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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 118. Sources of Theology. Scripture and Tradition.


Comp. the literature in vol. i. § 75 and § 76. Also: Eusebius: Hist. Eccl. iii. 3; vi. 25 (on the form of the canon in the Nicene age); Leander van Ess (R.C.): Chrysostomus oder Stimmen der Kirchenväter für’s Bibellesen. Darmstadt, 1824.

Vincentius Lirinensis († about 450): Commonitorium pro cathol. fidei antiquitate et universitate Adv. profanas omnium haer. novitates; frequent editions, e.g. by Baluzius (1663 and 1684), Gallandi, Coster, Kluepfel (with prolegom. and notes), Viennae, 1809, and by Herzog, Vratisl. 1839; also in connection with the Opera Hilarii Arelatensis, Rom. 1731, and the Opera Salviani, Par. 1669, and in Migne’s Patrolegis, vol. 50, p. 626 sqq.


The church view respecting the sources of Christian theology and the rule of faith and practice remains as it was in the previous period, except that it is further developed in particulars.12901290   Comp. vol. i. § 75 and 76. The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; and the oral tradition or living faith of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed to the varying opinions of heretical sects together form the one infallible source and rule of faith. Both are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the key to the true interpretation of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse. The relation of the two in the mind of the ancient church may be illustrated by the relation between the supreme law of a country (such as the Roman law, the Code Napoleon, the common law of England, the Constitution of the United States) and the courts which expound the law, and decide between conflicting interpretations. Athanasius, for example, “the father of orthodoxy,” always bases his conclusions upon Scripture, and appeals to the authority of tradition only in proof that he rightly understands and expounds the sacred books. The catholic faith, says he, is that which the Lord gave, the apostles preached, and the fathers have preserved; upon this the church is founded, and he who departs from this faith can no longer be called a Christian.12911291   Ad Serap. Ep. i., cap. 28 (Opera, tom. i. pars ii. p. 676): Ἴδωμεν ... τὴν τῆς ἀρχῆς παράδοσιν καὶ διδασκαλίαν καὶ πίστιν τῆς καθολικῆς ἐκκλησίας ἥν ὁ μέν κύριος ἔδωκεν, οἱ δὲ ἀπόστολοι ἐκήρυξαν, καὶ οἱ πατέρες ἐφύλαξαν. Voigt (Die Lehre des Athanasius, &c. p. 13 ff.) makes Athanasius even the representative of the formal principle of Protestantism, the supreme authority, sufficiency, and self-interpreting character of the Scriptures; while Möhler endeavors to place him on the Roman side. Both are biassed, and violate history by their preconceptions.

The sum of doctrinal tradition was contained in what is called the Apostles’ Creed, which at first bore various forms, but after the beginning of the fourth century assumed the Roman form now commonly used. In the Greek church its place was supplied after the year 325 by the Nicene Creed, which more fully expresses the doctrine of the deity of Christ. Neither of these symbols goes beyond the substance of the teaching of the apostles; neither contains any doctrine specifically Greek or Roman.

The old catholic doctrine of Scripture and tradition, therefore, nearly as it approaches the Roman, must not be entirely confounded with it. It makes the two identical as to substance, while the Roman church rests upon tradition for many doctrines and usages, like the doctrines of the seven sacraments, of the mass, of purgatory, of the papacy, and of the immaculate conception, which have no foundation in Scripture. Against this the evangelical church protests, and asserts the perfection and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the record of divine revelation; while it does not deny the value of tradition, or of the consciousness of the church, in the interpretation of Scripture, and regulates public teaching by symbolical books. In the Protestant view tradition is not coordinate with Scripture, but subordinate to it, and its value depends on its agreement with the Scriptures. The Scriptures alone are the norma fidei; the church doctrine is only the norma doctrinae. Protestantism gives much more play to private judgment and free investigation in the interpretation of the Scriptures, than the Roman or even the Nicene church.12921292   On this point compare the relevant sections in the works on Symbolic and Polemic Theology, and Schaff’s Principle of Protestantism, 1845.

I. In respect to the Holy Scriptures:

At the end of the fourth century views still differed in regard to the extent of the canon, or the number of the books which should be acknowledged as divine and authoritative.

The Jewish canon, or the Hebrew Bible, was universally received, while the Apocrypha added to the Greek version of the Septuagint were only in a general way accounted as books suitable for church reading,12931293   Βιβλία ἀναγινωσκόμενα (libri ecclesiastici), in distinction from κανονικάor κανονιζόμεναon the one hand, and ἀπόκρυφαon the other. So Athanasius. and thus as a middle class between canonical and strictly apocryphal (pseudonymous) writings. And justly; for those books, while they have great historical value, and fill the gap between the Old Testament and the New, all originated after the cessation of prophecy, and they cannot therefore be regarded as inspired, nor are they ever cited by Christ or the apostles.12941294   Heb. xi. 35 ff. probably alludes, indeed, to 2 Macc. vi. ff.; but between a historical allusion and a corroborative citation with the solemn ἡ γραφὴ λέγειthere is a wide difference.

Of the New Testament, in the time of Eusebius, the four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of John, and the first Epistle of Peter, were universally recognized as canonical,12951295   Hence called ὁμολογούμενα. while the Epistle to the Hebrews, the second and third Epistles of John, the second Epistle of Peter, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude were by many disputed as to their apostolic origin, and the book of Revelation was doubted by reason of its contents.12961296   Hence called ἀντιλεγόμενα, which, however, is by no means to be confounded with ἀπόκρυφαand νόθα. There are no apocrypha, properly speaking, in the New Testament. The apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Apocalypses in every case differ greatly from the apostolic, and were never received into the canon. The idea of apocrypha in the Old Testament is innocent, and is applied to later Jewish writings, the origin of which is not accurately known, but the contents of which are useful and edifying. This indecision in reference to the Old Testament Apocrypha prevailed still longer in the Eastern church; but by the middle of the fourth century the seven disputed books of the New Testament were universally acknowledged, and they are included in the lists of the canonical books given by Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Amphilochius of Iconium, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Epiphanius; except that in some cases the Apocalypse is omitted.

In the Western church the canon of both Testaments was closed at the end of the fourth century through the authority of Jerome (who wavered, however, between critical doubts and the principle of tradition), and more especially of Augustine, who firmly followed the Alexandrian canon of the Septuagint, and the preponderant tradition in reference to the disputed Catholic Epistles and the Revelation; though he himself, in some places, inclines to consider the Old Testament Apocrypha as deutero-canonical books, bearing a subordinate authority. The council of Hippo in 393, and the third (according to another reckoning the sixth) council of Carthage in 397, under the influence of Augustine, who attended both, fixed the catholic canon of the Holy Scriptures, including the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, and prohibited the reading of other books in the churches, excepting the Acts of the Martyrs on their memorial days. These two African councils, with Augustine,12971297   De doctr. Christ. l. ii. c. 8. give forty-four books as the canonical books of the Old Testament, in the following order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings (the two of Samuel and the two of Kings), two books of Paralipomena (Chronicles), Job, the Psalms, five books of Solomon, the twelve minor Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, two books of Ezra, two books of Maccabees. The New Testament canon is the same as ours.

This decision of the transmarine church however, was subject to ratification; and the concurrence of the Roman see it received when Innocent I. and Gelasius I. (a.d. 414) repeated the same index of biblical books.

This canon remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session.

Protestantism retained the New Testament canon of the Roman church,12981298   The well-known doubts of Luther respecting some of the antilegomena, especially the Epistle of James, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Revelation, are mere private opinions, which have latterly been reasserted by individual Lutheran divines, like Philippi and Kahnis, but have had no influence upon the church doctrine. but, in accordance with the orthodox Jewish and the primitive Christian view, excluded the Apocrypha from the Old.12991299   The more particular history of the canon belongs to historical and critical Introduction to the Bible. Besides the relevant sections in works of this sort, and in Lardner’s Credibility of the Gospel History, and Kirchhofer’sQuellensammlung (1844), comp. the following special treatises: Thiersch: Herstellung des historischen Standpunkts für die Kritik der N. T’tlichen Schriften, 1845; Credner. Zur Geschichte des Kanons, 1847; Oehler: Kanon des A. Ts. in Herzog’s Encyklopädie, vol. vii. pp. 243-270; Landerer: Kanon des Neuen Testaments, ibid. pp. 270-303; also an extended article: Canon of Scripture, in W. Smith’sDictionary of the Bible (London and Boston, 1860), vol. i. pp. 250-268.

The most eminent of the church fathers speak in the strongest terms of the full inspiration and the infallible authority of the holy Scriptures, and commend the diligent reading of them even to the laity. Especially Chrysostom. The want of general education, however, and the enormous cost of books, left the people for the most part dependent on the mere hearing of the word of God in public worship; and the free private study of the Bible was repressed by the prevailing Spirit of the hierarchy. No prohibition, indeed, was yet laid upon the reading of the Bible; but the presumption that it was a book of the priests and monks already existed. It remained for a much later period, by the invention of printing, the free spirit of Protestantism, and the introduction of popular schools, to make the Bible properly a people’s book, as it was originally designed to be; and to disseminate it by Bible societies, which now print and circulate more copies of it in one year, than were made in the whole middle age, or even in the fifteen centuries before the Reformation.

The oldest manuscripts of the Bible now extant date no further back than the fourth century, are very few, and abound in unessential errors and omissions of every kind; and the problem of a critical restoration of the original text is not yet satisfactorily solved, nor can it be more than approximately solved in the absence of the original writings of the apostles.

The oldest and most important manuscripts in uncial letters are the Sinaitic (first discovered by Tischendorf in 1859, and published in 1862), the Vatican (in Rome, defective), the Alexandrian (in London); then the much mutilated codex of Ephraim Syrus in Paris, and the incomplete codex of Cambridge. From these and a few other uncial codices the oldest attainable text must be mainly gathered. Secondary sources are quotations in the fathers, the earliest versions, Stich as the Syriac Peshito and the Latin Vulgate, and the later manuscripts.13001300   Full information on this subject may be found in the Introductions to the New Testament, and in the Prolegomena of the critical editions of the New Testament, among which the editions of Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, and Alford are the most important. Comp. particularly the eighth large edition of Tischendorf, begun in 1865, and diligently employing all existing critical helps.

The faith which rests not upon the letter, but upon the living spirit of Christianity, is led into no error by the defects of the manuscripts and ancient and modern versions of the Bible, but only excited to new and deeper study.

The spread of the church among all the nations of the Roman empire, and even among the barbarians on its borders, brought with it the necessity of translating the Scriptures into various tongues. The most important of these versions, and the one most used, is the Latin Vulgate, which was made by the learned Jerome on the basis of the older Itala, and which afterwards, notwithstanding its many errors, was placed by the Roman church on a level with the original itself. The knowledge of Hebrew among the fathers was very rare; the Septuagint was considered sufficient, and even the knowledge of Greek diminished steadily in the Latin church after the invasion of the barbarians and the schism with the East, so that the Bible in its original languages became a sealed book, and remained such until the revival of learning in the fifteenth century.

In the interpretation of the Scriptures the system of allegorical exposition and imposition was in high repute, and often degenerated into the most arbitrary conceits, especially in the Alexandrian school, to which most of the great dogmatic theologians of the Nicene age belonged. In opposition to this system the Antiochian school, founded by Lucian († 311), and represented by Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and best by John Chrysostom and Theodoret, advocated a soberer grammatical and historical exegesis, and made a sharper distinction between the human and the divine elements in the Scriptures. Theodore thereby incurred the suspicion and subsequently even the condemnation of the Greek church.

Among the Latin fathers a similar difference in the interpretation of Scripture appears between the discerning depth and lively play of Augustine and the grammatical and archaeological scholarship and dogmatical superficiality of Jerome.


II. The Holy Scriptures were universally accepted as the supreme authority and infallible rule of faith. But as the Scriptures themselves were variously interpreted, and were claimed by the heretics for their views, the fathers of our period, like Irenaeus and Tertullian before them, had recourse at the same time to Tradition, as preserved from the apostles through the unbroken succession of the bishops. With them the Scriptures are the supreme law; the combined wisdom and piety of the catholic church, the organic body of the faithful, is the judge which decides the true sense of the law. For to be understood the Bible must be explained, either by private judgment or by the universal faith of Christendom.

Strictly speaking, the Holy Ghost, who is the author, is also the only infallible interpreter of the Scriptures. But it was held that the Holy Ghost is given only to the orthodox church not to heretical and schismatic sects, and that he expresses himself through assembled orthodox bishops and universal councils in the clearest and most authoritative way. “The heretics,” says Hilary, “all cite the Scriptures, but without the sense of the Scriptures; for those who are outside the church can have no understanding of the, word of God.” They imagine they follow the Scriptures, while in truth they follow their own conceits, which they put into the Scriptures instead of drawing their thoughts from them.

Even Augustine, who of all the fathers stands nearest to evangelical Protestantism, on this point advocates the catholic principle in the celebrated maxim which he urges against the Manichaeans: “I would not believe the gospel, if I were not compelled by the authority of the universal church.” But he immediately adds: “God forbid that I should not believe the gospel.”13011301   “Ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me Catholicae ecclesiae commoveret autoritas .... Sed absit ut ego Evangelio non credam. Illi enim credens, non invenio quomodo possim etiam tibi [Manichaeus] credere. Apostolorum enim nomina, quae ibi leguntur, non inter se continent nomen Manichaei.” Contra Epist. Manichaei, quam vocant fundamenti, cap. 6 (ed. Bened. tom. viii. p. 154). His object in this argument is to show that the Manichaeans have no right in the Scriptures, that the Catholic church is the legitimate owner and interpreter of the Bible. But it is an abuse to press this argument at once into the service of Rome as is so often done. Between the controversy of the old Catholic church with Manichaeism, and the controversy of Romanism with Protestantism, there is an immense difference.

But there are different traditions; not to speak of various interpretations of the catholic tradition. Hence the need of a criterion of true and false tradition. The semi-Pelagian divine, Vincentius, a monk and priest in the South-Gallic cloister of Lirinum († 450), 13021302   Lerinum or Lirinum (now St. Honorat) is one of the group of small islands in the Mediterranean which formerly belonged to Roman Gaul, afterwards to France. In the fifth century it was a seminary of learned monks and priests for France, as Faustus Regiensis, Hilarius Arelatensis, Salvianus, and others. otherwise little known, propounded the maxim which formed an epoch in this matter, and has since remained the standard in the Roman church: We must hold “what has been everywhere, always, and by all believed.”13031303   Commonit. cap. 2 (in Migne’sPatrolog. vol. 50, p. 640): “In ipsa item Catholica Ecclesia magnopere curandum est, ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibuscreditum est.” The Commonitorium was composed, as we learn from the preface and from ch. 42, about three years after the ecumenical council of Ephesus, therefore about 434, under the false name of Peregrinus, as a help to the memory of the author that he might have the main points of ecclesiastical tradition constantly at hand against the heretics. Baronius calls it “opus certe aureum,” and Bellarmin “parvum mole et virtute maximum.” It consisted originally of two books, but the manuscript of the second book was stolen from the author, who then added a brief summary of both books at the close of the first (c. 41-43). Vossius, Cardinal Norisius (Historia Pelagiana, I. ii. c. 11), Natalis Alexander, Hefele, and Schmidt give this work a polemic aim against strict Augustinism, for which certainly the Greek church cannot be claimed, so that the three criteria of catholicity are wanting. There is pretty strong evidence in the book itself that Vincentius belonged to the semi-Pelagian school which arose in Marseille and Lirinum. He was probably also the author of the Vincentianae objectiones against Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. Comp. on Vincentius, Tillemont’s Mémoires, tom. xv. pp. 143-147; the art. Vincentius v. L. by H. Schmidt in Herzog’s Encykl. vol. xvii. pp. 211-217; and an essay of C. J. Hefele (R.C.), in his Beiträge zur Kirchengeschichte, Archäologie und Liturgik, vol. i. p. 146 ff. (Tüb. 1864). Here we have a threefold test of the ecclesiastical orthodoxy: Catholicity of place, of time, and of number; or ubiquity, antiquity, and universal consent;13041304   As Vincentius expresses himself in the succeeding sentence: Universitas, antiquitas, consensio. Comp. c. 27. in other words, an article of faith must be traced up to the apostles, and be found in all Christian countries, and among all believers. But this principle can be applied only to a few fundamental articles of revealed religion, not to any of the specifically Romish dogmas, and, to have any reasonable meaning, must be reduced to a mere principle of majority. In regard to the consensus omnium, which properly includes both the others, Vincentius himself makes this limitation, by defining the condition as a concurrence of the majority of the clergy.13051305   “Consensio omnium vel certe paene omnium sacerdotum pariter et magistrorum,” etc. Common. c. 2 (in Migne, p. 640). To the voice of the people neither he nor the whole Roman system, in matters of faith, pays the slightest regard. In many important doctrines, however, there is not even a consensus patrum, as in the doctrine of free will, of predestination, of the atonement. A certain freedom of divergent private opinions is the indispensable condition of all progress of thought, and precedes the ecclesiastical settlement of every article of faith. Even Vincentius expressly asserts a steady advance of the church in the knowledge of the truth, though of course in harmony with the previous steps, as a man or a tree remains identical through the various stages of growth.13061306   Cap 23 (in Migne, vol 50, p. 667 sqq.).

Vincentius is thoroughly Catholic in the spirit and tendency of his work, and has not the most remote conception of the free Protestant study of the Scriptures. But on the other hand he would have as little toleration for new dogmas. He wished to make tradition not an independent source of knowledge and rule of faith by the side of the Holy Scriptures, but only to have it acknowledged as the true interpreter of Scripture, and as a bar to heretical abuse. The criterion of the antiquity of a doctrine, which he required, involves apostolicity, hence agreement with the spirit and substance of the New Testament. The church, says he, as the solicitous guardian of that which is intrusted to her, changes, diminishes, increases nothing. Her sole effort is to shape, or confirm, or preserve the old. Innovation is the business of heretics not of orthodox believers. The canon of Scripture is complete in itself, and more than sufficient.13071307   Cap. 2: “Quum sit perfectus Scripturarum Canon et sibi ad omnia satis superque sufficiat,” etc. Cap. 29. But since all heretics appeal to it, the authority of the church must be called in as the rule of interpretation, and in this we must follow universality, antiquity, and consent.13081308   “Hoc facere curabant ... ut divinum canonem secundum universalis ecclesiae traditiones et juxta catholici dogmatis regulas interpretentur, in qua item catholica et apostolica ecclesia sequantur necesse est universitatem, antiquitatem, consensionem.” Commonit. cap. 27 (in Migne, vol. 50, p. 674). Comp. c. 2-4. It is the custom of the Catholics, says he in the same work, to prove the true faith in two ways: first by the authority of the holy Scriptures, then by the tradition of the Catholic church; not because the canon alone is not of itself sufficient for all things, but on account of the many conflicting interpretations and perversions of the Scriptures.13091309   Cap. 29 (in Migne, vol. 50, p. 677): “Non quia canon solus non sibi ad universa sufficiat, sed quia verba divina, pro suo plerique arbitratu interpretantes, varias opiniones erroresque concipiant,” etc.

In the same spirit says pope Leo I.: “It is not permitted to depart even in one word from the doctrine of the Evangelists and the Apostles, nor to think otherwise concerning the Holy Scriptures, than the blessed apostles and our fathers learned and taught.”13101310   Epist. 82 ad Episc. Marcianum Aug. (Opera, tom. i. p. 1044, ed. Ballerini, and in Migne, liv. p. 918): “Quum ab evangelica apostolicaque doctrina ne uno quidem verbo liceat dissidere, aut aliter de Scripturis divinis sapere quam beati apostoli et patres nostri didicerunt atque docuerunt,” etc.

The catholic principle of tradition became more and more confirmed, as the authority of the fathers and councils increased and the learned study of the Holy Scriptures declined; and tradition gradually set itself in practice on a level with Scripture, and even above it. It fettered free investigation, and promoted a rigid, stationary and intolerant orthodoxy, which condemned men like Origen and Tertullian as heretics. But on the other hand the principle of tradition unquestionably exerted a wholesome conservative power, and saved the substance of the ancient church doctrine from the obscuring and confusing influence of the pagan barbarism which deluged Christendom.




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