The Canon of Christ

The Canon of Christ

For the earliest Christians—the first two generations or more—the ‘Bible’ was what we now call the Old Testament.

The ‘memoirs of the apostles’ and four canonical Gospels spread more widely by the middle of the second century, but before this there was no consensus on which scriptures of the New Testament were canonical. This is a debate that would continue until at least the fourth century in the West, and perhaps even longer in the Greek-speaking East.

The Old Testament of these early Christians was almost entirely that of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures done between the third and first centuries (B.C.). But their ‘canon’ of divine revelation could more properly be applied to the continuation of Christ that lived on in the successors to the apostles.

The Church, as the true Body of Christ and pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15)—acting by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28)—is a living, breathing community of ‘holy writ’ (2 Cor. 3:2). In the Liturgy and in the daily prayer services, the scriptures are proclaimed, with authority, to God’s holy people.

It is within this worshipping context of the holy Church that the scriptures are eventually codified, translated, copied, distributed, and preserved.

To his young disciple Timothy, the apostle Paul writes:

[F]rom childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. —2 Timothy 3:15–17

In this context, of course, the ‘scriptures’ are the Old Testament—and more specifically, the Greek translation of the Old Testament or Septuagint. Rather than living by a canon (‘rule’) of the Bible (as we understand it today), the Church lives by the ‘canon of Christ’:

The earliest regula, or canon of faith, for the Christian community was Jesus himself, whose words and deeds were interpreted afresh in numerous sociological contexts in which the early Christians lived. The prophetic voice, which was believed by many Jews to have ceased in Israel, was believed to be very much alive in the community of the followers of Jesus. —Lee Martin McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, p. 70

On the first feast of Pentecost following the resurrection, a ‘new age of the Spirit’ was announced by the apostle Peter (Acts 2:14–21), following the prophecies of Joel (Joel 2:28–32). Of this age, Joel writes:

I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your elders will dream dreams, and your youths will see visions.

Christ himself wrote nothing down, and in his Gospel message, the importance of passing on new books of Christian teaching was not exactly central. It is worth noting that the ancient world generally held disdain for the written word, as can be seen in Plato, Papias, and elsewhere.1

And while the scriptures are obviously important for the life of the Church—and even paramount within tradition—we must not forget the original context, nor should we impose our modern experiences back into the first century.

For example, the printing press was not invented until the fifteenth century, and even then, only the wealthiest or most affluent could either afford to purchase books or have the ability to read them. These were the days of papyrus and vellum, widespread illiteracy, and an affinity for oral tradition. The scriptures were proclaimed and preserved in the Church both orally and liturgically, and this has been the way of things—even until the present day in Orthodoxy.

Instead of writing books, Jesus created a gathering of disciples called his Church. A Body that is united to Him and his truth through his mysteries and by the Holy Spirit—a Body which is therefore able to preserve the true, holy traditions of Christ through the ages.

This is why the Scottish Biblical scholar James Barr concludes:

The idea of a Christian faith governed by Christian-written holy scriptures was not an essential part of the foundation plan of Christianity. —Holy Scripture, p. 12

Show 1 footnote

  1. e.g. Papias: “For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice.”


  1. jackie snyder says

    I often think of the Orthodox Faith. but im afraid it will go the way of the Catholic Church which is becomming unbareable to me lately with ideas not in line with the Word of God.

    • says

      Thankfully, we can have assurance through Christ that the gates of hades will never prevail against his Church—no matter how bad things may seem to be!

  2. says

    Write sometime on Paul’s “falling away” of 2 Thessalonians 2. How does Orthodoxy understand this? It seems to be a general digression.

  3. Fr. Deacon Trevor Fernandes says

    Dear Subdeacon Gabe:
    Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever! I commend you and this site. You have done a good job of boldly but gently and charitably presenting truths of the Holy Orthodox Faith. God bless you and yours this Great Lent. You will be in my prayers. Pray for me, a poor sinner.
    Glory to Thy long suffering, O Lord!
    Fr. Deacon Trevor+
    St. Michael Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Rossford, Ohio.

  4. Daniel says

    It was this realization that marked the beginning of my conversion to Orthodoxy. I was actually double-majoring in college as a biblical studies/philosophy student, and wrote my senior thesis on the indispensability of tradition for a consistently Christian hermeneutic of Scripture. After stumbling upon Irenaeus and the “rule of faith,” there was no turning back. I had lost all of my Protestantism by the time I graduated.

    Great post!

  5. Bp.Tom van Kan says

    “To some it is given…”, and again: no-one can come (to Jesus) unless The Father draw him. Certainly it is by Election, it is wonderful that solid Doctrine is maintained in the Church of God, sound Orthodoxy. Thank you for your Website. May The Lord continue to Bless you richly in every way.
    Bp. Tom van Kan, Ireland.