« Prev Section XIV. No Canonical Book of the New… Next »



THIS was a subject of warm dispute between the Romanists and Protestants at the time of the Reformation. The former, to make room for their farrago of unwritten traditions, maintained the affirmative; and such men as Bellarmine and Pineda asserted roundly, that some of the most valuable parts of the canonical Scriptures were lost. The Protestants, on the other hand, to support the sufficiency and perfection of the Holy Scriptures, the corner stone of the Reformation, strenuously and successfully contended, that no part of the canonical volume had been lost.

But the opinion, that some inspired books, which once belonged to the Canon, have been lost, has been maintained by some more respectable writers than those Romanists just mentioned. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Calvin, and Whitaker, have all, in some degree, countenanced the same opinion, in order to avoid some difficulty, or to answer some particular purpose. The subject, so far as the Old Testament is concerned, has already been considered; it shall now be our endeavour to show that no canonical book of the New Testament has been lost.


And here I am ready to concede, as was before done, that there may have been books written by inspired men that have been lost: for inspiration was occasional, not constant; and confined to matters of faith, and not afforded on the affairs of this life, or in matters of mere science. If Paul or Peter, or any other apostle, had occasion to write private letters to their friends, on subjects not connected with religion, there is no reason to think that these were inspired; and if such writings have been lost, the Canon of Scripture has suffered no more by this means than by the loss of any other uninspired books.

But again, I am willing to go further and say, that it is possible, (although I know no evidence of the fact,) that some things written under the influence of inspiration for a particular occasion, and to rectify some disorder in a particular church, may have been lost without injury to the Canon. For as much that the apostles preached by inspiration is undoubtedly lost, so there is no reason why every word which they wrote must necessarily be preserved and form a part of the canonical volume. For example, suppose that when Paul said, 1 Cor. v. 9, “I wrote to you in an epistle not to company with fornicators,” he referred to an epistle which he had written to the Corinthians before the one now called the first, it might never have been intended that this letter should form a constituent part of the Canon; for although it treated of subjects connected with Christian faith or practice, yet, an occasion having arisen, in a short time, of treating these subjects more at large, every thing in that epistle, (supposing it ever to have been written,) may have been included in the two epistles 260to the Corinthians which are now in the Canon. Or, to adopt for illustration, the ingenious hypothesis of Dr. Lightfoot, the epistle referred to, which was sent by Timothy, who took a circuitous route through Macedonia, might not have reached them until Paul wrote the long and interesting epistle called the first to the Corinthians, and thus the former one would be superseded. But we adduce this case merely for illustration, for we will attempt presently to show that no evidence exists that any such epistle was ever written.

1. The first argument to prove that no canonical book has been lost, is derived from the watchful care of Providence over the sacred Scriptures.

Now, to suppose that a book written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and intended to form a part of the Canon, which is the rule of faith to the church, should be utterly and irrecoverably lost, is surely not very honourable to the wisdom of God, and no way consonant with the ordinary method of his dispensations in regard to his precious truth. There is good reason to think that if God saw it needful, and for the edification of the church, that such books should be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by his providence he would have taken care to preserve them from destruction. We do know that this treasure of divine truth has been in all ages, and in the worst times, the special care of God, or not one of the sacred books would now be in existence. And if one canonical book might be lost through the negligence or unfaithfulness of men, why not all? And thus the end of God in making a revelation of his will might have been defeated.


But whatever other corruptions have crept into the Jewish or Christian churches, it does not appear that either of them, as a body, ever incurred the censure of having been careless in preserving the oracles of God. Our Saviour never charges the Jews, who perverted the sacred Scriptures to their own ruin, with having lost any portion of the sacred deposit intrusted to them.

History informs us of the fierce and malignant design of Antiochus Epiphanes to abolish every vestige of the sacred volume; but the same history assures us that the Jewish people manifested a heroic fortitude and invincible patience in resisting and defeating his impious purpose. They chose rather to sacrifice their lives, and suffer a cruel death, than to deliver up the copies of the sacred volume in their possession. And the same spirit was manifested, and with the same result, in the Dioclesian persecution of the Christians. Every effort was made to obliterate the sacred writings of Christians, and multitudes suffered death for refusing to deliver up the New Testament. Some, indeed, overcome by the terrors of a cruel persecution did, in the hour of temptation, consent to surrender the holy book; but they were ever afterwards called traitors; and it was with the utmost difficulty that any of them could be received again into the communion of the church after a long repentance, and the most humbling confessions of their fault. Now, if any canonical book was ever lost, it must have been in these early times when the word of God was valued far above life, and when every Christian stood ready to seal the truth with his blood.

2. Another argument which appears to me to be 262convincing is, that in a little time all the sacred books were dispersed over the whole world. If a book had, by some accident or violence, been destroyed in one region, the loss could soon have been repaired by sending for copies to other countries.

The considerations just mentioned would, I presume, be satisfactory to all candid minds, were it not that it is supposed, that there is evidence that some things were written by the apostles which are not now in the Canon. We have already referred to an epistle to the Corinthians which Paul is supposed to have written to them previously to the writing of those which we now possess. But it is by no means certain, or even probable, that Paul ever did write such an epistle; for not one ancient writer makes the least mention of any such letter; nor is there any where to be found any citation from it, or any reference to it. It is a matter of testimony in which all the Fathers concur, as with one voice, that Paul wrote no more than fourteen epistles, all of which we now have.

The testimony of Clement of Rome is clear on this subject; and he was the friend and companion of Paul, and must have known which was the first epistle addressed by him to the Corinthian church. He says, in a passage before cited, “Take again the epistle of the blessed apostle Paul into your hands. What was it that he first wrote to you, in the beginning of his epistle? He did truly by the Spirit write to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even at that time you were formed into divisions or parties.”

The only objection which can be conceived to this 263testimony is, that Clement’s words, when literally translated, read, “Take again the gospel (ευαγγελιου) of the blessed apostle Paul;” but it is well known that the early Fathers called any book containing the doctrines of Christ the gospel; and in this case, all reasonable doubt is precluded, because Clement identifies the writing to which he referred, by mentioning some of its contents, which are found in the first epistle to the Corinthians, and no where else.

But still, Paul’s own declaration, stands in the way of our opinion, “I wrote to you in an epistle.” 1 Cor. v. 9, 11. The words in the original are, Εγραψα ὑμιν εν τη επιστολη, the literal version of which is, “I have written to you in the epistle, or in this epistle;” that is, in the former part of it; where in fact we find the very thing which he says that he had written. See v. 2, 5, 6, of this same fifth chapter. But it is thought by learned and judicious commentators, that the words following, Νυνι δε εγραψα ὑμιν. “but now I have written unto you,” require that we should understand the former clause as relating to some former time; but a careful attention to the context will convince us that this reference is by no means necessary. The apostle had told them, in the beginning of the chapter, to avoid the company of fornicators, &c.; but it is manifest, from the tenth verse, that he apprehended that his meaning might be misunderstood, by extending the prohibition too far, so as to decline all intercourse with the world, therefore he repeats what he had said, and informs them, that it had relation only to the professors of Christianity, who should be guilty of such vices. The whole may be thus paraphrased: “I wrote to you above, in my letter, that you should separate from 264those who were fornicators, and that you should purge them out as old leaven; but fearing lest you should misapprehend my meaning, by inferring that I have directed you to avoid all intercourse with the heathen around you, who are addicted to these shameful vices, which would make it necessary that you should go out of the world, I now inform you that my meaning is, that you do not associate familiarly with any who make a profession of Christianity, and yet continue in these evil practices.”

In confirmation of this interpretation we can adduce the old Syriac version, which having been made soon after the days of the apostles, is good testimony in relation to this matter of fact. In this venerable version, the meaning of the 11th verse is thus given, “This is what I have written unto you,” or, “The meaning of what I have written unto you.”7171See Jones on the Canon, vol. i. pp. 139, 140. Dr. Whitby understands this passage in a way different from any that has been mentioned; the reader is referred to his commentary on the place. And we have before mentioned the ingenious conjecture of Dr. Lightfoot, to which there is no objection, except that it is totally unsupported by evidence.

It deserves to be mentioned here, that there is now extant a letter from Paul to the Corinthians, distinct from those epistles of his which we have in the Canon; and also an epistle from the church of Corinth to Paul. These epistles are in the Armenian language, but have been translated into Latin. The epistle ascribed to Paul is very short, and undoubtedly spurious. It contains no prohibitions relative to keeping company with fornicators. It was never 265cited by any of the early writers, nor indeed heard of until within a century past. It contains some unsound opinions concerning the speedy appearance of Christ, which Paul, in some of his epistles, took pains to contradict. The manner of salutation is very different from that of Paul; and this apostle is made to declare, that he had received what he taught them from the former apostles, which is contrary to his repeated solemn asseverations in several of his epistles. In regard to the epistle under the name of the church of Corinth, it does not properly fall under our consideration, for though it were genuine it would have no claim to a place in the Canon. The curious reader will find a literal translation of both these epistles in Jones’s “New Method of settling the Canon.”7272Vol. i. p. 14.

The only other passage in the New Testament, which has been thought to refer to an epistle of Paul not now extant is that in Col. iv. 16. “And when this epistle is read among you, cause also that it be read in the church of the Laodiceans, and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.”

Now, there is clear evidence, that so early as the beginning of the second century there existed an epistle under this title; but it was not received by the church, but was in the hands of Marcion, who was a famous forger and corrupter of sacred books. He was contemporary with Polycarp, and therefore very near to the times of the apostles, but was stigmatized as an enemy of the truth; for he had the audacity to form a gospel, according to his own mind, which went by his name; and also an apostolicon, which contained only ten of Paul’s epistles; and these altered 266and accommodated to his own notions. These, according to Epiphanius, were, “The epistle to the Galatians, the two to the Corinthians, to the Romans, the two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Philippians.—And,” says he, “he takes in some part of that which is called ‘the epistle to the Laodiceans,’ and this he styles the eleventh of those received by Marcion.”

Tertullian, however, gives a very different account of this matter. He asserts, “that Marcion and his followers called that the epistle to the Laodiceans, which was the epistle to the Ephesians: which epistle,” says he, “we are assured, by the testimony of the church, was sent to the Ephesians, and not to the Laodiceans; though Marcion has taken upon him falsely to prefix that title to it, pretending therein to have made some notable discovery.” And again, “I shall say nothing now of that other epistle, which we have inscribed to the Ephesians, but the heretics entitle it ‘to the Laodiceans.’”

This opinion, which, by Tertullian, is ascribed to Marcion, respecting the true title of the epistle to the Ephesians, has been adopted, and ingeniously defended by several distinguished moderns, as Grotius, Hammond, Whitby, and Paley. They rely principally on internal evidence; for unless Marcion be accepted as a witness, I do not recollect that any of the early writers can be quoted in favour of that opinion; but in the course of this work, we have put down the express testimony of some of the most respectable and learned of the Fathers, on the other side; and all those passages in the epistle which seem inconsistent with its being addressed to the Ephesians, and neighbouring 267churches of Asia, can easily be explained.—See Lardner and Macknight.

But there is also an epistle to the Laodiceans, now extant, against which nothing can be said, except that almost everything contained in it is taken out of Paul’s other epistles, so that if it should be received, we add nothing in reality to the Canon; and if it should be rejected, we lose nothing. The reader may find a translation of this epistle inserted in the notes at the end of the volume.7373See note G.

But what evidence is there that Paul ever wrote an epistle to the Laodiceans? The text on which this opinion has been founded, in ancient and modern times, correctly interpreted, has no such import. The words in the original are, και την εκ Λαοδικειας ἱνα και ὐμεις αναγνωτε. “And that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” Col. iv. 16. These words have been differently understood; for by them some understand, that an epistle had been written by Paul to the Laodiceans, which he desired might be read in the church at Colosse. Chrysostom seems to have understood them thus; and the Romish writers, almost universally have adopted this opinion. “Therefore,” says Bellarmine, “it is certain that Paul’s epistle to the Laodiceans is now lost.” And their opinion is favoured by the Latin Vulgate, where we read, Eamque Laodicensium—that which is of the Laodiceans; but even these words admit of another construction.

Many learned Protestants, also, have embraced the same interpretation; while others suppose that Paul here refers to the epistle to the Ephesians, which they 268think he sent to the Laodiceans, and that the present inscription is spurious. But that neither of these opinions is correct may be rendered very probable. In regard to the latter, we have already said as much as is necessary; and that Paul could not intend by the language used in the passage under consideration an epistle written by himself, will appear by the following arguments.

1. Paul could not with any propriety of speech have called an epistle written by himself, and sent to the Laodiceans, an epistle from Laodicea. He certainly would have said, προς Λαοδικειαν, or some such thing. Who ever heard of an epistle addressed to any individual, or to any society, denominated an epistle from them?

2. If the epistle referred to in this passage had been one written by Paul, it would have been most natural for him to call it his epistle, and this would have rendered his meaning incapable of misconstruction.

3. All those best qualified to judge of the fact, and who were well acquainted with Paul’s history and writings, never mention any such epistle: neither Clement, Hermas, nor the Syriac interpreter, knew anything of such an epistle of Paul; and no one seems to have had knowledge of any such writing, except Marcion, who probably forged it to answer his own purposes. But whether Marcion did acknowledge an epistle different from all that we have in the Canon, rests on the authority of Epiphanius, who wrote a criticism on the apostolicon of Marcion; but as we have seen, Tertullian tells us a different story. It is of little importance to decide 269which of these testimonies is most credible: for Marcion’s authority, at best, is worthless on such a subject.

But it may be asked, To what epistle then does Paul refer? To this inquiry various answers have been given, and perhaps nothing determinate can now be said. Theophylact was of opinion, that Paul’s first epistle to Timothy was here intended. But this is not probable. Dr. Lightfoot conjectures that it was the first epistle of John, which he supposes was written from Laodicea. Others have thought that it was the epistle of Paul to Philemon. But it seems safest, in such a case, where testimony is deficient, to follow the literal sense of the words, and to believe that it was an epistle written by the Laodiceans, probably to himself, which he had sent to the Colossians, together with his own epistle, for their perusal.

That the epistle which is now extant is not the same as that which formerly existed, at least as early as the fourth century, is evident from the quotations from the ancient epistle, by Epiphanius; for no such words as he cites are in that now extant. But candour requires that it be mentioned that they are contained in the epistle to the Ephesians. Let this weigh as much as it is worth in favour of the opinion, that the apostle, in the passage under consideration, refers to the epistle to the Ephesians. This opinion, however, is perfectly consistent with our position, that no canonical book of the New Testament has been lost. This proposition, we hope, will now appear to the reader sufficiently established.

« Prev Section XIV. No Canonical Book of the New… Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |