Canon of the New Testament
As regards the New Testament, Catholics and Protestants receive the same books as canonical and inspired; yet among those books some are to be found, which certainly have no right there if, following the rule of Vincentius, we receive nothing as of divine authority but what has been received always and everywhere. The degrees of evidence are very various for one book and another. "It is confessed," says Less, "that not all the Scriptures of our New Testament have been received with universal consent as genuine works of the Evangelists and Apostles. But that man must have predetermined to oppose the most palpable truths, and must reject all history, who will not confess that the greater part of the New Testament has been universally received as authentic, and that the remaining books have been acknowledged as such by the majority of the ancients."
For instance, as to the Epistle of St. James. It is true, it is contained in the old Syriac version in the second century; but Origen, in the third century, is the first writer who distinctly mentions it among the Greeks; and it is not quoted by name by any Latin till the fourth. St. Jerome speaks of its gaining credit "by degrees, in process of time." Eusebius says no more than that it had been, up to his time, acknowledged by the majority; and he classes it with the Shepherd of St. Hermas and the Epistle of St. Barnabas.
Again: "The Epistle to the Hebrews, though received in the East, was not received in the Latin Churches till St. Jerome's time. St. Irenæus either does not affirm, or denies that it is St. Paul's. Tertullian ascribes it to St. Barnabas. Caius excludes it from his list. St. Hippolytus does not receive it. St. Cyprian is silent about it. It is doubtful whether St. Optatus received it."
Again, St. Jerome tells us, that in his day, towards A.D. 400, the Greek Church rejected the Apocalypse, but the Latin received it.
Again: "The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books in all, though of varying importance. Of these, fourteen are not mentioned at all till from eighty to one hundred years after St. John's death, in which number are the Acts, the Second to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Colossians, the Two to the Thessalonians, and St. James. Of the other thirteen, five, viz. St. John's Gospel, the Philippians, the First to Timothy, the Hebrews, and the First of St. John are quoted but by one writer during the same period."
On what ground, then, do we receive the Canon as it comes to us, but on the authority of the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries? The Church at that era decided,—not merely bore testimony, but passed a judgment on former testimony,—decided, that certain books were of authority. And on what ground did she so decide? on the ground that hitherto a decision had been impossible, in an age of persecution, from want of opportunities for research, discussion, and testimony, from the private or the local character of some of the books, and from misapprehension of the doctrine contained in others. Now, however, facilities were at length given for deciding once for all on what had been in suspense and doubt for three centuries. On this subject I will quote another passage from the same Tract: "We depend upon the fourth and fifth centuries thus:—As to Scripture, former centuries do not speak distinctly, frequently, or unanimously, except of some chief books, as the Gospels; but we see in them, as we believe, an ever-growing tendency and approximation to that full agreement which we find in the fifth. The testimony given at the latter date is the limit to which all that has been before said converges. For instance, it is commonly said, Exceptio probat regulam; when we have reason to think that a writer or an age would have witnessed so and so, but for this or that, and that this or that were mere accidents of his position, then he or it may be said to tend toward such testimony. In this way the first centuries tend towards the fifth. Viewing the matter as one of moral evidence, we seem to see in the testimony of the fifth the very testimony which every preceding century gave, accidents excepted, such as the present loss of documents once extant, or the then existing misconceptions which want of intercourse between the Churches occasioned. The fifth century acts as a comment on the obscure text of the centuries before it, and brings out a meaning, which with the help of the comment any candid person sees really to be theirs."