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§ 138. The Holy Scriptures and the Canon.


The works on the Canon by Reuss, Westcott, (6th ed., 1889), Zahn, (1888). Holtzmann: Kanon u. Tradition, 1859. Schaff: Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version. N. York and London, 1883; third ed. 1888. Gregory: Prolegomena to Tischendorf’s 8th ed. of the Greek Test. Lips., 1884. A. Harnack: Das N. Test. um das jahr 200. Leipz., 1889.


The question of the source and rule of Christian knowledge lies at the foundation of all theology. We therefore notice it here before passing to the several doctrines of faith.

1. This source and this rule of knowledge are the holy scriptures of the Old and New Covenants.938938    Called simply ἡ γραφή, αἱ γραφαί scriptura, scripturae.38 Here at once arises the inquiry as to the number and arrangement of the sacred writings, or the canon, in distinction both from the productions of enlightened but not inspired church teachers, and from the very numerous and in some cases still extant apocryphal works (Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses), which were composed in the first four centuries, in the interest of heresies or for the satisfaction of idle curiosity, and sent forth under the name of an apostle or other eminent person. These apocrypha, however, did not all originate with Ebionites and Gnostics; some were merely designed either to fill chasms in the history of Jesus and the apostles by fictitious stories, or to glorify Christianity by vaticinia post eventum, in the way of pious fraud at that time freely allowed.

The canon of the Old Testament descended to the church from the Jews, with the sanction of Christ and the apostles. The Jewish Apocrypha were included in the Septuagint and passed from it into Christian versions. The, New Testament canon was gradually formed, on the model of the Old, in the course of the first four centuries, under the guidance of the same Spirit, through whose suggestion the several apostolic books had been prepared. The first trace of it appears in 2 Peter 3:15, where a collection of Paul’s epistles939939    ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς.39 is presumed to exist, and is placed by the side of "the other scriptures."940940    τὰς λοιπὰς (not τὰς ἄλλας) γραφάς40 The apostolic fathers and the earlier apologists commonly appeal, indeed, for the divinity of Christianity to the Old Testament, to the oral preaching of the apostles, to the living faith of the Christian churches, the triumphant death of the martyrs, and the continued miracles. Yet their works contain quotations, generally without the name of the author, from the most important writings of the apostles, or at least allusions to those writings, enough to place their high antiquity and ecclesiastical authority beyond all reasonable doubt.941941    Comp. Clement of Rome, Ad Cor. c. 47; Polycarp, Ad Phil. 3; Ignatius, Ad Eph. 12; Ad Philad. 5; Barnabas, Ep. c. 1; Papias, testimonies on Matthew and Mark, preserved in Euseb. III. 39; Justin Martyr, Apol. I. 61 Dial.c. Tryph. 63, 81, 103, 106, and his frequent quotations from the so called "Memoir, by the Apostles;" Tatian, Diatessaron, etc. To these must be added the testimonies of the early heretics as Basilides (125), Valentine (140), Heracleon, etc. See on this subject the works on the Canon, and the critical Introductions to the N.T. The Didache quotes often from Matthew, and shows acquaintance with other books; Chs. 1, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16. See Schaff, Did., p. 81 sqq.41 The heretical canon of the Gnostic Marcion, of the middle of the second century, consisting of a mutilated Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, certainly implies the existence of an orthodox canon at that time, as heresy always presupposes truth, of which it is a caricature.

The principal books of the New Testament, the four Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Peter, and the first of John, which are designated by Eusebius as "Homologumena," were in general use in the church after the middle of the second century, and acknowledged to be apostolic, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, and therefore authoritative and canonical. This is established by the testimonies of Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, of the Syriac Peshito (which omits only Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Revelation), the old Latin Versions (which include all books but 2 Peter, Hebrews, and perhaps James and the Fragment of Muratori;942942    The Muratorian Canon (so called from its discoverer and first publisher, Muratori, 1740) is a fragment of Roman origin, though translated from the Greek, between a.d. 170 and 180, begins with Mark, passes to Luke as the third Gospel, then to John, Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, mentions two Epp. of John, one of Jude, and the Apocalypses of John and Peter; thus omitting James, Hebrews, third John, first and second Peter, and mentioning instead an apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter, but adding that "some of our body will not have it read in the church." The interesting fragment has been much discussed by Credner, Kirchhofer, Reuss, Tregelles, Hilgenfeld, Westcott, Hesse, Harnack, Overbeck, Salmon, and Zahn.42 also by the heretics, and the heathen opponent Celsus—persons and documents which represent in this matter the churches in Asia Minor, Italy, Gaul, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. We may therefore call these books the original canon.

Concerning the other seven books, the "Antilegomena" of Eusebius, viz. the Epistle to the Hebrews,943943    Which was regarded as canonical indeed, but not as genuine or Pauline in the West.43 the Apocalypse,944944    Which has the strongest external testimony, that of Justin, Irenaeus etc., in its favor, and came into question only in the third century through some antichiliasts on dogmatical grounds.44 the second Epistle of Peter, the second and third Epistles of John, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude,—the tradition of the church in the time of Eusebius, the beginning of the fourth century, still wavered between acceptance and rejection. But of the two oldest manuscripts of the Greek Testament which date from the age of Eusebius and Constantine, one—the Sinaitic—contains all the twenty-seven books, and the other—the Vatican—was probably likewise complete, although the last chapters of Hebrews (from Heb.11:14), the Pastoral Epistles, Philemon, and Revelation are lost. There was a second class of Antilegomena, called by Eusebius "spurious" (νόθα), consisting of several post-apostolic writings, viz. the catholic Epistle of Barnabas, the first Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Shepherd of Hermas, the lost Apocalypse of Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews; which were read at least in some churches but were afterwards generally separated from the canon. Some of them are even incorporated in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, as the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Shepherd of Hermas (both in the original Greek) in the Codex Sinaiticus, and the first Epistle of Clement of Rome in the Codex Alexandrinus.

The first express definition of the New Testament canon, in the form in which it has since been universally retained, comes from two African synods, held in 393 at Hippo, and 397 at Carthage, in the presence of Augustin, who exerted a commanding influence on all the theological questions of his age. By that time, at least, the whole church must have already become nearly unanimous as to the number of the canonical books; so that there seemed to be no need even of the sanction of a general council. The Eastern church, at all events, was entirely independent of the North African in the matter. The Council of Laodicea (363) gives a list of the books of our New Testament with the exception of the Apocalypse. The last canon which contains this list, is probably a later addition, yet the long-established ecclesiastical use of all the books, with some doubts as to the Apocalypse, is confirmed by the scattered testimonies of all the great Nicene and post Nicene fathers, as Athanasius (d. 373), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Gregory of Nazianzum (d. 389), Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), Chrysostom (d. 407), etc.945945    See lists of patristic canons in Charteris, Canonicity, p. 12 sqq.45 The name Novum Testamentum,946946    διαθήκη, covenant, comp. Matt. 26:28, where the Vulgate translates "testamentum," instead of faedus46 also Novum Instrumentum (a juridical term conveying the idea of legal validity), occurs first in Tertullian, and came into general use instead of the more correct term New Covenant. The books were currently divided into two parts, "the Gospel"947947    τὰ εὐαγγελικὰ καὶ τὰ ἀποστολικά, or τὸ εὐαγγέλιον καὶ ὁ ἀπόστολος; instrumentum evangelicum, apostolicum, or evangelium, apostolus. Hence the Scripture lessons in the liturgical churches are divided into " Gospels" and " Epistles."47 and "the Apostle," and the Epistles, in the second part, into Catholic or General, and Pauline. The Catholic canon thus settled remained untouched till the time of the Reformation when the question of the Apocrypha and of the Antilegomena was reopened and the science of biblical criticism was born. But the most thorough investigations of modern times have not been able to unsettle the faith of the church in the New Testament, nor ever will.

2. As to the origin and character of the apostolic writings, the church fathers adopted for the New Testament the somewhat mechanical and magical theory of inspiration applied by the Jews to the Old; regarding the several books as composed with such extraordinary aid from the Holy Spirit as secured their freedom from errors (according to Origen, even from faults of memory). Yet this was not regarded as excluding the writer’s own activity and individuality. Irenaeus, for example, sees in Paul a peculiar style, which he attributes to the mighty flow of thought in his ardent mind. The Alexandrians, however, enlarged the idea of inspiration to a doubtful breadth. Clement of Alexandria calls the works of Plato inspired, because they contain truth; and he considers all that is beautiful and good in history, a breath of the infinite, a tone, which the divine Logos draws forth from the lyre of the human soul.

As a production of the inspired organs, of divine revelation, the sacred scriptures, without critical distinction between the Old and New Covenants, were acknowledged and employed against heretics as an infallible source of knowledge and an unerring rule of Christian faith and practice. Irenaeus calls the Gospel a pillar and ground of the truth. Tertullian demands scripture proof for every doctrine, and declares, that heretics cannot stand on pure scriptural ground. In Origen’s view nothing deserves credit which cannot be confirmed by the testimony of scripture.

3. The exposition of the Bible was at first purely practical, and designed for direct edification. The controversy with the Gnostics called for a more scientific method. Both the orthodox and heretics, after the fashion of the rabbinical and Alexandrian Judaism, made large use of allegorical and mystical interpretation, and not rarely lost themselves amid the merest fancies and wildest vagaries. The fathers generally, with a few exceptions, (Chrysostom and Jerome) had scarcely an idea of grammatical and historical exegesis.

Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meagre in solid results. He considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the body, soul, and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly, he attributed to the scriptures a threefold sense; (1) a somatic, literal, or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense, animating the first, and serving for general edification; (3) a pneumatic or mystic, and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge. In the application of this theory he shows the same tendency as Philo, to spiritualize away the letter of scripture, especially where the plain historical sense seems unworthy, as in the history of David’s crimes; and instead of simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, be puts into it all sorts of foreign ideas and irrelevant fancies. But this allegorizing suited the taste of the age, and, with his fertile mind and imposing learning, Origen was the exegetical oracle of the early church, till his orthodoxy fell into disrepute. He is the pioneer, also, in the criticism of the sacred text, and his "Hexapla" was the first attempt at a Polyglot Bible.

In spite of the numberless exegetical vagaries and differences in detail, which confute the Tridentine fiction of a "unanimis consensus patrum," there is still a certain unanimity among the fathers in their way of drawing the most important articles of faith from the Scriptures. In their expositions they all follow one dogmatical principle, a kind of analogia fidei. This brings us to tradition.


Notes on the Canon.


I. The Statements of Eusebius,

The accounts of Eusebius (d. 340) on the apostolic writings in several passages of his Church History (especially III. 25; comp. II. 22, 23; III. 3, 24; V. 8; VI. 14, 25) are somewhat vague and inconsistent, yet upon the whole they give us the best idea of the state of the canon in the first quarter of the fourth century just before the Council of Nicaea (325).

He distinguishes four classes of sacred books of the Christians (H. E. III. 25, in Heinichen’s ed. vol. I. 130 sqq.; comp. his note in vol. III. 87 sqq.).

1. Homologumena, i.e. such as were universally acknowledged (ὁμολογούμενα): 22 Books of the 27 of the N. T., viz.: 4 Gospels, Acts, 14 Pauline Epistles (including Hebrews), 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation. He says: "Having arrived at this point, it is proper that we should give a summary catalogue of the afore-mentioned (III. 24) writings of the N. T. (Ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι τὰς δηλωθείσας τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης γραφάς). First, then, we must place the sacred quaternion (or quartette, τετρακτύν) of the Gospels, which are followed by the book of the Acts of the Apostles (ἡ τῶν πράξεων τῶν ἀποστόλων γραφή). After this we must reckon the Epistles of Paul, and next to them we must maintain as genuine (κυρωτέον, the verb. adj. from κυρόω, to ratify), the Epistle circulated as the former of John (τὴν φερομένην Ἰωάννου προτέραν), and in like manner that of Peter (καὶ ὁμοίως τὴν Πέτρου ἐπιστολήν). In addition to these books, if it seem proper (εἴγε φανείη), we must place the Revelation of John (τὴν ἀποκάλυψιν Ἰωάννου), concerning which we shall set forth the different opinions in due course. And these are reckoned among those which are generally received (ἐν ὁμολογουμένοις)."

In bk. III. ch. 3, Eusebius speaks of "fourteen Epp." of Paul (τοῦ δὲ Παύλου πρόδηλοι καὶ σαφεῖς αἱ δεκατέσσαρες,) as commonly received, but adds that "some have rejected the Ep. to the Hebrews, saying that it was disputed as not being one of Paul’s epistles."

On the Apocalypse, Eusebius vacillates according as he gives the public belief of the church or his private opinion. He first counts it among the Homologumena, and then, in the same passage (III. 25), among the spurious books, but in each case with a qualifying statement (εἰ φανείη), leaving the matter to the judgment of the reader. He rarely quotes the book, and usually as the "Apocalypse of John," but in one place (III. 39) he intimates that it was probably written by "the second John," which must mean the "Presbyter John," so called, as distinct from the Apostle—an opinion which has found much favor in the Schleiermacher school of critics. Owing to its mysterious character, the Apocalypse is, even to this day, the most popular book of the N. T. with a few, and the most unpopular with the many. It is as well attested as any other book, and the most radical modern critics (Baur, Renan) admit its apostolic authorship and composition before the destruction of Jerusalem.

2. Antilegomena, or controverted books, yet "familiar to most people of the church" (ἀντιλεγόμενα, γνώριμα δ’ ὅμως τοῖς πολλοῖς, III. 25). These are five (or seven), viz., one Epistle of James, one of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John ("whether they really belong to the Evangelist or to another John").

To these we may add (although Eusebius does not do it expressly) the Hebrews and the Apocalypse, the former as not being generally acknowledged as Pauline, the latter on account of its supposed chiliasm, which was offensive to Eusebius and the Alexandrian school.

3. Spurious Books (νόθα), such as the Acts of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd (Hermas), the Ep. of Barnabas, the so-called "Doctrines of the Apostles, " and the Gospel according to the Hebrews." in which those Hebrews who have accepted Christ take special delight."

To these he adds inconsistently, as already remarked, the Apocalypse of John." which some, as I said, reject (ἥν τινες ἀθετοῦσιν), while others reckon it among the books generally received (τοῖς ὁμολογουμένοις)." He ought to have numbered it with the Antilegomena.

These νόθα, we may say, correspond to the Apocrypha of the O. T., pious and useful, but not canonical.

4. Heretical Books. These, Eusebius says, are worse than spurious books, and must be "set aside as altogether worthless and impious." Among these be mentions the Gospels of Peter, and Thomas, and Matthias, the Acts of Andrew, and John, and of the other Apostles.


II. Ecclesiastical Definitions of the Canon.

Soon after the middle of the fourth century, when the church became firmly settled in the Empire, all doubts as to the Apocrypha of the Old Testament and the Antilegomena of the New ceased, and the acceptance of the Canon in its Catholic shape, which includes both, became an article of faith. The first Œcumenical Council of Nicaea did not settle the canon, as one might expect, but the scriptures were regarded without controversy as the sure and immovable foundation of the orthodox faith. In the last (20th or 21st) Canon of the Synod of Gangra, in Asia Minor (about the middle of the fourth century), it is said: "To speak briefly, we desire that what has been handed down to us by the divine scriptures and the Apostolic traditions should be observed in the church." Comp. Hefele, Conciliengesch. I. 789.

The first Council which expressly legislated on the number of canonical books is that of Laodicea in Phrygia, in Asia Minor (held between a.d. 343 and 381, probably about 363). In its last canon (60 or 59), it enumerates the canonical books of the Old Testament, and then all of the New, with the exception of the Apocalypse, in the following order:

"And these are the Books of the New Testament: Four Gospels, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John; Acts of the Apostles; Seven Catholic Epistles, One of James, Two of Peter, Three of John, One of Jude; Fourteen Epistles of Paul, One to the Romans, Two to the Corinthians, One to the Galatians, One to the Ephesians, One to the Philippians, One to the Colossians, Two to the Thessalonians, One to the Hebrews, Two to Timothy, One to Titus, and One to Philemon."

This catalogue is omitted in several manuscripts and versions, and probably is a later insertion from the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem. Spittler, Herbst, and Westcott deny, Schrökh and Hefele defend, the Laodicean origin of this catalogue. It resembles that of the 85th of the Apostolical Canons which likewise omits the Apocalypse, but inserts two Epistles of Clement and the pseudo-Apostolical Constitutions.

On the Laodicean Council and its uncertain date see Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, revised ed. vol. I. p. 746 sqq., and Westcott, on the Canon of the N. T., second ed., p. 382 sqq.

In the Western church, the third provincial Council of Carthage (held a.d. 397) gave a full list of the canonical books of both Testaments, which should be read as divine Scriptures to the exclusion of all others in the churches. The N. T. books are enumerated in the following order: "Four Books of the Gospels, One Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Thirteen Epp. of the Apostle Paul, One Ep. of the same [Apostle] to the Hebrews, Two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, Three of John, One of James, One of Jude, One Book of the Apocalypse of John." This canon bad been previously adopted by the African Synod of Hippo regius, a.d. 393, at which Augustin, then presbyter, delivered his discourse De Fide et Symbolo. The acts of that Council are lost, but they were readopted by the third council of Carthage, which consisted only of forty-three African bishops, and can claim no general authority. (See Westcott, p. 391, Charteris, p. 20, and Hefele, II. 53 and 68, revised ed.)

Augustin, (who was present at both Councils), and Jerome (who translated the Latin Bible at the request of Pope Damasus of Rome) exerted a decisive influence in settling the Canon for the Latin church.

The Council of Trent (1546) confirmed the traditional view with an anathema on those who dissent. "This fatal decree," says Dr. Westcott (p. 426 sq.), "was ratified by fifty-three prelates, among whom was not one German, not one scholar distinguished for historical learning, not one who was fitted by special study for the examination of a subject in which the truth could only be determined by the voice of antiquity."

For the Greek and Roman churches the question of the Canon is closed, although no strictly oecumenical council representing the entire church has pronounced on it. But Protestantism claims the liberty of the ante-Nicene age and the right of renewed investigation into the origin and history of every book of the Bible. Without this liberty there can be no real progress in exegetical theology.



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