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History of the Sacred Scriptures of the New Testament

Author: Eduard (Wilhelm Eugen ) Reuss. Translated by Edward L. Houghton
Publisher: T. and T. Clark
Publish Date: 1886

This work, gigantic in its conception, and microscopic in the details of its execution has already obtained some fair repute in modern theological literature. Four editions have been already exhausted in the Fatherland. Here we are favored with a translation of the fifth revised and enlarged edition by the diligent labor of an American scholar. It is properly a history. The method of presenting positive facts or suppositions that have an air of probability in brief numbered paragraphs is fascinating in the extreme. Each of these six hundred paragraphs you find supplemented by a reference, in small italic type to his authorities with a gloss on their worth. Thus we get a key to libraries without limit. Little profit would you ever get out of their perusal; but we suppose that Herr Reuss has done valuable service in sorting and sifting them till we are supplied with grains of gold extracted from masses of ore.

            His candor is to us always engaging; we noticed this when speaking of his "History of the Canon of Holy Scriptures" about two years ago.

            The volume now under review comprises five divisions - (1) Origin and development of a sacred literature of the New Testament; (2) Collection of sacred books of the Christians into a whole for use in the churches; (3) Preservation of their original form; (4) Dissemination of the collection among Christian peoples; (5) Use made of them in theology; or in other words, a history of exegesis."

            Did space permit, we might very profitably call a halt at various points in this wide field of investigation. The fourth book for instance contains an interesting history of the popular versions-those of the Middle ages and those of modern times.

            But to us the greatest value of the entire volume lies in the evidence it affords that no discovery has been made, and no hypothesis constructed up to this hour, which can pretend (our adversaries themselves being judges) to have annulled the validity of the New Testament, as we possess it; or on the other hand to have constructed a truer Canon.

            One word more about our learned author himself, and then we will transcribe his closing paragraph in proof of the above assertion. Paradoxical as it may seem, the simple impression that the learned professor leaves on our mind is this: he is immensely captivated with the science of modern criticism and intensely convinced that it has hitherto achieved no practical results. Here, then, is the six hundredth paragraph, which brings this enterprise to a finale for the present: -

            "Thus the history of the theological use of Scriptures shows that the church but for a short time received the will of her Lord and the teaching of his disciples, through brief and simple instruction; and that Christian theologians have been laboring for seventeen hundred years since to fix by learning and speculation the meaning of certain pages which were written for the unlearned and simple minded. True, there were always preachers, whose childlike souls perceived what the intellect of the scholar never saw and struck the notes which the apostles had struck; but there number was small their fame and influence never the greatest. The loudest word in the science of the Scriptures has always been spoken by those who have thought that the truth could be discovered and established by the rules and definitions of scholastic philosophy. IN a first period they lost themselves in the labyrinths of allegory decking the Word with the motley tinsel of their own conceits; in the second they allowed themselves to be bound in the shackles of the systems, and crushed the life out of it with the iron consistency of their logic. Their laws, mostly designed to make exegesis responsible for the caprices of dogmatics, her mistress, stand side by side unreconciled today; the clearest passages are differently explained. The hermeneutic formula able to unite all voices is not yet found; and the impossibility of finding it, which is becoming more and more evident, is an earnest warning uttered by history to those who forget that they should be servants, not of the letter which killeth but of the spirit which maketh alive."

            This may seem right; but it is not so right as it seems. As a climax, it appears to us to evaporate into an ingenious confession of its author's failure. Much research ahs brought his mind no rest or reliance. Can we be mistaken? Judge for yourself, gentle reader. More than thirty years after our historian had completed his task, he wrote a preface to this fifth edition; in which he tells us, with his habitual naiveté, that he does not imagine he has spoken the last word on any point; but he anticipates that the things he has striven to promote will be set before the next generation in a more complete form and with more definite results. "So full of shapes is fancy". Any hope of reconstructing Holy Writ by the aid of exegesis, though fine spun as a spider's web, is just as frail.