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§ 75. Rise of the Apostolic Literature.
Christ is the book of life to be read by all. His religion is not an outward letter of command, like the law of Moses, but free, quickening spirit; not a literary production, but a moral creation; not a new system of theology or philosophy for the learned, but a communication of the divine life for the redemption of the whole world. Christ is the personal Word of God, the eternal Logos, who became flesh and dwelt upon earth as the true Shekinah, in the veiled glory of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. He spoke; and all the words of his mouth were, and still are, spirit and life. The human heart craves not a learned, letter-writing, literary Christ, but a wonder-working, cross-bearing, atoning Redeemer, risen, enthroned in heaven, and ruling the world; furnishing, at the same time, to men and angels an unending theme for meditation, discourse, and praise.
So, too, the Lord chose none of his apostles, with the single exception of Paul, from the ranks of the learned; he did not train them to literary authorship, nor give them, throughout his earthly life, a single express command to labor in that way. Plain fishermen of Galilee, unskilled in the wisdom of this world, but filled with the Holy Spirit of truth and the powers of the world to come, were commissioned to preach the glad tidings of salvation to all nations in the strength and in the name of their glorified Master, who sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and has promised to be with them to the end of time.
The gospel, accordingly, was first propagated and the church founded by the personal oral teaching and exhortation, the "preaching," "testimony," "word," "tradition," of the apostles and their disciples; as, in fact, to this day the living word is the indispensable or, at least, the principal means of promoting the Christian religion. Nearly all the books of the New Testament were written between the years 50 and 70, at least twenty years after the resurrection of Christ, and the founding of the church; and the Gospel and Epistles of John still later.
As the apostles’ field of labor expanded, it became too large for their personal attention, and required epistolary correspondence. The vital interests of Christianity and the wants of coming generations demanded a faithful record of the life and teaching of Christ by perfectly reliable witnesses. For oral tradition, among fallible men, is liable to so many accidental changes, that it loses in certainty and credibility as its distance from the fountain-head increases, till at last it can no longer be clearly distinguished from the additions and corruptions collected upon it. There was great danger, too, of a wilful distortion of the history and doctrine of Christianity by Judaizing and paganizing errorists, who had already raised their heads during the lifetime of the apostles. An authentic written record of the words and acts of Jesus and his disciples was therefore absolutely indispensable, not indeed to originate the church, but to keep it from corruption and to furnish it with a pure standard of faith and discipline.
Hence seven and twenty books by apostles and apostolic men, written under the special influence and direction of the Holy Spirit. These afford us a truthful picture of the history, the faiths, and the practice of primitive Christianity, "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."866866 2 Tim. 3:16. It applies to "every Scripture inspired of God," more immediately to the Old Test., but a fortiori still more to the New.
The collection of these writings into a canon, in distinction both from apocryphal or pseudo-apostolic works, and from orthodox yet merely human productions, was the work of the early church; and in performing it she was likewise guided by the Spirit of God and by a sound sense of truth. It was not finished to the satisfaction of all till the end of the fourth century, down to which time seven New Testament books (the "Antilegomena" of Eusebius), the second Epistle of Peter, the second and third Epistles of John, the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistles of James and Jude, and in a certain sense also the Apocalypse of John, were by some considered of doubtful authorship or value. But the collection was no doubt begun, on the model of the Old Testament canon, in the first century;867867 Comp. 2 Pet. 3:16, where a collection of Paul’s Epistles is implied. and the principal books, the Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Peter, and the first of John, in a body, were in general use after the middle of the second century, and were read, either entire or by sections, in public worship, after the manner of the Jewish synagogue, for the edification of the people.
The external testimony of tradition alone cannot (for the Protestant Christian) decide the apostolic origin and canonical character of a book; it must be confirmed by the internal testimony of the book itself. But this is not wanting, and the general voice of Christendom for these eighteen hundred years has recognized in the little volume, which we call the New Testament, a book altogether unique in spiritual power and influence over the mind and heart of man, and of more interest and value than all the ancient and modern classics combined. If ever God spoke and still speaks to man, it is in this book.
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