An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 45


§ 45. The Maintenance of the New Testament Canon in the Age of the Reformation

1. The Reformation of the sixteenth century shook the established Canon to its foundations; the Reformed Churches removed a number of books from the Old Testament entirely, the Lutherans partially, branding them as ʽApocryphal.ʼ It seemed for some time as though the New Testament was destined to undergo similar treatment. ʽHumanismʼ had already brought forward long-forgotten facts as to the history of the Canon; not only did Erasmus of Rotterdam question the authenticity of Hebrews, 2. Peter, James, 2. and 3. John and the Apocalypse—though without challenging their canonicity, and prepared throughout to condemn such doubts as soon as the Church should have decided definitely that not only the contents, but the titles of these books were unassailable—but even the Cardinal Gaetano,1 the celebrated opponent of Luther, entertained great mistrust of Hebrews, James, 2. and 3. John, and Jude, and therefore concluded that their authority was inferior. If Hebrews were not written by Paul, its canonicity was not assured, and a doubtful question of faith could not be decided on the authority of this Epistle alone. Sixtus of Siena2¯ still speaks of seven deutero-canonical writings of the New Testament, and the Jesuit Bellarmine repeated it after him, but perhaps simply in order to stamp it as a piece of learned lore. For within the province of the Roman Catholic Church the question of the Canon had meanwhile been set at rest for ever. The Œcumenical Council of Trent, at its fourth sitting, on April 8, 1546, had declared the whole contents of the Vulgate, definitely enumerating the twenty-seven books of the New Testament—among them ʽPauli Apostoli ad Hebraeosʼ and ʽJacobi Apostoli [!] unaʼ—to be Divine (that is, sacred and Canonical) without admitting any difference of degree between the constituent parts. In order to defend interpolations agreeable to the Church, such as Mark xvi. 9 fol. and the ʽComma Johanneumʼ (see § 51, 3), this canonisation was expressly extended to ʽthe books in their entirety, with all their parts, as they are habitually read in the Catholic Church, and as they are to be found in the ancient Latin edition of the Vulgate.ʼ Since then, in cases where the scientific consciousness of a Roman Catholic still compels opposition to a portion of the Vulgate tradition, he must be content with challenging the primitiveness, the authenticity, of a verse, a section, a book of the New Testament, and take comfort in the thought that the authority and canonicity of a passage in the Bible has nothing to do with its genuineness. This servitude corresponds to the nature of the Roman Catholic Church; but it would never have been so openly proclaimed, had not the fearless criticism employed by the German revolutionaries against the Holy Scripture itself compelled the traditional Church to define the limits of what it held to be Canonical with absolute accuracy.

2. The criticism which Luther brought to bear upon the traditional New Testament was not from the historic, but from the dogmatic, or, more precisely, from the religious side. Personal experience and study of the Scriptures gradually convinced him that the Gospel, faith and salvation had been utterly distorted in the corrupt theology of his time; that the truth, as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles had delivered it to us, was far removed from the teaching of the Church. This he was prepared to prove from the Holy Scriptures themselves; and with the consciousness of power which marks religious genius, he raised his own understanding of Paul and John into the standard by which everything reputed sacred and Divine must be tried. Thereafter he measured the Scripture by the Scripture, and from 1519 onwards, and most forcibly in his treatises on the German New Testament in 1522, contrasted the ʽwell-assured, principal booksʼ—above all, John, Romans and Galatians—with other books in the New Testament deserving of open blame, namely Hebrews, Jude, James and the Apocalypse. The teaching of Hebrews as to the Atonement was false: possibly Apollos might have written it; Jude was unnecessary beside 2. Peter; as for the Apocalypse, he could not see ʽthat it was inspired by the Holy Ghost.ʼ But, above all, the Epistle of James was a thing of straw, which gave to works the power of justification, in direct opposition to Paul, and sought to teach Christian people without reminding them of the sufferings of Christ.

Zwingli also called the Apocalypse a ʽnon-Biblical book,ʼ and considered Hebrews, from religious motives, as nonPauline; Cicolampadius (1530) admits a ʽslighter authorityʼ for the Apocalypse, James, Jude, 2. Peter and 3. John, while even Calvin showed plainly that he had doubts as to the Epistle to the Hebrews, 2. and 3. John, 2. Peter and the Apocalypse, though these doubts were in the main based on the history of the Canon. The typical representative of this kind of ʽcriticismʼ of the Canon is Carlstadt, who in 1520 wrote a ʽLibellus de Canonicis Scripturis,ʼ publishing a German abstract of it at the same time. In this, while rigidly enforcing the idea of inspiration, he met the historical facts by distinguishing three classes of Authorities among the Books of the New Testament as well as of the Old: (1) those of the highest dignity: the four Gospels; (2) those of the second order: the Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, 1. Peter and 1. John; (3) the third and lowest both in authority and celebrity: the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Apocalypse, and five Catholic Epistles. He hoped by this means tohave cut away the ground from that subjectivism which judged of Biblical Books according to individual religious taste, and to have substituted for it a criticism founded on history. In reality, as regards the New Testament, he slavishly submitted to the same Catholic tradition which, by the aid of this New Testament, he had thought to cast off as miserable human handiwork. It was not the Protestant spirit that stirred in Carlstadtʼs ʽLibellusʼ; a learned Nestorian might have put forward essentially the same ideas. Moreover, Carlstadt demanded a universal recognition for his theses, while Luther forbade no man to think as his own spirit taught him with regard to the books he held in least esteem: indeed he translated and spread abroad the disputed writings just as he did the above-mentioned ʽprincipal books.ʼ

However, such a freedom of decision could not remain open to an Evangelical Church, any more than could Carlstadtʼs division into different orders, if the idea of inspiration was to be taken up seriously and stretched to its extreme limits. Among the Reformers, Beza3 stands at the end of the epoch in which the genuineness, the Apostolic title, of any book of the New Testament could be called in question. In the Lutheran Church an echo of Lutherʼs forcible words was to be heard until about 1700. M. Chemnitius described the Antilegomena as New Testament Apocrypha of insufficient authority; here again we find the ʽobjectiveʼ criticism, springing from real historical knowledge, not the subjective religious criticism of Luther; hence he decides on seven, not four, Antilegomena; hence, too, a lasting success was impossible for his conclusions within the religious community. The stiffest Lutherans, however, shared his point of view, and with remarkable complacency discussed the question as to what was to be said for or against the Apostolic origin of these books: that is, of their authorship by inspired instruments. The Lutheran scholastics of the seventeenth century still spoke of Canonical books of the New Testament of the second order, or of deutero-canonical books. But this terminology disappeared even with them about 1700, and rightly so, since no logical conclusions affecting dogma could be drawn from it. Equal qualities, an equally high authority, were allotted to all the twenty-seven Books of the New Testament: thus even through the storms of the Reformation the original New Testament held its own.

And here its history ends. Although since then theological science may have given its verdict against the Apostolic origin of many a New Testament Book—although it may have fundamentally transformed the conception of the New Testament Canon, or indeed all the conceptions which are bound up with it—for the past three hundred years no one has dreamt of altering the New Testament of the Church, either by diminishing or increasing it, or by marking out different degrees within it. Since Luther and the earlier Lutherans, the dogma of the Canon and the historical criticism of the New Testament Books, have indeed had their histories, but not the New Testament Canon itself, not the collection as such. The text alone, the wording of certain passages, still continues to develop and to take new forms.



1) † 1534.

2) See p. 10.

3) † 1605.