With No Scripture in Place, What Controlled Doctrine in the 1st Century?

Another statement that comes up in the alternative Christianity model is “we don’t have a functioning New Testament till the mid-2nd century or late-2nd century at the earliest.” That claim is actually true. By that we mean a group of text viewed as inspired operating together as a collection where you use them side-by-side. We have a core canon by the end of the 2nd century – Irenaeus names it. It is basically the four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, and 1 st Peter. This canon is in place by the end of the 2nd century. But if we go back to the writings in the beginning of the 2nd century, we do not see a canon operating like that. We see the odd allusion to a gospel or maybe a couple of gospels, and a couple of references to a Pauline epistle or two Pauline epistles. So the argument of the alternative model is “if there is no scripture in place, then what controls doctrine? It can go anywhere and it can be developed in all kinds of ways.” This actually ignores four fundamental elements operative in the earliest church in its most basic level of worship – scripture, schooling, singing, and sacrament.

Every scholar working with the New Testament in the early Christian movement accepts the fact that the Old Testament, or the Hebrew scripture, was the scripture of the earliest Christian movement. There is discussion and debate about whether or not the Hebrew scripture was completely recognized in the form that we have it today in the 1st century. But no one discusses or debates that the Pentateuch was recognized as scripture for the Hebrew community, that the Salter was recognized as such, and that the Major Prophets had a major role as well. So there certainly was a core Hebrew canon out of which the early church moved and from which they drew their understanding of the promises of God.

Schooling are little memory verses that are embedded in our oldest sources. These happen to be our New Testament books because they come from the 1st century. We are not citing these schooling pieces because they are in scripture, but because they are little doctrinal summaries embedded in the texts that were designed to be memorized because they gave core theology. Let me give you some examples. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 we have a declaration summarizing that the resurrection that Jesus died for sin according to the scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scripture, and that he appeared to Cephas – this is a doctrinal summary. In 1 Corinthians 11 we have another summary that describes on the night when Jesus was betrayed he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying this is my body broken for you – this is a doctrinal summary. In 1 Corinthians 8 we have another doctrinal summary that starts out like this “although there are many gods and many lords in the world, for us there is but one God” and then it goes on to talk about the father and the son, and their role in the creation. In Romans 1:2-4, we have a doctrinal summary that talks about the humanity and the divinity of Jesus side-by-side. There are also numerous summaries in the Pastoral Epistles. So schooling is another element – these little, short, almost memory-like pieces that gave core theology.A third element is what we would call singing. These are hymns embedded in our

A third element is what we would call singing. These are hymns embedded in our earliest New Testament doctrine that tell us what was being sung in the early church. We know these are hymns because of the balance of the lines and the way the Greek is laid out. One famous example appears in Philippians 2 – the text where it says that Jesus did not view divinity a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, took on humanity, died, and was then exalted by God so that one day every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus was Lord to the glory of God the Father. That entire hymn is something that was sung and gave core Christology. A second example is Colossians 1:15-20 where Jesus is the first-born of the creation and the first-born of the dead. The core theology is Jesus’ role in the creation, which is something God is responsible for; and Jesus’ role in the new life and the new birth, which is something God is responsible for through Jesus Christ. This is core New Testament theology being given in hymnic material.

The last category is what we call the sacraments – better known as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism represents the cleansing that leads to new life – dead to sin, washed, cleansed, risen up to new life – a picture of Romans 6. The Lord ’s Supper is another in which we talk about the significance of Jesus’ death – his body and blood given for those to forgive the sins of those for whom he was dying, and the inauguration of the new covenant. These are core theology.

When we put these four together – scripture, schooling, singing, and sacraments – we have core theology being taught in the context of the every-week worship of the church. This is not something happening on the side with elite, rather this is happening in the context of the worship of the church which gives a theological center to what is happening in the church and the theology that exists in it. In light of these elements, you do not need to have a Bible in order to continue to teach theology until the New Testament comes on the scene and people can begin to refer to it.