A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

HVS.jpgAllert, Craig D.

A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 203. Paper. $18.99.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for this review copy!

Craig D. Allert is associate professor and chair of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.  A High View of Scripture? (hereafter HVS?) is the third volume in the Evangelical Ressourcement series which is a series that sees the value in patristic thought and seeks to integrate it into twenty-first century ministry.  In HVS? Allert provides the non-specialist with a competent introduction to the formation of the NT canon as well as some food for thought concerning what may or may not be their understanding of the role that Scripture played in the early church.

In the first chapter Allert focuses on (mainly North American) evangelicalism and its view of the Bible through traditional lenses.  Evangelical thought is heavily indebted to its battle against nineteenth century theological liberalism, and as such, tends to focus on the final form of the Bible and not on its formation.  Allert’s book is one that seeks to help the evangelical reader appreciate the process that brought them their Bible, a process that should be taken into account if one genuinely wants to claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture.

The second chapter addresses the basics of the formation of the NT canon laying out three principle theories: (1) The NT was a spontaneous occurrence, (2) The NT was formed in the second century, and (3) The NT was formed in the fourth century.  Theory 1 is extremely problematic and doesn’t accord with what we know from the patristic testimony.  Theories 2 and 3 are taken up later in chapters 4 & 5 respectively.  Allert also does well to define some key terms and lay out the criteria of canonicity (i.e., apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity).

In the third chapter Allert sets the formation of the NT into its proper context, that is, within the community of faith.  Too often, the church’s role in producing, collecting, and defining what would come to be known as the Bible, is overlooked in evangelical bibliology.  To summarize Allert’s main point in this chapter, with a caricature of my own (not one that Allert uses); many evangelicals treat the Bible as if it fell from heaven like premium calfskin manna.  But when one recognizes that the Bible is the church’s book then they’ll be dispelled of such notions and realize the avenue that God took in providing us with his special revelation.

In the fourth chapter Allert shows convincingly that there was no closed NT canon in the second century and that such an understanding of a canon of Scripture wouldn’t surface until the fourth century, and even then we don’t have what evangelicals generally think of as the closed NT canon.  The argument that certain early writers referred to documents that later became part of the NT canon as ‘Scripture’ does nothing for the argument that they were considered canonical at that time.  Nor will it do to argue based on the believed inspiration of a writing since many writings were considered inspired (and others were also called Scripture) that never made it into the NT canon.  In short, Allert is urging against anachronism.

The fifth chapter examines the fourth century lists of Biblical books in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter.  In Eusebius we find a list divided by accepted writings, disputed writings, and rejected writings.  Certain books that would later be accepted were still disputed in the fourth century (e.g., 2Peter or Jude) and appeared alongside writings that would never make it into the canon, so this shows that the NT canon was still quite fluid, but we do see an authoritative list of books like none that appeared before it.  Athanasius’ Festal Letter on the other hand lists all 27 books that appear in our NT and labels them as canonical.  The same list pops up in Carthage just thirty years later, but neither list settled the issue once and for all as can be seen by the disputed status of Hebrews and Revelation on other lists of fourth century writers.

The final chapter turns to the issues of inspiration and inerrancy.  Allert rightly notes that at best we can only affirm that Scripture is inspired but past that we don’t know much at all.  Even here we have to be careful not to assume that the standard proof-texts for inspiration have ‘the Bible’ in view or any kind of closed canon because, of course, such things did not exist yet.  Inerrancy becomes relative because in the mind of many evangelicals it’s the logical conclusion of inspiration, that is, if the Bible is the product of God, and God cannot err, then the Bible cannot err.  But this calls into question exactly what we mean by terms like truth and error and has to account for matters of interpretative methodology, and when it’s all said and done, if we can’t say much about inspiration then we can’t say much about inerrancy.  As noted earlier, just because a document was thought to be inspired or was considered Scripture didn’t make it canonical nor would many evangelicals think these writings inerrant.

Craig Allert has given us in HVS? a book that’s both attentive and sensitive to history.  He eschews anachronism at every turn and offers a number of correctives for modern evangelicals who read their current beliefs into the church fathers, and for this, he is to be commended.  One of the most profound insights of this book is that early Christians didn’t place the authority of books that would later be canonized in their alleged canonical status or even their inspiration, but rather in their preservation of the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic testimony.  This is a major point that many modern evangelicals would do well to remember.  This work could benefit from a bit more qualification when talking about evangelicals.  For example, Allert regularly refers to evangelicals generally, when it would be better to say ‘many’ or ‘some,’ or qualify the statements with something like, ‘the evangelical authors I’ve read…’ or ‘the evangelicals I’ve spoken to…’

The final chapter also seems a bit disjointed.  The latter half of it recounts the expulsion of Robert Gundry from the Evangelical Theological Society in 1983 over his commentary on Matthew.  The majority of the ETS felt that he was denying inerrancy based upon their preconceptions about what inerrancy was when in reality Gundry was faithful to the doctrine as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in that he interpreted the text not based on what he thought it should mean, but rather based on what Matthew intended it to mean by employing midrash.  While the recounting of these events was fascinating in its own right it lacked cohesion with the first half of the chapter on inspiration and didn’t fit the overall flow of the book.  These criticisms aside, HVS? is a challenging book that will force readers to think about their views on tradition and Scripture, and hopefully cause them to appreciate the former as much as they might appreciate the latter.

B”H

16 thoughts on “A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

  1. “One of the most profound insights of this book is that early Christians didn’t place the authority of books that would later be canonized in their alleged canonical status or even their inspiration, but rather in their preservation of the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic testimony.”

    Hi Nick. If I understand your sentence clearly, I think its a good point. But it should also be noted that the early Patristics were about as silent as a trumpet before war regarding the authoritative nature of the collected Scriptures.

  2. Michael: When you say “collected Scriptures” are you referring to the canon? If so then, yeah, that’s Allert’s point throughout the book. The fathers don’t talk about the canon of Scripture because there wasn’t one yet.

  3. The point is taken — the patristics didn’t have a proto-Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. But to suggest that the scriptures which were being collected were not venerated as authoritative demonstrates poor church history. While I wouldn’t push our modern notions of inerrancy back onto the patristics, they are, however, coming close when they regard what was written as the very words of God or Christ and attribute no insignificant amount of integrity to their trustworthiness.

    MM

  4. Michael: I think ‘venerated’ is a poor choice of words, but Allert doesn’t suggest that the Scriptures weren’t authoritative; he shows that their authority didn’t lie in their canonical status (since there wasn’t yet a canon) or their inspiration (since documents that weren’t later included in the canon were considered inspired), but rather in their preservation of Jesus’ teaching and the apostolic testimony.

  5. It was a little poor, I was reaching. That’s the nuance I was missing though. Your comment clarified it for me.

  6. Nick,

    You wrote (summarizing Allert’s view): “he shows that their authority didn’t lie in their canonical status (since there wasn’t yet a canon) or their inspiration (since documents that weren’t later included in the canon were considered inspired), but rather in their preservation of Jesus’ teaching and the apostolic testimony.”

    That’s such a simple point, but it’s so profound, esp. given all the Evangelical hubbub about the supposed inspiration of Scripture. It’s the point I’ve been trying to make for years, but the idea of basing Scripture’s authority on its supposed inspiration is so entrenched within the Reformation-based faith of Evangelicalism that it seems like a hopeless battle.

    I didn’t get much out of Allert’s book, but that’s probably because I already saw things his way.

    BTW, did you get my paper on *theopneustos*?

  7. John: Yes, I remember you making that very point on several occasions over here, and I have to say that it’s a good point. When I originally started reading this book more than 2 years ago I was so bored with it because the first chapter was about evangelicals and I couldn’t care less about that, so I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until the new year. But from chapter 2 on I liked it a lot. It reinforced some things I already believed and gave me a couple of other things to think about.

    I did get your article, thanks! I read the first five pages or so and will return to it shortly. I have to say that so far it’s intriguing. I’d like to read the reworked version when you complete it.

  8. Thanks for the excellent review!

    From what I recall of the book (and his class on Canon History which I took in 2004) I think that Allert’s point about canonicity cuts a bit deeper than you imply: the works eventually deemed canonical were never systematically evaluated and decided upon, based on “canonicitiy,” “inspiration” or even (perceived) “apostolic authority” (though the latter was often appealed to); it was traditional use that made the biggest difference. Those books that were used and considered authentic/authoritative by most Christians/most places/most of the time, ended up being canonized, while those that were only popular in some places or times, or were used by those (later) deemed heretical, took longer to be recognized as canonical, or were excluded entirely, when the lists were eventually drawn up.

    This is what we should expect given that there was no one moment of universal canonization (at least until the Council of Trent!); there were simply dozens of local councils each saying “this is what we recognize as canon,” most of which agreed in broad strokes, but not in fine detail, and mostly based on what their local congregations were already using.

    As for the bit about Gundry, I think his point is to bring the issue of inspiration into a more modern context. The rest of the book focuses on history, which can seem a bit distant to the average reader, so in the last chapter he wants to bring things forward, and this incident offers a nice little parable about clinging to one’s presuppositions about what scripture/inspiration must mean, rather than letting the Bible itself guide our understanding. If I’m not mistaken, that is the whole point of the book: that “a high view of scripture” ought to be one that takes scripture seriously, on its own terms.

    Cheers!

  9. Ken: No disagreements on the first part of your comment. The review came in at over 1200 words which is long for me and there’s no doubt that I could have emphasized other points of the book that I didn’t here. What you’ve said, I think, expands upon my summary of chapter 3.

    As for the Gundry story, like I said, it was good in and of itself, but it seemed abrupt and didn’t really fit with the overall flow of the book. At least that’s how I perceived it. The point he was making was fine though.

  10. Nick I would not worry at all the Bibles being destroyed as we believe in God`s promises that his Spirit lives in the Church the tradition will survive. I am always but it worries me when people put more faith in the Bible than they do in God

  11. This is a helpful post; the comments and responses were helpful as well.

    The distinction you are making may give off its greatest value in the understanding to which it leads: that the New Testament (because it does preserve the teachings of Jesus and apostolic testimony) exists to elucidate the Old Testament which through Christ became the new covenant.

    In other words, the point is not that the New Testament is a collection to replace the Old Testament, or even a collection to read alongside it. Rather, the New Testament is the lens through which we should read the Old Testament, the Old Testament being “the Scriptures” as far as Jesus and the apostles were concerned. While this view may seem to diminish the status of the New Testament (i.e. not to call it Scripture per se) it actually gives the New Testament documents their greatest value.

  12. Oh, I certainly call the New Testament “Scripture.” However, that characterization comes at the end of a logical sequence rather than the beginning. To wit:

    1. The New Testament is a collection of historically reliable documents.
    2. These documents testify of Scripture (which is what we call the Old Testament).
    3. Because of the similarity, unity, and interconnectedness of the two sets of documents the New Testament should be considered Scripture, too.

    In other words, you don’t start with the inerrancy of the apostles. You end up there.

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