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According To The Fathers (continued)

Philip Schaff, in his “History of the Christian Church,” discusses in Vol. II the period of the Church from 100 to 311 A.D. In Chapter 138, pages 516 ff., he calls attention to the Holy Scriptures and the Canon as viewed during this early period of the church in the new dispensation.

In this chapter he first discussed the question of the sources and rule of Christ knowledge during this period of the Church, and we quote: “This source andthis rule of knowledge are the holy scriptures of the Old and New Covenants. Here at once arises the inquiry as to the number and arrangement of the sacred writings, or the canon, in distinction both from the productions of enlightened but not inspired church teachers, and from the very numerous and in some cases still extant apocryphal works (Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses), which were composed in the first four centuries, in the interest of heresies or for the satisfaction of idle curiosity, and sent forth under the name of an apostle or other eminent person. These apocrypha, however, did not all originate with Ebionites and Gnostics; some were merely designed either to fill chasms in history of Jesus and the apostles by fictitious stories, or to glorify Christianity . . . . . . in the way of pious fraud at that time freely allowed. 

“The canon of the Old Testament descended to the church from the Jews, with the sanction of Christ and the apostles. The Jewish Apocrypha were included in the Septuagint and passed from it into Christian versions. The New Testament canon was gradually formed, on the model of the Old, in the course of the first four centuries, under the guidance of the same Spirit, through whose suggestion the several apostolic books had been prepared. The first trace of it appears in the second Epistle of Peter (3:15), where a collection of Paul’s epistles is presumed to exist, and is placed by the side of ‘the other scriptures.’ The apostolic fathers and the earlier apologists commonly appeal, indeed, for the divinity of Christianity to the Old Testament, to the oral preaching of the apostles, to the living faith of the Christian churches, the triumphant death of the martyrs, and the continued miracles. Yet their works contain quotations, generally without the name of the author, from the most important writings of the apostles, or at least allusions to those writings, enough to place their high antiquity and ecclesiastical authority beyond all reasonable doubt. The heretical canon of the Gnostic Marcion, of the middle of the second century, consisting of a mutilated Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, certainly implies the existence of an orthodox canon at that time, as heresy always presupposes truth, of which it is a caricature. 

“The principal books of the New Testament, the four Gospels, the Acts, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Peter, and the first of John, which are designated by Eusebius as ‘Homologumena,’ were in general use in the church after the middle of the second century, and acknowledged to be apostolic, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, and therefore authoritative and canonical. This is established by the testimonies of Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, of the Syriac Peshito (which omits only Jude, II Peter, II John and III John, and the Revelation), the old Latin Versions (which include all books but II Peter, Hebrews, and perhaps James and the Fragment of Muratori; also by the heretics, and the heathen opponent Celsus-persons and documents which represent in this matter the churches in Asia Minor, Italy, Gaul, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. We may therefore call these books the original canon.

“Concerning the other seven books, the ‘Antilegomena’ of Eusebius, viz. the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Apocalypse, the second Epistle of Peter, the second and third Epistles of John, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude,—he tradition of the church in the time of Eusebius, the beginning of the fourth century, still wavered between acceptance and rejection (Eusebius was a father of Church History, who lived toward the close of the third century and at the beginning of the fourth. H.V.). But of the two oldest manuscripts of the Greek Testament which date from the age of Eusebius and Constantine, one—the Sinaitic—contains all the twenty-seven books, and the other—he Vatican—as probably likewise complete, although the last chapters of Hebrews (from 11:14), the Pastoral Epistles, Philemon, and Revelation are lost. There was a second class of Antilegomena, called by Eusebius ‘spurious,’onsisting of several post-apostolic writings, viz. the catholic Epistle of Barnabas, the first Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Shepherd of Hermas, the lost Apocalypse of Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews: which were read at least in some churches, but were afterwards generally separated from the canon. Some of them are even incorporated in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, as the Epistle of Barnabas and a part of the Shepherd of Hermas (both in the original Greek) in the CodexSinaiticus, and the first Epistle of Clement of Rome in the Codex Alexandrinus.

“The first express definition of the New Testament canon, in the form in which it has since been universally retained, comes from two African synods, held in 393 at Hippo, and 397 at Carthage, in the presence of Augustine, who exerted a commanding influence on all the theological questions of his age. By that time, at least, the whole church must have already become nearly unanimous as to the number of the canonical books; so that there seemed to be no need even of the sanction of a general council. The Eastern Church, at all events, was entirely independent of the North African in the matter. The Council of Laodicea (363) gives a list of the books of our New Testament with the exception of the Apocalypse. The last canon, which contains this list, is probably a later addition, yet the long-established ecclesiastical use of all the books, with some doubts as to the Apocalypse, is confirmed by the scattered testimonies of all the great Nicene and post Nicene fathers, as Athanasius (d. 373), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 383), Gregory of Nazianzum (d. 389), Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), Chrysostom (d. 407) etc. The name Novum Testamentum, also Novum Instrumentum (a juridical term conveying the idea of legal validity), occurs first in Tertullian, and came into general use instead of the more correct term New Covenant. The books were currently divided into two parts, ‘the Gospel’ and ‘the Apostle,’ and the Epistles, in the second part, into Catholic or General, and Pauline. The Catholic canon thus settled remained untouched till the time of the Reformation when the question of the Apocrypha and of the Antilegomena was reopened and the science, of biblical criticism was born. But the most thorough investigations of modern times have not been able to unsettle the faith of the church in the New Testament, nor ever will.” 

So, the source and rule of knowledge of the church in the early period of the new dispensation were the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Concerning the origin and character of the apostolic writings, Philip Schaff continues as follows: “As to the origin and character of the apostolic writings, the church fathers adopted for the New Testament the somewhat mechanical and magical theory of inspiration applied by the Jews to the Old; regarding the several books as composed with such extraordinary aid from the Holy Spirit as secured their freedom from errors (according to Origen, even from faults of memory). Yet this was not regarded as excluding the writer’s own activity and individuality. Irenaeus, for example, sees in Paul a peculiar style, which he attributes to the mighty flow of thought in his ardent mind. The Alexandrians, however, enlarged the idea of inspiration to a doubtful breadth. Clement of Alexandria calls the works of Plato inspired, because they contain truth, and he considers all that is beautiful and good in history, a breath of the infinite, a tone, which the divine Logos draws forth from the lyre of the human soul. 

“As a production of the inspired organs, of divine revelation, the sacred scriptures, without critical distinction between the Old and New Covenants, were acknowledged and employed against heretics as an infallible source of knowledge and an unerring rule of Christian faith and practice. Irenaeus calls the Gospel a pillar and ground of the truth. Tertullian demands scripture proof for every doctrine, and declares, that heretics cannot stand on pure scriptural ground. In Origen’s view nothing deserves credit which cannot be confirmed by the testimony of scripture. 

“The exposition of the Bible was at first purely practical, and designed for direct edification. The controversy with the Gnostics called for a more scientific method. Both the orthodox and heretics, after the fashion of the rabbinical and Alexandrian Judaism, made large use of allegorical and mystical interpretation, and not rarely lost themselves amid the merest fancies and wildest vagaries. The fathers generally, with a few exceptions, (Chrysostom and Jerome) had scarcely an idea of grammatical and historical exegesis. 

“Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meager in solid results. He considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the body, soul, and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly, he attributed to the scriptures a three-fold sense; (1) a somatic, literal, or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense, animating the first, and serving for general edification; (3) a pneumatic or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge. In the application of this theory he shows the same tendency as Philo, to spiritualize away the letter of scripture, especially where the plain historical sense seems unworthy, as in the history of David’s crimes; and instead of simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, he puts into it all sorts of foreign ideas and irrelevant fancies. But this allegorizing suited the taste of the age, and, with his fertile mind and imposing learning, Origen was the exegetical oracle of the early church, till his orthodoxy fell into disrepute. He is the pioneer, also, in the criticism of the sacred text, and his ‘Hexapla’ was the first attempt at a Polyglot Bible. 

“In spite of the numberless exegetical vagaries and differences in detail, which confute the Tridentine fiction of a ‘unanimis consensus patrum,’ (unanimous opinion of the fathers—H.V.) there is still a certain unanimity among the fathers in their way of drawing the most important articles of faith from the Scriptures. In their expositions they all follow one dogmatical principle, a kind of analogia fidei.” 

Hence, although it must be granted that there was much allegorizing of the Word of God during the early period of the church in the new dispensation, we may surely say that the Word of God was accepted by the church of God as the inspired Word of God and of the Holy Spirit.