The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 5

zwingli preaching

This post continues a series on Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics.

See parts 1 (intro), 2, 3, and 4

Here, finally, begins Lecerf’s main argument — arguing, once again, for a mediating position between liberal subjectivism (canon within a canon, et cetera) and Roman Catholic infallibilism (canon as derivative from inscrutable ecclesiasticism, et cetera). The former is correct to maintain the primacy of the material content of the canon (Christ) and the Holy Spirit’s witness thereto, but the latter is correct to maintain the necessity of the Church, ordained by Christ for the economy of the Holy Spirit, working corporately (not just individually). Moreover, a responsible attention to historical reality, in the Church’s acceptance of the canon, reveals neither the subjective immediacy of the liberals nor the fixed and secure ecclesiaticism of the Romans.


Among Protestants, the apologetico-historical school, even when orthodox, seeks to establish the canon by the historical critique. This method leads to a cul-de-sac. It can only produce a conjectural knowledge, reserved for an intellectual élite, for whom faith is not enough.

Le Clerc’s line of argument in the 18th century, resumed independently by Ritschl in the following century, possesses an undeniable value from a human point of view. It is certain that, in order to rediscover original and authentic Christianity, we must trace it to its source, or at least to an epoch in which the tradition concerning Christ was still living; certain too that, to say the least, the undisputed writings of the New Testament which form the core of the Christian canon, satisfy this need in a large measure.

But, for fidelity in the transmission of original texts, we are almost entirely dependent on the witness of the Church of the 2nd century; and, as our Lord left us no writings, speculative criticism must attempt to disentangle His authentic teaching from the modifications which may have been made in it by the thought of the men of the first Christian generations. The true Protestant canon, according to Eugene Menegoz, must be the word of Christ, “our only Master.” The trouble is that this canon is historically impossible to determine in any strict sense. History, by itself, without a religious axiom, can give the Protestant no authority distinct from his own “private opinion.” Finally, the simple will have to be content with the Professoren Christus among many and various personifications.

As to the canon of the New Testament, properly speaking, it is represented as a late creation of the episcopate in response to the initiative of the heresiarch Marcion who was the first to entertain the idea of one. In actual fact, there is only one primitive Christian literature, which has been constituted a closed canon by the Church, with the intention of forming a pendant to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament and giving ancient catholicism a firmer base on which to build its tradition and its regula fidei than the allegorical exegesis of the sacred books of the Jews.

In order to establish this role of the episcopate in the creation of the canon, use is made of a text of Origen [Proemium Lucae] according to which “the money-changers expert in the testing of currency” have not admitted — according to an alternative reading, have not examined minutely — all the numerous gospels extant, but have received only “the four” that we possess. “The Church of God,” he concludes, “prefers these four to the exclusion of all the others.” It is generally admitted that the criterion employed was the supposed mediate or immediate apostilicity of the document.

We will not discuss the question whether Origen’s “money-changer assayers” are intended to represent the bishops, as Julicher would have it. This seems doubtful in view of a text of his Commentary on Matthew (25: 27); also from the fact that, in his Proemium Lucae, he attributes to the ancient people “the gift of discernment of spirits”; and, finally, because he believed that in his own time there survived certain rare Christians endowed with this gift. Now, he could not have been ignorant that the number of bishops was considerable at the time when he wrote. We do not deny that at a given moment the criterion of apostolicity was applied to the disputed writings. We would merely observe that there are texts and facts which go to show that these writings were often received for religious motives and regarded as canonical, even though it was recognized that they were not of apostolic origin. Finally, a leading critic has confessed that it is impossible to do more that make conjectures concerning the factors which concurred in the formation of the canon. [Adolf Harnack, Lehrb. d. Dogmengeschichte, p. 343]

How much more solid, at first sight, appears the thesis proposed by Rome. The Roman Catholic knows no hesitation concerning the list of canonical writings. The contours of his New Testament are delimited precisely by the infallible authority of the Church, in accordance with the decisions of the ecumenical councils of Florence and Trent. Unfortunately, the infallible authority of the Church is, as we have seen, a colossus with feet of clay. An authority decides nothing unless it has previously been received. If the canon of the Word of God rests on the decision of the Church, upon what then does the authority and infallibility of the latter rest? The Tu es Petrus is in the Gospel by Matthew. Let us propose for a moment that it proves what Rome would have it prove. How am I to know that the Gospel by Matthew is inspired, canonical, and a rule of faith?

Even if we abstract from this preliminary objection, how strange it is to suppose, with the Roman system, that there can be an authority superior to the Word of God, necessary to legitimize that Word in the minds of believers. It is extremely improbable that a text immediately and totally inspired by God could not be received unless it had previously been authenticated by certain men, supposed indeed to be infallible but admitted to be uninspired.

If we are to have a canon other than our own subjectivity, we must put ourselves in the position of the Reformers, and indicate as the means of recognizing it, not the hesitant authority of the critic, or the juridical authority of the Church, but the unanimity realized practically at the end of the 4th century of the Christian era and confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the faithful.

Roman controversialists exult and imagine us to be very embarrassed when they object that the Reformers and the first Protestants could not have known that the canon of the New Testament was correct and complete by any other means that the infallible authority of the Roman Church form whom they received its sacred pages. But this triumph would be of brief duration if these polemists agreed to regard these things as they happened in reality, instead of remaining in the clouds of speculation.

The Reformers and the first Protestants were certainly Christians, and Christians living under the Roman obedience, more or less defined, in imperial Germany, Gallican France and an England in which the ties with Rome had been loosening even before the reign of Henry VIII. Properly speaking, it was from their respective national Churches, more strictly from the local Churches in which they had grown up, that they received the principles and elements of Christianity, including the teaching on the existence of Holy Scripture and of a Biblical canon.

Although the state of these Churches was unsatisfactory in the extreme, they were still “Churches,” diseased branches, indeed, but still in some sense branches of the tree which in another figure is called the mystical body of Christ. When they taught, among desolating errors, some point of divine truth, they were able by its means to bring forth souls to the life of faith. Their teaching, in the measure in which it was subject to the Word of God, showed Christ and His Word; conformed itself to that Word, could be, and was, effectively sealed in the hearts of true believers by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 321-324


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