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THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE.
MR. P. says, “ They decided by vote, which of the ‘ books—should be the word of God, and which • ‘should not.’ ‘Those books which had the ma‘jority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. “Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since ‘ calling themselves Christians, had believed other“wise.’ ‘Who the people were that did all this, “we know nothing of: they called themselves— ‘the church: and this is all we know of the mat
‘ter.” But surely a man ought to know much
more of the time, place, and manner, in which such an important transaction occurred, than these rash, ambiguous, and pernicious assertions convey before he is authorized to infer any thing from it! And some proof is requisite to convince thinking men, that all Christians have hitherto in every succeeding age taken their faith upon trust, according to this representation. Pious persons indeed have, privately and collectively, bestowed great pains, during a succession of ages, to distinguish such books as have internal and external evidence of authenticity and divine inspiration, from impostures and writings of doubtful authority: and, before our time, this matter had been so thoroughly investigated, that the most competent judges deem
it not dangerous to coincide in opinion with those that have gone before them; though not without inquiry, and some trivial difference of sentiment. The Old Testament evidently stood, a considerable time before Christ, nearly as we now have it. The Greek, Syriac, and Samaritan versions prove this. Our Lord and his disciples quoted the books now received, and the writers of the New Testament generally use the Septuagint. It is commonly believed, on the authority of ancient Jewish writers, that Ezra, a learned scribe in the law, with some very able associates, bestowed much labour in distinguishing the authentic books of scripture from such as were spurious, and thus formed the canon of the Old Testament. And, the more the subject is examined, the greater satisfaction will every candid person feel, in acquiescing in their determination. For all the books we now have harmonize with each other and with the New Testament, in the grand outlines of religion, and indeed even in more minute particulars when well understood: but the apocryphal books often advance antiscriptural doctrines, and relate most frivolous and romantic adventures. Every thing in the received scriptures coincides, in respect of dates, customs, the manners of the times, and historical transactions, with the most authentic records of antiquity: but anachronism, confusion, and inconsistency abound in the Apocrypha.
Mr. P. says, “Those, who are not much ac' quainted with ecclesiastical history, may suppose
that the book called the New Testament has existed ever since the time of Jesus Christ, but the fact is historically otherwise : there was no
such book as the New Testament till more than three hundred years after the time that Christ is said to have lived.'—The canon of the New Testament fluctuated for a long time: but the diversity of opinion related only to a few books; and full discussion and investigation, not mere vote, at length determined the Christians to receive them as they now stand; while others were, for the most substantial reasons, rejected as spurious. This surely proves that great caution was used to prevent all imposition. No reasonable man can doubt that the Christians who lived in the primitive times had many advantages in determining this point; and their opinion is therefore entitled to great deference: but learned men are capable of reviewing the subject, and of judging of the grounds on which they decided.
It is certainly known that the greater part of the books now constituting the New Testament are quoted by the most ancient Christian writers; and in a manner which shews that they derived their instructions from them, and appealed to them as of divine authority; and that they are thus to be distinguished from all other books which were published among them. A vast proportion of the New Testament might, if lost, be recovered from writers who lived within the first two centuries. They formed catalogues of the books, and wrote comments on them. Both the orthodox and the heretics made their appeal to them. Lectures on several parts of them are still extant. Nay, the enemies of Christianity uniformly mention them as the authentic books of Christians ; while they oppose their contents. So that there is the fullest
proof that all the twenty-seven books now collected in the New Testament were received, and read in the assemblies of Christians, in the second century; except the epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, the second Epistle of Peter, the second and third of John, that of Jude, and the Revelation of John ; and that most of these latter, if not all of them, were extant and well known, though not generally received as divinely inspired.
At first sight, therefore, Mr. P.'s assertion appears one of the most daring falsehoods that ever was ventured upon : but in fact it turns out to be a mere quibble, though too evidently intended to deceive! If you prove separately every book to have existed, and all but one to have been received as the word of God; still the New Testament did not exist collected into a volume, as it now stands! This is the only way, I confidently affirm, in which Mr. P. can exculpate himself from the charge of direct falsehood: and this is not a very creditable way of opposing other men whom he reviles as liars and impostors.
Who doubts the authenticity of other ancient books, because the original manuscripts are not forth-coming? Who could distinguish them from other ancient manuscripts if they were? He, who demands a kind of proof, which the nature of the case renders impossible, is determined that no possible evidence shall convince him.
If these books had not from the first been received as genuine, they could never afterwards have obtained that character, much less have ac
quired the title of the word of God: for that jealous and scrupulous investigation, which Mr. P. degrades under the idea of voting, proves the impossibility of a forgery escaping detection, and being received as a divine revelation.
Had the books, which bear the name of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, or Peter, been published after their death, when they had never before been heard of, would not the several persons and churches to which some of them were addressed, and Christians in general, as supposed to have been acquainted with them during the lives of the apostles and evangelists, have declared them to be forgeries? The claim, it is evident, would have been absurd, and the imposture manifest. The doubts that arose concerning the epistle to the Hebrews, which bears not the name of Paul ; that of James, which perhaps was then thought, as it has since been, by some, irreconcilable with Paul's doctrine; the second Epistle of Peter, which seems to have been written just before his death; and the second and third of John, in which he only calls himself the Elder, prove this. Some of these books, and perhaps the Revelation of John, might not be generally known among Christians during the life-time of their authors, or they might not be publicly acknowledged by them: and therefore, after their death, the scrupulous caution of the church long hesitated about admitting them as genuine and divine; till internal evidence fully convinced the most accurate judges that they were entitled to that regard.
At what time, and in what manner, then could it be possible to fabricate the apostolical epistles, and gain them credit as well known and received