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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XI. THE CANON FROM SEMLER TO THE PRESENT TIME, WITH REFLECTIONS ON ITS READJUSTMENT.

The Canon Of The Bible by Samuel Davidson

CHAPTER XI. THE CANON FROM SEMLER TO THE PRESENT TIME, WITH REFLECTIONS ON ITS READJUSTMENT.

Semler(382) was the most conspicuous scholar after the Reformation who undertook to correct the prevailing ideas respecting the canon. Acquainted with the works of Toland and Morgan, he adopted some of their views, and prosecuted his inquiries on their lines chiefly in relation to the New Testament. He had no definite principles to guide him, but judged books chiefly by their christian value and use to the Church. Though his views are sometimes one-sided and his essays ill-digested, he placed the subject in new lights, and rendered a service to truth which bore abundant fruit in after years.(383) He dealt tradition severe blows, and freed theology from the yoke of the letter. He was followed by his disciple Corrodi, by G. L. Oeder, J. D. Michaelis, Herder, Lessing, and Eichhorn, -- most of whom recommended their views by a freshness of style which Semler did not command. The more recent works of Gesenius, De Wette, Zunz, Ewald, Hitzig, Geiger and Herzfeld have contributed to form a juster opinion of the true position which the books of the Bible occupy.

In the New Testament, the writings of F. C. Baur have opened up a new method of investigating the canon, which promises important and lasting results. Proceeding in the track of Semler, he prosecuted his researches into primitive Christianity with great acuteness and singular power of combination. Though his separation of Petrine and Pauline christianity is not new, he has applied it in ways which neither Toland nor Morgan was competent to manage. These writers perceived the difference between the leading principle of the twelve and that of Paul, they had some far-seeing glimpses of the origin and differences of the New Testament writings,(384) but they propounded them in an unsystematic way along with untenable conjectures. It was reserved for the Tuebingen professor to elaborate the hypothesis of an Ebionite or primitive christianity in contra-distinction from a Pauline, applying it to the origin and constitution of christian literature; in a word, to use a tendenz-kritik for opening up the genius of the sacred writings as well as the stages of early christianity out of which they arose. The head of the Tuebingen school, it is true, has carried out the antagonism between the Petrine and Pauline christians too rigorously, and invaded the authenticity of the sacred writings to excess; for it is hazardous to make a theory extremely stringent to the comparative neglect of modifying circumstances, which, though increasing the difficulty of criticism, contribute to the security of its processes. Yet he has properly emphasized internal evidence; and many of his conclusions about the books will stand. He has thrown much light on the original relations of parties immediately after the origin of Christianity, and disturbed an organic unity of the New Testament which had been merely assumed by traditionalists. The best Introductions to the New Testament must accept them to some extent. The chief characteristic of the school is the application of historic criticism to the genesis of the New Testament writings, irrespective of tradition -- a striving to discover the circumstances or tendencies out of which the books originated. Baur's tendenz-principle judiciously applied cannot but produce good results.

We have seen that sound critical considerations did not regulate the formation of the three collections which made up the entire canon of the Old Testament. Had it been so, the Pentateuch would not have been attributed to Moses. Neither would a number of latter prophecies have been accepted as Isaiah's and incorporated with the prophet's authentic productions. All the Proverbs, the book of Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs would not have been assigned to Solomon; Jonah would have been separated from the prophets, and Daniel must have had a later position in the Hagiographa. We cannot, therefore, credit the collectors or editors of the books with great critical sagacity. But they did their best in the circumstances, preserving invaluable records of the Hebrew people. In like manner, it has appeared, that the ecclesiastics to whom we owe the New Testament collection were not sharp-sighted in the literature with which they had to do. It is true that well-founded doubts were entertained by the early Christians about several portions, such as the second Epistle of Peter, the Epistle to the Hebrews, &c., but the Revelation was needlessly discredited. They accepted without hesitation the pastoral epistles as Pauline, but doubted some of the Catholic Epistles, which bear the impress of authenticity more strongly, such as James. It is therefore incorrect to say that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse |have been received into the canon on evidence less complete| than that belonging to the others. The very general admission of the fourth gospel as the apostle John's, is a curious example of facile traditionalism. Biblical criticism, however, scarcely existed in the first three centuries. It is for us to set the subject in another light, because our means of judging are superior. If the resources of the early fathers were inadequate to the proper sifting of a copious literature, they should be mildly judged.

The question of the canon is not settled. It is probably the work of successive inquirers to set it on a right basis, and adjust the various parts in a manner consistent with historic criticism, sound reason, and religion. The absolute and relative worth of books; the degrees in which they regulate ethics and conduct; their varying values at the times of their first appearance and our own; their places in the general history of human progress -- all these must be determined before the documents of Judaism and Christianity be classified aright. Their present arrangement is external. Based on no interior principle, it furnishes little help toward a thorough investigation of the whole. Those who look upon the question as historical and literary take a one-sided view. It has a theological character also. It needs the application, not only of historic criticism, but the immediate consciousness belonging to every Christian. The two Testaments should be separated, and their respective positions assigned to each -- the Old having been preparatory to the New. Should it be said bluntly, as it is in the 7th Article of the Anglican Church, that the Old is not contrary to the New Testament? Luther at least expressed his opinion of the difference between them pretty clearly;(385) though the theologians of Germany after him evinced a desire to minimise the difference.(386) Should the general opinion of the Protestant Church that the authority of the Old Testament is not subordinate to that of the New, be rigidly upheld? According to one aspect of the former it may be so, viz., its prophetic and theological aspect, that in which it is brought into close union with the latter; the essence of the one being foreshadowed or implied in the other, as Justin Martyr supposed. And this view has never lost supporters, who by the help of double senses, types, and symbols, with assumed prediction of the definite and distant future, transform the old dispensation into an outline picture of the new; taking into it a body of divinity which is alien from its nature. According to another aspect, viz., the moral and historical, the equality can scarcely be allowed. Schleiermacher is right in saying that the Old Testament seems to be nothing but a superfluous authority for doctrine; an opinion coinciding with that of the early Socinians, who held that it has a historical, not a dogmatic, value. Only such of our pious emotions as are of a general nature are accurately reflected in the Old Testament; and all that is most decidedly Jewish is of least value to christians. The alleged coincidence of the Old Testament with the New must be modified by the doctrine of development. It has been fostered by types and prophecies supposed to refer to christian times; by the assumed dictation of all Scripture by the Holy Spirit; by fancied references of the one dispensation to the other; by the confounding of a Jewish Messiah sketched in various prophets, with Jesus Christ, as if the latter had not changed, exalted and purified the Messianic idea to suit his sublime purposes of human regeneration. The times and circumstances in which the Old Testament Scriptures appeared, the manners, usages, civilization, intellectual and moral stage of the Semitic race combine to give them a lower position than that of the New Testament books which arose out of a more developed perception of the relations between God and men. Spiritual apprehension had got beyond Jewish particularism, especially in the case of the apostle Paul, who gave the new religion a distinct vitality by severing it from its Jewish predecessor.

The agreement of the New Testament books with themselves must be modified by the same doctrine of development. Jewish and Pauline christianity appear in different works, necessarily imparting a difference of views and expression; or they are blended in various degrees, as in the epistles to the Hebrews and the first of Peter. Hence, absolute harmony cannot be looked for. If the standpoints of the writers were so diverse, how can their productions coincide? The alleged coincidence can only be intersected with varieties proportioned to the measures in which the authors possessed the Spirit of God. These varieties affect the matter as well as the manner of the writings. It is therefore unphilosophical to treat the Bible as a whole which was dictated by the Spirit and directed to one end. Its uniformity is chequered with variety; its harmony with disagreement. It is a bundle of books; a selection from a wider literature, reflecting many diversities of religious apprehension. After the two Testaments have been rightly estimated according to their respective merits, the contents of each should be duly apportioned -- internal evidence being the test of their relative importance, irrespective of a priori assumptions. Their traditional origin and authority must be subordinated to the inherent value they bear, or the conformity of the ideas to the will of God. The gradual formation of both canons suggests an analysis of the classes into which they came to be put; for the same canonical dignity was not attributed by the Jews to the books contained in the three divisions; and the controverted writings of the New Testament found gradual recognition very slowly. Luther made important distinctions between the canonical books;(387) and Carlstadt put the Antilegomena of the New Testament on a par with the Hagiographa of the Old.

In the Old Testament the three classes or canons have been generally estimated by the Jews according to their respective antiquity; though the sacrificial worship enjoined in the Pentateuch never formed an essential part of the Jewish religion; the best prophets having set small value upon it. The pure monotheistic doctrine of these last writers, chiefly contained in the second canon, lifts that class up to the highest rank; yet the Decalogue in the Pentateuch is sufficient to stamp the first canon with great worth. It must be confessed, however, that the Mosaic law was meagre, in the domain of pure ethics; and that it promoted among the people a slavish spirit of positivism by laying more stress on acts than dispositions, and insisting on small regulations. For this reason, the prophets combated its narrow externality. The three canons were regarded with a degree of veneration corresponding to the order in which they stand. To apportion their respective values to the individual parts of them is a difficult task.

As to the New Testament writings, we think that some of them might conveniently occupy the position of deutero-canonical, equivalent to those of the Old Testament having that title. We allude to 2 and 3 John, Jude, James, 2 Peter, the Revelation. It is true that a few of these were prior in time to some of the universally-received gospels or epistles; but time is not an important factor in a good classification. Among the Pauline epistles themselves, classification might be adopted; for the pastoral letters are undoubtedly post-Pauline, and inferior to the authentic ones. In classifying the New Testament writings, three things might be considered -- the reception they met with from the first, their authenticity, above all, their internal excellence. The subject is not easy, because critics are not universally agreed about the proper rank and authenticity of a few documents. The Epistle to the Colossians, for example, creates perplexity; that to the Ephesians is less embarrassing, its post-Pauline origin being tolerably clear.

What is wanted is a rational historic criticism to moderate the theological hypothesis with which the older Protestants set out, the supernatural inspiration of the books, their internal inseparability, and their direct reference to the work of salvation. It must be allowed that many points are independent of dogmatics; and that the right decision in things historical may be reached apart from any ecclesiastical standpoint.

Again, should the distinction between the apocryphal and canonical books of the Old Testament be emphasized as it is by many? Should a sharp line be put between the two, as though the one class, with the period it belonged to, were characterized by the errors and anachronisms of its history; the other by simplicity and accuracy; the one, by books written under fictitious names; the other, by the power to distinguish truth from falsehood or by honesty of purpose? Should the one be a sign of the want of truthfulness and discernment; the other, of religious simplicity? Can this aggregation of the Apocrypha over against the Hagiographa, serve the purpose of a just estimate? Hardly so; for some of the latter, such as Esther and Ecclesiastes, cannot be put above Wisdom, 1st Maccabees, Judith, Baruch, or Ecclesiasticus. The doctrine of immortality, clearly expressed in the Book of Wisdom, is not in Ecclesiastes; neither is God once named in the Book of Esther as author of the marvelous deliverances which the chosen people are said to have experienced. The history narrated in 1st Maccabees is more credible than that in Esther. It is therefore misleading to mark off all the apocryphal works as human and all the canonical ones as divine. The divine and the human elements in man are too intimately blended to admit of such separation. The best which he produces partakes of both. The human element still permeates them as long as God speaks through man; and He neither dictates nor speaks otherwise. In the attributes claimed for the canonical books no rigid line can be drawn. It may be that the inspiration of their authors differed in degree; that the writer of Ecclesiastes, for example, was more philosophical than Jesus, son of Sirach; but different degrees of inspiration belong to the canonical writers themselves. Undue exaltation of the Hebrew canon does injustice to the wider Alexandrian one. Yet some still speak of |the pure Hebrew canon,| identifying it with that of the Church of England. We admit that history had become legendary, that it was written in an oratorical style by the Alexandrian Jews, and was used for didactic purposes as in Tobit and Judith. Gnomic poetry had survived in the book of Sirach; prophecy, in Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, though here the language is already prosaic. Imitation is too observable in the matter and manner of the Apocrypha. They have parallels, however, among the Hagiographa, which originated in an age when the genuine breath of prophetic inspiration had ceased; when history and prophecy had degenerated; so that the transition from Esther and Malachi to Judith and Baruch, as also from Proverbs to Wisdom, is not great.

The Talmudic canon is generally adopted at the present day. It was not, however, universally received even by the Jews; for Esther was omitted out of it by those from whom Melito got his catalogue in Palestine; while Sirach was annexed to it as late as the beginning of the 4th century. Baruch was also added in several Jewish circles, doubtless on account of its supposed authorship. Thus |the pure Hebrew canon| was not one and the same among all Jews; and therefore the phrase is misleading. Neither is it correct to say that it is the only canon distinctly recognized during the first four centuries, unless the usage of the early fathers be set over against their assumed contrary judgment; nor can all who followed the Alexandrian canon be pronounced uncritical, including Origen himself. A stereotyped canon of the Old Testament, either among Jews or Christians of the first four centuries, which excluded all the apocryphal books and included all the canonical ones, cannot be shown. And in regard to |the critical judgment| of Jews and Christians in that period it is arbitrary to suppose that such as adopted the present canonical books alone were more discerning than others. They were more traditional and conservative; their discriminating faculty not corresponding to the degree of their reliance on the past.

The aim of the inquirer should be to find from competent witnesses -- from contemporaneous or succeeding writers of trustworthy character -- the authors and ages of the biblical books. When evidence of this kind is not available as often happens, the only resource is the internal. The external evidence in favor of the canon is all but exhausted, and nothing of importance can be added to it now. Its strength has been brought out; its weakness has not been equally exhibited. The problem resolves itself into an examination of internal characteristics, which may be strong enough to modify or counterbalance the external. The latter have had an artificial preponderance in the past; henceforward they must be regulated by the internal. The main conclusion should be drawn from the contents of the books themselves. And the example of Jews and Christians, to whom we owe the Bible canon, shows that classification is necessary. This is admitted both by Roman Catholic writers and orthodox Protestants. A gloss-writer on what is usually called the |decree of Gratian,| i.e., the Bolognese canonist of the 12th century, remarks about the canonical books, |all may be received but may not be held in the same estimation.| John Gerhard speaks of a second order, containing the books of the New Testament, about whose authors there were some doubts in the Church;(388) and Quenstedt similarly specifies proto-canonical and deutero-canonical New Testament books, or those of the first and second order.(389) What are degrees or kinds of inspiration assumed by many, but a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that books vary in intrinsic value as they are more or less impregnated with divine truth or differ in the proportion of the eternal and temporal elements which commingle in every revealed religion? Doubtless the authors from whom the separate books proceeded, if discoverable, should be regarded; the inspiration of an Isaiah is higher than that of a Malachi, and an apostle is more authoritative than an evangelist; but the authors are often unknown. Besides, the process of redaction through which many of the writings passed, hinders an exact knowledge of authorship. In these circumstances the books themselves must determine the position they should occupy in the estimation of those who are looking at records of the past to help their spiritual life. And if it be asked, What principle should lie at the basis of a thorough classification? the answer is, the normative element contained in the sacred books. This is the characteristic which should regulate classification. The time when a book appeared, its author, the surrounding circumstances that influenced him, are of less consequence than its bearing upon the spiritual education of mankind. The extent of its adequacy to promote this end determines the rank. Such books as embody the indestructible essence of religion with the fewest accidents of time, place and nature -- which present conditions not easily disengaged from the imperishable life of the soul, deserve the first rank. Whatever Scriptures express ideas consonant with the nature of God as a holy, loving, just and good Being -- as a benevolent Father not willing the destruction of any of his children; the Scriptures presenting ideas of Him consistent with pure reason and man's highest instincts, besides such as set forth our sense of dependence on the infinite; the books, in short, that contain a revelation from God with least admixture of the human conditions under which it is transmitted -- these belong to the highest class. If they lead the reader away from opinion to practice, from dogma to life, from non-doing to obedience to the law of moral duty, from the notion that everything in salvation has been done for him to the keeping of the commandments, from particularist conceptions about the divine mercy to the widest belief of its overshadowing presence -- such books of Scripture are in that same proportion to be ranked among the best. In regard to the Old Testament, conformity to Christ's teaching will determine rank; or, which is tantamount, conformity to that pure reason which is God's natural revelation in man; a criterion which assigns various ranks to such Scriptures as appeared among a Semite race at a certain stage of its development. In the New Testament, the words and precepts of Jesus have a character of their own, though it is very difficult to select them from the gospels. The supposition that the apostles' productions possess a higher authority than those of their disciples, is natural. But the immediate followers of Christ did not all stand on one platform. Differing from one another even in important principles, it is possible, if not certain, that some of their disciples' composition may be of higher value. The spirit of God may have wrought within the apostles generally with greater power and clearness than in other teachers; but its operation is conditioned not merely by outward factors but by individual idiosyncrasy; so that one who had not seen the Lord and was therefore not an apostle proper, may have apprehended his mind better than an immediate disciple. Paul stood above the primitive apostles in the extent to which he fathomed the pregnant sayings of Jesus and developed their latent germs. Thus the normative element -- that which determines the varying degrees of authority belonging to the New Testament -- does not lie in apostolic authorship but internal worth; in the clearness and power with which the divine Spirit enabled men to grasp the truth. By distinguishing the temporal and the eternal in christianity, the writings necessarily rise or sink in proportion to these elements. The eternal is the essence and gem of revealed truth. Perfectibility belongs only to the temporal; it cannot be predicated of the eternal.

The multitudinous collection of books contained in the Bible is not pervaded by unity of purpose or plan, so as to make a good classification easy. Least of all is it dominated by such substantial unity as has been connected with one man; for the conception of a Messiah was never the national belief of Judaism, but a notion projected by prophets into the future to comfort the people in times of disaster; the forecasting of aspirations doomed to disappointment. From the collection presenting various degrees of intellectual and moral development, it is difficult to see a sufficient reason for some being canonized to the exclusion of better works which were relegated to the class of the apocryphal.

Mr. Jones's(390) statement that the primitive Christians are proper judges to determine what book is canonical, requires great modification, being too vague to be serviceable; for |primitive Christians| is a phrase that needs to be defined. How far do they extend? How much of the first and second centuries do they cover? Were not the primitive Christians divided in their beliefs? Did the Jewish and the Pauline ones unite in accepting the same writings? Not for a considerable time, until the means of ascertaining the real authors of the books and the ability to do so were lacking.

As to the Old Testament, the Palestinian Jews determined the canonical books by gradually contracting the list and stopping it at a time when their calamities throwing them back on the past for springs of hope, had stiffened them within a narrow traditionalism; but their brethren in Egypt, touched by Alexandrian culture and Greek philosophy, received later productions into their canon, some of which at least are of equal value with Palestinian ones. In any case, the degree of authority attaching to the Biblical books grew from less to greater, till it culminated in a divine character, a sacredness rising even to infallibility. Doubtless the Jews of Palestine distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal or deutero-canonical books on grounds satisfactory to themselves; but their judgment was not infallible. A senate of Rabbis under the old dispensation might err, as easily as a synod of priests under the new. Though they may have been generally correct, it must not be assumed that they were always so. Their discernment may be commended without being magnified. The general feeling of leaning upon the past was a sound one, for the best times of Judaism had departed, and with them the most original effusions; yet the wave of Platonism that passed over Alexandria could not but quicken even the conservative mind of the Jew. Greek thought blended with echoes of the past, though in dulled form. Still a line had to be drawn in the national literature; and it was well drawn on the whole. The feeling existed that the collection must be closed with works of a certain period and a certain character; and it was closed accordingly, without preventing individuals from putting their private opinions over against authority, and dissenting.

At the present day a new arrangement is necessary; but where is the ecclesiastical body bold enough to undertake it? And if it were attempted or carried out by non-ecclesiastical parties, would the churches approve or adopt the proceeding? We venture to say, that if some books be separated from the collection and others put in their place -- if the classification of some be altered, and their authority raised or lowered -- good will be done; the Bible will have a fairer degree of normal power in doctrine and morals, and continue to promote spiritual life. Faith in Christ precedes faith in books. Unless criticism be needlessly negative it cannot remove this time-honored legacy from the position it is entitled to, else the spiritual consciousness of humanity will rebel. While the subject is treated reverently, and the love of truth overrides dogmatic prejudices, the canon will come forth in a different form from that which it has had for centuries -- a form on which faith may rest without misgiving.

The canon was a work of divine providence, because history, in a religious view, necessarily implies the fact. It was a work of inspiration, because the agency of the Holy Spirit has always been with the people of God as a principle influencing their life. It was not, however, the result of a special or peculiar act of divine inspiration at any one time, but of a gradual illuminating process, shaped by influences more or less active in the divine economy.

The canonical authority of Scripture does not depend on any church or council. The early church may be cited as a witness for it; that is all. Canonical authority lies in Scripture itself, and is inherent in the books so far as they contain a declaration of the divine will. Hence, there is truth in the statement of old theologians that the authority of Scripture is from God alone. It was the early church indeed that made the canon, selecting the books which appeared to have been written by apostles or apostolic men, and carrying over to them authority from alleged authenticity more than internal value. But the latter is the real index of authority; and God is the fountain from whom spiritual endowments proceed.(391) The canonicity of the books is a distinct question from that of their authenticity. The latter is a thing of historic criticism; the former of doctrinal belief. Their ecclesiastical authority rests on outward attestation; their normal, on faith and feeling.

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