A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future. By Craig D. Allert
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, page 133, January 2009
How to Cite
Briggs, R. S. (2009), A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future. By Craig D. Allert. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 133. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_14.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. 203 , Grand Rapids : Baker Academic , 2007 , £12.99
Allert's book is a commendable and concise review of the issues of New Testament canon formation as they pertain to a certain kind of evangelical concern about scripture. The book is thus quite narrowly focused: framing its mainstream defence of a fourth-century date for agreement on the NT canon is a subtext regarding how scripture is appealed to in the evangelical world of North America. Those less concerned to negotiate such troubled waters will find the first and last chapters strange reading, while the bulk of the book is clear, well-argued, and full of good sense. Those with evangelical labelling worries will most likely find the bulk of the book harder to follow (though difficult to avoid), and will perhaps sense that much is at stake in the careful positioning of the framing chapters. The two themes do not sit well together – perhaps this is a book for a particular polemical situation only. Those blessedly unconstrained by worrying about whether they would ever be accepted as members of the Evangelical Theology Society (inerrantists only), may find this a much more engaging and, might one say, relaxing book than Allert perhaps anticipates. All credit to him for tackling head-on one of the fundamental confusions regarding evangelical doctrines of scripture – one fears he will get little thanks for it.
The introduction highlights the theme in relation to the subtext: many evangelicals see ‘inspiration’ as the defining characteristic of canonicity, which certainly simplifies the discussion of how the canon was collected, but of course, as Allert has no difficulty showing, actually forecloses the discussion before it has got going. Chapter 1 is a survey of defining characteristics of North American evangelicalism(s), including a distinction between American and Canadian varieties, doubtless due to the book's Canadian provenance. Chapter 2 sets up the framework of contemporary discussion of the NT canon: outlining 2nd century and 4th century views, rehearsing familiar arguments about the distinction between ‘scripture’ and ‘canon’, and the relative significance of citations in early works. Chapter 3 affirms the inextricable nature of discussions about canon and ecclesiology – Allert is nervous about rampant free-church Protestantism finding this unacceptable, though he does along the way score a delightful point in noticing that it makes little sense to decry the corrupting influence of church (away from the purity of the Bible) and then appeal to the 2nd century church as getting the decision about canon right. Chapter 4 focuses on the particular issues confronting the 2nd century church (Marcionism, Gnosticism, Montanism) as a way of grasping why scripture citation functioned the way it did (and falls short of canon-delineation), before moving on to discuss the key point about the rule of faith, which binds church and canon together. A brief chapter 5 skips to the 4th century and looks at Eusebius and Athanasius' Festal Letter. Case concluded, he returns in chapter 6 to the worried implied evangelical reader, and looks at ‘inspiration and inerrancy’, offering a sober reading of 2 Timothy 3:16 and showing that it will not support the weight often placed on it in evangelical circles.
On its own terms I would judge Allert's book as entirely successful. This is as helpful account of the nature of NT canon formation as one is likely to find anywhere, and draws with profit on John Barton's clarification of how so much canon debate today trades on confusions of terminology whereby like is compared with unlike. It is however a serious misjudgement to base an argument about the authority of the Bible on an account of New Testament canon formation only, since the (unwitting?) effect is to make it seem that one can recover a high view of scripture without reference to the Old Testament. It seems likely that an evangelical persuaded by Allert would be no nearer understanding the fundamental two-testament nature of scriptural witness, and thus learning how to relate canon to God's revelation in Christ. Arguably, this is outside Allert's purview rather than in opposition to it (though this says something significant perhaps about the status of the Old Testament in evangelical reflection?). This caveat aside, one may commend a thoughtful, well-written and well-produced volume in a series (‘Evangelical Ressourcement’) which bodes well for evangelical theological reflection on scripture and its role in the life of the church.