The Preservation of the Canon

by Francis Turretin

QUESTIQN 7 Will any canonical book ever have disappeared? Negative.

I.       In order more readily to discuss the various questions that are raised concerning the canon, a distinction must first be established. This word is used both broadly and narrowly. In the first sense it was applied by the patristic writers to the ecclesiastical decrees and constitutions, by which the councils and the rulers of the churches were accustomed to specify whatever seemed pertinent to faith, conduct, or discipline. In this are included the various "canons" both of the universal church and of the African, and the collections of canons by Burchard, Ivo, and Gratian, and the canon law itself which was contained in the codex of canons, in distinction to the divine law which was contained in the codex of Holy Scripture. In the latter sense, "canon" is attributed par excellence to Scripture, because God gave it to us as a rule of faith and conduct, in which sense Irenaeus calls it the "unchangeable norm of truth" and Chrysostom the "excellent measure, norm, and rule of all things."

II.     Just as the word of God can be seen under two aspects, either as divinely revealed doctrine, or as the sacred books in which it is contained, so also "canon" can be understood in two senses, either of the dogmas, meaning all fundamental teachings, or of the books, meaning all the inspired books. "Canonical Scripture" can be understood in either sense: either as the content of dogmas, because it is the canon and norm of faith and conduct, originally described by the Hebrew word quoneh, which means measuring rod, and is so employed in Galatians 6:16 and Philippians 3:16; or with regard to the books, because it contains all the canonical books, in which sense Athanasius at the beginning of his synopsis says that the books of the Christians are not infinite in number, but finite, and comprise a limited canon.

III.  The first question regarding the canon is its wholeness, whether any canonical book may have disappeared, or, whether the collection of Scripture as it now is lacks any book which God placed in the canon. On this matter both the Roman Catholics and the Reformed (orthodoxi) divide into different groups. Many Roman Catholics maintain that a number of canonical books have disappeared, so that they may show the imperfection of Scripture and the necessity of the tradition by which the gaps may be filled. Some of our theologians, such as Musculus and Whittaker, teach the same thing, following Chrysostom, but with two reservations; first, they affirm this only with regard to some books of the Old Testament, not any of the New, as do Roman Catholics; second, they maintain that nothing is taken away from the perfection of Scripture, which the Roman Catholics attack, by this, because the wholeness of the canon is not measured by the number of the sacred books, or their quantitative perfection, but by the completeness of the dogmas and the essential perfection of all things necessary for salvation, which is amply found in the existing books. But the more common and wiser opinion is that of others, who hold that no genuinely canonical books have disappeared, and that if any books have, they were not endowed with this quality.

IV.  The reasons are to be sought (1) from the witness of Christ, who said that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one jot of the law to perish (Matt. 5:18 ; Luke 16:17 ). But if not even a jot, or the smallest mark, can perish, how could several books vanish? Although Christ is speaking of the teaching of the law, not the books, yet this can be applied to the sacred books by analogy, and their immunity from destruction can be affirmed, the more so because not only is reference made to the letters and marks by which Scripture is written, but also God willed that this teaching be preserved in written books. (2) From the statements of Luke and Paul. For neither could Luke have spoken of all the prophets and all the Scripture (Luke 24:27) if any part of them had disappeared, nor could Paul have said, "Whatever . . . was written was for our instruction" (Rom. 15:4), unless he assumed that the whole written Old Testament was in existence.

V.     (3) From the providence of God, who always keeps watch for the continuing safety of the church. It cannot be conceived that providence would will that such a destructive loss occur; what would become of the wisdom, goodness, and power of God if he willed that such a precious treasure be shown to his church and then withdrawn, and that the body of Scripture exist now in a tom and wounded state? (4) From the duty of the church, which is commissioned to preserve zealously the oracles of God for herself. That this commission was not neglected is evident from the fact that neither Christ nor the apostles ever accuse the Jews of this, a sacrilege which those who do not overlook lesser ones would by no means have hidden, if [the Jews] had been guilty of it; indeed, Paul emphasizes this privilege of the Jews--that the oracles of God were entrusted to them (Rom. 3:2; 9:4). (5) From the destiny (fines) of Scripture which is sealed in the canon of faith and life even to the consummation of the age. This could not be so if only a mutilated and truncated canon were left for the church of this age, because of the loss of some canonical books; that is, it would be impossible without the canon. (6) From the custom of the Jews, because books of the canon of the Old Testament other than those which appear in our canon were never recognized, or interpreted in the Targum, or translated in the Septuagint.

VI.  Not everything which men of God ever wrote was of divine quality and inspired. They were able, as human beings, to reflect upon some events and interpret them I with care, and [to record] others, as prophets, by divine inspiration as authoritative for faith; matters which fall into the first category can be freely investigated, but those of the second must be believed, as Augustine well says (City of God 18.38). Just as not everything they said was canonical, so was not everything they wrote. If Solomon wrote a number of books of parables and songs, and about plants and animals (I Kings 4:22 - 23), it does not follow that they were canonical. They could have been prepared as a result of human study, to make public the manifold knowledge of nature which he possessed, without being of divine wisdom and supernatural inspiration.

VII.            The books which are said to have disappeared either were not sacred and canonical, like the Book of the Wars of Jehovah (Num. 21:14; Josh. 10:15 [13]) or the Book of the Upright (II Sam. 1:14 [18]), and the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and Israel (I Kings. 14:19 - 20; 15:7), which are not concerned with the teachings of religion, but are either secular annals, in which the actions of the Israelites are recorded, or lists of official acts and civil laws, as is plain from I Kings 11:41. Or, the books which are said to have disappeared are extant under other names, like the books of Gad and Nathan (II Chron. 29:29 [25]), of Iddo (II Chron. 9:29 ), and of Shemaiah and Iddo (II Chron. 12:15 ). The Jews teach, and some of the patristic writers observe, that these make up parts of the Books of Samuel and Kings, and some Roman Catholics of good standing agree-Sixtus Senensis, Paul Burgensis, Lewis de Tena, Sanctius, and others.

VIII.         The book of the Lord mentioned in Isaiah 34:16 is nothing other than the prophecy which he was writing in the name of the Lord, and which therefore he called the book of the Lord. Jeremiah's book mourning the death of King Josiah (II Chron. 35:25) can still be read in Lamentations.

IX.  It is not said in Colossians 4:16 that there was any letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, for it speaks of a letter from, not to, the Laodiceans, which could have been by the Laodiceans to Paul, who wanted it to be read by the Colossians along with his because he knew that there were in it matters of concern to them. Whence it is evident how unreasonable was Faber Stapulensis's desire to give the epistle to the Laodiceans to the Christian world, as the more prudent Roman Catholics admit.

X.     In Jude 14 there is no mention of a book of Enoch, but only of his prophecy, for he is said to have prophesied, not written; if he did write a book it is evident that it was never included in the canon, both from the silence of Josephus and Jerome, and from the fact that Moses is recorded as the first canonical writer (Luke 24:27). It does appear from Augustine (City of God 15.13 [24]) that in his day there was an apocryphal book of which Enoch was considered the author, a fragment of which Scaliger has given us in his commentary on Eusebius.

XI.  If some of the apostles mention passages of the Old Testament which cannot now be found explicitly in any canonical book, it does not follow that some canonical book, in which these words were written, has disappeared. At times the words are present implicitly and by intention. What is said of Christ in Matthew 2:23 --that he will be called a Nazarene--is based either, as Jerome supposed, on Isaiah 11:7 [1], where Christ is called a branch, or on Judges 13:5, which says that Samson, a type of Christ, will be a Nazarene of God from his mother's womb. In what is said in I Corinthians 5:9 about a letter that [Paul] had written them, there is no reason why we should not understand the letter which he was writing, in which, somewhat earlier, he had told them that those who polluted themselves by incest should be excommunicated, as in Colossians 4:16, "when the letter has been read," namely, the letter that he was writing. Or [references] are merely historical, like that of Jude 9, concerning the devil's struggle with Michael over the body of Moses, which could rest either on tradition, as some scholars hold, or on some noncanonical ecclesiastical book which has disappeared.

XII.            Although the autographs of the Law and the Prophets which were kept in the ark could have been burned along with it when the city was destroyed and the temple burned at the time of the Babylonian captivity, it does not follow from this that all the sacred books, to be rewritten afresh by Ezra, as by a second Moses, in forty days, were destroyed at that time. A number of copies could have remained among the pious, on the basis of which the worship of God was later set up (Ezra 6:18 ; Neh. 8:2). Nor is it likely that Ezekiel and the pious priests, and also Jeremiah, Gedeliah, and Baruch, who received permission to remain in Judea, would have been without them, especially since the care and reading of the sacred books was their duty; in the case of Daniel this is plainly seen (Dan. 9:2). IV Esdras 4:23 and 14:21, on the basis of which a universal destruction has been claimed, prove nothing because they are apocryphal even to the Roman Catholics, and are refuted by another apocryphal book that is canonical to them--I Maccabees 2:4 [II Maccabees 2:4 - 5], which says that the ark in which the book of the law was kept (Deut. 31:26) was preserved by Jeremiah in a cave on Mount Nebo. Above all, the great silence of Scripture, which since it bewails with such agony the pollution of the sanctuary, the fall of Jerusalem, the removal of the sacred vessels, the destruction of the temple, and other events, could not have omitted such a great loss without open lamentation, refutes this falsehood [of the destruction of Scripture). Ezra therefore could engage in collating, correcting, and restoring the copies which had been damaged during the captivity, which he could most appropriately do as an inspired person, but it was not his task to give [Scripture] anew to the church.


From 21 Questions on the Doctrine of Scripture by Francis Turretin (eBook)

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