William Whitaker on the Canon – Part 1

Chris ThomasThe Canon, William WhitakerLeave a Comment


We will lay the foundation of this controvery in those words of Christ which are to be found in the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel at the thirty-ninth verse: Ερευνατε τας γραφας; Search the Scriptures. Christ had been commended to the Jews by the testimony of John the Baptist. That testimony was most true and honourable; and could not be despised by the Jews themselves, amongst whom John lived in the highest respect and estimation. Yet Christ declares that he had others greater, more certain and more august than the testimony of John. He enumerates three of them: first, the works which he performed; secondly, his Father who had sent him; thirdly, the holy scriptures themselves, which he calls his witnesses. The Jews, indeed, thought honourably of the scriptures, and supposed that eternal life might be found in them. Nor does Christ blame in the least that judgment of theirs concerning the scriptures, but rather praises it. He bids them go on to “search the scriptures”; he inflames in every way their zeal for the scriptures, and sharpens their industry.
For he exhorts them not only to read, but search and thoroughly examine the scriptures: he would not have them content with a slight perusal, but requires an assiduous, keen, laborious diligence in examining and investigating their meaning, such as those apply who search with anxious toil for treasures buried in the earth.
Now since Christ hath bid us search the scriptures without exception, not this part, or that part, or the other, it is manifest that in these words we are commanded to search the whole of scripture; not to confine ourselves to certain portions of it, while we despise or overlook the rest. All parts give plain testimony to Christ. But the scriptures are praised by the papists, as well as highly esteemed by us; nor is there any controversy, whether the scriptures are to be searched. But concerning the due manner of searching them, and who they are to whom that care appertains, and concerning the scriptures themselves, which we all unanimously affirm should be searched, there is a most important controversy, which I shall now attempt to explain. In order to effect this clearly and methodically, I think it may be all divided into six questions, after the following manner.
We are commanded to search the scriptures: and for that purpose we must first understand, what are those genuine books of scripture, in searching and turning over which it behoves us to be occupied. The first question therefore shall be, Of the number of the canonical books of scripture.
We are commanded to search the scriptures: and therefore we must next consider, to whom this precept is addressed; whether only to the learned, and those skilled in the ancient languages, or to all the faithful. The second question therefore shall be, Of versions of the scripture and sacred rites in the vulgar tongue.
We are commanded to search the scriptures: whence it appears that the scriptures enjoy a very high dignity and authority, since Christ himself appeals and refers us to them. The third question therefore shall be, Of the authority of scripture ; whether it have this so great credibility and dignity of itself, and from the Holy Ghost its author, or from the testimony of the church.
We are commanded to search the scriptures: whence some hope appears to be shewn that we shall come to understand them, and gain much profit by the search, if we do as we are commanded. Therefore the fourth question shall be, Of the perspicuity of scripture.
We are commanded to search the scripture; that is, to seek and investigate the true sense of scripture, since the scripture lies wholly in the meaning. Therefore the fifth question shall be, Of the interpretation of scripture; how it is to be interpreted, and who has the right and authority of interpretation.
We are commanded to search the scripture: and under the name of scripture the written word of God is plainly understood.
Here then we must consider whether we are only bound to search the scripture, or whether, beside the scripture, something else be commended to our investigations. Therefore the sixth and last question shall be, Of the perfection of scripture ; which I shall prove to be so absolutely complete that we should wholly acquiesco in it, and need desire nothing more, and that unwritten traditions are by no means necessary for us.
These questions I purpose to treat in the order in which I have proposed them.



The books of scripture are called canonical, because they contain the standard and rule of our faith and morals. For the scripture is in the church what the law is in a state, which Aristotle in his Politics calls a canon or rule. As all citizens are bound to live and behave agreeably to the public laws, so Christians should square their faith and conduct by the rule and law of scripture. So, in Eusebius, the holy fathers accuse Paul of Samosata of departing from the rule (αποστας από του κανόνος), and becoming the author of an heretical opinion. So Tertullian, in his book against Hermogenes, calls the scripture the rule of faith; and Cyprian says, in his discourse upon the baptism of Christ: “One will find that the rules of all doctrine are derived from this scripture; and that, whatever the discipline of the church contains springs hence, and returns hither.” Chrysostom too, in his 13th Homily upon 2 Corinthians calls scripture the exact balance, and standard, and rule of all things.” For the same reason Augustine affirms, that “whatever belongs to faith and moral life may be found in the scriptures;” and he calls the scripture the scales, in the following passage: “Let us not apply deceitful scales, where we may weigh what we wish, and as we wish; but let us bring God’s own scales from the holy scriptures,” &c.
So Basil calls the sacred doctrine “the canon of rectitude and rule of truth,” which fails in no part of perfection: and Ruffinus, in his exposition of the creed, after enumerating the books of scripture, adds, “These are the books which the fathers included in the canon, and from which they willed that the assertions of our faith should be demonstrated;” and then he subjoins: “From these fountains of the divine word our cups are to be drawn.” Aquinas too lays down, that “the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is called canonical, because it is, as it were, the rule of our intellect.” Hence it plainly appears why the scriptures are called canonical;—because they prescribe to us what we must believe, and how we ought to live: so that we should refer to this test our whole faith and life, as the mason or architect squares his work by the line and plummet. Hence, too, we may perceive that the scripture is perfect, since otherwise the title of canon or rule could hardly be applied to it; upon which point we shall have to speak under the sixth question.
Now these books, which are called canonical, are comprised in the old and new Testaments, and are therefore styled Testamentary. So Eusebius calls these books ενδιαθηκος; and Nicephorus often uses the same term. Some also call them διαθηκογραφους. The question, then, between us and the papists is, What books are to be esteemed canonical and testamentary. Concerning many, and indeed the principal ones, we are agreed: concerning some we are at variance. But, in order that the true state of this question may be understood, we must see, in the first place, what the council of Trent hath determined upon this subject. Its words are as follows: “The synod hath deemed it fitting that a catalogue of the sacred books should be subjoined to this decree, lest any should have occasion to doubt what books are received by it.” Then it recites the books which are truly canonical, and are received by us without any hesitation. But it subjoins others which we do not acknowledge as canonical. Such are these six books: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, two books of Mac cabees. These are the books of the old Testament. Afterwards, it enumerates the books of the new Testament, all of which we receive without any controversy, although they were not always alike received in the church, as you shall hear in the sequel. Finally, the council concludes in these word : “Whoever does not receive these books entire with all their parts, as they are con tained in the ancient Latin Vulgate, for sacred and canonical, let him be accursed!” Here you have the decree of the Tridentine council, and the terrible sanction of that decree. From these premises it now appears that we are required by the Tridentine fathers, if we would escape their anathema, to receive as authoritative canonical scripture not only those six entire books which we have mentioned, but besides certain parts of and additions to the books, as Baruch, the Hymn of the three Children, the histories of Susannah and Bel and the Dragon, which are attributed to Daniel, and certain apocryphal chapters of the book of Esther: for it is thus that the Jesuits interpret the meaning of this decree. Now, therefore, the state of the question is this; whether these books, and these parts of books, should be received for sacred and canonical scriptures? They affirm: we deny. It remains that we dhould proceed to the discussion. I will first answer their arguments, and then proceed to the defence of our cause; which course I intend to follow throughout, because I deem it most suitable to the matter we have in hand, and I perceive that it hath been generally adopted by Aristotle. And since, as Nazianzen tells us, ” every argument is designed either to establish our own opinion, or overturn the opposite,” I will choose first to overturn the oppo site opinion, and then to establish my own.



But, before I proceed I deem it necessary for you to censure the madness of certain ancient heretics, who impiously removed some certain and undoubted parts of scripture from the sacred canon. Such heretics, indeed, there were in great numbers, as we read in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Augustine, and others. I shall not endeavour to go through them all, but will enumerate for you the principal.
First of all, the Sadducees received no scriptures but the five books of Moses. This many suppose to have been the reason why Christ (Matt, xxii.) refutes the Sadducees denying the resurrection, by the testimony of the Mosaic scripture. Simon, following in their steps, declared that the prophets were not at all to be regarded; as Irenaeus testifies, Lib. i. c. 20. The Manichees rejected the whole old Testament, as proceeding from the evil God: for they imagined two gods, the one good and the other evil. Epiphanius has treated upon this subject, Haeres. lxvi. So Saturninus rejected the God of the Jews, and consequently the whole old Testament, as Irenaeus tells us, Lib. i. c. 22. The impious Marcion insulted with a load of reproaches the God who is preached in the law and the prophets, and held that Christ had come to dissolve the law and the prophets, and the works of that God who made the world. This Irenaeus tells us, Lib. i. c. 29. Such frantic men Christ himself expressly refutes by his own words, when he says, that he did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil. Matt. v. 17. This heresy Augustine also imputes to the Cerdonians, whom he affirms to hold the old Testament in contempt, (Ad Quod vult Deum, c. 21), and to the Severians, of whom he writes, “They condemn the resurrection of the flesh and the old Testament,” (ibid. c. 24.) Guido Cameracensis reckons this also amongst the heresies of the Albigenses. This heresy is refuted by Epiphanius, in the place which I have already cited, and most copiously by Augustine against Faustus the Manichee, and against the adversary of the law and the prophets.
The Ptolemaeans condemned the books of Moses, as Epiphanius relates, Haeres. xxxiii. The Nicolaitans and Gnostics ejected the book of Psalms from the sacred canon, as Philaster informs us, (in Lib. de Hffir. c. 127); which heresy the Anabaptists have renewed in our times. But all these heretics are refuted by the clearest evidence of the new Testament.
Many formerly, as Philaster relates (in Cat. c. 132, 133), rejected the books of Solomon, and especially Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs; because in the former Solomon seems to invite men to a life of pleasure, and in the latter, to relate certain amatory discourses between himself and Pharaoh’s daughter. But it is plain that these men fell into a manifest and impious error. For in Ecclesiastes Solomon does not allure men to enjoy the pleasures and blandishments of the world, but rather deters them from such pleasures, and exhorts them, with a divine eloquence, to despise and contemn the present world. Thus at the very commencement he exclaims, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity:” in which words he declares that all those things which are sought after in this world, are uncertain, transitory, and fallacious. Whence it necessarily follows that those are mad who acquiesce in the enjoyment of such objects. And so (after having disputed through the whole book against those who pursue these pleasures so greedily, and desire to satisfy themselves with such goods, what ever they are) he at the close teaches that happiness consists not, as many suppose, in things of this kind, but in true piety, and thus concludes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole of man.” This is not the judgment of an Epicurus, but of a holy prophet, withdrawing foolish men from the pursuit of worthless objects, and recalling them into the true path of a pious and a happy life.
In the Song, if Solomon had wished to praise his wife, he would not have used such prodigious and absurd comparisons. For he compares her to the cavalry of Pharaoh, her head to Carmel, her eyes to fish-ponds, her nose to a tower, her teeth to a flock of sheep; and finally pronounces her whole person terrible as an army. Such things do not suit the daughter of Pharaoh and the bride of Solomon. They must, therefore, be referred to the mystic bride of another Solomon,—that is, to the Church of Christ, whose consummate union of faith and love with her spouse this whole book sets forth; as, indeed, all men of sound judgment have always determined. Nor is the fact, that none of the customary names of God occur in this book, any proof that it is not canonical. For, although such names are omitted, yet others are used of the same kind and importance, as shepherd, brother, friend, beloved, spouse, which were much more suitable to the style of such a piece: since he, whom the bride so often addresses under these names, is no other than Christ, at once the true Son of God, and the true God himself.
We care little for the impious Anabaptists, who reject this book with contempt; nor can we at all excuse Castalio, if he really wrote what some object to him;—that this book is nothing but a conver sation which Solomon held with his Sulamith.
The Anabaptists are said, at the present day, to reject and ridicule the book of Job, and some have written that it is called by those heretics a Hebrew Tragi-Comedy. This they would seem to have learned from the wicked Jews; for certain rabbins, authors of the Talmudic fables, affirm that it is a fictitious story, and no such man ever existed. The impudence of these persons is refuted by other testimonies of scripture. For, in Ezekiel xiv. 14, the Lord says: “If these three men were in the midst thereof, Noah, Daniel, and Job, &c.” Whence we perceive that Job must have really existed, as no one doubts that Noah and Daniel did. Paul too cites a clear testimony from this book (1 Cor. iii. 19): “He taketh the wise in their own craftiness ;” which words we find, in Job v. 13, to have been pronounced by Eliphaz. The apostle James, also, hath mentioned this man, James v. 11. Hence it is manifest that this was a true history, and that the book itself is canonical, and that they who determine otherwise are to be esteemed as heretics.
Jerome, in the Proem of his Commentaries on Daniel, relates that Porphyry the philosopher wrote a volume against the book of our prophet Daniel, and affirmed that what is now extant under the name of Daniel, was not published by the ancient prophet, but by some later Daniel, who lived in the times of Antiochus Epiphanes. But we need not regard what the impious Porphyry may have written, who mocked at all the scriptures and religion itself, and whose calumnies were refuted by Eusebius, Apollinarius and Methodius, as Jerome testifies in the above-cited place. So far concerning the old Testament.
The new Testament, also, was formerly assaulted in various ways by heretics and others. The Manichees shewed themselves no less impious and sacrilegious towards the books of the new Testament than they were towards those of the old. They were not afraid to say that the books of the apostles and evangelists were stuffed full of lies: which madness and frenzy of theirs Augustine hath most learnedly confuted in his thirty-second book against Faustus the Manichee.
Others received no gospel but that of Luke, and hardly any other part of the new Testament; as Cerdon and his disciple Marcion. Tertullian speaks of these towards the end of his Prescriptions: ” Cerdon receives only the gospel of Luke, nor even that entire. He takes the epistles of Paul, but neither all of them, nor in their integrity. He rejects the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse as false. After him appeared his disciple, Marcion by name, who endeavoured to support the heresy of Cerdon.” These men took away almost the whole contents of the new Testament.
The Valentinians admitted no gospel but that of John, as Irenaeus tells us; (Lib. in. c. 11.) which error the papists charge on Luther also, but most falsely, as they themselves well know. The Alogians, on the contrary, rejected all John’s writings, and were so called because they would not acknowledge as God the Logos, whom John declares to be God in the beginning of his gospel. This is related by Epiphanius (Haer. Lib. i.), who gave them this appellation upon that account.
Irenseus relates (Lib. i. c. 26.), that the Ebionites received only the gospel according to Matthew, and rejected the apostle Paul as an apostate from the law.
The Severians made no account of the Acts of the Apostles, as Eusebius informs us, Lib. iv. c. 27.
The Marcionites rejected both epistles to Timothy, the epistle to Titus, and the epistle to the Hebrews, as Epiphanius records, Haer. xlii.
Chrysostom and Jerome, in the Preface to the epistle of Paul to Philemon, testify that it was by some not received as canonical; which conclusion they were led into by considering that human frailty could not bear the continual uninterrupted action of the Holy Ghost, and that the apostles must have spoken some things by a mere human spirit. Amongst these they classed this epistle, as containing in it nothing worthy of an apostolic and divine authority, or useful to us. Chrysostom refutes this opinion, with much truth and beauty, in the Argument of this epistle, and teaches us that many noble and necessary lessons may be learned from it: first, that we should extend our solicitude to the meanest persons: secondly, that we should not despair of slaves, (and therefore, still less of freemen,) however wicked and abandoned: thirdly, that it is not lawful for any one to withdraw a slave from his master under pretence of religion: fourthly, that it is our duty not to be ashamed of slaves, if they be honest men. Who now will say that this epistle is useless to us, from which we may learn so many and such distinguished lessons? Forasmuch, therefore, as this epistle was both written by Paul, and contains in it such excellent in struction, it ought not by any means to be rejected.
Such, then, was the opinion, or rather the mad raving of the heretics concerning the sacred books. There were others also, who either rejected altogether certain books and parts of books of the new Testament, or else allowed them no great authority, whom it is not necessary to enumerate: for we must not spend too much time in recording or refuting such persons. But the Schwenkfeldtians and Libertines, proceeding to a still greater length in their wickedness, despise the whole scripture, and insult it with many reproaches, holding that we should attend not to what the scriptures speak, but to what the Spirit utters and teaches us internally. Of these, Hosius Polonus writes thus, in his book concerning the express word of God: “We will dismiss the scriptures, and rather listen to God speaking to us, than return to those beggarly elements. One is not required to be learned in the law and scriptures, but to be taught of God. Vain is the labour which is expended upon scripture: for the scripture is a creature and a beggarly sort of element.” Many passages of scripture condemn this monstrous heresy. Christ says: “Search the scriptures.” Paul says: “Whatsoever things were written of old time were written for our learning.” Kom. xv. 4. And elsewhere: ” All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, and for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Tim. iii. 16. There are innumerable such testimonies, by which the authority of the scriptures is fully proved, and the blasphemy of these men refuted; against which our divines have also written many excellent discourses.
At the same time that we justly condemn the heresies which I have mentioned, we cannot but wholly disapprove the opinion of those, who think that the sacred writers have, in some places, fallen into mistakes. That some of the ancients were of this opinion appears from the testimony of Augustine, who maintains, in opposition to them, “that the evangelists are free from all falsehood, both from that which proceeds from deliberate deceit, and that which is the result of forgetfulness.” (De Cons. Ev. Lib. n. c. 12.) Consequently, Jerome judged wrong, if he really judged, as Erasmus supposes, “that the evangelists might have fallen into an error of memory.” Erasmus himself, indeed, determines that it is neither impious nor absurd to think so; and allows it possible that Matthew, for instance, in that place of his 27th chapter, may have put the name of Jeremiah instead of Zechariah. Upon which place Erasmus writes thus: “But although this were a slip of memory merely in the name, I do not suppose that one ought to be so over-scrupulous as that the authority of the whole scripture should seem invalidated on that account.” But it does not become us to be so easy and indulgent as to concede that such a lapse could be incident to the sacred writers. They wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, as Peter tells us, 2 Pet. i. 21. And all scripture is inspired of God, as Paul expressly writes, 2 Tim. iii. 16. Whereas, therefore, no one may say that any infirmity could befall the Holy Spirit, it follows that the sacred writers could not be deceived, or err, in any respect. Here, then, it becomes us to be so scrupulous as not to allow that any such slip can be found in scripture. For, whatever Erasmus may think, it is a solid answer which Augustine gives to Jerome: “If any, even the smallest, lie be admitted in the scriptures, the whole authority of scripture is presently invalidated and destroyed.” That form which the prophets use so often, ” Thus saith the Lord,” is to be attributed also to the apostles and evangelists. For the Holy Spirit dictated to them whatever things they wrote; whose grace (as Ambrose writes, Lib. n. in Luc.) ” knows nothing of slow struggles.” Hence neither can that be tolerated which Melchior Canus has alleged, (Lib. n. c. 18. ad 6) in explanation of a certain difficulty in the Acts of the Apostles, chap. vii. 16; where Stephen says, that Abraham bought a se pulchre from the sons of Emmor, whereas Moses relates that the sepulchre was purchased by Jacob, not by Abraham. Canus thinks that Stephen might have made a mistake in relating so long a history, but that Luke committed no error, since he faithfully recorded what Stephen said. But that answer draws the knot tighter, instead of loosing it: for Stephen was not only full of the Holy Ghost, but is even said to have spoken by the Holy Ghost. Acts vi. 10. Stephen, therefore, could no more have mistaken than Luke; because the Holy Ghost was the same in Luke and in Stephen, and had no less force in the one than in the other. Besides, if we concede that Stephen mistook or was deceived, I do not see how he can excuse Luke for not rectifying the error. Therefore we must maintain intact the authority of scripture in such a sense as not to allow that anything is therein delivered otherwise than the most perfect truth required. Wherefore I cannot understand with, what degree of prudence and consideration Jerome can have written that, which he says is to be noted, in his Questions upon Genesis: “Wherever the apostles or apostolical men speak to the people, they generally use those testimonies which had gotten into common use amongst the nations.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *