February 21, 2008

Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture?

In A High View of Scripture?, Craig Allert, Professor at Trinity Western University in British Colombia, takes a considered look at the formation of the New Testament canon with a view to what it says about the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Many evengelicals have what he describes as a "dropped out of the sky" view of Scripture, and Allert undertakes a careful historical investigation into the formation of the New Testament that takes seriously its development. It would be difficult to rehearse all of the discussions that Allert sets out on in a brief review, but after a very short lay of the land he covers, we'll look at a couple of important points he repeatedly stresses.

Allert begins by looking at how canon plays a role in evangelical doctrines of scripture, and what understandings of canon formation are utilized for this task. He then drills down and discusses the process of canon formation over the first centuries of the church, focusing in turn on the criteria that were in evidence as the various books were selected, the various heresies that brought challenges to the developing orthodoxy, and the various "canon lists" that evidenced the growing consensus. He then concludes with a discussion of how the process of canon formation as it is thus brought to light bears on the understanding of inspiration.

A few important insights are worth mentioning. First and most basic is the recurring theme throughout the book (and also of the series, Evangelical Resourcement, to which the book belongs) that the Bible came into being in the context of and for the use of the church. Thus, a doctrine of "sola scriptura" must be carefully formulated to maintain the Bible as the foundation of theology without divorcing the Bible from its rightful place in the community of believers past and present. A second important insight is methodological: often in canon discussions, "Scripture" is equated with "canon." Because the church fathers may have referred to various books as Scripture does not require that they were viewed as canonical. In fact, he demonstrates that there wasn't really a "canon consciousness," that is, an understanding that there was an authoritative list of normative Christian Scriptures, until the fourth century. Instead, "Scripture" designated something important about viewing a document as authoritative and normative, but not necessarily in the more restricted sense of canonical. In fact, the term and idea behind "canon" instead functioned in the early church with regard to a body of teaching or standard of behavior. A third insight has to do with the often assumed role of heresies in the formation of the canon. It is usually argued that the church developed canon lists in response to heresies that challenged the church's orthodoxy, but Allert shows that while this may have been a minor stimulus, there isn't found an increase in canon lists in response to early heresies. And he further shows that more at issue than which documents were authoritative was how to understand and interpret them. It was the church asserting the centrality of orthodoxy and apostolic teaching, not the selection of some documents over others, that formed the core of the church's response.

Allert strongly asserts that the process of canon formation as it actually occurred doesn't undermine the inspiration of Scripture. But his historical investigation does show that the early church didn't restrict "inspiration" to documents alone, and thus didn't restrict inspiration to the documents that later became the Bible. This doesn't undermine understanding the Bible as a collection of inspired documents (Allert emphasizes that this understanding is certainly true) but it does call evangelicals to have a broader and more nuanced understanding of what inspiration is and what that means for the Bible as an inspired document. I highly recommend this book as a great historical discussion of the issues surrounding canon (issues far too often ignored or caricatured in many discussions), and also a well-reasoned reflection on the implications of this discussion for how we understand the Bible. Allert has demonstrated great commitment to discovering the historical realities surrounding the New Testament's collection, and he has also showed that the truth is not something we have to fear, for instead of undermining our view of Scripture, it can reinvigorate it. For if the Bible is in fact the Word of God, understanding the truth about how it came to be can only help us to better understand it better.

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