Foundation of Orthodoxy and the Canon Research Paper

Orthodoxy and the Canon

In order to most effectively examine the pivotal events and movements that took place which influenced the foundation of orthodox Christianity and the formation of its canon, one must first understand the zeitgeist that was prevalent during the first five centuries of the Anno Domini time period in which these events occurred. Christianity had largely spawned as an upstart religion that emerged within the larger context of Judaism — its chief proponent (Jesus Christ) was a man vilified for teaching what was regarded as heresy. For the next two centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christianity remained a relatively small, poorly regarded religion that was largely perpetuated through the efforts of Christ’s apostles and their followers. Once Constantine adopted the religion as the official belief system of the Holy Roman Empire, however, this faith suddenly had to contend with a rash of implications regarding its ideology, the conception of Christ, and various tenets that posterity would revere and which had both social and political implications. Thus, in discussing the impact of events such as the Council of Nicaea, the Chalcedon Council and the Gnostic movement, it is important to realize that those involved in them had political objectives to consider and concerns that were every bit as pragmatic for solidifying a faith and belief system as they pertained to spirituality.

Perhaps the most influential of all the historical occurrences that shaped the foundation of orthodox Christianity and the assembling of its canon was the Council of Nicaea. In some respects, it is advantageous to clarify what took place at this council by starting with its result and then analyzing the way such a result was engendered. This council, which took place in 325 A.D., decided the single most important aspect of Christianity — namely the concept of the trinity. The council was largely formed to deal with the issue of the divinity of Jesus, which some council members disputed and others avowed. Of the former, the most prominent was Arius, who attempted to convince the other council members that Jesus was not the same as God and was considerably distinct from Him. Of the latter, the individual who proved the most cogent was Athanasius. It is worth mentioning that the council lasted for several days and was passionately debated by individuals on both of these sides. Part of the reason that the arguments of each partisan group were so emotional is because the objective of the council was to establish a precedent that would last for the duration of Christianity.

What was of particular interest about the way the council was conducted — and what ultimately proved to be the most decisive factor in the outcome of the council — was the methodology utilized by both partisan groups to sway the other. Although both Arius and Athanasius were both men of conviction, the principle means invoked by them to compel the council members was to invoke the use of scriptures. The scriptures that were used, of course, ended up being some of the scriptures that formed the basis of the Christian canon. This sentiment most certainly applies to the scriptures produced by Athanasius, since he was ultimately able to persuade the council that Jesus was aligned with both God and the Holy Spirit to form the conception of the trinity and present a more compelling argument than Arius did (1).

However, virtually no one who is familiar with this council and the arguments presented can deny the fact that Athanasius’ arguments — and the scriptures he presented which eventually formed part of the canon — were at least partly based on political motives. Athanasius’ argument was actually best characterized by a form of inductive reasoning, which was based on his viewpoint that “Christ could not impart the salvation the Bible and the church’s worship testified to” (2) unless he was divine — as divine as God himself. This approach of Athanasius is certainly deserving of scrutiny and actually reveals a considerable amount about the creation of orthodoxy Christianity and of the books selected to become a part of the canon. There were certain goals that the men at the council of Nicaea (certainly Athanasius) had, most saliently to formulate an ideology that would help the religion to continue to propagate itself and assist in the conversion of adherents. The idea that Christ had died on the cross and was subsequently resurrected so that he could give everlasting life to others is a fundamental component — if not an outright appeal — of Christianity. By considering this fact and deeming that a divine Jesus as part of the trinity could best achieve this objective, Athanasius was able to persuade the council of his viewpoint and, subsequently, the texts he used to demonstrate his point were included in the canon.

The Chalcedon council was another highly influential event that took place after the Council of Nicaea and played an integral part in forming the canon and the ideas championed by Christian orthodoxy. In many ways, the Chalcedon council was simply a continuation of the council of Nicaea and a means of solidifying the ideas developed at Nicaea. The initial council established the fact that Jesus was divine, yet still required a number of points of clarification about how Jesus could be divine and yet still have a number of human aspects of his life (3) such as his birth, his lineage, and other facets of his life that was similar to those of most other people. What was of considerable interest about this particular council is that it was attended by members of both the Eastern and Western factions of the Roman Empire, and numerous segments of both of these divisions that not only had their own ideas about how best to address this particular problem but also their own political objectives for doing so. Whereas the Council of Nicaea is an example of conflicting viewpoints about a major point in the ideology of the fledgling Christina religion, the Chalcedon Council is an example of the competition between various factions all seeking to obtain power. Nonetheless, a crucial similarity between these councils is the fact that whichever segment of the Christian Church that would be able to prevail in this council would be able to have scriptures buttressing its viewpoint added to the canon.

In assessing the methodology involved for deciding the outcome of this council, it is necessary to point out the fact that although there were Eastern and Western branches of Christianity — which largely coincided with the Eastern and Western portions of the Holy Roman Empire — at the time of the council the religious leader in Rome was the supreme ecclesiastical (and perhaps political) authority for both divisions. This would largely remain the case until the Great Schism of 1054 in which the Christian church would undergo the first of a progression of schisms that would separate the church (4) which would eventually include the Protestant Reformation. However, with representatives form Alexandria, Constantinople and Antioch present at the Chalcedon Council, it is significant that “all three major Eastern sees competed against each other to enlist support from the Bishop of Rome” (5) who was the leader of the church. The representatives from Antioch were able to advance the prevailing notion that Christ was ultimately a person who was simultaneously human and divine. However, it widely appeared as though this viewpoint was able to become solidified in Christian ideology and reinforced by passages from its canon because of favoritism — the widow of the prior emperor selected Marcian as the new emperor because she knew he would favor the position advocated by Antioch, a fact which underscores the political intrigue that influenced Christianity. As with the previous Council, passages that supported this dual view of Christ would come to populate the canon.

Finally, it is important to recognize the influence that the Gnostic movement had on the forming of the canon for orthodox Christianity, as well as the impact that other unorthodox scions of Christianity produced on forming this canon. The chief point of contention of Gnosticism as it relates to the canon is the fact that adherents of this form of Christianity believe that the Old Testament contains a number of passages that emphasize God’s wrath — which is something that other branches of Christianity and even Judaism incorporate into their canons (6). The Gnostic view in particular affected the creation of the Christian canon because Gnostics developed a different theology regarding God and Jesus because of their belief that the Old Testament God is portrayed as too choleric. Consequently, some modern scholars characterize this sect as having “biblical demiurgical traditions” (7). As a reaction to such a sentiment, the orthodox Christian canon largely chose to incorporate many of these Old Testament passages and balanced them with those that demonstrated God’s more beneficent, kind nature — which can again be interpreted as a political move to temper the portrayal of God’s image.…