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.

February 15, 2008

I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration

I. Howard Marshall is one of the most respected evangelical biblical scholars of the past generation, and in this short book, Biblical Inspiration, he undertakes a careful and balanced investigation into the nature and authority of the Bible. The book is simply laid out in six chapters:
Introduction: the Problem
1. What does the Bible say about itself?
2. What do we mean by inspiration?
3. What are the results of inspiration?
4. How are we to study the Bible?
5. How are we to interpret the Bible?
6. What are we to do with the Bible?

Through this simple progression, Marshall lays out the logic behind a robust doctrine of scripture, based on its character as God's inspired word. He begins by looking at what the Bible claims about itself, starting with the way Jesus and the authors of the New Testament understood the documents that came to be the Old Testament, and finding that they considered them, from the parts that are prophetic words from God to the historical narratives, to be God's Word, a view that culminates in the assertion in 2 Timothy that Scripture is inspired by God. He then moves on to investigate just what this inspiration is. He looks at different understandings, from a "dictation" model of inspiration to the view that the Bible is "inspired" just like good literature, finally asserting what he describes as a "concursive" model of inspiration. This asserts that human writers wrote the documents that have become our Bible, but that in so doing these documents are from God and are fully adequate for his purposes. He then moves on to look at the "results," that is, the implications of this understanding for what we understand the Bible to be. He concludes, after carefully weighing a number of options, and weighing them against the nature of the Bible as we have it, that the Bible is God's infallible word that is trustworthy to accomplish all that God intends. This can include "inerrancy," though the definition of that contested term must be very carefully laid out so that it takes into account the type of literature and the setting in which the Bible was written.

Marshall then proceeds to defend the "grammatico-historical" method of carefully studying the Bible, asserting that careful exegesis is necessary to better comprehending the message and meaning in the Bible. He then extends this discussion by describing how the fruit of this labor must be translated into our modern world, a world both similar to and distant from the world of the Bible, with an emphasis that the Bible must be its own norm and that we must always carefully guard against our own presuppositions and biases, even as we carefully analyze the Bible's message and seek to apply it. He concludes with a call to recognize and submit to the Bible's authority, based on its truthfulness.

Even though this is a short book, I have only skimmed the surface of Marshall's clear and helpful writing. He undertakes a very difficult and contested topic with great skill and profound insight. The result is a balanced yet also bold statement of the Bible's inspiration and authority. He provides some great correctives to especially a "dictation" model of inspiration and the attendant "inerrant" understanding of scripture that focuses almost solely on the Bible's divine character, and clearly this is a dialogue that he has in view with his writing. In short, I highly recommend this book as a short, clear statement of an evengelical doctrine of Scripture.

February 14, 2008

Homosexuality, science, and theology

I listened to a really informative lecture last night by Stanton Jones, Provost and Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College and Graduate School. In it, he looks briefly at the theological issues involved in the modern discussions surrounding homosexuality and homosexual practice, and then delves much more deeply in to what modern psychology has to say. He looks at a number of scientific studies, plumbing the depths of what they say and don't say, and exploding a number of myths about what "science says." This informative lecture is well done, and is by an expert in the field of psychology, who is a member of the American Psychological Association and was a member of its Council of Representatives. Thus, he speaks as someone with very good credentials in psychology.