The Defense against Rival Interpretations

Key Points During this Time

  • Partly in response to internal and external pressures, the early church developed a three-fold defense of what is apostolic: the episcopate, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon
  • The monepiscopacy grew out of practical leadership concerns and came to be associated with the idea of apostolic succession
  • The rule of faith and the creed were received as summaries of the apostolic teaching, for instruction and liturgical use
  • The Apostles Creed grew out of an earlier formula of baptismal confession used in Rome, attesting to an early practice of regularly reciting in worship a concise statement outlining key tenets of orthodox Christian belief
  • The formation and recognition of the New Testament canon underwent four stages: Scripture principle, canonical principle, closed canon, and recognition of the closed canon; several criteria of canonicity functioned in an interrelated way
  • The church did not create the canon but recognized it, putting itself under the authority of Scripture


Partly as a natural development in its identity formation and partly in response to rival expressions of Christianity, the church of the second and third century developed a “three-fold defense of “what is apostolic”: the monepiscopacy, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon. These interrelated components were understood to constitute reliable channels of apostolic authority as the church moved further away from the generation of the apostles themselves. Though aspects of each component exhibit signs of having been shaped by continuing interactions with “heretics,” they also convey beliefs and practices that were present prior to those controversies.

The bishop functioned as the authoritative teaching office and channel by which the apostolic message had been preserved. The evidence indicates that the earliest Christian communities were led by a plurality of elders or bishops, yet by the early second century a monepiscopacy is emerging, signaled first by the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Having a single bishop over the local church allowed churches to address a number of practical leadership matters more effectively. By the late second century, the theory of apostolic succession was being developed by Irenaeus, deployed to demonstrate that the recognized teaching chair of a given church ought to be received as the custodian of apostolic truth as it had been handed down since the apostles’ time, from generation to generation. By the third century (Hippolytus), the idea had developed that bishops are successors to the apostles themselves.

The rule of faith and creed functioned as guides by which to interpret the essence of the apostolic message. The rule of faith was a summary of apostolic teaching, in a flexible form that varied somewhat from place to place. It guided the reader or hearer in discerning the basic plot and gist of proper Christian doctrine and behavior. The creed was more succinct and fixed in form, deriving from baptismal confession formulae for regular liturgical use. The fourth-century Apostles’ Creed from Rome stands as the heir to an earlier form, the Old Roman Symbol of the third century. The Roman church led the way in adapting baptismal confessions into a fixed creedal formula, and the Apostles’ Creed became a standard piece of liturgy throughout western churches.

The canon functioned as the repository of the content of the apostolic teaching. Christians inherited the idea of canon and the Jewish Scriptures from Judaism, though differences existed as to which text to use (Hebrew or Greek) and what the precise contents of the Old Testament should be. The church relied mostly on the Greek Septuagint, translating it into many other languages, and largely accepting the books and expansions circulating with Greek copies of the Old Testament. The development of the New Testament canon proceeded through four stages: the recognition of the Scripture principle (late first/early second century), the canon principle (by about 180), a closed canon (by the fourth century), the recognition of a closed canon (in the fourth/fifth centuries). The criteria by which books were received as canonical were their inspiration, their apostolicity, their antiquity, their catholicity, their use in public worship, and their right doctrine.

One persistent question under discussion concerns the relationship between the church and its channels of authority, particularly the New Testament canon. Whereas a process of development involving human activity is undeniable, the church did not create the canon so much as recognize it, and by doing so put itself under a separate authority rather than keeping its own power.