Defining Moments in Church History…(5)

As we have seen, the 4th century was a pivotal time for the Western church. Constantine’s Edict, the first of the Church councils at Nicaea, and yet another significant event makes our list of moments that gave us our Church today–the Festal letter of Athanasius.

You’ll remember Athanasius as a lead defender of the nature of Christ at Nicaea. Serving as a deacon at that time, by A.D. 367 he is now Bishop of Alexandria, a position he held off and on for a number of years.

Bishop Athansius wrote a letter each year, distributed throughout Alexandria, setting the calendar dates for the various church festivals. Not unlike a modern church calendar, the letter he sent in A.D. 367 also included another interesting piece of information. In his so-called Festal letter, Athanasius listed the books and letters thought to be acceptable for doctrinal use in the Church.

This list of 27 books he believed to be accepted throughout the church world is the first noted effort to establish a canon of the New Testament. While there would be debate concerning the makeup of what we have come to call the New Testament, and that debate would continue for more than a century, it’s worth noting that Athanasius’ list is identical to the list later finalized at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 481.

Also of great importance is the implication found in Athanasius’ list of a “closed” canon. In other words, he believed that his list included all that would be written, that the Scriptures were complete and no future books were to be included. Though, again, a final decision was more than a century away, it’s fascinating to realize that this great protector of Christian orthodoxy worked from the same Scriptures that we teach from today.

It’s also significant to note that while various reformers throughout the centuries excluded certain books from their own ideas of the canon, the list first construed by Athanasius remains our accepted New Testament.

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