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Instrumentum” (“Instrumenta”) as a Name for the Bible

Zahn (Gesch. des Neutestamentlichen Kanons, i. 106-111) has published a thorough investigation of the term “Instrumentum” as a title of the Bible; but in my opinion he starts from an incorrect premise, and gives to “Instrumentum,” in connection with the Bible, a significance that is more general than is admissible.

On pages 105 ff., Zahn writes: “Tertullian preferred to render Covenant by ‘Instrumentum.’ (In our investigation) we must start from this fact, incidentally revealed by Tertullian, that it was the prevailing custom among his contemporaries to express by ‘Testamentum’ what he preferred to call ‘Instrumentum.’ There is, accordingly, no doubt that in this as in similar cases Διαθήκη lies behind both terms.” He then discusses “Instrumentum” in ordinary use and its relationship with “Documentum”; he asserts that the term not seldom occurs in Tertullian in its original wider connotation, and in conclusion remarks: “We should do injustice to Tertullian if we suspected that the term ‘Instrumentum’ covers a conception of the significance of the Holy Scripture for the Church that is merely legal. The Holy Scriptures were for him by no means mainly documents that could be produced by the Church in her case against heretics (Zahn 210refers to De Præsc.); though, as a matter of course, they were authorities of the highest value for the Church.” On page 109 Zahn speaks of the elasticity of the concept “Instrumentum” as applied to Holy Scripture.

Three theses are here brought forward: (1) that “Instrumentum” in Tertullian (and when used elsewhere in the Church) is equivalent to “Testamentum”; (2) that “Instrumentum,” like “Testamentum,” is a translation of Διαθήκη; (3) that in Tertullian it has not only the special significance, “a fundamental document to prove doctrine,” but also a more general significance. All these three theses are in my opinion incorrect, as I shall now proceed to prove.

As for the first thesis, it is true that Tertullian writes (Adv. Marc., iv. 1): “Duos deos dividit, proinde diversos, alterum alterius instrumenti, vel, quod magis usui est dicere, Testamenti.” Here it is of course clear that Tertullian (and others here and there) spoke of “Instrumenta” while the usual term was “Testamenta.” And yet it would be a mistake to assert that “Instrumentum” is an equivalent for “Testamentum.” In cursory speech it can serve as such, but in itself is is not. This is most strikingly clear from the three following passages: in Adv. Prax., 20, Tertullian writes: “Totum instrumentum utriusque testamenti”; in De Monog., 4: “Secedat nunc mentio paracleti ut nostri (the Montanists) alicuius auctoris; evolvamus communia (to us and the ‘Psychics’) instrumenta scripturarum pristinarum (i.e. the Old Testament and New Testament)”; and in De Monog., 7: “Vetera instrumenta legalium scripturarum.” Tertullian thus speaks of the “Instrument of the two Testaments,” and of the “Instrument of the Holy Scriptures.” 211Instrumentum” cannot, therefore, be an equivalent for “Testamentum.” This also means that we have already disposed of the second thesis which is in itself highly improbable, for how could anyone have arrived at “Instrumentum” as a translation of Διαθήκη? It is true that very remarkable translations are found in the Old Latin of the Church. Why was not “Fœdus” rather than “Testamentum” used for Διαθήκη? Why was Μυστήριον translated by “Sacramentum,” etc.?—but “Instrumentum” has no connection, or only the slightest, with Διαθήκη. Further, Zahn himself is compelled to confess that in quotations from the Bible Tertullian never translates Διαθήκη by “Instrumentum.” Hence the term “Instrumenta” in reference to the Bible is just as independent of Διαθήκη as are the terms “the Holy Scriptures” or “the Books.” The term, therefore, must have its origin in considerations that have absolutely nothing to do with traditional names for the Bible, but are concerned only with its significance—and, indeed, in considerations that are confined to the Western Church; for, so far as I know, throughout the whole range of the Greek Churches no equivalent for “Instrumentum” existed either in the second century or later.

We now come to Zahn’s third thesis that the name “Instrumenta” for the Holy Scriptures is elastic, even if it approaches “Documenta” in meaning, and is not to be understood merely in a limited legal sense (documents to be produced by the Church against heretics). Here Zahn seems to be justified by the whole work, De Præsc. Hær., in which Catholics are earnestly warned not to appeal to the Holy Scriptures when they dispute with heretics; therefore Tertullian cannot have regarded Holy Scripture as the fundamental 212document for doctrine. But it has long been recognised that Tertullian has been the very last man to heed his own warning, and that this whole work is a masterpiece of advocacy, a piece of special pleading, where the real heart of the author appears in his exposition of the Church’s Rule of Faith. Now chance has so willed that the only passage in the works of Tertullian, in which “Instrumenta,” as applied to the Bible, is simply and plainly defined as “instrumenta doctrinæ,” should be found in this very treatise, De Præsc. Here we read in chapter 28: “Illic et scripturarum et expositionum adulteratio deputanda est, ubi doctrinæ diversitas invenitur. quibus fuit propositum aliter docendi, eos necessitas coëgit aliter disponendi instrumenta doctrinæ. alias enim non potuissent aliter docere, nisi aliter haberent per quæ docerent. sicut illis non potuisset succedere correptula doctrinæ sine corruptula instrumentorum eius, ita et nobis integritas doctrinæ non competisset sine integritate eorum per quæ doctrina tractatur.” There can be no doubt here: The Holy Scriptures are here called “instrumenta,” because they are fundamental documents, with whose help alone doctrine can be expounded and by which it is proved; “instrumenta” and “per quæ doctrina tractatur” are for Tertullian identical conceptions. Naturally the exposition need not always have a polemical character; rather it is true also for the Church that she must in behalf of her own knowledge prove her doctrine “per instrumenta Scripturarum” ; so that the idea of a document is always implied in such proof. The Holy Scriptures are called “Instrumenta,” because they are for the Church the decisive documents for the exposition and the proof of her doctrine.

A survey of the passages in which Tertullian uses 213instrumentum” will establish my position more clearly.

Naturally not a few cases also occur in Tertullian of the use of the word in a quite general sense. For instance he writes:

De Resurr., 63.—“Anima habet instrumentum, habet cultum, habet mancipium suum carnem.

Apol., 17.—“Tota moles ista (the world) cum omni instrumento elementorum.

Ad Uxor., 1.—“Continentia ad instrumentum æternitatis (pertinet).

De Cor., 8.—“Communia instrumenta exhibitionis (vitæ) humanæ.

Again it is found in connection with the Conception “Literature” in general, and here it acquires the idea of a declarative and authoritative document:

De Idol., 10.—“Litteratura instrumentum est ad omnem vitam.

Apol., 19.—“Multis instrumentis adsidendum est, reserenda antiquissimarum etiam gentium archiva”—here the close relationship of “instrumenta” and “archiva” is noteworthy.

Apol., 10.—“Si conscientia inficias ieret, de suis antiquitatum instrumentis revincetur.

De Cor., 7 (The question is concerning the origin of garlands).—“Litteræ ad hoc sæculares necessariæ; de suis enim instrumentis sæcularia probari necesse est.

De Spect., 5 (The question is concerning the origin of the games, this must be investigated)—“de instrumentis ethnicalium litterarum.

De Testim., 1.—The works of philosophers and poets are the “proprium instrumentum” of the heathen from which their teachings are known.


Scorp.,15.—“Si fidem commentarii voluerit hæreticus, instrumenta imperii loquentur ut lapides Hierusalem. ‘Vitas Cæsarum’ legimus.” This use coincides with the common use of the period, especially with the use of the word in the sphere of civil and criminal law. Here it was quite usual to speak of “instrumenta publica, imperii, litis” (vide the Digests, Quintilian, Suetonius; Dirksen, Manuale Lat. Font. Jur. Civ. Rom., p. 484, etc.), indeed it may be said that here also “Instrumenta,” applied to written records, always includes the idea of declarative and authoritative document, of archives as a source of right; at all events the burden of proof lies with him who denies this. I know only one passage in Tertullian where the addition of “doctrina” does not seem to be permissible; De Pud., 1, speaks of “instrumentum prædicationis”; but on closer view one finds here also that it is a question of “prædicatio doctrinæ.”

In the passages now to be mentioned the concept “doctrinæ” either must be supplied to “instrumenta” or is at least not excluded.189189Even when “instrumentum” is coupled with a genitive like “litteraturæ” or “ecclesiæ,” the genitive “doctrinæ” can still always be supplied in thought. We incidentally remark that the expression “Instrumentum” was so useful because it could be applied to the whole Bible, to each of the two parts, to groups of books, to separate books, and even to separate sections of the books.190190Just for this very reason the attempts that have been made by Roensch and others to divide the New Testament into separate parts in accordance with the use of “instrumentum” by Tertullian are altogether mistaken, for Tertullian’s usage here is quite arbitrary, and in different places he groups the books differently. “Testamenta” can only be applied to the two divisions of the Bible, and is, therefore, to a certain extent handicapped by “Instrumenta.”


It refers to the whole Bible in De Præsc., 38; Adv. Marc., iv. 1; Adv. Prax., 20; De Monog., 4 (passages that have been already quoted); also in—

De Pud., 16.—“Exereitus sententiarum instrumenti totius.

De Resurr., 21.—“Tot ac talia instrumenta divina.

De Pud., 10.—“Divinum Instrumentum.”

Adv. Marc., v. 1.—“Omnia apostolatus Pauli instrumenta” (all the sacred writings with the exception of the Pauline Epistles, which could not be used in this argument).

Acta Perpet., 1.—“Instrumentum ecclesiæ.”

It refers to the New Testament in:

De Præsc., 38.—“Integrum instrumentum.”

It very frequently refers to the Old Testament, because the Old Testament played the chief part as a proof-document. Instances are:

Apol., 18.—“Instrumentum litteraturæ” (of the Old Testament as a proof-document).

De Cultu, i. 3.—“Omne instrumentum Judaicæ litteraturæ.

Apol., 21.—“Antiquissima Judæorum instrumenta.”

Apol., 47.—“Vetus Instrumentum.”

Ad Hermog., 20.—“Evangelium supplementum instrumenti veteris.

Apol., 19.—“Instrumentis istis auctoritatem suam antiquitas vindicat.

De Pud., 7.—“Lex et prophetæ = instrumenta.

De Monog., 7—“Vetera instrumenta legalium scripturarum.

Adv. Marc., v. 1.—“Instrumentum creatoris” (the Old Testament).

Instrumentum” is applied to separate books and groups of books in the following passages:


Adv. Hermog., 19.—“Instrumentum originale Moysei” (cf. Adv. Marc., i. 10).

De Resurr., 33.—“Propheticum instrumentum.”

Adv. Marc., iv. 10.—“Instrumentum Danielis.”

Adv. Marc., iv. 2.—“Evangelicum instrumentum.”

De Resurr., 39, 40; De Pud., 12.—“Apostolicum instrumentum,” “Apostolica instrumenta.”

Adv. Marc., iv. 3.—“Instrumentum apostolorum.”

De Resurr., 38.—“Instrumentum Joannis.”

Adv. Marc., iv. 2; v. 6.—“Instrumentum Lucæ.”

Adv. Marc., v. 2.—“Instrumentum Actorum.”

Adv. Prax., 28 (De Resurr., 39, 40).—“Tota instrumenta Pauli.”

Adv. Marc., v. 13.—“Instrumentum” in connection with the Epistle to the Romans; but it may also refer to the whole New Testament.

Lastly, “Tot originalia instrumenta Christi” in De Carne, 2, means the separate passages of the story of the Birth.

The name “Instrumentum” (“Instrumenta”), when applied to the Bible, in idea places this book above doctrine—for the Bible is thus made the source of, and documentary authority for, doctrine—but actually it does the reverse. It is a term borrowed by Theology from Law—and therefore so welcome to Tertullian—that ignores the chief significances of the Bible as a book of religious edification. We never find expressions like “Instrumentum lectionis” or “Instrumentum ædificandæ ecclesiæ,” nor could such expressions well be used. It would have been most unfortunate if the name “Instrumentum”—“divinum” would probably have been added—had established itself; but there was no danger that this would happen for it never became a rival of the name “Testamentum.” 217The word is a creation of the ecclesiastical spirit of the West; as we have already remarked, nothing like it was known in the East.191191Allied to “instrumentum” is the name “paratura” for the Bible, which Tertullian endeavoured to introduce without success; this term too belongs to the vocabulary of demonstration and controversy; vide Apol., 47: “Nostra haec novitiola paratura”; De Cor., 1: “Calceatus de evangelii paratura”; Adv. Marc., iv. 3: “Paratura authentica”; De Monog.,7: “Omnis nostra paratura” Adv. Marc., iv. 1 (cf. ii. 1): “Paratura Marcionis” (the Bible of Marcion).

It is very remarkable that Cyprian always avoids the word as a title for the Bible, likewise Lactantius, and, unless I mistake, Novatian also. Cyprian was simply not a professed theologian and dogmatic controversialist. The Bible with him ministered to “instructio vitæ,” while its significance as “instrumentum doctrinæ” fell quite into the background. Cyprian, the typical catechist, derives from the Bible “divina testimonia,” which he also calls “magisteria divina” (Testim., i., Præf.; iii., Præf.).

Still the name “Instrumentum” for the Bible occurs not seldom in Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine. Optatus too speaks of “instrumenta divina legis” (i. 13; vi. 5).192192i. 37 (p. 30, 1): “Strumenta,” not “instrumenta,” is to be read. Thus the juristic spirit of Tertullian and of the West still lived on; nevertheless, at last the title “instrumenta” fell into utter oblivion.

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