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 The Principles of Theology - Article 6

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Introduction

Part 1. The Canon of Holy Scripture

The second sentence of the Article logically comes first by showing what Scripture is before considering its position and the use made of it.

The attitude of the Church is one of reverence for a volume consisting of sixty-six books; thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New; by many authors, and of very varied nature. The former part is the Bible of the Jews, setting forth the Jewish religion in its historical development and different aspects covering centuries of time. The Church inherited belief in the sacredness and authority of the Old Testament from our Lord and His Apostles. The New Testament sets forth the Christian religion in various aspects, covering some sixty years, or two generations. In contrast with the Koran, which is alleged to have come from Mohammed, none of the books of the New Testament are by the Founder of the Christian religion. The Church had the Old Testament from the first, even in Gentile Christianity, and then gradually the books of the New Testament were added. Canonicity is the fact, and canonising is the method of recognising these writings as possessed of Divine authority. [1]

1. The word “Canon” comes from κανών, [2] and is akin to קנה, κάννα (reed). The words “cane” and “canon” are cognate terms. The word had active and passive senses. A thing which is employed as a measure is first measured, and only then used to measure other things. The passive meaning, anything measured, e.g. a measured racecourse at Olympia, in turn becomes a measure, and the word means a straight road or rule used for measurement: 2 Cor. 10:13-16 (passive); Gal. 6:16 (active). Then the word came to mean any list of things for reference e.g. at Alexandria a list of classical writers was called κανών, and Eusebius calls chronological tables κανόνες χρονικοί (This is the meaning of the technical word “Canon” in relation to Scripture.) The Canon of Scripture is used first of all in a passive sense, meaning that which is measured off, or separated from others, and then it is employed in an active sense, meaning that which measures or tests others. Thus Scripture is (1) that which is measured or defined by the rule of the Church, and (2) that which, being measured, becomes thereby the rule of the Church for other cases. The Bible contained the recognised list of books which have been measured by a certain rule or standard of measurement and have thereby become measures of other books. The word is first used in the Christian Church by a poet, Amphilochius, 380, ὁ κανὼν των θεόπνευστων γραϕων. But Origen had spoken of “canonised books” or books put on the list. Afterwards Jerome and Augustine, 400, used the word quite technically. [3]

2. What, then, is the rule of the Church by which a book is measured, or defined as canonical? The Article describes a Canonical Book as one “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” The reference is to authority, not to authorship. The statement is usually regarded as a difficulty, since it cannot apply to all the books and all the Churches, for the Reformers knew well the early doubts about some of the books. It is probable that as the doubts were dead by the sixteenth century the reference is to the Church as a whole as distinct from individual Churches. The matter was originally settled mainly by public reading and general usage. The first three centuries never pronounced on the subject except by the testimony of individual and representative writers. No corporate evidence was possible. But when it became available and necessary it was soon seen that there was no real doubt as to our books. The first corporate witness dates from the Council of Laodicea, 364, where the testimony is clear, and when once the whole Church was able to bear its testimony the words of the Article are seen to be justified.

3. The grounds of Canonicity need consideration. Why were certain books received and certain rejected? The fundamental reason is the conviction that certain books came from men who were divinely inspired to reveal and convey God’s will: Prophets in the Old Testament and Apostles in the New. Prophets were the recognised expounders of God’s will, and their writings were regarded as immediately authoritative. The best illustration is found in Jeremiah 36, where the Prophet’s words were recognised as possessing authority at once. Each book had this authority by reason of its prophetic source, and thence gradually came the collection into one volume, so that the Old Testament represents those books which Israel accepted on proper evidence as the Divine standard of faith and practice, because they were either written or put forth by prophetic men. It was not the decision of the people that caused the collection, but the collection was due to their acceptance by the people. The authority came from God through the prophets, and the recognition by the people was the effect of the Canonicity. The action of the people was the weighing of evidence, and the outcome was testimony rather than judgment.

In the same way the books of the New Testament were regarded as possessing Apostolic origin. This may have been either by authorship or sanction, but there is no doubt that the primary standard of verification and acceptance was the belief that the books came from Apostolic men, either Apostles themselves or their associates. So that the ground of canonicity was not merely the age, or the truth, or the helpfulness of these books, but, beneath these characteristics, because they came from uniquely qualified instruments of God’s will. All other tests were subsidiary and confirmatory. It is, therefore, important and essential to distinguish between the ground of Canonicity and the ground of the conviction of Canonicity. The latter is quite separate from the former, and is subjective, while the former is rational, objective, and leaves man no excuse.

4. The character of Canonicity. It is particularly important to notice what Canonicity really implies and involves. It created a book not a revelation. Canonicity is analogous to codification, which implies the existence of laws already as separate books. The authority of each book of the Bible would have been the same even if there had been no collection and codification. So that the authority is not that of a book, but of a revelation; the revelation did not come to exist because of the Canonicity, but the Canonicity because of the revelation, and the Bible, as we have seen, is regarded as a revelation, because it is held to be the embodiment of the historic manifestation of the Redeemer and His truth. [4] It has been well said that the Bible is not an authorised collection of books, but a collection of authorised books. It is essential to remember that the quality which determines acceptance of a book is its possession of a Divine revelation. So that Canonicity did not raise a book to the position of Scripture, but recognised that it was already Scripture. Canonisation was a decision based on testimony, and the canonising process was the recognition of an existing fact. It is, of course, true that the process of canonisation implies accumulative authority, and adds immensely to the strength of the position as representing the witness of the entire Church, but it must never be forgotten that the authority of each separate book was in it from the first.

5. The History of the Old Testament Canon. Although of necessity there was no complete history of the Canon in the Old Testament itself, yet there are indications of a growth which need to be considered. While there is no record of the canonisation of any book or collection, there is a frequent recognition of books as authoritative. Provision was evidently made for writing, preserving, and teaching. There are indications all through of gradual growth and accretion. Among the passages the following may be adduced: Exod. 24:4-7; Deut. 31:9-13; 24-26 (Cf. 2 Kings 23:2); Josh. 1:8; 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Deut. 17:18 f. (Cf. Psa. 19; 119, “testimony”); Prov. 25:1 (Cf. history by prophets); Isa. 34:16; Isa. 8:19, 20; Jer. 36:4; 45:1; Dan. 9:2; Zech. 7:12. Proofs are forthcoming that in all periods this law was imposed and taught: Josh. 11:15; Jud. 3:4; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 30:16; Dan. 9:11; Ezra 3:2; Neh. 10:28. All this shows the gradual growth and progress, and the deposit of Sacred Books in the Sanctuary, a custom which is in harmony with the practice of other nations. [5]

6. The History of the New Testament Canon. The idea of a New Testament was natural from the analogy of the Old. The Divine authority of the Old Testament is clear from the New (“oracles,” Rom. 3:2), and this influenced the early Church. The Christian community, therefore, did not need to create the idea of a Canon, for it was there already, and in due course the books of the new Testament were regarded as authoritative, because they revealed Christ by the Divine Spirit, through inspired men. As the Church did not grow up by natural law, but was founded by Christ, and authoritative teachers were sent forth by Him carrying with them a body of Divine Scriptures, the Church was never without its Bible or Canon, for wherever they went they imposed on the Churches they founded the Old Testament as the code of laws. Christ was the authority, side by side with the Old Testament, and Christ was declared first by the words of the Apostles, and later by their writings (Acts 20:35). This immediate placing of the new books among the Scriptures was inevitable, and gradually the books became known to the whole Church through the separate testimony of individuals and communities. At the outset, Christ with the Old Testament was the authority for Christians, and this authority was necessarily oral at first, but it is almost certain that the words of Christ were put into writing very early. [6] As the words of Christ were considered holy from the first, it was easy and natural to reverence a report as truly as the living voice, and thus no distinction was made between the spoken and written words of Apostles. [7] Then came letters of Apostles to particular Churches or individuals, and these would obviously be treasured and read at gatherings side by side with the Old Testament. This public reading was the first step in the process whereby we got our New Testament. Then came interchange with other Churches as the second step. At first the Church seems to have been unconscious of the goal, and it was only later that the process was deliberate. The Church had a New Testament Canon long before it had the conception of it, the fact before the idea. The reception of an Apostolic letter would at once separate it from all else as an authoritative guide, and this would be the canonisation of a single book. While particular circumstances helped forward and accelerated the process, these cannot wholly account for it. Heresy and schism doubtless hastened the completion of the Canon, but the New Testament was inevitable in any case. Oral tradition was soon found to be inadequate, especially as heretics claimed their own tradition. To the earliest Churches Scripture was not a closed, but an increasing Canon, one of gradual growth, like the Old Testament, and this would be so as long as there were living men specially “moved by the Holy Ghost.” And so at the end of the process it was not felt to be anything novel or strange, but the whole Church confirmed what had long been familiar in individual Churches. The formal recognition of the entire New Testament was exactly the same as that of separate books used by particular Churches and individuals, and the Church declarations were not the primary investment with authority, but only the record and registration of an authority long existing. There is no evidence whatever of a gradual heightening of the estimate of books originally received on a lower level and at the commencement tentatively accounted Scripture. On the contrary, the evidence is conclusive of estimation and attachment from the beginning. As book after book came from the Apostolic circle it was received as Scripture and added to the old collection, until the books were numerous enough to be regarded as a separate section of Scriptures.

All through, the question was, which were Christian writings, so that they might be used for life and worship. The answer was that only the writings that could be regarded as of Apostolic sanction were to be included, all others being, therefore, ruled out. And so Christianity was soon seen to be a book religion like the Jewish, for in no other way could the purity of tradition about Christ be preserved. The Canon was part of a general movement of the Church during the last thirty years of the second century, when there was (1) a gradual collection of separate books to form the New Testament; (2) a gradual organising of the Christian Church against its foes; (3) a gradual expression of belief as a deposit from the Apostles. Thus, Scripture, the Christian Church, and the Christian Creeds were a threefold testimony to essential Christianity, and while everything on the surface seemed natural, incidental, and even occasional, a Divine power was really at work from the first giving the Church its authoritative books. The Church was spiritually guided as to the Canon, which has been well called “the slow miracle of history.” But this does not mean that the New Testament, the Ministry and the Creeds are of equal authority; it only refers to the human and historical side of the process of collecting the authorised books into a volume. While the Canon (as a volume) is the work of the whole Church, the separate authority of each book is not, and in this latter sense the New Testament is not the product of the Church. And the witness of the Church to Episcopacy is very different from, because far less assured, universal and primitive than, the witness to the books of the New Testament and the truths of the Creed. These date from the first century, whereas Episcopacy confessedly is much later. Nothing is more fallacious, as we shall see, than the idea that the New Testament is the product of the Church. The Canon is, but the separate books are not.

It is impossible to give anything like an adequate account of the process in these pages, [8] but the germs during the first century seem to call for notice. The claim to Divine authority is evident; Apostolic preaching was regarded as in the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:12), and even words were held to come from the Divine source (1 Cor. 2:13). Apostolic commands carried Divine authority (1 Thess. 4:2), and these were found in writing (2 Thess. 2:15), and obedience to them was demanded (2 Thess. 3:14). The acceptance of this was regarded as a test of spiritual life (1 Cor. 14:37). It was inevitable that writings making such claims should be given equal authority, because possessing equal quality with the Old Testament [9]. And they were therefore read at worship, a practice required by the Apostles (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:2), and interchanged between Churches (Col. 4:16). Something like mutual attestation also seems to be found; thus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and James appear to use St. Paul’s Epistles; 1 Tim. 5:18 quotes Luke 10:7 as “the Scripture” (ἡ γραϕή); 2 Peter 3:16 refers to St. Paul’s Epistles as “among the other writings” (Scriptures). After this the line of such quotations is unbroken. [10]

The process of canonisation may be outlined as follows:
1. A.D. 50-100: composing, writing.
2. A.D. 100-200: collecting, gathering.
3. A.D. 200-300: comparing, sifting.
4. A.D. 300-400: completing, recognising.

Without entering upon the detailed history in the second century it may be noted that suddenly, about 170, we find the New Testament practically complete, with a hesitation about seven of our books, and four other books as a sort of New Testament Apocrypha. Evidently there was a process of collecting going on very rapidly, and more interest was felt in getting hold of possible Scriptures than of sifting them. Through the absence of accurate knowledge some temporary mistakes were made, but though a section of the Church may not yet have been satisfied of the apostolicity of certain books, and though doubts may have arisen afterwards in sections of the Church as to the apostolicity of others, yet in no case was it more than a minority of the Church which was slow in receiving, or which came afterwards to doubt the credentials of any of the books now received, and in every case the principle on which a book was accepted, or doubts against it laid aside, was the historical tradition of apostolicity. After the second century no one ever really attempted to put forth new documents as Apostolic and authoritative, or to amend them. The content of Scripture was substantially made up, and henceforward differences were not so much on Scripture as on the interpretation. It is particularly striking that hitherto no Councils, Synods, or Decrees had been connected with the Canon. These had absolutely no influence in making the Canon, but only in registering it after it was made. This is particularly important because of the modern tendency to think the Canon was due to the arbitrary arrangement of Church leaders. The movement for the Canon was inevitable and vital, neither artificial nor superficial. It was due to the great mass of Christian people who from their spiritual life provided testimony to the separate books which led to the collection of a complete Canon. Unconscious at first, the movement was ever tending towards the goal. In the third century a great process of sifting went on. The Church was cautious and conservative, while heretics were free in dealing with books. The fourth century naturally addressed itself to the task of obtaining testimony from all parts of the Church to the New Testament books in use, in order thereby to show clearly what was the authoritative Canon. The greatest writer of this period was Eusebius of Cæsarea, who gives a list of New Testament books in three classes:

(a) Class 1. His New Testament; books accepted: “Homologoumena” (ὁμολογούμενα). Hebrews is probably included in Paul’s Epistles, and Revelation is accepted “with hesitation.”

(b) Class 2. Books spoken against or disputed: “Antilegomena” (ἀντιλεγόμενα). “But yet read by the majority,” viz. James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude.

(c) Class 3. Books rejected: “Notha” (νόθα). Regarded as spurious. A number like Hermas, Barnabas, etc., and “with hesitation,” Revelation.

The rejection of certain books was due to the fact that there were not accepted by the Churches of his day. Soon catalogues of the accepted New Testament appeared, and the Church received into their New Testament all the books historically evinced to them as given by Apostles to Churches as the code of law. We must not mistake the historical evidences of slow circulation to authentication over a widely-extended Church for the evidences of slowness of canonisation by the authority or test of the Church itself.

The Middle Ages accepted implicitly the Canon thus stamped, and notwithstanding the discussion at the Reformation, especially in connection with Luther, the matter rested until the end of the eighteenth century, when in the general movement of criticism the Canon was inevitably included in discussion. Westcott says that the evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament is “more complete, more varied, more continuous than can be brought forward for any other book.” [11] And Sanday, speaking of the importance of early Christian literature, says that the Church has not discarded “one single work which after generations … have found cause to look back upon with regret.” [12] The re-opening of the question today and the thorough examination of the historical materials is not likely to alter the New Testament, and certainly cannot deny, or even minimise its significance in the history of Christianity. It may be confidently said that no critical conclusion will alter, even by one book, our New Testament, which has been rightly described as “the fixed magnitude.” One thing especially should count in this connection. Westcott says, “No one can read it as a whole without gaining a conviction of its unity, not less real because it cannot be expressed or transferred.” [13]

In studying the history of the Canon four questions must be asked and carefully distinguished:
1. When was the New Testament Canon completed? That is, when was the last authoritative book give to any Church by an Apostle?
2. When did any one Church acquire a completed Canon? (This is a matter for historical investigation.)
3. When did the completed Canon obtain universal circulation and acceptance?
4. On what ground and evidence did Churches with incomplete New Testament accept the remaining books when they were made known to them?


>> Part 2. The Limits of the Canon of Holy Scripture (to be added)


[1] For the history of each separate book reference should be made to the Commentaries and Introductions. For the New Testament as a whole Salmon’s Introduction is the most important.
[2] See Westcott, Canon of the New Testament, Appendix A.
[3] Jerome’s Prol. Galeatus; and Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 18, 38; Jerome saying of Tobias and Ruth, “non sunt in canone.”
[4] Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, pp. 500-508.
[5] For fuller details of the history and progress, see W. H. Green, The Canon of the Old Testament.
[6] Sir W. M. Ramsay considers that parts of our First Gospel were written before the death of Christ: Luke the Physician, p. 87.
[7] Sanday, Inspiration, p. 366.
[8] Reference may be made to Westcott, The Canon of the New Testament; Sanday, Inspiration; Lightfoot, Essays on Supernatural Religion; Charteris, Canonicity; Sanday, The Gospels in the Second Century; Gregory, Text and Canon of the New Testament; Souter, Canon and Text of the New Testament.
[9] St. Paul “is evidently as sure as any of the Old Testament prophets was ever sure that the message which he delivered was no invention of his own … but that he was merely an instrument in the hands of God” (Sanday, Inspiration, p.332).
[10] Revelation: “The strongest language found in the older Scriptures he uses and applies to his own book,” Ch. 1:3; 10:7; 12;6, 7, 9, etc. (Sanday, ut supra, p. 375).
[11] The Canon of the New Testament, p. 503.
[12] Sanday, ut supra, p. 27.
[13] The Canon of the New Testament, p. 502.







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