Editorial Keynotes

The Formation of the New Testament Canon No. 3

L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry

IV. The Seventh Century, and Onward

1. East Accepts.—In the East, Constantine's pacification of the empire and his influence upon Christianity played no small part in the general reception of the canon, particularly in the section dominated by the churches of An­tioch and Constantinople. The "fifty copies of the Divine Scriptures" he had directed Euse­bius to prepare helped establish a standard which in time gave recognition to the disputed Epistles. But a considerable period elapsed before the East actually conformed officially to the canon. of the West. Finally at the Quini­sextine (or second Trullan) Council of 692 the canon of the West was recognized, and the de­crees of the Third Council of Carthage (397) confirmed. Thus the question was settled in ecclesiastical- practice. The mature judgment of the entire church had registered itself in terms of complete confidence.

It is significant that writers from the fourth to the sixth centuries did not appeal to the decision of councils, but instead to the apostles and to the churches which transmitted the books as inspired. In the West, Jerome and Augustine had been determining factors in final settlement of the canon, and the issuance of the Vulgate virtually ended all discussion. It was not, however, until printing was invented that the entire New Testament began to be gener­ally circulated in Latin, Greek, German, and English.

2. Reformation Era.—During the Reforma­tion era the question of the canon again came to the fore. The hasty decree of the Council of Trent (1545-65), which affirmed the authority of all the commonly accepted books, and the apocryphal as well, was challenged. Erasmus had questioned the apostolic origin of Hebrews, 2 Peter, and the Apocalypse, while Luther was concerned about Hebrews, Jude, James, and the Apocalypse. Calvin likewise stumbled over Hebrews and 2 Peter. But the controversies of the Reformation left the canon untouched.

The opinions of Luther on this point met with no general assent; rather, they tended simply to throw more stress on recognition. of the inspired books in contrast to apostolic tra­dition.

In the Middle Ages, the New Testament was no longer accorded the recognized place it pos­sessed before authority was thought to reside in the church instead of in Scripture. The Sacred Canon was definitely subordinated to the church, and was consequently restricted in influence. Its content having by this time come to be regarded as settled by church au­thority, practically no inquiry was now made as to the basis therefor—the problem that had concerned the earlier Christian scholars. More­over, the Greek text was considered inferior to the Latin Vulgate. But in the sixteenth cen­tury there came a revival of interest in the New Testament Greek text. The fall of Con­stantinople in 1453 had driven many Greeks into Italy and the West to find refuge, and these carried with them many Greek manu­scripts which found their way into the hands of scholars and printers. Thus in the provi­dence of God there came about a revival of in­terest in the New Testament.

Unquestionably the printing of the New Tes­tament had tended to fix both its form and its content. On the other hand, it awakened in­terest in new translations into modern lan­guages—English, German, etc. Indeed, Eras­mus contended that the New Testament should be translated into all spoken languages, and began to raise questions concerning the canon that had been dormant for a thousand years. But this met with severe opposition, because the custom of settling all questions by the au­thority of the church had become firmly estab­lished. Back in the fourth century, in the period of the councils, the position taken was really to declare as canonical what was already accepted as such. Thus the councils actually did no more than to recognize what already existed. Nevertheless, their actions placed the canon upon a platform of authority that was later capitalized to the full; for in the sub­sequent centuries, under Roman Catholic in­fluence, the authority for discernment and de­cision as to the canon, was shifted to these councils of the church, and so the original basis was crowded effectually into the back­ground for hundreds of years.

Then came the Humanistic movement, fol­lowed by the Reformation, which revived these old questions on the canon. The dogmatic con­ception was challenged and reopened by Luther and other Reformers. True, Erasmus's criti­cisms seemed based largely upon literary con­siderations; but with Luther, authority lay not in councils nor popes, but with the Word itself, which he declared was the Christian's sole source of authority. The New Testament books were authoritative, he declared, because and to the degree that they taught Christ, and brought His salvation and peace to the soul of man. Such was the standard by which he judged the component parts of the accepted canon. It was a practical rather than a historical or "apos­tolic" measurement. That explains why, in in­tense reaction against the dogmatism of the apostate church with its assumptions and per­versions, he looked upon Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation as upon a slightly lower level. He did not exclude them from his canon, but put them at the end of it, in which order they still stand in the German Bible.

This view of Luther, and his judgment as to the order of this little group of books, was echoed by Tyndale in his translation of 1525, by Coverdale in 1535, Matthew in 1537, and Travener in 1539. In opposition to the Hu­manists and Reformers, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, of 1546, definitely declared the letters of Peter, John, James, Jude, and the Revelation were apostolic; and as might be expected, declared tradition to be of equal au­thority with Scripture. But in Protestant ranks the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva of 1560, and for the Church of England in the Thirty-nine Articles of 1562-71, the canon and its order was considered fixed, and thus it ap­pears in the noble King James Version of 1611.

V. Concluding Observations

1. Purity Preserved.—Many of the names listed in the foregoing sections, as having prominent connection with the segregation and fixation of the canon, will be recognized at once as leading Church Fathers, in the early period involved. What bearing such a background has upon our full and free acceptance of the canon -is a question that is neither unnatural nor impertinent. The fact however, that the canon was formed in the days when, and by the very persons or groups whom we associate with the introduction of Sunday for the Sab­bath, sprinkling for baptism, inherent for con­ditional immortality, and many similar depar­tures from the faith, is no more difficult to rec­oncile with confidence in the Word they han­dled than the significant fact that the great English versions, from the noble Authorized of 1611 onward, together with translations into upward of a thousand other tongues, have been in the control of persons and groups up­holding these selfsame doctrines. Along with this, too, is the parallel fact that the modern printing and the chief responsibility for dis­tribution of the Scriptures in all these lan­guages have likewise been vested in men hold­ing those identical doctrinal views. Often have they warred against true reformers, and espe­cially is this to be true in these last days, as touching those who "keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus." Yet we very properly credit these modern churchmen with keeping essentially inviolate even the text, to say nothing of the canon, of the Word.

This being true, we can logically take the same position as regards the integrity of those who engaged in determining the canonicity of the books comprising the Sacred Writings in the second, third, and fourth centuries. These very men were marked sticklers for the "let­ter." They had an almost superstitious regard for the precise content of the canon. Comfort­ing to us is the word, "In a most wonderful manner it was preserved uncorrupted."—"The Great Controversy," p. 69. Again, "Through­out the ages a divine hand has preserved its purity."—"Education," p. 173. God's New Tes­tament has ever been recognized, received, as­sembled, transmitted, and translated by faulty human agencies who often failed to live up to the mandates of the Word they handled, the same as did the Jews in the case of the Old Testament. Such is one of the miracles of the preservation of the Sacred Scriptures. Verily the same Spirit that gave the Word has kept it unpolluted for all mankind.

2. Divine Superintendence.—Thus in trac­ing the formation of the canon we have before us the absorbing story of the gradual, and ulti­mately the general, recognition as canonical of all and only the books that before had been individually or in small collections recognized as apostolic in origin, divinely inspired, and therefore authoritative. The relation of the church at large, and its councils, thereto, is seen to be normal, logical, and imperative—else each group would have formed its own arbi­trary canon, and devastating confusion would have marred the unity God designed for His church throughout the world. As a result of the unity achieved, wherever the gospel is preached there is but one canon acknowledged, supersectarian and nondenominational, the cat­alogue, though not the phrasing, being identi­cal in both Protestant and Catholic versions, just as is the case in the myriad translations of the canon. It was formed a full thousand years before the great Reformation, and over fourteen hundred years before the rise of the remnant gospel movement with which we are identified, and so automatically disposes of the charge of an "Adventist" canon, or "Lutheran" canon, or even-of-a solely "Protestant" canon. This was all forestalled by the divine Origi­nator of the Book, in the days before the great apostasy was full-formed and dominant. Surely, this is evidence of the divine, protect­ing, controlling hand over it all.

The scoffer may see in all the early discus­sion and decision only the human element pre­dominant. But the reverent Christian, believ­ing that God moved apostle and prophet to write the individual Scriptures by direction of His Spirit, observes the same Divine Spirit working in and through the human agencies and elements to collect these apostolic writings into one complete group, involving in the proc­ess the discerning of the genuine from the false, and leading undeviatingly on to their universal acceptance as God's New Testament to men.                                                      

L. E. F.

(To be continued in April)

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L.E.F. is editor of the Ministry

March 1934

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