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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IX. SUMMARY OF THE SUBJECT.

The Canon Of The Bible by Samuel Davidson

CHAPTER IX. SUMMARY OF THE SUBJECT.

(a) In relation to the Old Testament, the prevailing tendency in the Greek Church was to follow the Palestinian canon. Different lists appeared from time to time in which the endeavor there to exclude apocryphal, i.e., spurious works, was apparent. In addition to the canonical, a class of ecclesiastical books was judged fit for reading in the Church, -- a class intermediate between the canonical and apocryphal. The distinction between the canonical and ecclesiastical writings appears in Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Epiphanius, &c. The Latin Church showed a disposition to elevate the ecclesiastical books of the Greek Church to the rank of the canonical, making the line between the two indistinct; as we see from the acts of the councils at Hippo and Carthage, in the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, where Augustine's, influence was predominant. But notwithstanding this deviation from the stricter method of the Greeks, learned men like Jerome adhered to the Palestinian canon, and even styled the ecclesiastical books apocryphal, transferring the epithet from one class to another. Hilary and Rufinus also followed the Greek usage.

During the sixth and following centuries, it cannot be said that the canon of the Greek Church was definitely closed, notwithstanding the decrees of councils and references to older authorities. Opinions still varied about certain books, such as Esther; though the Palestinian list was commonly followed. During the same period, the enlarged canon of the Alexandrian Jews, which went far to abolish the distinction between the canonical and deutero-canonical books, prevailed in the West, at least in practice; though some followed the shorter one, sanctioned as it had been by Jerome. As both lists existed, no complete or final settlement of the question was reached in the Latin Church. Neither in the East nor in the West was the canon of the Old Testament really closed; for though the stricter principle of separation prevailed in theory, it was not carried out in practice consistently or universally. The two men most influential about the canon were Jerome and Augustine; the one representing its Palestinian, the other its Alexandrian type. After them no legal or commanding voice fixed either, to the absolute exclusion of its rival.

(b) The charge of Constantine to Eusebius to make out a list of writings for the use of the Church and its performance may be considered as that which first put the subject on a broad and permanent basis. Its consequences were important. If it cannot be called the completion or close of the New Testament canon, it determined it largely. Eusebius made a Greek Bible containing the usual books, except the Revelation. Though the historian of the church was not well fitted for the task, being deficient in critical ability and trammeled by tradition, he doubtless used his best judgment. Hence, about the year 337, the Constantinian Church received a Bible which had an influential origin. No binding authority indeed attached to the list of the Christian books it presented; but it had weight in the Greek Church. It did not prevent different opinions, nor deter individuals from dissent. Thus Athanasius, who disliked Eusebius and his party, issued a list of the sacred writings which included the Revelation. The canon of the Laodicean Council (A.D.363) agreed with the Constantine one.

That variations still existed in the Eastern Church is shown by the lists which vied with one another in precedence. The apostolic canons adopted the seven general epistles, while the apostolic constitutions excluded them. The Alexandrian MS. added to the ordinary books of the New Testament, Clement's two epistles; and Cosmas Indicopleustes omitted the general epistles as well as the Apocalypse. At length the Council of Constantinople, usually called the Trullan (A.D.692), laid down positions that fixed the canon for the Greek Church. The endeavor in it was to attain to a conclusion which should unite East and West. This council did not enumerate the separate books, but referred to older authorities, to the eighty-five canons of the apostles, the decrees of the synods of Laodicea, Ephesus, Carthage, and others; to Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Amphliochius of Iconium, Cyril of Alexandria, Gennadius, &c. After the fourth century there was a general desire to fall back on apostolic times, to appeal to the Church, to ascertain the opinion of synods or assemblies; in a word, to rely on authority.

Less discrepancy and activity were manifested about the canon in the Western Church. Here the chief doubts were directed to the epistle to the Hebrews and the seven general ones. The former was early excluded, and continued to be so even in the time of Jerome. The latter were adopted much sooner. The impulse given by Constantine to determine the books of Scripture re-acted on the West, where the Church considered it its own privilege. Augustine's influence contributed much to the settlement of the question. The synods of Hippo (A.D.393) and of Carthage (A.D.397) received the epistle to the Hebrews and the seven general ones, thus fixing the New Testament canon as it now is. In 419 the African bishops, in the presence of a Papal delegate, repeated their former decision. After the West Goths joined the Catholic Church in the sixth century, the Romish and Spanish Churches gave prominence to the fact of accepting both the Apocalypse and the epistle to the Hebrews. The canon of the West was now virtually closed; the fourth Council of Toledo (A.D.632) at which Isidore was present, agreeing with the Augustinian list, ratified as that list had been by Innocent the First. The reception of the epistle to the Hebrews was facilitated by the objections of the Arians and Semiarians; while opposition to the Priscillianists in Spain strengthened adherence to the traditional canon. Augustine and the Trullan Council fixed the number of the New Testament books as they are now.

With regard to the Bible canon in general, we see that councils had weight when they enumerated the sacred books; that prominent teachers delivered their opinion on the subject with effect, and that tradition contributed to one result; but no general council closed the canon once for all, till that of Trent promulgated its decrees. This body, however, could only settle the subject for Romanists, since, while the right of private judgment is exercised, no corporation can declare some books inspired and others not, some authoritative in matters of faith, others not, without presumption. Though the present Bible canon rests upon the judgment of good and learned men of different times, it can never be finally or infallibly settled, because the critical powers of readers differ, and all do not accept church authority with unhesitating assent.

It is the way of men to defer unduly to the opinions expressed by synods and councils, especially if they be propounded dogmatically; to acquiesce in their decisions with facility rather than institute independent inquiry. This is exemplified in the history of the canon, where the fallibility of such bodies in determining canonicity is conspicuous. It is so in the general reception of the book of Esther, while the old poem, the Song of Songs, was called in question at the synod of Jamnia; in the omission of the Revelation from the canonical list by many belonging to the Greek Church, while the epistles to Timothy and Titus were received as St. Paul's from the beginning almost universally.

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