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SETTLING THE CANON
What the word canon signifies: how and when it came to be applied to the books of scripture.
THE infinitely good God, having favoured mankind with a revelation of his will, has thereby obliged all those, who are blessed with the knowledge thereof, to regard it as the unerring rule of their faith and practice. Under this character, the prophets, apostles, and other writers of the sacred books, published and delivered them to the world; and on this account they were dignified above all others with the titles of the canon and canonical. The word canon is originally Greek, and did in that language (as well as in the Latin afterwards) commonly denote that which was a rule or standard, by which other things were to be examined and judgeda. And inasmuch as the books of divine inspiration contained the most remarkable rules, and the most important directions of all others, the
The word xav seems originally to have signified the tongue of a balance, or that small part of the scales, which, by its perpendicular situation, determines the even poise or weight; or, by its inclination either way, the uneven poise of the things which are
weighed. So the ancient Greek scholiast of Aristophanes has observed on κανόνας.] κυρίως τὸ ἐπάνω τῆς τρυτάνης ὂν, καὶ εἰς ἰσότητα ταύτην ἄγον. In Ran. v. 811.
̓Ανθρώπων βούλησις οὐκ ἀσφαλὴς κανών. Aristot. Politic. 1. 2. c. 10.
collection of them, in time, obtained the name of the canon, and each book was called canonical. At what time they were first thus called, is not very easy to determine. Some imagine St. Paul himself to have given this title to the sacred books extant in his time, Gal. vi. 16. and Phil. iii. 16.b But the apostle seems in those places rather to speak of the doctrine of the gospel, than any books which contained it; although it is very probable that St. Paul's using the word canon in these places, was the occasion of its afterwards being affixed to the books themselves.
This seems the most genuine account of the original of this appellation; nor do I know of any other that has been, or can be assigned, beside that of Mr. Du Pin and Mr. Whiston.
The former c supposes the word canon to denote the same as catalogue, and the inspired books to be called canonical, only because the catalogue of them was styled the canon. But, in answer to this, it will be sufficient to observe, that the Greek word is never used in that sense, which he supposes, in any profane writers, nor even among the Christians till the fourth century; before which time the word was certainly applied to the sacred volume.
Mr. Whistond imagines the canon of scripture, or the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, are those, and only those, which are inserted into the last apostolical canon, and were so styled by the ancients only on that account. But the spuriousness of these pretended apostolical canons being a matter so universally agreed on, and in itself so very certain, as I shall shew hereafter, I need now say no more to disprove this opinion; only will observe these two or three things: viz.
1. That if the ancients styled the sacred books canonical, because they are recited in the eighty-fifth canon of the apostles, then it will most undeniably follow, that all and every one of the books recited therein must equally have been reputed or called canonical. But the contrary to this is sufficiently known; nor can any one single instance be produced out of any of the first writers of Christianity, in which either the
Book of Judith, the three Books of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Sirach, among the books of the Old Testament; or the two Epistles of Clemens, or the Apostolical Constitutions of Clemens, among those of the New, were reputed canonical; yet are each of these inserted in the forementioned canon, which goes under the apostles' names: an argument sufficient of itself to prove the spuriousness of these canons; the books therein recommended being not only evidently fictitious, but in many things contrary to the known doctrine of the apostles.
2. On the other hand, if the books were called canonical on account of their insertion in this canon of the apostles, then it seems utterly inconceivable, how any book or books could be ever reckoned canonical, which are not found in it. How, for instance, could the book of Revelations be reckoned canonical, which is not inserted in this canon? And yet we find it expressly mentioned under this title by the ancients very early: for Origen, reckoning up the sacred books (ròv ixxλŋσiασtixòv puλáttwv xavóva, reciting the canonical books, as Eusebius phrases ite) among these mentions the Revelation written by John. Now if only the books mentioned in this Apostolical Canon were called canonical, how came this book, not mentioned there, to be called so? How came this by the name, as well as the rest mentioned there? To say a book is canonical, because recited in such a canon, and yet the book not there, is much the same as to say, the book is, and is not in the canon.
Notwithstanding what has been said, there is no doubt but this denomination of the sacred books is of the greatest antiquity. Irenæus, speaking of the scriptures, styles them, Tòv navóva τns áλŋbelas, i. e. the canon of truth. Clemens Alexandrinus, disputing with some heretics of his time, blames them for making use of apocryphal scriptures, "choosing rather to "follow any, than the true canonical Gospels 5." Eusebius h in so many words tells us, that Origen, in his Exposition on Matthew, "enumerates the books of scripture according to the 66 canon of the church;" i. e. the canon received and established in the church. Athanasius (if that book be his, De Synops.
* Orig. Comment. in Matt. Proœm. et Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 1. 6. c. 25. f Adv. Hæres. 1. 4. c. 69. in fine.
g Stromat. 1. 3. p. 453.
h Hist. Eccl. 1. 6. c. 25.
i Synops. tot. Script. in initio.
Scriptur.) expressly mentions the books of scripture," as con"tained in a certain canon." And Epiphaniusk, speaking of the heretics called Apotacticks, says, "they received the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Thomas, rejecting the canon "received by the church." Philastrius uses the distinction of canonical and apocryphal, as well known in his time1. I shall only add, that in the writings of Ruffin, Jerome ", and especially Austin, we meet with these words in innumerable places.
An inquiry into the intimations there are in the received writings of the New Testament, of spurious and apocryphal pieces extant in the apostles' time.
Beside those books, which are now commonly received into the canon of the New Testament, there have been many others, under the names either of our Saviour, his apostles, or their contemporaries, which may seem to claim the same authority.
IN order to establish the canon of the New Testament, it is of absolute necessity, that the pretences of all other books to canonical authority be first carefully examined and refuted. The large number of these books, the plausible arguments some of them are supported with, and the too favourable and unguarded expressions of many learned men relating to them, (as has been hinted in the preceding dissertation, Observ. I.) make it impossible rightly to settle the canon, without a particular consideration of them. My first business therefore will be, to give the reader as large and particular an account of these as I can; in order to which I observe, in the first place, That there are some intimations of such books in the now received scriptures of the New Testament; so very early was
this artifice of Satan against the true interest of Christianity. The most remarkable places of the New Testament are the following; viz.
1. That of St. Luke in the preface to his Gospel, c. i. v. 1, 2, 3. Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus. A little consideration on these words will oblige us to conclude, that there were in St. Luke's time many false and spurious gospels, or histories of our Saviour's life and doctrine. For the design of them is evidently this, to give Theophilus an account of the reason or motives, which induced him to write his Gospel, viz. because many others had engaged in the same work before. But this could not possibly have been any reason for his writing, unless those others had been defective or false in their accounts. If otherwise, viz. if those other gospels had been genuine and true, the number of them should rather have prevented than forwarded him in his work. Thus the ancients P, as well as most modern writers, understand St. Luke in this place9: but having treated of this matter more largely in another place', I must refer the reader there. Nor shall I here inquire, what those gospels were, which St. Luke refers to; though several of the ancients, and Dr. Grabet of late, have imagined, he especially respected the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Nazarenes, as extant at that time.
2. Another instance of a spurious writing under an apostle's name seems to me fairly to be gathered from those words of St. Paul, 2 Thess. ii. 2. Be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by letter, as from us, as that
Origen. Homil. in Luc. i. 1. Euseb. Hist. Eccl. I. 3. c. 24. Ambros. Comment. in Luc. i. August. de Consens. Evang. 1. 4. c. 8.
Erasmus in Luc. i. 1. Bellarm. de Matrim. Sacr. l. 1. c. 16. Grot. in Luc. i. 1. Huet. Demonst. Evang. Prop. 1. §. 16. Father Simon, Critic. Hist. of
the New Testam. Par. 1. c. 5.
Vindication of St. Matthew's Gospel against Mr. Whiston, c. 2. p. 9. &c. • Origen. Homil. in Luc. i. i. Hieron. Præf. in Matth. Theophylact. in
Luc. i. 1.
Spicileg. Patr. Secul. I. p. 31. &c.