The Witness of History for Scripture

(Homologoumena and Antilegomena)


(From Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950], pp. 330-38.)

Besides Scripture’s own testimony as to its divine authority, we have, through the gracious providence of God, ample historical testimony to that effect. For the Scriptures of the Old Testament we have the testimony of the Jewish Church and of Christ and His Apostles. Christian theologians of all ages are right in saying: If the Jews had been mistaken as to their canon or had falsified it, Christ would not have so unconditionally and without limitation pointed to the Scripture in the hands of the Jews and asserted their inviolability, as He does, e.g., in the words: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16; 29); “All things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me” (Luke 24:44); “Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39); “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). -- There is, however, no historical witness for the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Neither the Jewish Church nor Christ recognized them as canonical.1

For the Scriptures of the New Testament we have the historical witness of the Early Church (ecclesia primitiva). Its witness is unanimous as to the Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the thirteen Epistles of Paul, the First Epistle of John, and the First Epistle of Peter (homologoumena). But as to the canonicity of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second and Third Epistles of John, the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, and the Apocalypse, doubts, more or less strongly expressed, were entertained (antilegomena). Eusebius in his Church History lists the homologoumena and the antilegomena.2 The historical fact that the Early Church differentiated between the homologoumena and the antilegomena cannot be changed by a resolution of the later Church. Luther, too, abides by this judgment of the primitive Church; he says, appealing to Eusebius (Church History III, 25), that in ancient times the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistles of James and Jude, and the Apocalypse “had a different reputation.” He finds much excellent instruction in the antilegomena, grants that the offensive passages may be explained acceptably by “glosses,” and will keep no one from appraising them as he sees fit. But he will not class them with the “right certain chief books of the New Testament.” As for himself, he will let the doubt entertained by the Early Church remain.3 Chemnitz denounced the action of the Roman Catholic Church in declaring the Apocrypha of the Old Testament and the antilegomena of the New Testament a part of the canon of Scripture by a mere decree and in anathematizing all those who refused to accept the canon fixed in the Vulgate, as anti-Christian.4

Also the fathers of the Missouri Synod recognized the distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena. They did, however, leave it to the individual to form his own views regarding any of the antilegomena, for they were divided in their opinion regarding, e.g., the Apocalypse. In the second volume of Lehre und Wehre (1856, p. 204 ff.) the question regarding the homologoumena and the antilegomena is thoroughly ventilated in the article entitled: “Is He Who does Not Receive or Regard as Canonical All Books Contained in the Collection of the New Testament to be Declared a Heretic or Dangerous False Teacher?” Walther writes:

What induces us to discuss this question is the fact that Pastor Roebbelen in connection with the glosses on the Revelation of St. John published in the Lutheraner also stated that with Luther he does not regard the Apocalypse as canonical. This has, we are informed, given great offense in some quarters. Now, we do not agree with our dear brother Roebbelen on this point; we are convinced that this precious book, so rich in comfort for the Christians and the Church, belongs to the canon. Still, we believe that it is not fair -- probably it is due to ignorance of the facts of the case -- to stamp an otherwise unimpeachable theologian as a dangerous false teacher, who renders the very Word of God suspect, one who sincerely receives as canonical all homologoumena (universally accepted books), but who has his doubts as to the canonicity of one or the other of the antilegomena (disputed books). This would be thoroughly un-Lutheran. For our dear fathers in the faith, with hardly an exception till after the time of the Formula of Concord, regarded and declared all or at least some of the antilegomena as not belonging to the canon; and they did that not from hastiness or levity toward the Word of God, but, on the contrary, because they were very conscientious with regard to the Word of God. Luther’s opinions on the antilegomena are not a “blot” on our Church, but they rather bear witness how careful our Church once was in determining the standard and norm of our faith and life. The summary decrees of the Papists and the Reformed that all the antilegomena must be received as canonical by all Christians on pain of losing their salvation are so little a testimony for the high regard of these denominations for the Word of God that they rather demonstrate how easy it is for those to add something to the canon who hold that the Scriptures are to be interpreted either, in a blind collier’s faith, according to the whim of the Church (that is, of the Pope) or according to the principles of reason. It will therefore not be improper to submit here the testimony of our fathers, particularly of the 16th and the first half of the 17th century; not that we personally hold these opinions, but in order to show that doubts as to the canonicity of the disputed books were held also by men whose orthodoxy no Lutheran would dare to deny, and thus to clear a man like Luther of the suspicion that he had brazenly, in his subjective pleasure, passed judgment on books which had been received into the New Testament Canon.

Walther concludes his article with the words:

If this question be treated in a Christian manner, if the poor laymen are not confused by a dishonest presentation of the real issue, by a partisan exploitation of a matter which the common people find it hard to grasp -- which may easily be done here -- the discussion of the question can only serve to arouse the Christians to a serious investigation and thus to deepen and strengthen their knowledge and their faith. If any periodical takes cognizance of this our discussion, we herewith state beforehand that we shall not deem any foolish babbling, parading in the guise of a defense, of God’s Word, worthy of an answer; but any pertinent ventilation of this important subject will receive our attention, even though it pronounce ever so sharp a verdict on our old teachers, Luther, Brenz, Chemnitz, Veit Dietrich, Conrad Dietrich, etc.

In this article, Walther quotes extensively from Chemnitz, who in his Examen Concilii Tridentini exposes, in clear and powerful language, the Antichristian and insane character of the above-mentioned papal decree with its appended anathema. Because this presentation is considered a “classic” even today, we here submit it in its salient points.5

The third question is whether the Church of our day can make those Scriptures, regarding which there was doubt in the Early Church because of the contradiction of some, canonical, catholic, and equal to those of the first order. The Papists not only claim that they can do this, but they actually usurp this authority; they abolish entirely the necessary distinction which the primitive and early Church made between the canonical books and the apocryphal, or ecclesiastical, books. But the Church very manifestly does not have this authority; else it could for the same reason reject canonical books or canonize spurious books. For this entire matter hinges on the assured testimonies of that Church which existed in the days of the Apostles, which testimonies the Church that immediately followed preserved in trustworthy reports. ... What an insolent audacity it is to decree: Though the primitive and the following early Church had its doubts regarding those books because of the contradiction of many churchmen, ... hoc tamen non obstante we decree that these books must be received with the same certainty as of equal authority with those which have been always adjudged genuine. ... But why, then, do they not impart this authority to the fables of Aesop or the true stories of Lucian? Not that I would compare those controverted books to the fables of Aesop (for with Cyprian and Jerome I assign them the honorable place which they have always held in the ancient Church), but by an epagwgh eis adunaton [by adducing the impossible] I want to show that the Church has not the power to make of spurious writings genuine ones; of genuine, spurious; of doubtful and uncertain, certain, canonical, and legitimate. ...
Our question pertains to those books which are found together in the Vulgate edition of the Bible and which are read in the churches by the faithful. ... Of the writings of the Old Testament the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, etc., are listed with the Apocrypha, as not being in the canon. Of the books of the New Testament these are mentioned by Eusebius in the Third Book, chapter 25, as not having had in the first and ancient Church sufficiently sure, firm, and consentient testimonies of their trustworthiness and authority: “The writings which are not regarded as indubitable, but against which there is contradiction, though they are known to many, are these: The Epistle of James, of Jude, the Second Epistle of Peter, the Second and the Third Epistle of John; the Apocalypse of John some reject, while others pronounce it one of the certain and incontestable Scriptures.” And in chapter 3 he says: “It is known that in the Roman congregation some rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, asserting that its Pauline authorship has been disputed.” ...
The reasons why there was doubt about these writings should be noted: 1) There were not found among the ancients sufficiently certain, firm, and consentient testimonies that these books were approved by the Apostles and commended to the churches. 2) It did not appear certain from the testimony of the primitive and ancient Church whether these books had been written by those under whose names they were issued, but it has been judged that they have been issued by others under the name of the Apostles. 3) Because some of the most ancient writers attributed some of these books to the Apostles, while others disputed this claim, this matter has been left in doubt, since it was not indubitably certain. ... Over against these very manifest testimonies of antiquity the Council of Trent decreed: “If anyone receive not as sacred and canonical the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition ... let him be anathema.” But whence do they bring proof and confirmation for this their decree against the testimony of antiquity? Do they now produce some unassailable and clear documents, taken from the testimony of the primitive, Apostolic, ancient Church, which show that these controverted books bear the same certainty and the like authority with the others about which there never was any doubt? By no means; nor can they do this. But they arrogate to themselves the power that the Pope with his prelates can impart, as Pighius states, to these and perhaps also to other books canonical authority, which they do not merit of themselves or because of their authors, and which they did not have at the time of the Apostles and the primitive Church. Why do they not openly state their case? They say, in effect: “Though it cannot be proved that those books were either written or approved by the Prophets or by the Apostles, and were received certainly and constantly by the primitive and ancient Church, yes, though the contrary is proved by the most evident testimonies of antiquity, which are clearer than the midday sun, hoc tamen non obstante we determine and decree that this is certainly to be believed; though no documents pertaining to this case have been produced by us, we assert that (if it please the gods) the plenitude of this Antichristian power lies buried in the shrine of the Pope’s heart.”
They pronounce the anathema on all who do not receive the apocryphal books as of the same certainty and authority as the canonical. Cursed, then, will be Eusebius, Jerome, Origen, Melito, and the entire primitive Apostolic Church, from whose testimony is taken what we adduced above about these books.
This entire dispute, then, resolves itself into the question whether it is certain and indubitable that these books are the divinely inspired Scriptures. The entire antiquity responds that this is not certain, but has been doubtful because of the contradiction of so many. The Tridentine arrogance, however, threatens with an anathema anyone who does not receive them as of equal certainty and authority with the rest of the books about which there has never been any doubt. Is it astonishing, then, that some popish parasites have contended that the Pope could institute new articles of faith, since here he does not shrink from fabricating a new canonical Scripture? There is no longer any doubt who it is that, sitting in the temple of God, exalts himself above everything that is called God, 2 Thess. 2.
Does this mean that these books are simply to be rejected and condemned? We are by no means seeking this. Then of what use is this dispute? I answer: To make sure the rule of faith or sound doctrine in the Church. For the ancients held that the authority of the Church dogmas rests solely on the canonical books. It was held that only by the authority of the canonical books could those things be established about which any dispute arose. The rest of the books which Cyprian calls ecclesiastical, Jerome apocryphal, were to be read in the Church for the edification of the people, but not to prove the dogmas of the Church. ... No dogma which does not have a certain and clear foundation in the canonical books dare be constructed from these books. Nothing that is in controversy may be proved from these books if there are no other proofs and confirmations in the canonical books. But what is said in these books must be explained and understood according to the analogy of what is clearly set down in the canonical books. There can be no doubt that this is the meaning of the ancient Church. But the Council of Trent will hear nothing of this necessary and most true distinction of the ancient Church, subverts and abolishes it, for the reason that (as my Andradius says) they do not want to be confined to these narrow limits; they do not want to be so destitute of all other helps that they must derive their faith solely from the canonical Scriptures. For the Tridentine Synod says that it makes canonical books out of the apocryphal books in order to show what testimonies and helps it intends to use in confirming doctrines and restoring morals.

Walther adds (Baier-Walther, I, 153): “The same position is taken by A. Osiander (d. 1617), Aeg. Hunnius, Hafenreffer, C. Dietrich, F. Balduin, Th. Thummius, and others.”

It has been stated that this distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena has been dropped by the later Lutheran dogmaticians. Philippi (Glaubenslehre I, 108) mentions particularly Gerhard, whom he pronounces the “most renowned dogmatician” of the Lutheran Church after Chemnitz. True, in one form or another the later dogmaticians state that the Church today (hodie) observes no distinction between the various books of the New Testament.6 As for Gerhard, he makes the statement that he believes the Apocalypse to be canonical. However, he adds this remark: “In the meantime, however, because there was at times doubt in the primitive Church on the part of some about the author of this book, we for this reason refer it to the canonical books of the second rank; not indeed detracting from its canonical authority, still not simply and in all respects classifying it with the rest of the canonical books about which there never was any doubt; and by the fairest right we demand that the interpretation of such a book in no manner conflict with the canonical books of the first rank.”7 This, however, as a matter of fact, amounts to the distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena. As we cannot speak in the doctrine of God of a Godhead of the second rank (as old and modern subordinationists indeed do), so we cannot, without a certain self-contradiction, speak of deutero-canonical writings in the doctrine of Holy Scripture, which are God’s inviolable Word.

Some have argued that since there are antilegomena, we cannot determine exactly the extent of the canon and hence cannot know exactly what is the principium cognoscendi and norma of the Christian doctrine, but such have got their accounts mixed. We know that the Church of the New Testament possesses a fixed and firm canon, with no uncertainty attaching to it. For when Christ asks us (John 8:31-32; 17:20; and Eph.2:20) to continue in His and His Apostles’ doctrine, He presupposes the continued existence and possession of this doctrinal basis.

In this connection the question has been asked whether the distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena has any “sweeping dogmatical significance.” We for our part answer No, assuming that the meaning is that he who regards and treats the antilegomena as canonical thereby obtains more and other doctrines. On the one hand we observe the distinction made by the ancient Church between the writings of the New Testament; on the other hand we are convinced that the antilegomena, even when taken by themselves, neither contain false doctrine nor yet a doctrine which goes beyond the doctrine contained in the books that have the unanimous testimony of the ecclesia primitiva. We are convinced that Rome and certain sectarians misuse the Epistle of James when they make it the protector of their doctrine of work-righteousness. We must simply keep in mind that James is speaking of faith not insofar as it justifies before God, but insofar as we are, according to God’s will and ordinance, to evidence our faith to men, which can be done only by works. James is addressing not so much the new man as the old man in the Christian. And the Apocalypse does not contain an inkling of that chiliasm with which old and modern chiliasts have disturbed and plagued the Church. ...

All this talk about the number of the Christian doctrines increasing with the number of the Biblical books is nonsense. It has been correctly pointed out that the single Gospel according to Matthew contains the entire Christian doctrine and that missionaries among the heathen for years got along, or rather had to get along, with a translation of this one Gospel and from it taught all the articles of the Christian faith. Anyone can convince himself that the Gospel according to Matthew contains the revelation of all doctrines that our Lutheran Church confesses in the Book of Concord. At the same time we thank the Lord for the fuller exposition of the saving doctrine which He gave us in the remaining books of the New Testament. What was written of the Old Testament: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4), applies also to the New Testament, and we praise God’s grace and providence in having the saving doctrine recorded for us by so many divinely appointed witnesses. Having this manifold testimony, the Christians dwell “as in a paradise,” and their assurance is mightily strengthened. Paul writes to the Philippians (3:1): “To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe.”


1. Baier-Walther, I, 149. Gerhard, Loci (locusDe Scriptura Sacra,” § 75 sqq.), furnishes much material on the refusal of the early Christian Church to receive the Apocrypha into the canon. Cf. Keil, Einleitung, § 216; H. L. Strack, R. E., 2d ed., VII, 442 ff.

2. Church History III, 25. On the Epistles of James and Jude particularly, II, 23. He reports, VI, 25, on the canon of Origen and the latter’s opinion of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Cp. for further detail Baier-Walther, I, 150, note b. Baier says: “It can certainly not be denied that in the ancient Church there was so much doubt as to their writers that they were denied the authority proper to inspired books.” Cp. the comprehensive article “Kanon des Neuen Testaments,” by Theodor Zahn, in R. E., 3d ed., IX, 768-796.

3. See Luther’s prefaces to the epistles mentioned, St. L. XIV: 126-139. On the Second and Third Epistles of St. John, Luther says: “They are not doctrinal epistles, but examples of love and faith and breathe a truly Apostolic spirit,” loc. cit., p. 126 f.

4. Tridentinum, Sess. IV: “But if anyone receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books [the Old Testament plus the Apocrypha, the New Testament, including the antilegomena] entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition ... let him be anathema.”

5. Examen, 1667, p. 48 sqq. Walther gave a German translation of it, op. cit., pp. 205-210. It is given in the original in Baier-Walther, I, 150 sqq.

6. Thus Baier, I, 150, 153.

7. Disputatt. Theologic., Ienae, 1655, p. 1015; quoted in Baier-Walther, I, 153.


Francis Pieper

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