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§ 76. Character of the New Testament.
In these inspired writings we have, not indeed an equivalent, but a reliable substitute for the personal presence and the oral instruction of Christ and his apostles. The written word differs from the spoken only in form; the substance is the same, and has therefore the same authority and quickening power for us as it had for those who heard it first. Although these books were called forth apparently by special and accidental occasions, and were primarily addressed to particular circles of readers and adapted to peculiar circumstances, yet, as they present the eternal and unchangeable truth in living forms, they suit all circumstances and conditions. Tracts for the times, they are tracts for all times; intended for Jews and Greeks of the first century, they have the same interest for Englishmen and Americans of the nineteenth century. They are to this day not only the sole reliable and pure fountain of primitive Christianity, but also the infallible rule of Christian faith and practice. From this fountain the church has drunk the water of life for more than fifty generations, and will drink it till the end of time. In this rule she has a perpetual corrective for an her faults, and a protective against all error. Theological systems come and go, and draw from that treasury their larger or smaller additions to the stock of our knowledge of the truth; but they can never equal that infallible word of God, which abideth forever.
"Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O God, art more than they."
The New Testament evinces its universal design in its very, style, which alone distinguishes it from all the literary productions of earlier and later times. It has a Greek body, a Hebrew soul, and a Christian spirit which rules both. The language is the Hellenistic idiom; that is, the Macedonian Greek as spoken by the Jews of the dispersion in the time of Christ; uniting, in a regenerated Christian form, the two great antagonistic nationalities and religions of the ancient world. The most beautiful language of heathendom and the venerable language of the Hebrews are here combined, and baptized with the spirit of Christianity, and made the picture of silver for the golden apple of the eternal truth of the gospel. The style of the Bible in general is singularly adapted to men of every class and grade of culture, affording the child the simple nourishment for its religious wants, and the profoundest thinker inexhaustible matter of study. The Bible is not simply a popular book, but a book of all nations, and for all societies, classes, and conditions of men. It is more than a book, it is an institution which rules the Christian world.
The New Testament presents, in its way, the same union of the divine and human as the person of Christ. In this sense also "the word became flesh, and dwells among us." As Christ was like us in body, soul, and spirit, sin only excepted, so the Scriptures, which "bear witness of him," are thoroughly human (though without doctrinal and ethical error) in contents and form, in the mode of their rise, their compilation, their preservation, and transmission; yet at the same time they are thoroughly divine both in thoughts and words, in origin, vitality, energy, and effect, and beneath the human servant-form of the letter, the eye of faith discerns the glory of "the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."
The apostolic writings are of three kinds: historical, didactic, and prophetic. To the first class belong the Gospels and Acts; to the second, the Epistles; to the third, the Revelation. They are related to each other as regeneration, sanctification, and glorification; as foundation, house, and dome. Jesus Christ is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all. In the Gospels he walks in human form upon the earth, and accomplishes the work of redemption. In the Acts and Epistles he founds the church, and fills and guides it by his Spirit. And at last, in the visions of the Apocalypse, he comes again in glory, and with his bride, the church of the saints, reigns forever upon the new earth in the city of God.
This order corresponds with the natural progress of the Christian revelation and was universally adopted by the church, with the exception of a difference in the arrangement of the Epistles. The New Testament was not given in the form of a finished volume, but the several books grew together by recognition and use according to the law of internal fitness. Most of the ancient Manuscripts, Versions, and Catalogues arrange the books in the following order: Gospels, Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles, Apocalypse.868868 This order is restored in the critical editions of Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Westcott and Hort. Some put the Pauline Epistles before the Catholic Epistles.869869 The Codex Sinaiticus puts the Pauline Epistles before the Acts, and the Hebrews between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. Our English Bible follows the order of the Latin Vulgate.870870 This order agrees with the Muratorian Fragment, the catalogue of Eusebius (H. E., III. 25), that of the Synod of Carthage (a.d. 897), and the Codex Basiliensis. Luther took the liberty of disconnecting the Hebrews (which he ascribed to Apollos) from the Pauline Epistles, and putting it and the Epistle of James (which be disliked) at the end of the Catholic Epistles (except Jude)
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