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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XXXI. LUKE i. 3, 4.

LUKE i.3, 4.

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.

These words, from the preface to St. Luke's Gospel, contain in them one or two points on which it may be of use to dwell; and not least so at the present time, when they are more frequently brought under our notice than was the case a few years ago. On a subject which we never, or very rarely hear mentioned, it may be difficult to excite attention; and, as a general rule, there is little use in making the attempt. But when names and notions are very frequently brought to our ears, and in a degree to our minds, then it becomes important that we should comprehend the matter to which they relate clearly and correctly; and a previous interest respecting it may be supposed to exist, which make further explanation acceptable.

St. Luke tells Theophilus that it seemed good to him to write in order an account of our Lord's life and death, that Theophilus might know the certainty of those things in which he had been instructed; and this, as a general rule, might well describe one great use of the Scripture to each of us, as individual members of Christ's Church -- it enables us to know the certainty of the things in which we have been instructed. We do not, in the first instance, get our knowledge of Christ from the Scriptures, -- we, each of us, I mean as individuals, -- but from the teaching of our parents first; then of our instructors, and from books fitted for the instruction of children; whether it be the Catechism of the Church, or books written by private persons, of which we know that there are many. But as our minds open, and our opportunities of judging for ourselves increase, then the Scripture presents itself to acquaint us with the certainty of what we had heard already; to show us the original and perfect truth, of which we have received impressions before, but such as were not original nor perfect; to confirm and enforce all that was good and true in our early teaching; and if it should so happen that it contained any thing of grave error mixed with truth, then to enable us to discover and reject it.

It is apparent, then, that the Scripture, to do this, must have an authority distinct from, and higher than, that of our early teaching; but yet it is no less true that it comes to us individually recommended, in the first instance, by the authority of our early teaching, and received by us, not for its own sake, but for the sake of those who put it into our hands. What child can, by possibility, go into the evidence which makes it reasonable to believe the Bible, and to reject the authority of the Koran? Our children believe the Bible for our sakes; they look at it with respect, because we tell them that it ought to be respected; they read it, and learn it, because we desire them; they acquire a habit of veneration for it long before they could give any other reason for venerating it than their parents' authority. And blessed be God that they do; for, as it has been well said, if we their parents do not endeavour to give our children habits of love and respect for what is good and true, Satan will give them habits of love for what is evil: for the child must receive impressions from without; and it is God's wisdom that he should receive these impressions from his parents, who have the strongest interest in his welfare, and who have besides that instinctive parental love which, more surely, as well as more purely, than any possible sense of interest, makes them earnestly desire their child's good.

But when our children are old enough to understand and to inquire, do we then content ourselves with saying that they must take our word for it; that the Bible is true because we tell them so? Where is the father who does not feel, first, that he himself is not fitted to be an infallible authority; and, secondly, that if he were, he should be thwarting the providence of God, who has willed not simply that we should believe with understanding. He gladly therefore observes the beginnings of a spirit of inquiry in his son's mind, knowing that it is not inconsistent with a belief in truth, but is a necessary step to that which alone in a man deserves the name of belief -- a belief, namely, sanctioned by reason. With what pleasure does he point out to his son the grounds of his own faith! how gladly does he introduce him to the critical and historical evidence for the truth of the Scriptures, that he may complete the work which he had long since begun, and deliver over the faith which had been so long nursed under the shade of parental authority, to the care of his son's own conscience and reason!

We see clearly that our individual faith, although grounded in the first instance on parental authority, yet rests afterwards on wholly different grounds; namely, on the direct evidence in confirmation of it which is presented to our own minds. But with regard to those who are called the Fathers of the Church, it is contended sometimes that we do receive the Scriptures, in the end, upon their authority: and it is argued, that if their authority is sufficient for so great a thing as this, it must be sufficient for every thing else; that if, in short, we believe the Scriptures for their sake, then we ought also to believe other things which they may tell us, for their sake, even though they are not to be found in Scripture.

In the argument there is this great fault, that it misstates the question at the outset. The authority of the Fathers, as they are called, is never to any sound mind the only reason for believing in the Scriptures; I think it is by no means so much as the principle reason. It is one reason, amongst many; but not the strongest. And, in like manner, their authority in other points, if there were other and stronger reasons which confirmed it, -- as in many cases there are, -- is and ought to be respected. But, because we lay a certain stress upon it, it does not follow that we should do well to make it bear the whole weight of the building. Because we believe the Scriptures, partly on the authority of the Fathers, as they are called, but more for other reasons, does it follow that we should equally respect the authority of the Fathers when there are no other reasons in support of it, but many which make against it?

In truth, however, the internal evidence in favour of the authenticity and genuineness of the Scriptures is that on which the mind can rest with far greater satisfaction than on any external testimonies, however valuable. On one point, which might seem most to require other evidence -- the age, namely, and origin of the writings of the New Testament -- it has been wonderfully ordered that the books, generally speaking, are their own witness. I mean that their peculiar language proves them to have been written by persons such as the apostles were, and such as the Christian writers immediately following them were not; persons, namely, whose original language and habits of thinking were those of Jews, and to whom the Greek in which they wrote was, in its language and associations, essentially foreign. I do not dwell on the many other points of internal evidence: it is sufficient to say that those who are most familar with such inquiries, and who best know how little any external testimony can avail in favour of a book where the internal evidence is against it, are most satisfied that the principal writings of the New Testament do contain abundantly in themselves, for competent judges, the evidence of their own genuineness and authenticity.

That the testimony of the early Christian writers goes along with this evidence and confirms it, is matter indeed of sincere thankfulness; because more minds, perhaps, are able to believe on external evidence than on internal. But of this testimony of the Christian writers it is essential to observe, that two very important points are such as do indeed affect this particular question much, but yet do not confer any value on the judgment of the witness in other matters. When a very early Christian writer quotes a passage from the New Testament, such as we find it now in our Bibles, it is indeed an argument, which all can understand, that he had before him the same Bible which we have, and that though he lived so near to the beginning of the gospel, yet that some parts of the New Testament must have been written still nearer to it. This is an evidence to the age of the New Testament, valuable indeed to us, but implying in the writer who gives it no qualities which confer authority; it merely shows that the book which he read must have existed before he could quote it. A second point of evidence is, when a very early Christian writer quotes any part of the New Testament as being considered by those to whom he was writing as an authority. This, again, is a valuable piece of testimony; but neither does it imply any general wisdom or authority in the writer who gives it: its value is derived merely from the age at which he lived, and not from his personal character. And with regard to the general reception of the New Testament by the Christians of his time, which, in the case supposed, he states as a fact, no doubt that the general opinion of the early Christians, where, as in this case, we can be sure that it is reported correctly, is an authority, and a great authority, in favour of the Scriptures: combined, as it is, with the still stronger internal evidence of the books themselves, it is irresistible. But it were too much to argue that, therefore, it was alone sufficient, not only when destitute of other evidence, but if opposed to it; and especially if it should happen to be opposed to that very Scripture which we know they acknowledged to be above themselves, but which we do not know that they were enabled in all cases either rightly to interpret or faithfully to follow.

When, therefore, we are told that, as we believe the Scriptures themselves upon tradition, so we should believe other things also, the answer is, that we do not believe the Scriptures either entirely or principally, upon what is called tradition; but for their own internal evidence; and that the opinions of the early Christians, like those of other men, may be very good in certain points, and to a certain degree, without being good in all points, and absolutely; that many a man's judgment would justly weigh with us, in addition to other strong reasons in the case itself, when we should by no means follow it where we were clear that there were strong reasons against it. This, indeed, is so obvious, that it seems almost foolish to be at the trouble of stating it; but what is so absurd in common life, that the contrary to it is a mere truism, is, unfortunately, when applied to a subject with which we are not familiar, often considered as an unanswerable argument, if it happen to suit our disposition or our prejudices.

But, although the Scripture is to the Church, and to the individual, too, who is able to judge for himself, the only decisive authority in matters of faith, yet we must not forget that it comes to us as it did to Theophilus, to persuade us of the certainty of things in which we have been already instructed; not to instruct from the beginning, by itself alone, those to whom its subject is entirely strange: in other words, it is and ought to be the general rule, that the Church teaches, and the Scripture confirms that teaching: or, if it be in any part erroneous, reproves it. For some appear to think, that by calling the Scripture the sole authority in matters of faith, we mean to exclude the Church altogether; and to call upon every man, -- nay, upon every child, -- to make out his own religion for himself from the volume of the Scriptures. The explanation briefly given is this; that while the Scripture alone teaches the Church, the Church teaches individuals; and that the authority of her teaching, like that of all human teaching, whether of individuals or societies, varies justly according to circumstances; being received, as it ought to be, almost implicitly by some, as a parent's is by a child, and by others listened to with respect, as that which is in the main agreeable to the truth, but still not considered to be, nor really claiming to be received as, infallible. But this part of the subject will require to be considered by itself on another occasion.

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