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THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE.
TALBOT W. CHAMBERS, D.D.
The question I am to treat is the Canon of Scripture, or in other words, what books actually belong to the Bible. The subject is of no small importance, for if the Scriptures be, as all evangelical men admit, the rule of faith and the guide to practice; if they be or contain a revelation from God, we need to know whether the book which we receive and hold as the Bible really deserves that character. Error or even uncertainty here would be a serious drawback on Christian peace and progress. And the more, as it is not infrequently asserted that the confidence of believers is misplaced; that the different works embraced in the sacred volume have found admission there on insufficient grounds, while some have been left out which had as good a right as any others to be in the collection; and that therefore there is need of a critical estimate in each case in order to revise our conclusions and determine afresh what is and what is not part and parcel of the Bible. That this view, by whatever great names it is sustained, is shallow and unscientific, will, I trust, be made to appear in the course of the discussion that follows.
Among Christians, opinions are divided first and mainly by the answers they give to the question, What is the rule by which we are to determine the canonical authority either of the Scripture as a whole or of any part of it? The e answers may be reduced to three. Some say it is the Church that gives the requisite authority to the Canon;
others maintain that it is divina fides, or the witness of the Holy Spirit, the author of the word, in the heart of the believer; while a third class insist that historical tra dition is the only sufficient basis. And it is clear that these views are mutually exclusive. If a man holds one, he must renounce the others. If one clain that the Church has authority in the premises, he cannot consistently impeach that authority by appealing to something else. So, if he hold to the witness of the Spirit and insists that thus his faith has a divine foundation which alone is adequate, he is debarred from any support that is distinctively human; otherwise be renounces his principle. In like manner the effort to establish the Canon by an appeal to the testimony of those who first received the sacred books and their successors implies that neither the objective ground of the Church's authority nor the subjective ground of divina fides is a sufficient basis for our faith that what we receive as Scripture is really entitled to that name.
I. It is an opinion widely diffused through Christendom that we depend upon the authority of the Church for the deterinination of the Canon. This is the view of the Greek and Roman Catholics, and of not a few in the Church of England and its daughter in this country. The great Latin father, Augustine, is on record as saying, “For my part I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church” (“ Contra Epis. Manich. Quam Vocant Fundamentum," chap. 5), and although Calvin endeavors (“Institutes,” I., vii. 3) to show that Augustine is speaking only of a supposed case of a person knowing nothing of the matter and therefore dependent upon human testimony, he hardly makes out his position.* Yet, in another of his writings (“De Doct.
* Prof. Henry B. Smith says that the saying "is fairly interpreted as meaning, not that the Church gave authority to the Christ.,” ii. 12, 13), Augustine certainly speaks of the canonical Scriptures as depending not on the authority of the Church, but ou the witness of the several churches, the weight and influence of which as well as their numhers are to be counted by whoever wishes to be a wise student of the divine Scriptures. And Jerome seems to have been of the same opinion. But the Council of Trent settled the question for Rome in a summary way, and pronounced the usual anathema against all who held the contrary. And all Romanists now would say, as the learned Dr. Doyle once said in regard to another matter, “The Church has spoken at Trent, causa est finita.” It is to be observed that the reference here is not to the testimony of various bodies of believers in different places as witnesses in respect to the writings which they received as apostolic and inspired, and which therefore were regarded as having a divine sanction, for this is a matter upon which there need be no difference of opinion. But when men speak of receiving the Scriptures on the authority of the Church, what they mean is the deliberate voice of the Church as a great corporate organization, acting through the decision of its chief officials, which may be a general council, or the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter. (1). The first and obvious objection to this theory is that it is a notable specimen of what is called reasoning in a circle. For we cannot determine the claims of the Church except by the declarations of Scripture, and yet we are to go to the Church to learn what Scripture is. Clearly, no progress can be made by proceeding in this way. In each case the question is begged in advance, and at the conclusion we are just where we were at the beginning. (2). We desire to know how the heads of the Church, whether one or many, reach their conclusion and are able
Scriptures, but gave to Augustine his authority for receiving them" ("Introduction to Christian Theology," p. 192).
to pronounce authoritatively upon the subject. It must be by an immediate revelation from heaven or by their study of the facts in the case. If it be the former, then it is a private matter, known only to themselves and not established to us by any proof, and therefore in no degree entitled to our confidence or obedience. If it be the latter, then the same sources of information are open to us, and we may apply ourselves to them humbly and patiently in the expectation that the divine guidance and blessing will not be withheld. (3). We find nowhere in what purports to be Scripture any reference to the Church as the arbiter of such a question. As the mystical body of Christ, the Church is inexpressibly dear to Him, but he has committed to her no such authority as is here claimed. The oft-quoted expression, “Hear the Church” (Matthew xviii. 17), bas reference to the settlement of a private dispute between individuals, and is merely a statement as to the exercise of discipline and one that is essential to the preservation of a society, but it bears not even remotely upon the determination of points of faith. (4). Moreover, it the voice of ecclesiastical authority is to settle the Canon, well wonder why it was not heard at any
earlier period. No such voice was uttered for the first fourteen centuries of the Christian era. Numerous æcumenical councils were held from Nicæa to Basle, yet not one of them took up the subject. It was not until 1441 that Pope Eugenius broke the long silence of ecclesiastics by promulgating on his own authority a list of the books of Scripture, being impelled to this doubtless by the terrible confusions of that period. This list was faithfully reproduced a century afterward by the Council of Trent. But these were novel procedures. During all the fourteen centuries that preceded, the people of God, whatever their conflicts and trials, seem never to have felt any need of an authoritative decision on the limits of Scrip
ture. The question was often discussed and there were various opinions, but no one thought of having an exact definition imposed upon clergy or laity. And if before the division of Christendom a decree of this kind was not sought or made, still less is there need to look for it in the stormy days which succeeded the revival of letters in the fifteenth century. All that any puinber of churches could do now would be to reaffirm a conclusion already reached on other and independent grounds.
II. When the Reformers, in the 16th century, broke with Rome, they of course rejected the authority of the Church as an arbiter of the Canon. What they adopted instead of this was divina fides, or the spiritual perception of the believer. The view was formulated in the Gallican Confession in these words. After stating the books by name, it says: “We know these books to be canonical and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books upon which, however useful, we cannot found any articles of faith.” It was thought that in this way the faith of the Church in its sacred books was taken off from any human foundation, and placed upon one that was simply and purely divine. But such a notion certainly confounded things that differ. It is one thing to know by the immediate action of the divine Spirit upon the heart that the great features of the Gospel are true, so that plain men, comparing their own experience with what is stated to them, may feel as sure of the saving truths of the Gospel as if they heard them announced by a voice from heaven; but it is quite another thing to be convinced that all the books of the Bible are divine, and to be able, by the inward witness of the Spirit, to discriminate the canonical books from the apocryphal. The for