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III. That a great number of Christians are destitute of any
good arguments for their belief of the canonical authority
of the books of the New Testament. IV. That very little has yet been done on this subject. .
OBSERV. I. That the right settling the canonical authority of the books of
the New Testament is attended with very many and great
difficulties. I AM very sensible such a proposition as this may seem at first surprising to many; and that what is said under it may perhaps be, on the one hand, misimproved by the enemies of revelation, to set them more against it; and, on the other, by the weaker Christians, to shock their faith in it. But as the ensuing volumes are principally intended for the service of these two sorts of persons, viz. to confute the former, and establish the latter in their principles ; so I cannot but desire, they would form no judgment from what is here said relating to the main question, till they have honestly perused the book itself.
This premised, I say, it is not so easy a matter as is commonly imagined, rightly to settle the canon of the New Testament. For my own part, I declare with many learned men, that in the whole compass of learning I know no question involved with more intricacies and perplexing difficulties than this. There are indeed considerable difficulties relating to the canon of the Old Testament, as appears by the large controversies between the protestants and papists on this head in the last, and latter end of the preceding century; but these are solved with much more ease than those of the New: for,
1. The canon of the Jews was settled by Ezra, an inspired writer ; but there is no such thing to be said concerning the canon of the Nero. It is uncertain, either by whom, or at what time, the present collection was made.
2. The Jewish canon was certainly approved by our Saviour and his apostlesa; but it is impossible, in the nature of
a If otherwise, they had certainly lows, that all their scriptures were the censured the Jews for their fault in oracles of God, Rom. iii. 2. and that this, as well as other religious mat- what they called scripture was every ters. Besides, St. Paul evidently al- part of it inspired.
the thing, the Christian canon should receive the same evidence and authority.
3. In settling the Old Testament collection, all that is requisite is to disprove the claim of a few obscure books, which have but the weakest pretences to be looked upon as scripture; but in the New, we have not only a few to disprove, but a vast number to exclude the canon, which seem to have much more right to admission than any of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament; and besides, to evidence the genuineness of all those which we do receive, since, according to the sentiments of some who would be thought learned, there are none of them, whose authority has not been controverted in the earliest ages of Christianity. In short, whatever almost can be objected against the authority of the present canon of the Old Testament, either in behalf of any books which are not in it, or against any that are, may easily be answered by this single consideration, viz. that we receive the same and no other books, than what the Jewish church received in our Saviour's time, as is evident from the copies the Christians procured of them, and the catalogues they made of them (especially that of Melito Sardensisb) soon after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the case is very different with respect to the books of the New. The question concerning them divides itself into these two, viz. 1. Whether any other books are to be received with the same authority, which they are; and, 2. Whether they are all of them of the same authority, which the church allows them by admitting them into her canon.
If we consider either of these questions, we shall find it perhaps not so easily solved, as we are apt to imagine.
I. As to the first, viz. Whether there are any other books to be admitted as canonical, beside those which now are; it will appear difficult, if we consider,
1. The number of books that claim admission is very considerable. Mr. Toland, in his celebrated cataloguec, has presented us with the names of above eighty, which he would have us receive with the same authority, as those we now do. I cannot do him that honour, which Mr. Nye does in his An
Vid. Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 1. 4. c. 26. There are others very early, as Ori.
gen's in Psal. primo, &c.
© Amyntor, p. 20, &c.
swerd, viz. to say his catalogue is complete; for it will sufficiently appear, there are many more of the same sort, which he has not mentioned.
2. Their pretences are specious and plausible, for the most part going under the names of our Saviour himself, his apostles, their companions, or immediate successors.
3. They are generally thought to be cited by the first Christian writers with the same authority (at least many of them) as the sacred books we receive. This Mr. Toland labours hard to persuade us; but, what is more to be regarded, men of greater merit and probity have unwarily dropped expressions of the like nature. “Every body knows," says the learned Casaubon against cardinal Baronius, " that Justin Martyr, 6 Clemens Alexandrinus, Tertullian, and the rest of the pri“ mitive writers, were wont [laudare libros) to approve and “ cite books, which now all men know to be apocryphal.” “ Clemens Alexandrinus,” says his learned annotator Sylburgiusf, was too much pleased with apocryphal writings.” Mr. Dodwell (in his learned dissertations on Irenæuss) tells us, that “ till Trajan, or perhaps Adrian's time, no canon was “ fixed—the supposititious pieces of the heretics were re“ceived by the faithful, the apostles' writings bound up with “ theirs, and indifferently used in the churchesh.” To mention now no more, the learned Mr. Spanheim observes, “ that Cle“ mens Alexandrinus and Origen very often cite apocryphal “ books under the express name of scripture'.” What these books are, with the whole of their pretences and claims, I design hereafter particularly to examine; and now only to infer hence, that it is not so easy a matter, to settle the canon of the New Testament, as is generally imagined.
4. Hence the canon has been judged imperfect, and it has been thought necessary by several learned men, that some other books which are in being, and the remaining fragments of those which are lost, should be received. This will but too
d Page 21.
• Exercit. 1. ad Apparat. Baron. Annal. N. 18. p. 54.
i Annot. in Clem. Oper. in ipso fine. & Dissert. 1. $. 38, 39.
b Dr. Clarke asserts the very same, as to the promiscuous citation of ours
and other books, and is quite mistaken in saying, that Mr. Dodwell owns the apocryphal books were bound in distinct volumes from those of the apo stles. Reflect. on Amyntor, p. 44.
i Histor. Christian. Secul. 3. p. 706.
largely appear hereafter: in the mean time, I shall only observe the sentiments of two learned men on this matter, whose names are well known among us; viz. the present archbishop of Canterbury, and Mr. Whiston.
The former, in his Preliminary Discourse to his English Translation of the Apostolical Fathers, tells us, ch. x. g. 4. " That we cannot with any reason doubt of what they deliver “ to us as the gospel of Christ, but ought to receive it, if not “ with equal veneration, yet but with a little less respect than
we do the sacred writings of those, who were their masters “ and instructors. §. 11. That we are to look upon
the writings of these holy men, as containing the pure and uncor
rupted doctrine of our blessed Saviour and his apostles. " That these writers were not only qualified by ordinary
means to deliver the gospel of Christ to us, but in all probability were endued with the extraordinary assistance of the Holy Spirit too; so that what they teach us is not to be “ looked upon, as a mere traditionary relation of what had “ been delivered to them, but rather as an authoritative decla“ ration of the gospel of Christ to us. §. 23. That they were
inspired men, and therefore not only have not mistaken the “ minds of the apostles, but were not capable of doing it. “ S. 29. That they must be looked upon to have nothing in “ them but what was thought” (and consequently which we are to think) “worthy of all acceptation. §. 30. That they “ have received a more than human approbation—and con“ tain the true and pure faith of Christ, without the least error “intermixed with it.” It is not my business here to inquire into the truth of these assertions, nor will I venture to give my opinion in the matter, till I have produced the best arguments I can to support it, which will be done in the third part of this work; only this I cannot but observe, that, notwithstanding all this, many learned men have thought several of these apostolical pieces not only spurious, but silly and ridiculous; and since these books (which are, and always have been excluded the canon) are of so great authority with so great and learned a writer, that scarce any thing more can be said of the canonical books themselves, it is a necessary and natural inference,
that it is a work much harder than is generally imagined, to settle the canon of the New Testament.
How much Mr. Whiston has enlarged the canon of the New Testament, is sufficiently known to the learned among us. For the sake of those who have not perused his truly valuable books, I would observe, that he imagines the “ Constitutions “ of the Apostles to be inspired, and of greater authority than “ the occasional writings of single apostles and evangelists. “ That the two Epistles of Clemens, the Doctrine of the Apo“ stles, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the “ second book of Esdras, the Epistles of Ignatius, and the “ Epistle of Polycarp, are to be reckoned among the sacred “ authentic books of the New Testament; as also that the “ Acts of Paul, the Revelation, Preaching, Gospel and Acts “ of Peter, were sacred books, and, if they were extant, should “ be of the same authority with any of the restk.” However this learned man may be mistaken in other matters, and though I hope to prove the canon of the New Testament complete without any of these additions; yet, as I think it a very shameful neglect in learned men, not to inquire into these things, so, I am sure, he who does, will find great difficulties in settling the canon of the books of the New Testament.
II. The other part of the question about the canon is, Whether all the books now admitted into the canon of the New T'estament are of equal authority, or the same authority which their being placed in the canon supposes. The discussing this question will appear to be no less a difficulty than the former, if we consider,
1. That it is impossible to assign any certain time, when a collection of these books, either by the apostles, or any council of inspired or learned men near their times, was made.
2. That they have been all, or most of them, rejected by some heretics, or others, in the first ages.
3. That several of them have not been received by those, who did not go under the name of heretics before Eusebius's time.
4. That several of them have had their authority disputed by learned men in later times.
Essay on the Constit. Introd. p. 4. and ch. I.