Book Review

The Rule of Faith and the Nomina Sacra: A Brief Bibliography

Tomas Bokedal
Tuesday, December 19th 2023
Hexagonal tiles with varying patterns and Greek nomina sacra.
Nov/Dec 2023

Scholarly research on the rule of faith has emphasized three essential, closely related functions for the rule in the early church:

  • It shaped faithful Bible reading by ensuring the Christian community understood the Scriptures as a unified whole, with the Old Testament pointing to the New and the New fulfilling the Old.
  • It summarized the true faith for those baptized and discipled in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
  • It grounded the foundation and boundaries of Christian belief in the revealed teachings of Christ passed down through his authorized apostles.

One important takeaway is that the rule of faith and Scripture were seen by the early church fathers (to use German theologian Karlmann Beyschlag’s phrasing) as “two sides of one and the same norm.” The rule of faith isn’t something the church invented to force an orthodox interpretation of the Bible. Rather, the rule is something the Spirit has given the church in the Bible itself so that we may interpret it in an orthodox way. Irenaeus famously compared the words of the Bible to the pieces of a mosaic, where the rule of faith is the key given with the mosaic to show how the pieces fit together to assemble a beautiful picture of our king. Heretics may assemble the same mosaic pieces, but they put them together in unfaithful ways—ignoring the rule—which results in a poor counterfeit image resembling a dog or a fox (Against Heresies, I, 9.4). Indeed, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria taught that the church’s rule of faith originated directly with Christ himself (Prescription against Heretics 13; 21; 37; Apology 47; Clem. Stromata VII, 16.95).

My own research builds on this foundation, focusing on how we can more deeply appreciate the history and significance of the rule of faith in light of the nomina sacra. The nomina sacra or “sacred names” are contracted forms of key biblical and theological terms that occur in basically all our Greek manuscripts, even the earliest copies—especially the words God, Father, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Son, and Spirit. These nomina sacra visually reveal the connections between the Old and New Testaments, not just in substance but in the very words and storyline they trace. The nomina sacra also draw attention to the core tenets of faith in the Triune God—and they help to demonstrate that this faith isn’t added to apostolic teaching but is given in the very teachings of the apostles themselves as their words have been handed down through the centuries.

There’s much more fruitful research to be done in this area, but the special treatment of these key names and titles (and a few other nomina sacra closely associated with Christ’s work of salvation) argues powerfully for the inseparability of the Christian rule of faith from the biblical, trinitarian, and apostolic character of that faith. Following is a short list of some of that research.

  • Armstrong, Jonathan J. “From the κανὼν τῆς ἀληθείας to the κανὼν τῶν γραφῶν: The Rule of Faith and the New Testament Canon,” in Tradition & the Rule of Faith in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Joseph T. Lienhard. S.J. Edited by R. Rombs and A. Hwang. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
  • Bokedal, Tomas. Christ the Center: How the Rule of Faith, the Nomina Sacra, and Numerical Patterns Shape the Canon. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2023.
  • ———. The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon: A Study in Text, Ritual and Interpretation. Pages 83–123. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014.
  • ———. “Why Is the New Testament Called ‘New Testament’?” Pages 119–48 in Scripture and Theology: Historical and Systematic Perspectives. Edited by T. Bokedal, L. Jansen, and M. Borowski. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023.
  • Edwards, Mark. Catholicity and Heresy in the Early Church. Farnam, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009.
  • Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Pages 95–154. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
  • Lawson, John. The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus. London: Epworth Press, 1948.
  • Lietzmann, Hans. A History of the Early Church. Vol. 1. 1951. Repr., Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1993.
  • Wall, Robert. “Reading the Bible from within Our Traditions.” Pages 88–107 in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology. Edited by J. B. Green and M. Turner. Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Young, Frances. “Christian Teaching.” Pages 91–104 in The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature. Edited by F. Young, L. Ayres, and A. Louth. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2004.
Photo of Tomas Bokedal
Tomas Bokedal
Tomas Bokedal (ThD, Lund University) is associate professor in New Testament and Early Christianity at NLA University College, Norway, and lecturer in New Testament at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, UK. Bokedal’s primary fields of research concern Christian origins and the relation of Scripture and theology.
Tuesday, December 19th 2023

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