We have studied with what care we were able tee historical problem of the origin and authorship of the several books of the Old and New Testament; we now come to a deeply interesting question, -- the question of the canon.
This word, as used in this connection, means simply an authoritative list or catalogue. The canon of the Bible is the determined and official table of contents. The settlement of the canon is the process of determining what and how many books the Bible shall contain. In the Old Testament are thirty-nine books, in the New Testament twenty-seven; and it is a fixed principle with Protestants that these books and no others constitute the Sacred Scriptures, -- that no more can be added and none taken away.
The popular belief respecting this matter has been largely founded upon the words with which the Book of Revelation concludes: --
|For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book.|
The common notion is that the |book| here referred to is the Bible; and that these sentences, therefore, are the divine authorization of the present contents of the Bible, a solemn testimony from the Lord himself to the integrity of the canon. But this is a misapprehension. The book referred to is the Revelation of St. John, -- not the Bible, not even the New Testament. When these words were written, says Dr. Barnes in his |Commentary,| |the books that now constitute what we call the Bible were not collected into a single volume. That passage, therefore, should not be adduced as referring to the whole of the Sacred Scriptures.| In fact, when these words of the Revelation were written, several of the books of the New Testament were not yet in existence; for this is by no means the last of the New Testament writings, though it stands at the end of the collection. The Gospel and the Epistles of John were added after this; and we may trust that no plagues were |added| to the beloved disciple for writing them.
Nevertheless, as I said, it is assumed that the contents of the Bible are fixed; that the collection is and for a long time has been complete and perfect; that it admits neither of subtractions nor of additions; that nothing is in the book which ought not to be there, and that there is nothing outside of its covers which ought to be within them; that the canon is settled, inflexibly and infallibly and finally.
The questions now to be considered are these: Who settled it? When was it settled? On what grounds was it determined? Was any question ever raised concerning the sacredness or authority of any of the books now included in the canon? Did any other books, not now included in the canon, ever claim a place in it? If so, why were these rejected and those retained?
This is, as will be seen, a simple question of history. We can trace with tolerable certainty the steps by which this collection of sacred writings was made; we know pretty well who did it, and when and how it was done. And there is nothing profane or irreverent in this inquiry, for the work of collecting these writings and fixing this canon has been done mainly, if not wholly, by men who were not inspired and did not claim to be. There is nothing mysterious or miraculous about their doings any more than there is about the acts of the framers of the Westminster Confession, or the American Constitution. They were dealing with sacred matters, no doubt, when they were trying to determine what books should be received and used as Scriptures, but they were dealing with them in exactly the same way that we do, by using the best lights they had.
As we have learned in previous chapters, the beginning of our canon was made by Ezra the scribe, who, in the fifth century before Christ, newly published and consecrated the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, as the Holy Book of the Jewish people.
After Ezra came Nehemiah, to whom the beginning of the second collection of Jewish Scriptures, called the Prophets, is ascribed in one of the apocryphal books. But this collection was not apparently finished and closed by Nehemiah. The histories of Joshua and Judges, of Samuel and Kings, and the principal books of the Prophets were undoubtedly gathered by him; but it would seem that the collection was left open for future prophecies.
About the same time the third group of the Old Testament Scriptures, |The Hagiographa,| or |Writings,| began to be collected. No book of the Bible contains any information concerning the making of these two later collections, the Prophets and the Hagiographa; and we are obliged to rely wholly upon Jewish tradition, and upon references which we find in Jewish writers. Professor Westcott, who is one of the most conservative of Biblical scholars, says that |the combined evidence of tradition and of the general course of Jewish history leads to the conclusion that the canon in its present shape was formed gradually during a lengthened interval, beginning with Ezra and extending through a part, or even the whole of the Persian period,| or from B.C.458 to 332. Without adopting this conclusion, we may remark that this last date, 332, was nearly a century after Nehemiah and Malachi, the last of the prophets; so that if the canon was closed at a date so late as this, it must have been closed by men who were certainly not known to have been inspired. If it was forming, through all this period, then it must have been formed in part by men in behalf of whom no claim of inspiration has ever been set up.
According to Jewish tradition the work of collecting, editing, and authorizing the sacred writings was done by a certain |Great Synagogue,| founded by Ezra, presided over by Nehemiah, after him, and continuing in existence down to about the year 200 B.C. This is wholly a tradition, and has been proved to be baseless. There never was such a synagogue; the Scriptures know nothing about it; the apocryphal writers, so numerous and widely dispersed, have never heard of it; Philo and Josephus are ignorant concerning it. None of the Jewish authors of the period who freely discuss the Scriptures and their authority makes mention of this Great Synagogue. The story of its existence is first heard from some Jewish rabbin hundreds of years after Christ.
We have proof enough in the New Testament that the Jews had certain Sacred Scriptures; the New Testament writers often quote them and refer to them; but there is no conclusive proof that they had been gathered at this time into a complete collection. Jesus tells the Jews that they search the Scriptures, but he does not say how many of these Scriptures there were in his day; Paul reminds Timothy that from a child he had known the Holy Scriptures, but he gives no list of their titles. If we found all the books of the Old Testament quoted or referred to by the New Testament writers, then we should know that they possessed the same books that we have. Most of these books are thus referred to; but there are seven Old Testament books whose names the New Testament never quotes, and at least five to which it makes no reference whatever: Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah. To Judges, Chronicles, and Ezekiel it refers only in the same way that it refers to a number of the apocryphal books. Some of these omissions appear to be significant. The New Testament gives us therefore no definite information by which we can determine whether the Old Testament canon was closed at the time of Christ, nor does it tell us of what books it was composed.
We have seen already that two different collections of Old Testament writings were in existence, one in Hebrew, and the other a translation into the Greek, made by Jews in Alexandria, and called the Septuagint. The latter collection was the one most used by our Lord and the apostles; much the greater number of quotations from the Old Testament found in the Gospels and the Epistles are taken from the Septuagint. This Greek Bible contained quite a number of books which are not in the Hebrew Bible: they were later in their origin than any of the Old Testament books; most of them were originally written in Greek; and while they were regarded by some of the more conservative of the Jews in Egypt as inferior to the Law and the Prophets, they were generally ranked with the books of the Hagiographa as sacred writings. This is evident from the fact that they were mingled indiscriminately with these books of the older Scriptures. You know that I am speaking now of the apocryphal books which you find in some of your old Bibles, between the Old and New Testaments. These were the later books contained in the Septuagint, and not in the Hebrew Bible. But they were not sorted out by themselves in the Septuagint; they were interspersed through the other books, as of equal value. Thus in the Vatican Bible, of which we shall learn more by and by, Esdras First and Second succeed the Chronicles; Tobit and Judith are between Nehemiah and Esther; the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach follow Solomon's Song; Baruch is next to Jeremiah; Daniel is followed by Susanna and Bel and the Dragon, and the collection closes with the three books of Maccabees.
All the old manuscripts of the Bible which we possess -- those which are regarded as above all others sacred and authoritative -- contain these apocryphal writings thus intermingled with the books of our own canon. It is clear, therefore, that to the Alexandrian Jews these later books were Sacred Scriptures; and it is certain also that our Lord and his apostles used the collection which contained these books. It is said that they do not refer to them, and it is true that they do not mention them by name; but they do use them occasionally. Let me read you a few passages which will illustrate their familiarity with the apocryphal books.
James i.19: |Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.| Sirach v.11; iv.29: |Be swift to hear.| |Be not hasty in thy tongue.|
Hebrews i.3: |Who being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power.| Wisdom vii.26: |For she (Wisdom) is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness.|
Rom. ix.21: |Hath not the potter a right over the clay, from the same lump to make one part a vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?| Wisdom xv.7: |For the potter, tempering soft earth, fashioneth every vessel with much labor for our service; yea, of the same clay he maketh both the vessels that serve for clean uses, and likewise also such as serve to the contrary: but what is the use of either sort, the potter himself is the judge.|
I Cor. ii.10, 11: |The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth save the Spirit of God.| Judith viii.14: |For ye cannot find the depth of the heart of man, neither can ye perceive the things that he thinketh: then how can ye search out God, that hath made all these things, and know his mind, or comprehend his purpose?|
Several similar indications of the familiarity of the New Testament writers with these apocryphal books might be pointed out. These are not express citations, but they are clear appropriations of the thought and the language of the apocryphal writers. We have, then, the most indubitable proof that the apocryphal books were in the hands of the New Testament writers; and so far as New Testament use authenticates an Old Testament writing, several of the apocryphal books stand on much better footing than do five of our Old Testament books.
It is true that the Hebrew or Palestinian canon differed from the Greek or Alexandrian canon; the books which were written in Greek had never been translated into the Hebrew, and could not, of course, be incorporated into the Hebrew canon; and there was undoubtedly a strong feeling among the stricter Jews against recognizing any of these later books as Sacred Scriptures; nevertheless, the Greek Bible, with all its additions, had large currency among the Jews even in Palestine, and the assertion that our Lord and his apostles measured the Alexandrian Bible by the Palestinian canon, and accepted all the books of the latter while declining to recognize any of the additions of the former, is sheer assumption, for which there is not a particle of evidence, and against which the facts already adduced bear convincingly. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, refers to the |Scriptures| as having been in the hands of Timothy from his childhood; and we have every reason to believe that the Scriptures to which he refers was this Greek collection containing the Apocrypha. Whatever Paul says about the inspiration of the Scriptures must be interpreted with this fact in mind. To find in these words of Paul the guarantee of the inspiration and infallibility of the books of the collection which are translated from the Hebrew, and not those which are written in Greek, is a freak of exegesis not more violent than fantastic. We know that Paul read and used some of these apocryphal books, and there are several of the books in our Hebrew Bible that he never quotes or refers to in the remotest way. The attempt which is often made to show that the New Testament writers have established, by their testimony, the Old Testament canon, as containing just those books which are in our Old Testament, and no more, is a most unwarrantable distortion of the facts.
It is true that at the time of Christ the Palestinian Jews had not, for a century or so, added any new books to their collection, and were not inclined to add any more. Their canon was practically closed to this extent, that no new books were likely to get in. But it was not yet settled that some later books, which had been trying to maintain a footing in the canon, should not be put out. Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Solomon's Song were regarded by some of the Palestinian Jews as sacred books, but their right to this distinction was hotly disputed by others. This question was not settled at the time of our Lord.
|The canon,| says Davidson, |was not considered to be closed in the first century before and the first after Christ. There were doubts about some portions. The Book of Ezekiel gave offense, because some of its statements seemed to contradict the Law. Doubts about some of the others were of a more serious nature -- about Ecclesiastes, the Canticles, Esther, and the Proverbs. The first was impugned because it had contradictory passages and a heretical tendency; the second because of its worldly and sensual tone; Esther for its want of religiousness; and Proverbs on account of inconsistencies. This skepticism went far to procure the exclusion of the suspected works from the canon and their relegation to the class of the genuzim. But it did not prevail. Hananiah, son of Hezekiah, son of Garon, about 32 B.C., is said to have reconciled the contradictions and allayed the doubts. But these traces of resistance to the fixity of the canon were not the last. They reappeared about 65 A. D., as we learn from the Talmud, when the controversy turned mainly upon the canonicity of Ecclesiastes, which the school of Schammai, which had the majority, opposed; so that that book was probably excluded. The question emerged again at a later synod in Jabneh or Jamnia, when R. Eleaser ben Asaria was chosen patriarch, and Gamaliel the Second, deposed. Here it was decided, not unanimously, however, but by a majority of Hillelites, that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs 'pollute the hands,' i. e., belong properly to the Hagiographa. This was about 90 A. D. Thus the question of the canonicity of certain books was discussed by two synods.| [Footnote: Encyc. Brit., v.3.]
By such a plain tale do we put down the fiction, so widely disseminated, that the canon of the Old Testament was |fixed| long before the time of Christ, and, presumably, by inspired men. It was not |fixed,| even in Palestine, until sixty years after our Lord's death; several of the books were in dispute during the whole apostolic period, and these are the very books which are not referred to in the New Testament. Whether the men who finally |fixed| it were exceptionally qualified to judge of the ethical and spiritual values of the writings in question may be doubted. They were the kind of men who slew our Lord and persecuted his followers. When we are asked what are our historical reasons for believing that Esther and Ecclesiastes and Solomon's Song are sacred books and ought to be in the Old Testament canon, let us answer: It is not because any prophet or inspired person adjudged them to be sacred, for no such person had anything to say about them; it is not because our Lord and his apostles indorsed them, for they do not even mention them; it is not because they held a place in a collection of Sacred Scriptures used by our Lord and his apostles, for their position in that collection was in dispute at that time; it is because the chief priests and scribes who rejected Christ pronounced them sacred. The external authority for these books reduces to exactly this. Those who insist that all parts of the Old Testament are of equal value and authority, and that a questioning of the sacredness of one book casts doubts upon the whole collection, ought to look these facts in the face and see on what a slender thread they suspend the Bible which they so highly value. These later books, says one, |have been delivered to us; they have their use and value, which is to be ascertained by a frank and reverent study of the texts themselves; but those who insist on placing them on the same footing of undisputed authority with the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, to which our Lord bears direct testimony, and so make the whole doctrine of the canon depend on its weakest part, sacrifice the true strength of the evidence on which the Old Testament is received by Christians.| [Footnote: The Old Testament in the Jewish Church, p.175.]
Such, then, is the statement with respect to the Old Testament canon in the apostolic age. The Palestinian canon, which was identical with our Old Testament, was practically settled at the synod of Jamnia about 90 A. D., though doubts were still entertained by devout Jews concerning Esther. The Alexandrian collection, containing our apocryphal books, was, however, widely circulated; and as it was the Greek version which had been most used by the apostles, so it was the Greek version which the early Christian fathers universally studied and quoted. Very few if any of these Christian fathers of the first two centuries understood the Hebrew; they could not, therefore, use the Palestinian manuscripts; the Greek Bible was their only treasury of inspired truth, and the Greek Bible contained the Apocrypha. Accordingly we find them quoting freely as Sacred Scripture all the apocryphal books. Westcott gives us a table, in Smith's |Bible Dictionary,| of citations made from these apocryphal books by fifteen of the Greek fathers, beginning with Clement of Rome and ending with Chrysostom, and by eight Latin writers, beginning with Tertullian and ending with Augustine. Every one of these apocryphal books is thus quoted with some such formula as |The Scripture saith,| or |It is written,| by one or more of these writers; the Book of Wisdom is quoted by all of them except Polycarp and Cyril; Baruch and the Additions to Daniel are quoted by the great majority of them; Origen quotes them all, Clement of Alexandria all but one, Cyprian all but two. It will therefore be seen that these books must have had wide acceptance as Sacred Scriptures during the first centuries of the Christian church. In the face of these facts, which may be found in sources as unassailable as Smith's |Bible Dictionary,| we have such statements as the following, put forth by teachers of the people, and indorsed by eminent theological professors: --
|We may say of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament that, while some who were not Jews and who were unacquainted with Hebrew used them to some extent, yet they never gained wide acceptance, and soon dropped out altogether.|
|Certain apocryphal writings have since been bound up with the Septuagint, but there is no reason to think that they made any part of it in the days of our Saviour|!
|These books were not received as canonical by the Christian fathers, but were expressly declared to be apocryphal|!
The last statements are copied from a volume on the Bible, prepared for popular circulation by the president of a theological seminary!
It is true that some of the most inquisitive and critical of the Christian fathers entertained doubts about these apocryphal books; Melito of Sardis traveled to Palestine on purpose to inquire into the matter, and came back, of course, with the Palestinian canon to which, however, he did not adhere. Origen made a similar investigation, and seems to have been convinced that the later books ought to be regarded as uncanonical; nevertheless, he keeps on quoting them; Jerome was the first strenuously to challenge the canonicity of these later Greek books and to maintain a tolerably consistent opposition to them. While, therefore, several of these early fathers were led by their investigations in Palestine to believe that the narrower canon was the more correct one, their opinions had but little weight with the people at large; and even these fathers themselves freely and constantly quoted as Sacred Scripture the questionable writings.
In 393 the African bishops held a council at Hippo, in which the canon was discussed. The list agreed upon includes all the Old Testament Scriptures of our canon, and, in addition to them, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, and the two books of Maccabees. In 397 another council at Carthage reaffirmed the list of its predecessor. Augustine was the leader of both councils.
In spite of the protests of Jerome and of other scholars in all the centuries, this list, for substance, was regarded as authoritative, until the Council of Trent, in 1546, when the long debate was finally settled, so far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, by the adoption of the Augustinian canon, embracing the apocryphal books, the list concluding with the following anathema. |If any one will not receive as sacred and authoritative the whole books with all their parts, let him be accursed.| This determines the matter for all good Catholics. Since 1546, they have known exactly how many books their Bible contains. And if usage and tradition are and ought to be authoritative, they have the strongest reasons for receiving as sacred the books of their Bible; for it is beyond question that the books which they accept and which we reject have been received and used as Sacred Scriptures in all the ages of the church. Most of us who do not accept usage and tradition as authoritative will continue, no doubt, to think our own thoughts about the matter.
The Council of Trent marks the definite separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Protestant reformers. Up to this time there had been among the reformers some differences of opinion respecting the Old Testament books; when they were excluded from the Holy Church and were compelled to fall back upon the authority of the Bible, the present limits of the canon at once became an important question. They did not settle it all at once. Luther, in making his German version of the Bible, translated Judith, Wisdom, Tobit, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Greek additions to Esther and Daniel, with the Prayer of Manasseh. Each of these books he prefaces with comments of his own. First Maccabees he regards as almost equal to the other books of Holy Scripture, and not unworthy to be reckoned among them. He had doubted long whether Wisdom should not be admitted to the canon, and he truly says of Sirach that it is a right good book, the work of a wise man. Baruch and 2 Maccabees he finds fault with; but of none of these apocryphal books does he speak so severely as of Esther, which he is more than willing to cast out of the canon. The fact that Luther translated these apocryphal books is good evidence that he thought them of value to the church; nevertheless, he considered the books of the Hebrew canon, with the exception of Esther, as occupying a higher plane than those of the Apocrypha. Gradually this opinion gained acceptance among the Protestants; the apocryphal books were separated from the rest, and although by some of the Reformed churches, as by the Anglican church, they were commended to be read |for example of life and instruction of manners,| they ceased to be regarded as authoritative sources of Christian doctrine. Since the sixteenth century, there has been little question among Protestants as to the extent of the canon. The books which now compose our Old Testament, and no others, have been found in the Bible of the Protestants for the past three hundred years. The apocryphal books have sometimes been printed between the Old and the New Testaments, but they have not been used in the churches, [Footnote: The English Church uses some portions of them.] nor have they been regarded as part of the Sacred Scripture.
The history of the New Testament canon is much less obscure, and may be more briefly treated. The Bible of the early Christians was the Old Testament. They relied wholly upon this for religious instruction; they had no thought of any other Sacred Scripture.
I have explained in a former chapter how the Epistles and the Gospels originated; but when these writings first came into the hands of the disciples there was not, it is probable, any conception in their minds that these were sacred writings, to be ranked along with the books of the Old Testament. They read them for instruction and suggestion; they did not at first think of them as holy. But their conviction of the value and sacredness of these writings soon began to strengthen; we find them quoting Gospels and Epistles with the same formula that they apply to the Old Testament books; and thus they began to feel the need of making a collection of this apostolic literature for use in the churches. It is not until the second half of the second century that any such collection comes into view. It consisted at first of two parts, The Gospel and The Apostle; the first part contained the four Gospels, and the second the Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, one of Peter, one of John, and the Revelation. It will be seen that this twofold Testament omitted several of our books, -- the Epistle to the Hebrews, two of John's Epistles, one of Peter's, and the Epistles of James and Jude.
About this time there was also in circulation certain writings which are not now in our canon, but which were sometimes included by the authorities of that time among the apostolic writings, and were quoted as Scripture by the early fathers. There was a book called |The Gospel according to the Egyptians,| and another entitled |The Preaching of Peter,| and another called |The Acts of Paul,| and another called |The Shepherd of Hermas,| and an epistle attributed to Barnabas, and several others, all claiming to be sacred and apostolic writings. It became, therefore, a delicate and important question for these early Christians to decide which of these writings were sacred, and which were not; and they began to make lists of those which they regarded as canonical. The earliest of these lists is a fragmentary anonymous canon, which was made about 170. It mentions all the books in our New Testament but four, -- Hebrews, First and Second Peter, and James.
Irenaeus, who died about 200, had a canon which included all the books of our New Testament except Hebrews, Jude, James, Second Peter, and Third John. First Peter, Second John, and |The Shepherd of Hermas| he put by themselves in a second class of writings, which he thought excellent but not inspired.
Clement of Alexandria (180) puts into his list most of our canonical books, but regards several of them as of inferior value, among them Hebrews, Second John, and Jude. In the same list of inferior writings he includes |The Shepherd of Hermas,| the |Epistle of Barnabas,| and the |Apocalypse of Peter.|
Tertullian (200) omits entirely James, Second Peter, and Third John, but includes among useful though not inspired books, Hebrews, Jude, |The Shepherd of Hermas,| Second John, and Second Peter.
These are the greatest authorities of the first two centuries. No Christian teachers of that day were better informed or more trustworthy than these, and it will be seen that they were far from agreeing with one another or with our canon; that each one of them received as sacred some books which we do not possess, and rejected some which we receive.
Coming down into the third century, we find Origen (250), one of the great scholars, wrestling with the problem. He seems to have made three classes of the New Testament writings, the authentic, the non-authentic, and the doubtful. The authentic books are the Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, and the Apocalypse; the non-authentic ones are |The Shepherd of Hermas,| |The Epistle of Barnabas,| and several other books not in our canon; and the doubtful ones are James, Jude, Second and Third John, and Second Peter. It will be seen that Origen admits none that are not in our collection, but that he is in doubt respecting some that are in it.
Facts like these are writ large over every page of the history of the early church. And yet we have eminent theological professors asserting that the canon of the New Testament was finally settled |during the first half of the second century, within fifty years after the death of the Apostle John.| A more baseless statement could not be fabricated. It is from teachers of this class that we hear the most vehement outcries against the |Higher Criticism.|
Eusebius, who died in 340, has a list agreeing substantially with that of Origen.
Cyril of Jerusalem (386) includes all of our books except the Apocalypse, and no others.
Athanasius (365) and Augustine (430) have lists identical with ours. This indicates a steady progress toward unanimity, and when the two great councils of Hippo and Carthage confirmed this judgment of the two great fathers last named, the question of the New Testament canon was practically settled. [Footnote: It is noted, however, that the reception of the doubtful books into the canon does not imply a recognition of their equality with the other books. The distinct admission of their inferiority was made by all the ecclesiastical authorities of that period. None of the early fathers believed that all these writings were equally inspired and equally authoritative.] Nevertheless, considerable independent judgment on the subject still seems to have been tolerated, and writings which we do not now receive were long included in the New Testament collection. The three oldest manuscripts of the Bible now in existence are the Sinaitic, the Vatican, and the Alexandrian Bibles, dating from the fourth and the fifth centuries. Of these the Sinaitic and the Alexandrian Bibles both include some of these doubtful books in the New Testament collection; the Sinai Bible has |The Epistle of Barnabas| and |The Shepherd of Hermas;| the Alexandrian Bible the Epistle of Clement and one of Athanasius. These old Bibles are clear witnesses to the fact that the contents of the New Testament were not clearly defined even so late as the fifth century. Indeed, there was always some freedom of opinion concerning this matter until the Reformation era. Then, of course, the Council of Trent fixed the canon of the New Testament as well as of the Old for all good Catholics; and the New Testament of the Catholics, unlike their Old Testament, is identical with our own.
The Protestants of that time were still in doubt about certain of the New Testament books. Luther, as every one knows, was inclined to reject the Epistle of James; he called it |a right strawy epistle.| The letter to the Hebrews was a good book, but not apostolic; he put it in a subordinate class. Jude was a poor transcript of Second Peter, and he assigned that also to a lower place. |The Apocalypse,| says Davidson, |he considered neither apostolic nor prophetic, but put it almost on a level with the Fourth Book of Esdras, which he spoke elsewhere of tossing into the Elbe.| Luther's principle of judgment in many of these cases was quite too subjective; he carried the Protestant principle of private judgment to an extreme; I only quote his opinions to show with what freedom the strong men of the Reformation handled these questions of Biblical criticism.
Zwingli rejected the Apocalypse. Oecolampadius placed James, Jude, Second Peter, Second and Third John and the Apocalypse along with the Apocryphal books, on a lower level than the other New Testament Scriptures.
The great majority of the Reformers, however, speedily fixed upon that canon which we now receive, and their decision has not been seriously called in question since the sixteenth century.
I have now answered most of the questions proposed at the beginning of this chapter. We have seen that while the great majority of the books in both Testaments have been universally received, questions have been raised at various times concerning the canonicity of several of the books in either Testament; that many good men, from the second century before Christ until the sixteenth century after Christ, have disputed the authority of some of these books. We have seen also that quite a number of other books have at one time and another been regarded as sacred and numbered among the Holy Scriptures; we have seen that the final judgment respecting these doubtful books is different in different branches of the church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church admitting into their canons several books that the Reformed churches exclude from theirs.
We have seen that the decision which has been reached by the several branches of the church respecting this matter has been reached as the result of discussion and argument; that the canonicity of the disputed books was freely canvassed by the church fathers in their writings, by the church councils in their assemblies, by the Reformers in their inquiries; that no supernatural methods have been employed to determine the canonicity of these several books; but that the enlightened reason of the church has been the arbiter of the whole matter.
The grounds upon which the Jews acted in admitting or rejecting books into their Scriptures it might be difficult for us to determine. In some cases we know that they were fanciful and absurd. But the grounds on which the Christians proceeded in making up their canon we know pretty well.
The first question respecting each one of the Christian writings seems to have been: |Was it written by an apostle?| If this question could be answered in the affirmative, the book was admitted. And in deciding this question, the Christians of later times made appeal to the opinions of those of earlier times; authority and tradition had much to do in determining it. |Was it the general opinion of the early church that this book was written by an apostle?| they asked. And if this seemed to be the case, they were inclined to admit it. Besides, they compared Scripture with Scripture: certain books were unquestionably written by Paul or Luke or John; other books which were doubted were also ascribed to them; if they found the language of the disputed book corresponding to that of the undisputed book, in style and in forms of expression, they judged that it must have been written by the same man. Upon such grounds of external and internal evidence, it finally came to be believed that all of the New Testament books except four were written by apostles, and that these four, Mark, Luke, The Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, were written by men under the immediate direction of apostles.
But, it may be said, there have been great differences of opinion on this matter through all the ages, down to the sixteenth century; how do we know but that those good and holy men, like Ignatius and Clement and Tertullian and Origen in the early church, and Luther and Zwingli and Oecolampadius in the Reformed church, were right in rejecting some books that we receive and in receiving some that we reject?
If you were a good Catholic, that question would not trouble you. For the fundamental article of your creed would then be, The Holy Catholic Church, when she is represented by her bishops in a general council, can never make a mistake. And the Holy Catholic Church in a general council at Trent, in 1546, said that such and such books belonged to the Bible, and that no others do; and the council of the Vatican, in 1870, said the same thing over again, making it doubly sure; so, that, as a good Catholic, you would have no right to any doubts or questions about it.
But, being a Protestant, you cannot help knowing that all general councils have made grave and terrible mistakes; that no one of them ever was infallible; and so you could not rest satisfied with the decisions of Trent and the Vatican, even if they gave you the same Bible that you now possess, which, of course, they do not. What certainty has the Protestant, then, that his canon is the correct one? He has no absolute certainty. There is no such thing as absolute certainty with respect to historical religious truth. But this discussion has made one or two things plain to the dullest apprehension.
The first is that the books of this Bible are not all of equal rank and sacredness. If there is one truth which all the ages, with all their voices, join to declare, it is that the Bible is made up of many different kinds of books, with very different degrees of sacredness and authority. For one, I do not wish to part with any of them; I find instruction in all of them, though in some of them, as in Esther and Ecclesiastes, it is rather as records of savagery and of skepticism, from which every Christian ought to recoil, that I can see any value in them. As powerful delineations of the kind of sentiments that the Christian ought not to cherish, and the kind of doubts that he cannot entertain without imperilling his soul, they may be useful. It is not, therefore, at all desirable that these ancient records should be torn asunder and portions of them flung away. That process of mutilation none of us is wise enough to attempt. Let the Bible stand; there are good uses for every part of it. But let us remember the lesson which this survey has brought home to us, that these books are not all alike, and that the message of divine wisdom is spoken to us in some of them far more clearly than in others,
Richard Baxter is an authority in religion for whose opinion all conservative people ought to entertain respect. He cannot be suspected of being a |New Departure| man; he was a stanch Presbyterian, and he passed to the |Saints' Rest| nearly two hundred years ago. With a few words of his upon the question now before us, this chapter may fitly close: --
|And here I must tell you a great and needful truth, which Christians, fearing to confess, by overdoing, tempt men to infidelity. The Scripture is like a man's body, where some parts are but for the preservation of the rest, and may be maimed without death. The sense is the soul of the Scripture, and the letters but the body or vehicle. The doctrine of the Creed, Lord's Prayer and Decalogue, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, is the vital part and Christianity itself. The Old Testament letter (written as we have it about Ezra's time) is that vehicle which is as imperfect as the revelation of those times was. But as, after Christ's incarnation and ascension, the Spirit was more abundantly given, and the revelation more perfect and sealed, so the doctrine is more full, and the vehicle or body, that is the words, are less imperfect and more sure to us; so that he which doubteth of the truth of some words in the Old Testament or of some circumstances in the New, hath no reason therefore to doubt of the Christian religion of which these writings are but the vehicle or body, sufficient to ascertain us of the truth of the History and Doctrine.| [Footnote: The Catechizing of Christian Families, p.36.]