Canon, Creed, and Clergy

A question many people have today is how the Scriptures came about? Why they were written? Why do we have creeds and orthodox beliefs? And why do we have a church organizational structure?

I am teaching on this subject in my School of Theology class this Sunday before our worship service, and so I thought I would share with you some of the basics of these questions.

First, how did the Scriptures came about? And why they were written?

The Apostles of Jesus memorized what Jesus taught them and would have also taken notes on wax tablets and such.  After Jesus died they started preaching the Gospel and the stories and teachings of Jesus.  As the numbers of people accepting the Apostles’ message grew and as Christians migrated to Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, etc. there was a need for the message to be written down.  At first, the Apostles took their message into many of these cities and shored up the teaching in the existing churches and built up leadership who could carry on their teachings without the Apostles being present.  Because there was a need for teaching to be directly from the Apostles so that the information was first hand eyewitness accounts, the Apostles starting writing letters and compiled Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry.  John Mark heard many of the Apostle Peter’s teachings about Jesus and wrote them down; this became the Gospel of Mark.  Mathew (an Apostle) wrote the Gospel of Matthew.  Luke went to Israel and researched what happened by interviewing firsthand eye-witnesses and putting everything in chronological order as best he could; this became the Gospel of Luke.  He also wrote Acts, which is a book about the spread of the Gospel.  John the Apostle wrote John and was writing more from the perspective of theology about Jesus than he was from the perspective of what happened (i.e.,John was interpreting for us what was going on).

The Epistles of Paul and Peter, etc. were letters of instruction to elders of churches in different cities to help them work through specific theological, moral, or practical issues they were experiencing.

After the Apostles were martyred for their faith, new teachings arose (at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century ) in various communities that contradicted what the Apostles had taught.  Since only John was alive at the end of the first century, only John was really able to combat some of these heresies.  After John died, some of the heretical teachings (e.g., Gnosticism, Antinomianism, Marcionism, Montanism, Nomism, Docetism, etc.) were put into writing; for example the Gnostics wrote the “Gospel” of Thomas or the “Gospel” of Mary or the “Gospel” of Judas in the middle of the second century and claimed Thomas, Mary, or Judas wrote the books.  They did not, but this led to the question of what is orthodox Christianity and who gets to decide?

Why do we have creeds and orthodox beliefs?

A creed is a summary statement of belief by a religious group.  The Apostles’ Creed was written by Christian Theologians in 150 AD to summarize what the Apostles taught in Scripture and to combat the Gnostic heresies.  Such topics in the creed were: God the Father’s creation of the physical universe (something Gnostics did not believe); the incarnation of the Son of God (the Gnostics did not believe Jesus became a man); and the redemption of the physical as well as the spiritual (the Gnostics only believed the spiritual was good and worth saving).

The purpose of the Apostles’ Creed was to say, “This is Orthodox Christianity and anything that contradicts is heresy.”  But the Gnostics did not believe they were heretics, they thought they had the truth, and they did not acknowledge the authority of the Church.  Hence there was a need to establish authoritative structure.

And why do we have a church organizational structure?

As Gnosticism was developing in the second century, many Gnostics would infiltrate churches and influence people to leave the Christian church.  Since the Apostles were dead, church leaders recognized the need for a unified front against heretical teachers in the form of the Canon, Creeds, and Clergy.

There were a few bishops in the second century who established their authority because they were discipled by the Apostle John.  They claimed “Apostolic Accession” – which means they were taught by an Apostle and received their teachings, Scripture, and authority directly from an Apostle and passed it down to the next generation and so on.

Ignatius was the Bishop in Antioch; he was trained under the Apostle John and he founded the “catholic” authority structure (when I say “catholic” I do not mean the Roman Catholic Church, although they base much of their structure on what Ignatius taught).  The basic structure of Ignatius was Bishop > Elder > Deacon.  The Bishop would oversee a region, the elders would oversee individual churches, and the deacons would help the elders to serve the people.

This system is in line with Titus and 1 Timothy – what was / is debated is if “Bishop” and “Elder” are two offices or just one (elder was used in Titus and Bishop in Timothy).

Regardless, the structure was based in Scripture and helped the church: (1) develop a center for developing orthodoxy; (2) a center to combat heresy; and (3) a structure to serve the people.

Since the majority of Churches acknowledged the 27 books of the New Testament, these books and the above authority structure based in Scripture was used to shore up and strengthen the “catholic” (meaning universal & united) Church.  There were no denominations, nor did the church want to divide and create denominations.  But the question still remained if the teachings and books of the Gnostics had any value in church.  Hence the Canon of Scripture was created.

Canon means measuring rod in Greek.  There were three measurements for what is considered Scripture: (1) the book must be used by a majority of churches as authoritative; (2) the book must agree with the rest of Scripture; and (3) the author of the book must be an apostle or a close friend of an apostle. 

Since the Gnostic books had contradictions in themselves and with the rest of the 27 New Testament books, and since they were not used by many churches at all, and since they were all written in the second and third Centuries by people who never met Jesus or an Apostle, they did not pass the test.

Hence, the Canon is closed, Creeds were written based on the Bible, and Clergy were developed to protect the church.

The above leads to the question: does an authoritative structure work in an individualistic society like America.

In other words, how you see church affects what you do.  Think on these questions:

1)       What about the needs of the individual vs. the need for community?

2)       Who or what is the church’s authority vs. individual autonomy?

3)       How do we decide on morality, ethics, & church discipline?


God bless those who came before us an may we learn from them.



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