Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Week Sixteen: How were heresies and canon formation connected in the early church?

            In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus points out the fact that there were a variety of false teachings, or heresies, circulating in the early church (353). The presence of these false teachings was connected to canon formation because in light of this reality, the church needed to make a definitive statement about truth. Van Voorst describes the canon as “the sacred and authoritative texts,” while noting that the process of canonization also meant rejecting other texts (552). Ultimately, canon formation was the process of the church defining truth in contrast to lies or heresies. By deeming certain texts “sacred and authoritative,” the church also made a statement about the rest of the texts that were not included in the canon. While the goal was certainly to establish the truth, the presence of heresies in the church also necessitated the identification of false teachings; canon formation accomplished both tasks. This was a helpful process of distinction, but it did not lead to complete clarity. Some texts, although not canonized, were still formative in the life of the early church; in this case, the canon was able to function as a way of measuring the truth. For example, if a text was not canonized but resonated with canonized texts, it was likely sound teaching. One example of a non-canonical but authoritative teaching in the early church is the Didache, which was formational in the practice of the early church (561). On the whole, the canon served as a measuring stick for truth— whether or not books were in the canon, it functioned as a filter through which truth could be tested.
            This year, I have interacted with non-canonical texts inside and outside the classroom and they have greatly challenged my understanding of the canon. In Wisdom Literature, studying Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon pushed me to think about truth and why these books are not canonized in my tradition; studying these texts alongside Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet felt natural, yet somehow these books did not make it into the canon in my tradition. However, thinking about how the canon functions as a measure of truth has been helpful; because these books are similar to canonized books, they are also worthy of our attention. This has certainly been my experience— while the canon encompasses deep truth, truth is not limited to this collection of texts.

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