The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 7 (final)
July 16, 2009
Here, finally, is the last part of this series, which is largely a reproduction of Auguste Lecerf’s treatment of the canon in his Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. As I said in the first post, I’m doing this in order to make some of Lecerf’s work available to the public, without spending $50+ in order to acquire his Introduction. For those who find his work germane to their own interests or research, you should buy the book. Among contemporary theologians, Lecerf’s approach to the canon and ecclesial authority is congenial with that of John Webster in his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, sharing many of the same emphases though expanded in the latter (such as, doctrine of God systematic relations, sanctification, “economy of grace,” et cetera). Webster’s book is a vital addition to anyone’s study of these issues from a Protestant — especially Reformed — perspective.
Here are the closing pages of chapter 10, “The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament,” which I’ve reproduced in its entirety beginning with part 4.
The existence of the New Testament is thus the first fact. But it may be asked, especially by those who do not believe that the Church has any right to impose its authority on the Word of God: whence does this canon derive its sanction? To this question we reply with another fact, one in the spiritual order, which is attested immediately by our knowledge. When the Church tells us that God speaks in the New Testament as He spoke formerly to His elect people in the Law and the Prophets, she has no difficulty at all in making us feel the reality of her assertion. In order to convince us of this, she can send us with confidence to meditate on the teaching which it contains: no Christian can fail to be touched by the divine character impressed upon it and reflected by it.
This immediate sense of the presence of a divine revelation, of a message which awakens confidence in the heart of the believer, is surely a manifestation of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). But among this number are some who still remain outside the faith of Protestantism, or who fancy themselves to be “progressive thinkers,” when they are merely reverting to the proto-history of Protestant dogmatics, to the primitive stage of Luther and Zwingli. Calvin, who had himself experienced this sentiment, declares that the divinity of Scripture may be recognized as one distinguishes the sweet from the bitty, the white from the black [Inst. I, vii. 2]. But the gifted exponent of the doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit, by his more penetrating analysis, distinguished another fact to which he was, we believe, the first to give theological expression because he was the first to see that in that way alone the Christian consciousness could be guaranteed a truly formal rule which would deliver it alike from the tyranny of clerks and from the aberrations of individualist subjectivism.
In the form of an immediate impression of the divinity of the Christian message in its general sense, the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not sufficient to safeguard us against the aberrations of individualist subjectivism by giving us a divine external rule. The reason for this is that the weakness of our intelligence does not allow us to understand it all exactly and that what exists of the corruption of the heart renders certain parts of the message distasteful, offensive or at least inefficacious, while others experience in it a divine saviour.
Hence the Christian runs the risk of seeking a remedy for these defects in illuminism — in which case, the evil will certainly become worse — or in a blind submission to an ecclesiastical authority claiming to be infallible. He thus becomes a stranger to the liberty which Christ purchased at the price of His blood, and submits either to the inclination of his subjective tendencies or to the hazards of his birth, to Rome or Byzantium or to something less still, as the case may be.
Those to whom God gives a clear view of these two perils and who know, by the immediate experience of which we have spoken, that God speaks to them in the Church’s New Testament, are thenceforth the recipients of a new grace. They are able to verify in their own experience the promise of Christ: “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given” (Mt. 13:12).
By the teaching of the Church, in the first instance, and afterwards by personal experience, they have learnt that God speaks in the New Testament. They know by faith that here is a word of God; that the historical process which gave existence to this unique jewel of ancient Christian literature is merely the human means whereby God has made over to His Church this priceless treasure.
Now, their faith in the material authority of a more or less extensive content of the Scripture of the New Testament is metamorphosed into a more complete faith. They have recognized that the authors of the books of the New Testament present themselves as the depositaries, the witnesses and the interpreters of teaching given by and concerning Christ, which they themselves have a right to transmit to their readers.
How should we know this teaching apart from them? And, having them at our disposal, how can we ascertain whether they are competent and faithful? The method of oral ecclesiastical tradition across the centuries as a means of leading us to the knowledge of Christ is excluded, excluded through the experience that we have been made to realize of its deformations and excrescenses, excluded by Christ Himself according to the testimony of the evangelists, who show Him to us condemning the traditions of the fathers when they are in opposition to the written Word of God, of which alone it is said, when it is a question of the past, that it “cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
The way of interior illumination independent of the Word is also excluded. We cannot trust to it, for its light is deceptive. It is not necessary to be very well versed in the history of sects and heresies to know that. Moreover, according to the testimony of the evangelists, Christ himself has put us on our guard against the possible illusions of our natural senses (Mt. 6:23) and he has taught us that knowledge of Himself is possible only to him to whom He communicates it (Luke 10:22).
But, once more, how can we be assured of the fidelity and authority of the witnesses who render Christ present to our intelligence and to our heart? By critical and historical science? At best, such science could give us no more than probabilities, and faith cannot live on probabilities. “If we wish to satisfy our consciences,” says Calvin, “so that they may not be tormented incessantly by doubts and questionings, that they may not stumble or waver at every scruple, it is necessary that the persuasion of which we have spoken should be derived from a higher source than mere human reasons or judgments or conjectures, namely, from the secret testimony of the Holy Ghost” (Inst. I, vii. 4). God alone can give authority to His Word.
Now, this is what He does for those who have renounced all human support to rely solely on Him who is never wanting in time of need. Through contact with the New Testament, God creates in those whom He has thus disposed, faith in the formal authority of this body of writings which the Holy Ghost has given to the Church. “Being thus enlightened by His power, we do not now believe by our own judgment or that of others, that Scripture is of God; but above all human judgment, we conclude indubitably that it is given from His mouth through the ministry of men, as if we saw in it with our very eyes the very essence of God” (Inst., I, vii. 35).
Such faith is the proof of that which the eye of flesh cannot see. It is the foundation of the infinite experience, the seal and earnest of the Holy Spirit in the noetic sphere. He who possesses it, while he does so, cannot, strictly speaking, doubt. Let anyone come to him and ask: “Who can persuade us that one book is to be received without contradiction while another is to be rejected, if the Church does not give an infallible ruling concerning the matter?” and it will seem to him that a question of this sort cannot be asked “without great mockery of the Holy Spirit” (Ibid., I). The canon of the New Testament in the light of faith appears to him as a creation of God through the anonymous ministry of men whose hands have long centuries ago fallen into dust. One does not correct a masterpiece of the past; one does not profane a sanctuary from which there ascends the credo of worshippers.
Before Scripture the believer must bow as if he contemplated with his own eyes God in His majesty and heard Him speak. God knows well that He is asking of the ignorant and the wise something which entirely surpasses their powers. The former do not even know their lack of knowledge while the latter imagine that they know more than they need. But the believer, seeing the impossible realized with a supernatural ardour, and under the influence of a power “which cannot but be divine,” and that in him and in those who, like himself, have their eyes open to the dangers on the right hand and the left, perceive immediately that “it is God that worketh in us in this manner by His Spirit.”
It is therefore the power of His action who works producing faith in Scripture, which constitutes the testimony of the Holy Spirit in relation to the canon. And it is, in particular, on this testimony that the New Testament is founded, while the latter also abounds throughout in “notes” of its divinity.
This purely religious method of establishing the authority of Scripture enables us to go beyond that of the historicism represented in Calvin’s time by Carlstadt. But it is available only after certain historic experiences which show that there was something inadequate and delusive about the original attitude of Luther and Zwingli. To perceive the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the sense in which Calvin understood it and all the faithful in all time have perceived it, a certain psychological preparation was needed. It was lacking in the first Reformers.
The moment faith receives this preparation, it knows by the testimony and inner persuasion of the Holy Spirit that the canon of Scripture has been given by God to the Church to lead her into truth and to enable her to reform herself according to this divine rule. In other words, the truth whose divine radiance shines in her eyes and which by its intrinsic virtue quells her doubts, is the rule: the body of Scriptures of which the Church is the guardian is the Word of God; a statement of Scripture, even if it shocks the reason or the subjective sensibility, must be received solely on the authority of God teaching through His written Word.
For example, if a Reformed Christian were to doubt whether the doctrines of election and reprobation rested on a sound foundation, or to ask himself whether the Synod of Dort was right in its condemnation of Arminianism, he would not take refuge in a dogmatic conformism which would exalt the findings of a council, however venerable, into a supreme rule. He would seek light from Holy Scripture; and when, like Reuss, he had satisfied himself that “the canons of Dort can never be refuted on exegetical grounds,” he would accept them, whatever the cost to his sentiments or his reason.
The testimony of the Holy Spirit which witnesses to him, which establishes and seals the authority of Scripture and which guides him as he studies it, is thus primarily a cause and not a reason. But it becomes the supreme reason when the believer realizes that this is the work of the Almighty, in obedience to whom he finds perfect rest of mind and heart.
Faith, therefore, is never blind, for it is preceded by a reasonable adherence to, and a sensible experience of, the majesty of the Word of God. Faith knows its object and appreciates its divinity, so long as it is not a mere opinion founded on experience. [footnote: This is why Calvin declares that faith consists in certainty rather than apprehension. The latter term signifies precisely an opinion conceived on the strength of sensible data.] On the other hand, when it becomes faith in divine authority, it does not cease to know what it believes. But it embraces the object known and loved, with a power of acceptance which the subject recognizes as surpassing his own powers and as divine.
To summarize: the believer is not confronted with the alternative of the objective authority of God, speaking through Scripture, or the subjective authority of a religious experience causing him to recognize here and now that God is speaking. There is very certainly a subjective experience; but this subjective experience sends us back to the objective reality, which is God speaking in Scripture and which is the source of this subjective experience. And when the latter has caused its subject thus to renounce himself, to come out of himself, and to forget even his experience, in order to attach himself to the sole objective authority worthy of the name — then it is that faith is born. The latter has no foundation whatever, apart from the authority of God; concretely that of Scripture is still, indeed, an act of the subject, the act of believing, of committing oneself on trust; but an act which implies the consciousness that it is, qua act, a perfect gift, an eminent and divine grace, the grace of believing that Scripture is the supreme necessary and sufficient judge of controversies in matters of faith, because it is God who speaks therein.
The Confession of La Rochelle invokes the same experimental fact in the sense in which the acknowledged leader of the Reformed had put it to the test. This explains how it can, without inconsistency, draw up the list of canonical books and appeal from them to the testimony of the Holy Spirit in order to distinguish them from the other ecclesiastical books (the Apocrypha). The canon is considered as a whole comprising Holy Scripture in its integrity (Conf. gal., art. iii, ad init.).
From this point of view, the contingent factors of the history of the New Testament canon, to which teachers of the modern school attach so much importance, lose the dogmatic importance that they would give it: whatever may have been the circumstances which have concurred in the formation of the canon, one thing is certain, namely, that men with their hesitations, their errors, their intentions, good or otherwise, their faithfulness also and the heroism of their faith, have merely been the instruments which God has been pleased to use, anonymous and without known authority. It is by their hands that He has bestowed the gift of the New Testament on the Church. Never has she been without a canonical Scripture: she has always had the Old Testament. Never has she existed for a moment without professing the doctrine taught in the New Testament, of which the regula fidei is no more than the faithful summary. Then, at the moment marked by divine providence, at the hour when the doctrinal tradition was becoming hesitant and corrupt, the Church recognized the divinity of the Christian canon. She did not promulgate it at oecumenical councils. Simple provincial synods, important indeed, such as those of Hippo and Carthage, registered and confessed the common faith. The Reformed Churches of France, Holland and England, did no more. No council, synod or Church can confer authority on a Word which establishes all authority because it emanates from God and because it attests itself by the seal of the Spirit of God as His Word.
Common sense is sufficient to tell us that the oral tradition relative to the person and teaching of Christ could not, without a perpetual miracle, preserve itself in sufficient purity except on condition of being committed to writing: verba volant, scripta manent. Christian instinct presupposes axiomatically that as truly as Christ is the revelation of God to the Church, so truly has God provided that the tradition of the revelation committed to writing should preserve for us, in the measure in which such a thing is necessary, a documentation transmitting to us in their purity the essential characteristics of this revelation.
Thus it is that a New Testament is seen to be necessary. The Church, the guardian of Scripture, has for its function to show us where is this New Testament, of which books it consists, and how we are to recognize the marks of its divinity. The Holy Spirit alone can raise to the level of the certainty of faith these data of common sense and of the testimony of the Church.
[End of chapter 10]
An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 328-334.