, pantheists. Well they recognize that one god is the supreme god, there is a whole zoo of other lesser gods, at least in most Gnostic theologies. The least pantheistic Gnostics are the dualistic Marcionists, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

To Gnostics, a human being is really an eternal spirit, or part of a spirit, that became trapped inside a body. Since the body is a prison, it is necessarily evil, therefore the ultimate goal of the Gnostic is to escape the body and the material world, and to reunite with the spiritual.

Since the flesh is evil, the Gnostics reject the humanity of Christ. They may have allowed that Jesus had a body, but it was not human body, but a spiritual body masquerading as physical. Naturally they also reject the birth of Christ, for this would imply an unimaginable defilement of the spiritual within a womb of flesh. (One could attribute a slight Gnostic flavor to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, insomuch as it is supported by the notion that Christ could not be placed in a sinful womb.)

Many Gnostics held to the concept of an “elect.” Not all humans contained remnants of their spiritual creator—some were fully carnal. Thus only some humans were destined for enlightenment, while others were slated for destruction when the material world ceased.

So how should the present life, then, be lived? The bulk of the Gnostics argued that since the body is inherently evil, all its urges and lusts must be fought against. Hence, a common expression of the Gnostic lifestyle was an extreme form of self-denial or asceticism. On the other hand, a minority of Gnostics believed that since the body was essentially irrelevant as far as the spirit is concerned, they were free to adopt an anything-goes libertine philosophy.
All Gnostic sects baptized. The formulae used by Christian Gnostics seem to have varied widely from that taught by Christ. The Marcosians said: "In the name of the unknown Father of all, in the Truth, the Mother of all, in him, who came down on Jesus.". The Elcesaites said: "In the name of the great and highest God and in the name of his Son, the great King". Elsewhere we find the formula: "In the name that was hidden from every divinity and lordship and truth, which [name] Jesus the Nazarene has put on in the regions of light".
Magic was important in Gnosticism (which explains the rise of Simon the Magician). For example, power is attributed to the utterance of the vowels: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, omega. The Savior and His disciples are said to have at times broken out in an interminable gibberish of only vowels. Gnostic magic spells have come down to us consisting of vowels. Probably each vowel represents one of the seven planets, and the seven together represent the Universe, but without consonants they represent the Ideal and Infinite not yet imprisoned and limited by matter.
How old is Christian Gnosticism? Well, scripture addresses both schools of Gnostic thought addressed above. To the Colossians, Paul writes:
8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:8-10)

Here he addresses the nascent form of Christian Gnosticism, with a reference to elemental spirits, reminding the Colossians that the fullness of Christ’s deity resides within the body of Christ, and that as Christians they have been filled with Christ, not sparks from the spiritual realm.

(Some translations use “basic principals” in place of “elemental spirits”, but in any case the Greek word translated here was used to mean the gods of the stars and planets.) A little bit later, Paul really lays it own, also attacking the useless asceticism of the Gnostics:
18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-- 21"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:18-23)

In the epistle of Jude, the brother of James (and half-brother of Christ), the antinomian expression of Gnosticism is rebuked.

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)

7just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. 8Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 7:8)


In the middle of the second century, Marcion was clearly influenced by both Docetism and Gnosticism. He shared this with those earlier (and still thriving) heresies: an insistence that the material world is evil, a strict asceticism including a denouncing of marriage for himself and his followers, and the belief that a demiurge created the material world since the supreme god would not contaminate himself with the physical.

Marcionism’s distinctive feature can be found in the profound reference that its founder, Marcion had for Paul. It has been said of Marcion: he was the only man in the post-apostolic world that understood Paul, and even he misunderstood him!

In particular he misinterpreted Paul’s teaching of the supremacy of the gospel over the law to mean that the Old Testament had no authority for Christians. Marcion’s Docetism is evident in the very beginning of his rewritten gospel (of Luke) which begins:
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came down to Capernaum. (Marcion, The Gospel)

It was to be supposed that it was “down from heaven” from which the adult Jesus came.

Again, as we noted last time when discussing his unintended but beneficial effect on the formation of the canon, Marcion was perhaps the first to teach that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was the Gnostic demiurge who created the material world. So in some ways Marcion was a minimalist Gnostic, having but two Gods, the righteous Jehovah (who created the world) and the “good” Father.

Amazingly, since its prohibition against marriage meant that it could not perpetuate itself, Marcionism survived as a rival church for many generations. In fact, the basic tenet of Marcionism, the repudiation of the Old Testament, manifests itself now and gain throughout Christian history.


While the Gnostics over emphasized the intellectual, believing that special knowledge led to salvation, the Montanists, a movement of the second century, placed excessive importance on the experiential. It is debatable whether they should be described as heretical—but schismatic they certainly were.

We have already seen that prophets were a part of the apostolic church. The Montanists were the result of enthusiasm for prophets being taken to an exaggerated degree.

This reached a head in Asia Minor, which is to heresies what Virginia is to presidents, around A.D. 156. Montanus began teaching that while the dispensation of the Father had given way to the dispensation of the Son when Christ came, so now the dispensation of the Son is ending and the dispensation of the Spirit is beginning. He claimed that Christ’s promise of the coming Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had been fulfilled, and that he, Montanus, was the Spirit’s mouthpiece. Furthermore, this signaled the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in one of the towns of Asia Minor. It has been said that this idea also recurs throughout history, “when the new wine of a new spiritual movement is too potent to be contained in the old wineskins of the established church.” The features of Montanism may be summarized:

  1. An emphasis on the Holy Spirit
  2. A belief that the Holy Sprit was increasing manifested supernaturally through prophets and prophetesses
  3. A stern and exacting standard of Christian morality
  4. Rigorous fasts and penances for purity
  5. A tendency to set up prophets against bishops
  6. A belief that the second advent was near, and along with it an indifference to ordinary human affairs.

What distinguished Motanistic prophecy from other prophecy was that it was given in first person rather than third. There was no "Thus saith the Lord," but rather “possessed by God” utterances such as Montanus’s "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." He also prophesied: "I am the Lord God omnipotent, who have descended into to man", and "neither an angel, nor an ambassador, but I, the Lord, the Father, am come"

By the end of the second century, the movement reached Africa, and there it attracted its greatest convert: Tertullian, probably attracted by its stern Puritanism.

According to the Catholic Encylopedia:
But Tertullian is the most famous of the Montanists. He was born about 150-5, and became a Christian about 190-5. His excessive nature led him to adopt the Montanist teaching as soon as he knew it (about 202-3). His writings from this date onwards grow more and more bitter against the Catholic Church, from which he definitively broke away about 207. He died about 223, or not much later. His first Montanist work was a defense of the new prophecy in six books, "De Ecstasi", written probably in Greek; he added a seventh book in reply to Apollonius. The work is lost, but a sentence preserved by Prædestinatus (xxvi) is important: "In this alone we differ, in that we do not receive second marriage, and that we do not refuse the prophecy of Montanus concerning the future judgment." In fact Tertullian holds as an absolute law the recommendations of Montanus to eschew second marriages and flight from persecution. He denies the possibility of forgiveness of sins by the Church; he insists upon the newly ordained fasts and abstinences… the Catholic Church consists of gluttons and adulterers, who hate to fast and love to remarry.

A Montanist sect called the Tertullianists lasted in Northern Africa until the fifth century, and Montanism, in Asia Minor lasted until the sixth.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Lesson 13: The New Testament Writings

There was an interesting issue that troubled early Christianity: the question of sin after baptism. This was a very difficult subject. The source of the problem can be traced to a passage in Hebrews:
26If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:26-27)

This was interpreted to mean that there was little hope for forgiveness post-baptismal sin. This was one of the reasons some of the church fathers (Tertullian, in particular) supported adult baptism: once baptized there was no turning back. In order to fit their severe view of post-baptismal sin, it was taught that it was possible for man to live a post-baptismal sinless life.

To see how seriously this was taken, let us look at the appearance of a milder view, which is found in the allegorical The Shepherd of Hermas by a Roman writer, sometime early in the second century. This work was a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress for the early Christians and was widely distributed among the churches. Addressing post-baptismal sin, you read in The Shepherd:
Hermas 1[29]:8 "Certainly," saith he, "if the husband receiveth her not, he sinneth and bringeth great sin upon himself; nay, one who hath sinned and repented must be received, yet not often; for there is but one repentance for the servants of God. For the sake of her repentance therefore the husband ought not to marry. This is the manner of acting enjoined on husband and wife.

In other words, the radical new idea was that believers could be forgiven for post-baptismal sin, but just once! Tertullian, for his part, refers to Hermas’s work as "The Shepherd of the Adulterers".

After some time, necessary expedients were developed. Of course, not all sin was equally heinous, and some sin was mild enough that confession and repentance sufficed for complete restoration. However, the big three, that is the three major sins in Judaism: murder, perjury, and adultery, were excommunicable, as was apostasy -–which is self-excommunication at any rate. So a new issue arose concerning whether one who was excommunicated could ever be restored.

A serious dispute arose in Rome over this question in the early part of the third century. Callistus, Bishop of Rome (Pope Callistus I) from 217 to 222, ruled that the sincerely repentant may be readmitted even after adultery or fornication. Tertullian was outraged and responded with venom from across the Mediterranean at what he viewed as a “peremptory edict” issued from “the Bishop of Bishops” (intended sarcastically.)

There was also serious opposition from within Rome, and it lead to an early schism. Hippolytus, considered by some to be the greatest scholar in the Western world of his time, complained of Callistus’s “criminal laxity.” Then, with his followers, he withdrew from fellowship and established a rival Roman church, giving him the distinction of being the first antipope (a false claimant to the papacy) in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. A great scholar, yes. A great theologian, no. Callitus’s psotion more accurately reflected the gospel. The schism was short lived. Hippolytus was banished to Sardinia in A.D. 235, during a period of persecution, along with Callistus’s successor, Pontainus (Pope St. Pontian). The rival popes were reconciled before their martyrdom, and Hippolytus is now a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

A little later, during the persecution under Decius (249-251) you might recall that many believers renounced their faith, unable to persevere when faced with the prospect of torture and death. Another debate arose concerning whether they could be restored. To some, who conveniently forgot the example of Peter himself, those who lapsed were analogous to traitors to an army, and reconciliation was impossible. To more reasoned others, a distinction was sought to differentiate between those who took active measures to renounce their faith and those who recanted under torture. Dionysius, Bishop of Rome (Pope St. Dionysius) was of the moderate (and, in this case, correct) camp who argued against those who said that restoration was impossible, calling them “those who slander our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.” Once again, controversy led to schism. This time the antipope was a man by the name of Novatian. Novatian, c.200-c.258, was a Roman theologian and the first writer of the Western church to use Latin. He had himself consecrated bishop of Rome in 251 in opposition to Pope Cornelius, believing, as mentioned, that Cornelius was too lenient toward those who had apostatized during the Decian persecution and had then sought readmission. Novatian was excommunicated, but his followers formed a schismatic church that persisted for several centuries. Novatian himself was probably martyred in the persecution of Valerian.

The New Testament Writings

Some would like to couch a portion of the dispute between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church in this way: The former believes that Jesus rose from the dead because he reads it in the New Testament, while the latter believes it because the Church says it is true. In fact, that’s a distinction without a difference (which is not to say there is not considerable differences between Protestants and Catholics to be found elsewhere.) Both the New Testament (the scriptures) and the church are a consequence of Christ’s resurrection. The New Testament did not create the church, nor the church the New Testament. As some have put it: the two grew up together.

Throughout the first Christian century, the apostles’ writings were conveyed both orally and in writing. This was true from the earliest days of the Church. When Paul was at Ephesus, he heard of problems in the church at Corinth, and he immediately dispatched an epistle. Later, in Corinth, he sent a letter outlining the essentials of Christian theology to the church at Rome. By about A.D. 60, there were several letters from Paul and other apostles in the hands of various churches and individuals.

The need for a written account became acute when the apostles advanced in age, for it was clear that at some point they, the eyewitnesses, would not be around. The Roman church asked Mark to write down the message that Peter had delivered to them. At an earlier time, written collections of the sayings of Christ took shape. Shortly after Mark’s account was written down, Luke penned his two part history of Christianity, the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. Then in the Syrian region, another gospel appeared: the gospel of Matthew. Later in the century, at Ephesus, the gospel of John, the last surviving apostle, appears.

As long as these documents were scattered about, there was in no sense a New Testament. Not that the documents were not accepted as authoritative, for they certainly were, as were Paul’s correspondence, even though (for example in Corinth) there was some questioning of Paul’s apostolic authority. Paul himself wrote:
If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. (1 Cor. 14:37)

Here we see that Paul is affirming the absolute authority of what he is writing.

What was lacking, in this early period, was a canon, or an officially recognized list of sacred writings. Now an example of such a thing did exist: the Old Testament. What was needed was a similar compendium of apostolic writings.

Toward the end of the first century, a movement developed to collect the writings of Paul, which consisted entirely of letters. The motivation for the movement is uncertain, but some have speculated that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles became widely known and extremely popular around the year 90, and this sparked interest in Paul. It is know that about this time various churches began searching their records and archives for Pauline correspondence.

By about the year 95, the “Vatican Library” of the time held Paul’s letter to the Romans, his first epistle to the Corinthians and possibly one or two others letters of Paul. It also contained the letter to the Hebrews, and First Peter, some of the gospels, and the Greek version of the New Testament (the Septuagint).

An incontrovertible piece of evidence is the letter written to the Corinthian church in A.D. 95 by the bishop of Rome (Pope) Clement, in which he wrote:
Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What wrote he first unto you in the beginning of the Gospel? Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas [Peter] and Apollos, because that even then ye had made parties. (1 Clement, 47)

So without question Clement had access to Paul’s first Corinthian epistle. Since he nowhere quoted Paul’s second letter in his own correspondence to the Corinthians, even though parts are apropos to what he writing, it is concluded that Rome did not have a copy of that correspondence.

So the effort to collect Paul’s writings continued, and by the end of the first century, it is evident that there existed a Pauline corpus that was in the hands of various churches. At first it contained ten letters, but shortly thereafter the three pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) were added.

At the same time, another collection began to circulate among the churches: the four gospels. From the beginning of the second century, the Catholic Church used these and only these gospels, even though the occasional gospel of someone-else appeared.

So in the early years of the second century there were two books in circulation: The Gospels, with contents According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and The Pauline Corpus, with subheadings To the Romans, First Letter to the Corinthians, etc.

The church was making admirable progress in establishing a canon. And then something happened to expedite the process.


Marcion was son of the Bishop of Sinope in Pontus (Asia Minor), born c. A.D. 110, evidently from wealthy parents. Around the year A.D. 140 he traveled to Rome and presented his peculiar teachings to the elders. They found his ideas unacceptable, to say the least. Marcion’s response was to leave the church and form his own heretical sect.

Marcion’s heresy anticipates some that will follow, and we will have more to say about it next week. For now, we note that Marcion (1) denied the authority of the entirety of the Old Testament and (2) denied the authority of all the apostles except Paul, because only Paul (according to Marcion) did not allow his faith to be defiled by mixing it with Judaism. Only Paul had not apostatized from the teachings of Jesus.

Marcion was perhaps the first to claim that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. Jesus’ many appeals to the Old Testament notwithstanding, Marcion believed that Jesus Himself placed no authority in the Old Testament and had come to liberate man from the bondage to the Old Testament God.

Jesus, according to Marcion, was not the son of the God of the Old Testament, but the son of the superior God of goodness and mercy of the New Testament whom Marcion called the Father.

The sacred writings (including Paul’s letters), Marcion taught, had been corrupted by Judiazers if not directly by the Jewish sympathies of the apostles (excluding Paul). All scripture was in need of a cleansing under Marcion’s direction.

So Marcion deleted the Old Testament, and developed his own canon consisting of two parts: The Gospel, a sanitized version of Luke’s gospel, and The Apostle, a similarly sanitized version of Paul’s first ten letters. Marcion’s canon provided the impetus for the Church to redouble her efforts to establish a proper canon of her own. Immediately there was anti-Marcion pronouncements that voiced support for the Catholic writings, but still, those writings were not officially delimited into a collection of sacred scriptures.

On the other hand, the situation was not hopelessly muddled, not by a long shot. The church did have an effectively recognized ad hoc canon, but it lacked official sanctioning. Documents discovered in the twentieth century attest to the fact that by 140-150, the collection of writings accepted by Rome was virtually identical with our New Testament.

So the Catholic response to Marcion was this: (1) We accept the Old Testament because Christ fulfilled them and stamped them with his approval. (2) The divinely inspired books of this new age do not supersede the Old Testament but stand beside it. (3) The Gospel contains not one but four accounts, including the one that Marcion mangled. (4) The Apostle contains not just ten of Paul’s letters, but thirteen, and it also contains correspondence of some of the other apostles. (5) Special emphasis was placed on Luke’s second half of Christian history, the Book of Acts, which Marcion omitted from his canon. Its special place was now recognized: it bridged The Gospel to The Apostle. (It was at this time that the book became known as The Acts of the Apostles, although in some anti-Marcion literature it was dubbed The Acts of All the Apostles.

Another response to Marcion was to write prologues for each of the gospels in order to establish their legitimacy. The prologue to Matthew’s gospel was lost. Part of Mark’s prologue reads:
…Mark declared, who is called 'stump-fingered,' because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.

Luke’s prologue has a lengthy biography:
Luke was a native of Syrian Antioch, a physician by profession, a disciple of the apostles. Later he accompanied Paul until the latter's martyrdom, serving the Lord without distraction, for he had neither wife nor children. He died in Boeotia at the age of eighty-four, full of the Holy Spirit. So then, after two Gospels had already been written - Matthew's in Judea and Mark's in Italy - Luke wrote this Gospel in the region of Achaia, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At its outset, he indicated that other Gospels had been written before his on, but that the obligation lay upon him to set forth for the Gentile believers a complete account in the course of his narrative and to do so as accurately as possible. The object of this was that they might not be captivated on the one hand by a love for Jewish fables, nor on the other hand be deceived by heretical and vain imaginations and thus wander from the truth. So, right at the beginning, Luke has handed down to us the story of the birth of John [the Baptist], as a most essential [part of the Gospel story]; for John marks the beginning of the Gospel, since he was our Lord's forerunner and associate both in the preparation of the Gospel and in the administration of baptism and the fellowship of the Spirit. This ministry [of John's] was foretold by one of the Twelve Prophets [i.e. the minor prophets]. Later on, the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.

The anti-Marcion flavor of this prologue is evident when it is understood that included in the considerable mischief Marcion made with Luke’s gospel, he completely excised any reference to John the Baptist, since John the Baptist was a link between the new age and the Jewish past. Furthermore, the explicit reference to The Acts of the Apostles is a not very subtle reminder that Marcion rejected that work.

The most intriguing is John’s prologue:
The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John when he was still in the body, as Papias of Hierapolis, John’s dear disciple has related in his five exegetical books. He wrote down the gospel accurately at John’s dictation. But the heretic Marcion was rejected by John, after earning his disapproval for his contrary views.

There are several inaccuracies that jump out—certainly the apostle John was not a contemporary of Marcion.

Another anti-Marcion document was a list of books that represents the canon near the end of the second century. It was discovered by L. A. Muratori in 1740. The beginning is missing, and the first book mentioned is the gospel of Luke and it’s called the third, so it is reasonable to assume that it included Matthew and Mark as the first and second books.

I. ...those things at which he was present he placed thus.23 The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name24 in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself25 as one studious of right.26 Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began27 his narrative with the nativity of John. The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops entreated him, he said, "Fast ye now with me for the space of three days, and let us recount to each other whatever may be revealed to each of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they called them to mind.28 And hence, although different points29 are taught us in the several books of the Gospels, there is no difference as regards the faith of believers, inasmuch as in all of them all things are related under one imperial Spirit,30 which concern the Lord's nativity, His passion, His resurrection, His conversation with His disciples, and His twofold advent,-the first in the humiliation of rejection, which is now past, and the second in the glory of royal power, which is yet in the future. What marvel is it, then, that John brings forward these several things31 so constantly in his epistles also, saying in his own person, "What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, that have we written."32 For thus he professes himself to be not only the eye-witness, but also the hearer; and besides that, the historian of all the wondrous facts concerning the Lord in their order.

2. Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission33 of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city-Rome-to Spain.

3. As to the epistles34 of Paul, again, to those who will understand the matter, they indicate of themselves what they are, and from what place or with what object they were directed. He wrote first of all, and at considerable length, to the Corinthians, to check the schism of heresy; and then to the Galatians, to forbid circumcision; and then to the Romans on the rule of the Old Testament Scriptures, and also to show them that Christ is the first object35 in these;-which it is needful for us to discuss severally,36 as the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name, in this order: the first to the Corinthians, the second to the Ephesians, the third to the Philippians, the fourth to the Colossians, the fifth to the Galatians, the sixth to the Thessalonians, the seventh to the Romans. Moreover, though he writes twice to the Corinthians and Thessalonians for their correction, it is yet shown-i.e., by this sevenfold writing-that there is one Church spread abroad through the whole world. And John too, indeed, in the Apocalypse, although he writes only to seven churches, yet addresses all. He wrote, besides these, one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy, in simple personal affection and love indeed; but yet these are hallowed in the esteem of the Catholic Church, and in the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline. There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey.

4. The Epistle of Jude, indeed,37 and two belonging to the above-named John-or bearing the name of John-are reckoned among the Catholic epistles. And the book of Wisdom, written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church. The Pastor, moreover, did Hermas write very recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother bishop Plus sat in the chair of the Church of Rome. And therefore it also ought to be read; but it cannot be made public38 in the Church to the people, nor placed among the prophets, as their number is complete, nor among the apostles to the end of time. Of the writings of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Miltiades, we receive nothing at all. Those are rejected too who wrote the new Book of Psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides and the founder of the Asian Cataphrygians.39

So from this we see what books are in the canon around A.D. 200. The four gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, Jude, two epistles of John (the second of which is possibly what we now consider the second and third.) Revelation, and a second Revelation due to Peter. This book is known and was read in some churches –its lurid treatment of the state of the damned is believed to underlie much medieval writing on the subject including Dante’s Inferno.

Some believe the epistles of Peter are omitted by error. Regardless, we have essentially a recognizable canon, with the notable absence of Hebrews and James.