Reading the right books: the rule of faith

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The early church used key beliefs as a way of measuring which books belonged to the bible

This follows on from the post Reading the right books: memory.

It’s quite clear that the majority of the texts in what is now the Jewish bible and Christian Old Testament were regarded by the earliest Christians as scripture, even while some are used much more extensively than others. It’s less certain where they thought the boundaries were, or how clear a listing they carried in their heads. Jesus, like other Jews of his time, seems most commonly to refer to two broad categories of scripture “the law and the prophets” 1

While we can’t be certain, it seems likely that synagogue liturgy already included a pattern that reflects that: a reading from the law, followed by a reading from the prophets. We saw this pattern a couple of days ago when we looked at Jesus reading at Nazareth. Something like that may be reflected in one of the stories in the Acts of the Apostles: “After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” (Acts 13.15)

When we looked at Justin, we saw he referred to the readings as “the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles.” This seems to reflect a growing sense that Christian writings are becoming “scripture” in much the same sense as the received books of the Old Testament. As the second century went on, the literature multiplied, and discussions about which books Christians should read developed apace.

These discussions, sometimes quite heated arguments, mainly focussed on which books should be used as scripture, to be read and used in Christian liturgy and instruction. Summary statements of faith also appeared in this early period. The earliest was Paul, writing to the Corinthians.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

(1 Cor 15:3-7)

It’s not quite clear where this summary of faith ends, and whether it includes all the appearances, or whether it ends with Cephas and the twelve, and leaves out verses 6-7. Paul uses formal language of passing on tradition, “handed over to you … what I in turn had received”, which emphasises the formality of this creedal nutshell.

By the time of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons towards the end of the 2nd century, summary statements like these had become rather more like what we now call creeds …

[M]any nations of … barbarians who believe in Christ … assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of his surpassing love towards his creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise his Father and his advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom.

Irenaeus Against the Heresies III.4.2

Faith and truth are very closely intertwined in the Christian tradition: ideally, what we think, how we pray and how we live are meant to be a seamless whole. History and personal experience tell us that’s optimistic, but surely that mix of authenticity and integrity is still something we aspire to. The early Christians tended to refer to these creedal statements as “the rule of faith”. This old meaning of rule is more like what we now mean as a ruler, a stick to measure things with.

As Christians discussed or argued over which books should be read in the public liturgy and used in group instruction, these early creeds provided a useful yardstick to gauge the goodness of a book’s content. As they ran the creedal ruler over the contents they heard or read, they got a sense of whether the book belonged with, fitted, reflected or provided a foundation for, the core of the faith passed on in these summaries of key teaching. Those that measured up got added to the reading list, those that didn’t fell by the wayside. Eventually, the Greek word for this sort of ruler, kanōn, got applied to the church’s official reading list, which would come to be known as the canon of scripture.

Different groups sometimes had different opinions, and some groups valued very different collections of books. Churches labelled the choices that they agreed with “orthodox”, and those they disagreed with “heretical”. Inevitably, the choices made by the larger and more mainstream groups became the dominant, and eventually official view. The books that were valued most got copied most, those that were rejected got copied least or not at all.

Occasionally a rare copy of a rejected book has turned up to much scholarly interest, and often great media hype.2 The hype is usually expressed in terms of “suppressed sects” and “censored” texts. “Censored” sounds like the stuff in the Da Vinci Code. In reality, it usually boils down to meaning a book people stopped copying and reading because those with the money to pay for copies didn’t think it was a very good book – morally, theologically or as a work of literature.

Eventually, beginning towards the end of the fifth century, one church after another started including a full confession of faith in their liturgy. This was the creed hammered out at Nicea in 325 AD, and revised at Constantinople in 381 AD: today we know it, slightly inaccurately, as the Nicene Creed. As so often in the history of worship, Rome was conservative, and it took another five or so centuries before they included it in their worship. Even then it wasn’t till the thirteenth century that it ended up where it now lives: following closely on the reading of scripture, sometimes after the gospel, sometimes after the sermon.4

Nowadays, rather than helping decide which books are faithful and fruitful to read, it performs the function of reminding the listeners that the readings are the story and word of God the Holy Trinity. (And the occasional additional function of letting you know when the priest has gone doctrinally off piste.)


  1. See, for example: “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them” (Sir 0.1); “Encouraging them from the law and the prophets …” (2 Macc 15.9) “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7.12); “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:40)
  2. Two of the most recent examples are the Gospel of Judas, an interesting text from one of the many different groups known as “Gnostics”, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which may well be a modern forgery.
  3. For those who like this kind of historical information about how our liturgy got to be the shape it is, there are various guides. For Anglican liturgy, this information is most easily found in Paul Bradshaw (ed) Companion to Common Worship: Volume 1 (Alcuin Club Collections) London: SPCK, 2001. The discussion of the creed is on pp116-7)

2 thoughts on “Reading the right books: the rule of faith

  1. Pingback: Making the New Testament – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: When is a law not a law? – Liturgica

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