« Prev § 1. The New Testament immediately emancipated… Next »

§ 1. The New Testament immediately emancipated itself from the conditions of its origin, and claimed to be regarded as simply a gift of the Holy Spirit. It held an independent position side by side with the Rule of Faith; it at once began to influence the development of doctrine, and it became in principle the final court of appeal for the Christian life.

Any collective body of fundamental sacred documents, as soon as it has taken form, stands at once on its own rights. Whatever the circumstances may have been under which it came into existence, however numerous the forces that contributed to its appearance, however slow and difficult the process of its development—from the moment of its birth all is forgotten. This is true also of the New Testament. As soon as it appeared in its Roman form it was practically regarded as a book that had fallen from Heaven: the Holy Spirit had created it and given it to the Church, Lessing (vide supra, p. 19, note 1) was certainly right when he showed that the Rule of Faith is older than the New Testament and had an important part in its creation; but he did not see that, when the New Testament had once come into existence, it immediately renounced its earthly origin and claimed for itself not only a position of equal rank with the Rule of Faith, but in a certain aspect even of 117superior rank. The daughter at once outgrew the mother, indeed, politely disowned her and set herself in the mother’s place. Complicated and energetic measures had then to be taken—the Catholic Churches invented them and set them in motion—to uphold the authority of the mother as against the daughter, and even then all that could be accomplished was either that the mother and daughter should divide the leadership between them in so far as they chose different provinces (the one rather doctrine the other life), or that they should take the lead alternately (vide infra).

The Apostolic Tradition of Doctrine and the New Testament.—The curve of movement of doctrine and life in the Church since the beginning of the third century became an ellipse with two foci that at one time approached so closely to one another as to seem one, at another time were quite widely separated. While the Apostolic doctrinal Tradition prevented ecclesiastical Christianity from becoming a religion of the book like Islam, the New Testament prevented the “Apostolic Traditions of the Fathers” from becoming the tyrants of the Church, as in later Judaism. The tension between the Apostolic Tradition and the sacred letter of the New Testament proved in the main beneficial to the development of the Church; extremes threatening from the right and the left were thus warded off. No one has yet written the history of the 118tension and conflict between the spirit and letter of the Bible on one side and the Rule of Faith on the other before the Reformation. It is true that the New Testament itself in principle and construction was in fact “Apostolic Tradition”; yet not only did it very soon represent an earlier tradition as opposed to a later continually developing tradition, but the independent force of its letter and spirit made itself felt more and more—whether to the advantage or disadvantage of development. No one dared to oppose the authority of the Divine Book; no one any more thought of it as tradition. The learned investigations concerning the origin of particular books conducted by a few theologians, from Origen onwards, had simply “antiquarian” significance. The authors themselves scarcely dreamed of making deductions that would affect the dignity of the Book in question. If they did, the Church either took no notice or marked down such scholars as suspect. The attitude of Tertullian and of his lax opponents in Carthage and Rome, who were in absolute agreement with him in the valuation of the New Testament and in the principles of its use, proves that since the beginning of the third century the New Testament stood as ἀπάτωρ ἀμήτωρ in the Church. No one any longer thought of a time when there was as yet no New Testament; scarcely anyone recollected that the Church had created it. Indeed, solemn eulogies 119of the New Testament as the book of the Holy Spirit were fairly frequently expressed in terms which implied an exclusive relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Book in regard to the Church: all that the Spirit had to say to the Churches He had put into this Book.

The New Testament joins the Rule of Faith in influencing the development of doctrine from the moment that it was fixed in idea. Already in the Adoptianist and Modalistic controversies passages from the New Testament were used as weapons by both sides. In such controversies in the Early Church the influence of the Book was not, however, altogether progressive; much more often it was a hindrance because of the strenuous opposition that it at first offered to almost every unbiblical formula that Dogmatics declared to be necessary. How difficult it was for “Homoousios” to gain acceptance because it was unbiblical! And, on the other hand, how hard for the orthodox was the fight against a biblical formula if from higher interests they felt compelled to reject it! The battles of orthodoxy against ἔκτισεν,131131(Created.) as used of the Sophia (the Logos), and against the formula πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως,132132(Firstborn of all creation.) tell us something of these things. And yet isolated biblical phrases found their way into Dogmatics; and more than this, Christological passages like that in Philippians ii. have exercised the deepest 120influence upon doctrine. Indeed, speaking generally, we may say that though the New Testament did not play the principal part in the battle against heresy, it nevertheless formed the court of final appeal in controversies concerning the Rule of Faith, and never submitted to any tradition, however ancient, that might be opposed to it. Again, whole bodies of doctrine of lesser or greater importance have found their way into Dogmatics simply because they were biblical: the West would never have accepted Augustine’s doctrine of Predestination if it had not had such strong support in Romans ix.–xi. This is, indeed, a particularly famous example, and it would be difficult to find another quite like it; but many less important instances could be adduced.

In matters of Christian life the New Testament at once takes a place of central and ultimate authority. Here there was no need to change the ancient formula πολιτεύεσθαι κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον133133(To live in accordance with the Gospel.) either in letter or spirit. We do not here inquire how far this inviolable principle of Christian life, to which even the Rule of Faith was scarcely allowed to dictate, was actually realised. It is enough to know that in theory no one dared to disturb the principle that a Christian was to live in accordance with the Gospel or κατὰ τὴν καινὴν διαθήκην134134(In accordance with the New Testament.) and must be able to appeal to passages 121of Scripture as an authority for his manner of life. We only notice how soon this led to the rise of Monasticism, and later to other strictly regulated forms of life. On the other hand, the “Lax” also sought justification for their principles and rules in passages from the New Testament. Here very abundant and interesting material is afforded in Tertullian’s treatises. It is the Lax in conflict with a tradition of the Church who ask for the passage of Scripture upon which it is founded. “Ubi scriptum est ne coronemur? . . . expostulant scripturæ patrocinium” (scil. for the prohibition against the wearing of garlands).

Lastly, in the first days of the Church reading for private edification was confined to the Psalms, but after the creation of the New Testament the Gospels also gradually came into use—indeed, even the Pauline Epistles. Without the New Testament this would never have happened. What it meant for the deepening of Christian life and thought, that these were nourished on the New Testament and not on the Psalms alone, there is no need to explain.

« Prev § 1. The New Testament immediately emancipated… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection