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THE IMPORTANCE OF ASCERTAINING THE TRUE CANON OF HOLY SCRIPTURE.
THE Bible includes a large number of separate books, published in different ages, during a space of more than fifteen hundred years. Each of these books when first published formed a volume; or at least, the writings of each author were, in the beginning, distinct; and if they had continued in that separate form, and had been transmitted to us in many volumes instead of one, their authority would not, on this account, have been less, nor their usefulness diminished. Their collection into one volume is merely a matter of convenience; and if any persons choose now to publish these books in a separate form, they cannot with propriety be charged with casting any indignity on the word of God.
Hence it appears that besides general arguments to demonstrate that the Bible contains a divine revelation, there is need of special proofs to evince that each of the books now included in that sacred volume, has a right to the place which it occupies; or does in reality contain a part of that revelation which God has given.
If, therefore, it could be shown (which however it never can) that some particular book, now included in 10the Bible, is not authentic, the conclusion thence derived would only affect that single production; unless it were recognized as divine by the writers of the other books. The credit of the whole volume would not be destroyed, even if it could be proved that one half the books of which it consists are spurious. Infidels have much more to effect in overthrowing the Bible than they commonly suppose. It is incumbent on them to demonstrate, not only that this or that book is false, but that every one of these productions is destitute of evidence, that it has been derived from the inspiration of God.
On the other hand, it is manifest that the advocate of divine revelation is bound to defend the claims of every separate portion of this volume; or to reject from it that part which has no evidence of a divine origin. It is necessary that he should be able to render a good reason why he admits any particular book, to form a part of the inspired volume.
It is true that the antiquity of this collection claims for it a high degree of respect. The transmission of this volume to us, through so many centuries, as Holy Scripture, should teach us to be cautious how we question what is so venerable for its antiquity. But this only furnishes one presumptive argument in favour of each book. It by no means renders all further investigation unnecessary; much less, impious.
It is easy to conceive that books not written by the inspiration of God, might, by some casualty or mistake, find a place in the sacred volume. In fact, we have a striking example of this very thing, in the Greek and Latin Bibles which are now in use, and held to be sacred by a large majority of those who are denominated 11Christians. These Bibles, besides the books which have evidence of being truly inspired, contain a number of other books, the claim of which to inspiration cannot be sustained by solid and satisfactory reasons. This inquiry, therefore, is far from being one of mere curiosity: it is in the highest degree practical, and concerns the conscience of every man capable of making the investigation. We agree, in the general, that the Bible is the word of God, and an authoritative rule; but the momentous question immediately presents itself, What belongs to the Bible? Of what books does this sacred volume consist? And it will not answer, to resolve to take it as it has come down to us, without further inquiry; for the Bible has come down to us, in several different forms. The Vulgate Latin Bible, which alone was in use for hundreds of years before the era of the Reformation, and also the Greek version of the Old Testament, contain many books not in the copies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Now, to determine which of these contains the whole of the inspired books given to the Jews before the advent of Christ and no more, requires research and accurate examination. The inquiry, therefore, is not optional, but forces itself upon every conscientious man; for as no one is at liberty to reject from the sacred volume one sentence, much less a whole book, of the revelation of God, so no one has a right to add anything to the word of God; and of consequence, no one may receive as divine what others have, without authority, added to the Holy Scriptures. Every man, therefore, according to his opportunity and capacity, is under a moral obligation to use his best endeavours to ascertain what books do, really, and 12of right, belong to the Bible. An error here, on either side, is dangerous; for, on the one hand, if we reject a part of divine revelation, we dishonour God, and deprive ourselves of the benefit which might be derived from that portion of divine truth; and on the other hand, we are guilty of an equal offence, and may suffer an equal injury, by adding spurious productions to the Holy Scriptures; for thus we adulterate and poison the fountain of life, and subject our consciences to the authority of mere men.
I think, therefore, that the importance and necessity of this inquiry must be evident to every person of serious reflection. But to some it may appear that this matter has been long ago settled on the firmest principles; and that it can answer no good purpose to agitate questions, which have a tendency to produce doubts and misgivings in the minds of common Christians, rather than a confirmation of their faith. In reply to the first part of this objection, I would say, that it is freely admitted that this subject has been ably and fully discussed long ago, and in almost every age until the present time; and the author aims at nothing more, in this short treatise, than to exhibit to the sincere inquirer, who may not enjoy better means of information, the subject of those discussions and proofs, which ought to be in the possession of every Christian. His object is not to bring forth anything new, but to collect and condense in a narrow space, what has been written by the judicious and the learned, on this important subject. But, that discussion tends to induce doubting is a sentiment unworthy of Christians, who maintain that their religion is founded on the best reasons, and who are commanded “to give to 13every man a reason of the hope that is in them.” That faith which is weakened by discussion is mere prejudice, not true faith. They who receive the most important articles of their religion upon trust from human authority, are continually liable to be thrown into doubt; and the only method of obviating this evil is to dig deep and lay our foundation upon a rock. If this objection had any weight, it would discourage all attempts to establish the truth of our holy religion by argument; and would also damp the spirit of free inquiry on every important subject. It is true, however, that the first effect of free discussion may be to shake that easy confidence which most men entertain, that all their opinions are correct: but the beneficial result will be, that instead of a persuasion, having no other foundation than prejudice, it will generate a faith resting on the firm basis of evidence.
There is, undoubtedly, among Christians, too great a disposition to acquiesce, without examination, in the religion of their forefathers. There is too great an aversion to that kind of research, which requires time and labour; so that many who are fully competent to examine the foundation on which their religion rests, never take the pains to enter on the investigation; and it is to be regretted, that many who are much occupied with speculations on abstruse points of theology, waste the energies of their minds on subjects which can yield them no manner of profit, while they neglect entirely, or but superficially attend to, points of fundamental importance.
The two great questions most deserving the attention of all men, are: first, whether the Bible and all that it contains is from God: secondly, what are 14those truths which the Bible was intended to teach us. These two grand inquiries are sufficient to give occupation and vigorous exercise to intellectual faculties of the highest order; and they are not removed entirely out of the reach of plain uneducated Christians. From the fountain of divine truth every one may draw according to his capacity. But these inquiries are neglected, not so much for want of time and capacity, as because we take no pleasure in searching for and contemplating divine truth. Just in proportion as men love the truth and value the Bible, they will take an interest in all inquiries which relate to the authenticity, canonical authority, and correct interpretation of the sacred books. The time will come, I doubt not, when these studies will occupy the minds of thousands, where they now engage the attention of one. The Bible will grow into importance in the estimation of men, just in the same proportion as true religion flourishes. It will not only be the fashion to associate for printing and circulating the Holy Scriptures; but it will become customary for men of the highest literary attainments, as well as others, to study the sacred pages with unceasing assiduity and prayer. And, in proportion as the Bible is understood in its simplicity and momentous import, the mere doctrines of men will disappear; and the dogmas of the schools and the alliance with philosophy being renounced, there will be among sincere inquirers after truth, an increasing tendency to unity of sentiment, as well as unity of spirit. The pride of learning and of intellect being sacrificed, and all distinctions counted but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ, a thousand knotty questions, which now cause 15divisions and gender strifes, will be forgotten; and the wonder of our more enlightened posterity will be, how good men could have wasted their time and their talents in such unprofitable speculations; and, more especially, how they could have permitted themselves to engage in fierce and unbrotherly contentions about matters of little importance.
Then also men will no more neglect and undervalue the Scriptures, on pretence of possessing a brighter light within them, than that which emanates from the divine word. That spurious devotion which affects a superiority to external means and ordinances, will be exchanged for a simple, sincere reliance on the revealed will of God; and those assemblies from which the sacred volume is now excluded, while the effusions of every heated imagination are deemed revelations of the Spirit, will become, under the influence of divine truth, churches of the living God.
In those future days of the prosperity of Zion, the service of the most high God will be considered by men, generally, as the noblest employment; and the best talents and attainments will be consecrated on the altar of God; and the enterprises, and the labours which they now undertake to gratify an avaricious, ambitious, or voluptuous disposition, will be pursued from love to God and man. The merchant will plan, and travel, and traffic, to obtain the means of propagating the gospel in foreign parts, and promoting Christian knowledge at home; yea, the common labourer will cheerfully endure toil and privation, that he may have a mite to cast into the treasury of the Lord.
Now, many consider all that is given to circulate 16the Bible, and to send missionaries and tracts for the instruction of the ignorant, as so much wasted; but then, all expenditures will be considered as profuse and wasteful, which terminate in mere selfish gratification; and those funds will alone be reckoned useful, which are applied to promote the glory of God and the welfare of men.
These, however, may appear to many as the visions of a heated imagination, which will never be realized; but if the same change in the views and sentiments of men which has been going on for thirty years past, shall continue to advance with the same steady pace, half a century will not have elapsed from the present time, before such a scene will be exhibited to the admiring eyes of believers, as will fully justify the foregoing anticipations.
But I have wandered wide of my subject—I will now recall the attention of the reader to the consideration of the exceeding great importance of ascertaining the true Canon of Holy Scripture. This investigation may, indeed, appear dry and unentertaining, but every thing which bears any relation to the great Charter of our privileges and our hopes, ought to be interesting to us. It has been my object, to bring this subject not only more conveniently within the reach of the theological student, but also to a level with the capacity of the common Christian. That this work may in some humble degree subserve the cause of the Bible, is the sincere prayer of
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