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SECTION I.

METHOD OF SETTLING THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.

AFTER what has been said, in the former part of this work, respecting the importance of settling the Canon on correct principles, it will be unnecessary to add anything here on that subject, except to say, that this inquiry cannot be less interesting in regard to the Old Testament than to the New. It is a subject which calls for our utmost diligence and impartiality. It is one which we cannot neglect with a good conscience; for the inquiry is nothing less than to ascertain what revelation God has made to us, and where it is to be found.

As to the proper method of settling the Canon of the New Testament, the same course must be pursued as has been done in respect to the Old. We must have recourse to authentic history, and endeavour to ascertain what books were received as genuine by the primitive church and early Fathers. The contemporaries, and immediate successors of the apostles, are the most competent witnesses in this case. If, among these, there is found to have been a general agreement, as to what books were canonical, it will go far to satisfy us respecting the true Canon; for it cannot be supposed, that they could easily be deceived in a 114matter of this sort. A general consent of the early Fathers, and of the primitive church, therefore, furnishes conclusive evidence on this point, and is that species of evidence which is least liable to fallacy or abuse. The learned Huet, has, therefore, assumed it as a maxim, “That every book is genuine, which was esteemed genuine by those who lived nearest to the time when it was written, and by the ages following, in a continued series.3333Demonstratio Evang. The reasonableness of this rule will appear more evident, when we consider the great esteem with which these books were at first received; the constant public reading of them in the churches, and the early version of them into other languages.

The high claims of the Romish church, in regard to the authority of fixing the Canon, have already been disproved, as it relates to the books of the Old Testament; and the same arguments apply with their full force to the Canon of the New Testament, and need not be repeated. It may not be amiss, however, to hear from distinguished writers of that communion, what their real opinion is on this subject. Heuman asserts, “That the sacred Scriptures, without the authority of the church, have no more authority than Æsop’s Fables.” And Baillie, “That he would give no more credit to Matthew than to Livy, unless the church obliged him.” To the same purpose speak Pighius, Eckius, Bellarmine, and many others of their most distinguished writers. By the authority of the church, they understand a power lodged in the church of Rome, to determine what books shall be 115received as the word of God; than which it is scarcely possible to conceive of anything more absurd.

In avoiding this extreme, some Protestants have verged towards the opposite, and have asserted, that the only, or principal evidence of the canonical authority of the sacred Scriptures is, their internal evidence. Even some churches went so far as to insert this opinion in their public confessions.3434See the Confession of the Reformed Gallican Church.

Now it ought not to be doubted, that the internal evidence of the Scriptures is exceedingly strong; and that when the mind of the reader is truly illuminated, it derives from this source the most unwavering conviction of their truth and divine authority; but that every sincere Christian should be able, in all cases, by this internal light, to distinguish between canonical books and such as are not, is surely no very safe or reasonable opinion. Suppose that a thousand books of various kinds, including the canonical, were placed before any sincere Christian, would he be able, without mistake, to select from this mass the twenty-seven books of which the New Testament is composed, if he had nothing to guide him but the internal evidence? Would every such person be able at once to determine, whether the book of Ecclesiastes, or of Ecclesiasticus, belonged to the Canon of the Old Testament, by internal evidence alone? It is certain, that the influence of the Holy Spirit is necessary to produce a true faith in the word of God; but to make this the only criterion by which to judge of the canonical authority of a book is certainly liable to strong objections. The tendency of this doctrine is to enthusiasm, and the consequence of acting upon it, would be to unsettle, 116rather than establish, the Canon of Holy Scripture; for it would be strange, if some persons, without any other guidance than their own spiritual taste, would not pretend that other books besides those long received were canonical, or would not be disposed to reject some part of these. If this evidence were as infallible as some would have it to be, then the authenticity of every disputed text, as well as the canonical authority of every book, might be ascertained by it. But, it is a fact, that some eminently pious men doubted for a while respecting the canonical authority of some genuine books of the New Testament.

And if the internal evidence were the only criterion of canonical authority to which we could resort, there would remain no possibility of convincing any person of the inspiration of a book, unless he could perceive in it the internal evidence of a divine origin. In many cases this species of evidence can scarcely be said to exist, as when for wise purposes God directs or inspires a prophet to record genealogical tables; or even in the narration of common events, I do not see how it can be determined from internal evidence, that the history is written by inspiration; for the only circumstance in which an inspired narrative differs from a faithful human history, is that the one is infallible, and the other is not; but the existence of this infallibility, or the absence of it, is not apparent from reading the books. Both accounts may appear consistent, and it is only, or chiefly, by external evidence that we can know that one of them is inspired. Who could undertake to say, that from internal evidence alone, he could determine that the book of Esther, or the Chronicles, were written by inspiration? Besides, 117some books are obscure and not easily understood; now, how could any one discern the internal evidence of a book, the meaning of which he did not yet understand?

The evidence arising from a general view of the Scriptures, collectively, is most convincing, but is not so well adapted to determine whether some one book, considered separately, was certainly written by divine inspiration.

It is necessary, therefore, to proceed to our destined point in a more circuitous way. We must be at the pains to examine into the history of the Canon, and, as was before said, to ascertain what books were esteemed canonical by all those who had the best opportunity of judging of this matter; and when the internal evidence is found corroborating the external, the two, combined, may produce a degree of conviction which leaves no room to desire any stronger evidence.

The question to be decided is a matter of fact. It is an inquiry respecting the real authors of the books of the New Testament, whether they were written by the persons whose names they bear, or by others under their names. The inspiration of these books, though closely allied to this subject, is not now the object of inquiry. The proper method of determining a matter of fact, evidently is to have recourse to those persons who were witnesses of it, or who received their information from others who were witnesses. It is only in this way that we know that Iomer, Horace, Virgil, Livy, and Tully, wrote the books which now go under their names.

The early Christians pursued this method of determining what books were canonical. They searched 118into the records of the church, before their time, and from these ascertained what books should be received, as belonging to the sacred volume. They appeal to that certain and universal tradition, which attested the genuineness of these books. Irenæus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Cyril, and Augustine, have all made use of this argument, in establishing the Canon of the New Testament.

The question is often asked, When was the Canon of the New Testament constituted, and by what authority? Many persons who write and speak on this subject, appear to entertain a wrong impression in regard to it; as if the books of the New Testament could not be of authority, until they were sanctioned by some Ecclesiastical Council, or by some publicly expressed opinion of the Fathers of the church; and as if any portion of their authority depended on their being collected into one volume. But the truth is, that every one of these books was of authority, as far as known, from the moment of its publication; and its right to a place in the Canon, is not derived from the sanction of any church or council, but from the fact, that it was written by inspiration. And the appeal to testimony is not to prove that any council of bishops, or others, gave sanction to the book, but to show that it is indeed the genuine work of Matthew, or John, or Peter, or Paul, who we know were inspired.

The books of the New Testament were, therefore, of full authority, before they were collected into one volume; and it would have made no difference if they had never been included in one volume, but had retained that separate form in which they were first published. And it is by no means certain, that these 119books were, at a very early period, bound in one volume. As far as we have any testimony on the subject, the probability is, that it was more customary to include them in two volumes: one of which was called the Gospel, and the other, the Apostles. Some of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament extant, appear to have been put up in this form; and the Fathers often refer to the Scriptures of the New Testament, under these two titles. The question, When was the Canon constituted? admits therefore of no other proper answer than this,—that as soon as the last book of the New Testament was written and published, the Canon was completed. But if the question relates to the time when these books were collected together, and published in a single volume, or in two volumes, it admits of no definite answer; for those churches which were situated nearest to the place where any particular books were published, would, of course, obtain copies much earlier than churches in a remote part of the world. For a considerable period, the collection of these books, in each church, must have been necessarily incomplete; for it would take some time to send to the church, or people, with whom the autographs were deposited, and to have fair copies transcribed. This necessary process will also account for the fact, that some of the smaller books were not received by the churches so early, nor so universally, as the larger. The solicitude of the churches to possess immediately the more extensive and important books of the New Testament, would, doubtless, induce them to make a great exertion to acquire copies; but, probably, the smaller would not be so much spoken of,. nor would there be so strong a desire to obtain them, 120without delay. Considering how difficult it is now, with all our improvements in the typographical art, to multiply copies of the Scriptures with sufficient rapidity, it is truly wonderful, how so many churches as were founded during the first century, to say nothing of individuals, could all be supplied with copies of the New Testament, when there was no speedier method of producing them than by writing every letter with the pen! “The pen of a ready writer” must then, indeed, have been of immense value.

The idea entertained by some, especially by Dodwell, that these books lay for a long time locked up in the coffers of the churches to which they were addressed, and totally unknown to the world, is in itself most improbable, and is repugnant to all the testimony which exists on the subject. Even as early as the time when Peter wrote his second Epistle, the writings of Paul were in the hands of the churches, and were classed with the other Scriptures.35352 Pet. iii. 14, 15. And the citations from these books by the earliest Christian writers, living in different countries, demonstrate, that from the time of their publication, they were sought after with avidity, and were widely dispersed. How intense the interest which the first Christians felt in the writings of the apostles can scarcely be conceived by us, who have been familiar with these books from our earliest years. How solicitous would they be, for example, who had never seen Paul, but had heard of his wonderful conversion, and extraordinary labours and gifts, to read his writings! And probably they who had enjoyed the high privilege of hearing this apostle preach, would not be less desirous of reading his 121Epistles. As we know, from the nature of the case, as well as from testimony, that many uncertain accounts of Christ’s discourses and miracles had obtained circulation, how greatly would the primitive Christians rejoice to obtain an authentic history from the pen of an apostle, or from one who wrote precisely what was dictated by an apostle! We need no longer wonder, therefore, that every church should wish to possess a collection of the writings of the apostles; and knowing them to be the productions of inspired men, they would want no further sanction of their authority. All that was requisite was, to be certain that the book was indeed written by the apostle whose name it bore. And this leads me to observe, that some things in Paul’s Epistles, which seem to common readers to be of no importance, were of the utmost consequence. Such as, “I, Tertius, who wrote this epistle,” &c.—“The salutation, with mine own hand.”—“So I write in every epistle.”—“You see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.”—“The salutation by the hand of me, Paul.”—“The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every Epistle.”3636Rom. xvi. 22. 1 Cor. xvi. 21. Gal. vi. 11. 2 Thess. iii. 17. This apostle commonly employed an amanuensis; but that the churches to which he wrote might have the assurance of the genuineness of his Epistles, from seeing his own hand-writing, he constantly wrote the salutation himself; so much care was taken to have these sacred writings well authenticated, on their first publication. And on the same account it was, that he and the other apostles were so particular in giving the names, and the characters, of those who were the bearers of their Epistles. And it 122seems, that they were always committed to the care of men of high estimation in the church; and commonly, more than one appears to have been intrusted with this important commission.

If it be inquired, what became of the autographs of these sacred books, and why they were not preserved; since this would have prevented all uncertainty respecting the true reading, and would have relieved the Biblical critic from a large share of labour; it is sufficient to answer, that nothing different has occurred, in relation to these autographs, from that which has happened to all other ancient writings. No man can produce the autograph of any book as old as the New Testament, unless it has been preserved in some extraordinary way, as in the case of the manuscripts of Herculaneum; neither could it be supposed, that in the midst of such vicissitudes, revolutions, and persecutions, as the Christian church endured, this object could have been secured by anything short of a miracle. And God knew, that by a superintending providence over the sacred Scriptures, they could be transmitted with sufficient accuracy, by means of apographs, to the most distant generations. Indeed, there is reason to believe, that the Christians of early times were so absorbed and impressed with the glory of the truths revealed, that they gave themselves little concern about the mere vehicle by which they were communicated. They had matters of such deep interest, and so novel, before their eyes, that they had neither time, nor inclination, for the minutiae of criticism. It may be, therefore, that they did not set so high a value on the possession of the autograph of an inspired book as we should, but considered a copy, 123made with scrupulous fidelity, as equally valuable with the original. And God may have suffered these autographs of the sacred writings to perish, lest in process of time, they should have become idolized, like the brazen serpent; or lest men should be led superstitiously to venerate the mere parchment and ink, and form and letters, employed by an apostle. Certainly, the history of the church renders such an idea far from being improbable.

But, although little is said about the originals of the apostles’ writings, we have a testimony in Tertullian, that the Authentic Letters of the apostles might be seen by any that would take the pains to go to the churches to which they were addressed. Some, indeed, think that Tertullian does not mean to refer to the autographs, but to authentic copies; but why then send the inquirer to the churches to which the Epistles were addressed? Had not other churches, all over the world, authentic copies of these Epistles also? There seems to be good reason, therefore, for believing, that the autographs, or original letters of the apostles, were preserved by the churches to which they were addressed, in the time of Tertullian.3737See Note C.

But although the autographs of the books of the New Testament are not extant, we have beautiful copies of the whole penned as early as the fourth or fifth century, and some think that our oldest manuscripts of the New Testament have a still earlier origin; and we have versions which were made at a period still earlier, so that we have lost nothing by the disappearance of the autographs of the New Testament.

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