November 22, 2017

Recommendation and Review: A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert

46083.gifCraig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? sets out to convince the reader that most of what evangelicals have said about the subject of canonization amounts to anachronism, a purposeful ignorance of the role of the church and a false foundation for concepts about the role of the Bible in early Christianity. He succeeds completely by taking the reader on a tour of evangelical’s own history and claims about the Bible, then comparing them with a careful, cautious and conservative view of canonization. The result is a book that comes to some uncomfortable conclusions for most evangelicals, but makes its case brilliantly on solid historical and exegetical grounds.

Allert is part of D.H. Williams’ Evangelical Ressourcement project, a series of books and conferences with an explicitly post-evangelical agenda of developing resources for contemporary evangelical challenges from scholars working in the field of early church history and theology. This series should be of great interest to many readers of this site who identify with the legacy of Robert Webber and the post-evangelical recovery of the first centuries of the church for all of us.

Allert has six chapters, a postscript and a detailed appendix. Chapter one surveys evangelicalism in general and its views on the Bible in particular, especially regarding canonization and inspiration. In chapter two, he surveys the field of canonization theory and the dominant approaches to understanding how and when the church arrived at a closed canon. Chapter three examines evangelism’s tendency to minimalize or oppose the place of the church in the canonization process and then examines how the church must be included in any understanding of the development of the New Testament canon if we are to have an honest view of the work of the Spirit. Chapter four examines the claim that the second century was the time when the canon was closed, a claim Allert dismantles with examinations of the writings of early church fathers. His discussion of the Muratorian canon is impressive. He also examines the role of heretical movements in the making of the canon, an almost universal claim that Allert finds less than convincing. Chapter five examines the fourth century lists of authoritative books to see if they amount to a canon in the typical evangelical sense and usage. Chapter six picks up the discussion of inspiration from earlier chapters and applies it to a critical discussion of the use of inerrancy among evangelicals. An interesting account of the dismissal of Robert Gundry from ETS for advocating an understanding of inerrancy that seems congruent with the details of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy demonstrates how a popular understanding of inerrancy is carried along on many different errant presuppositions, especially about the church.

Allert’s conservative approach raises particular questions about whether the evangelical insistence on canonization via recognition of inspiration matches anything in the actual historical record. Reading his book, you will quickly see the difference between various uses of terms for inspiration and authority, and any kind of closed canon or “Bible.” The early church didn’t work from a closed Old Testament canon, and the early church was still talking about open canon issues into the fifth century and beyond. Yet they continued speaking of inspiration and authority, from both Biblical and extra-biblical sources. Have we considered what it means to have a canon made by a church that, in many places, accepted books most evangelicals would reject today?

allertt-craig.jpgAllert continually returns to a plea for evangelicals to see the church and its leadership as crucial components in appreciating canonization. The tendency of evangelicals to fear any role for the church or to idealize any person or documentary evidence that appear to be in their corner have created a “high” view of scripture that ignores the very means the Holy Spirit used to bring us our canon.

Which brings me to my main criticism, and an invitation to Dr. Allert to contact me to answer some printed questions about this criticism. A series such as “Evangelical Ressourcement” is going to be on the territory of Roman Catholic-Protestant conversation and conflict. Allert spends many pages- and good pages at that- speaking about evangelicalism’s problems in coming to terms with legacy of the church’s first few centuries, but the reader will look in vain for any discussion of the implications of Allert’s work on the relationship of evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Certainly, any Roman Catholic apologist could take Allert’s book and invite us for a swim in the Tiber, hopefully cleansing us of all that Protestant ignorance and prejudice. In fact, if we’d like to make our peace with the church that canonized our Bible, and embrace a view of inerrancy almost identical to Allert’s, why not just swim across the Tiber to Rome itself?

Work like the books of Allert and Williams on Evangelicalism and Tradition must answer the challenges of a renewed and articulate Roman Catholicism. Many of us who will read these books will be in active dialog over these issues with RC apologists and advocates. More and more evangelicals are moving toward Rome, and reading work like Allert’s will move many of them further in that direction unless Allert can give us another few pages that respond to the Roman Catholic claims to be the solution he has described.

So Dr. Allert, why shouldn’t we go to the Roman Catholic church and embrace their view of the canon, inerrancy, inspiration and authority?

(This reviewer asked for and received a copy of the book. He actually read the whole thing. There was no money between the pages.)

Comments

  1. Not being an “RC apologist”–just a Catholic layperson–I don’t see that it’s obvious that Protestants should be asked to adopt the western Catholic canon. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been in dialogue for years and AFAIK our differing canons aren’t even an issue in discussions of reunion (and in fact different Orthodox churches manage to be in communion with each other despite having differing canons).

    The Protestant canon is what it is, and I don’t see any great need to convince Protestants that they’re wrong and must adopt ours. Y’all’s canon is what you’ve traditionally read in your churches for 500 years; our canon is what we’ve traditionally read in ours; and while I think we papists get the better of the deal–the second book of Wisdom alone is worth adopting the Deuterocanon–I just don’t comprehend why the slimmer Protestant canon should be more of a problem for Catholics than the fatter Orthodox canon.

    Someone who’s an apologist can tell me why this is a naive view.

  2. I want/need to read the book. But I have thought long and hard about these kinds of issues and think your criticism/concern about the book is right on the mark.

    I am one who took a long hard look at Rome and decided NOT to swim the Tiber because of patristics. Let me say that again — I did not become RCC BECAUSE of PATRISTICS. I think most of the popular RCC apologists are sincere people, but IMO most of their arguments for the RCC from the Early Church Fathers are anachronistic.

    You cannot pay careful attention to the early centuries and not conclude that the church has a greater authority for doctrine and life than most evangelicals believe it should have. But it does not follow from this that one ought to swim the Tiber.

    Thanks for the review!

  3. Oh yeah — I also did not swim the Tiber because at the end of the day I still believe in justification by grace alone through faith alone (JBGATFA) — justification being the imputed righteousness of Christ. I cannot by the Roman view that justification is by grace (which they believe) but then define justification as infused righteousness.

    By the way — Thomas Oden has book entitled The Justification Reader that argues that JBGATFA model is the patrisitic model.

  4. Brian Pendell says:

    Truthfully, I think we just need to ignore the RCC for just a moment and solve the question *in and of itself*.

    Here are some short questions that come to mind:

    1) Did the church have a role in canonization, and if so what does this have to say about sola scriptura?

    2) Is it possible to give *too great* a weight to church? When church goes wrong … for example, in the time of the inquisition … can the scripture be used to bring it back on track?

    THEN we can talk to the Catholics. It doesn’t really matter, to me, whether this points across the Tiber or not … the first question is, is this the right view of scripture or isn’t it? If it IS, it shouldn’t matter whether the RCC does or does not accept it.

    And if it is … that doesn’t mean the RCC is right enough that we need to join them (I would likely join the orthodox first). Being right in one thing does not mean right in all things. There are still lots of theological problems that need to be addressed before we can have any kind of intellectual unity.

    Besides … it could be that the right answer is NEITHER the RCC NOR the Prot one. I call false dichotomy … assuming that if the correct viewpoint is closer to the RCC than the current protestant one, then the RCC viewpoint *must* be the correct one. It might, instead, be somewhere between the two.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  5. I don’t know if I could completely disregard the role of heresy in canon formation. Anyone can read the early church fathers, Eusebius, and church history textbooks and see that heresies did have something to do with it.

    And what about the role of the Spirit? Many talks about this subject ignore Him altogether. It is like all the church renewals and councils occurred without His intervention/leading.

    I also went through a course on early Christian art. The early portraits of Jesus pictured him as a shepherd in a toga. He was one of them and took care of them. The pictures of Jesus changed over the centuries toward a more removed and emperor-like persona. I remember seeing a fifth century painting that portrayed a Jewish Jesus with a mean, judgemental look on his face holding the book of Jesus. Afterward, Christian artists started painting warm, mother-like pictures of Mary instead. As the centuries went by, she was given more divinity and portrayed as an intercessor to Christ. My teacher said that as Jesus became more like a judge and more removed, Mary replaced him as the intercessor/way to God. Surely we must always be looking at the way we perceive Christ. As we delve into the scriptures we will always be challenged by our perceptions of Him and He will challenge our perceptions of the Father and the role/person of the Holy Spirit. This is true reformation. If you study any good book on Church history, you will find that renewal and expansion comes when Christians rediscover the person of God through the Scriptures that have been handed down to us (read Paul,the Spirit, and the People of God; Gordon D. Fee). Another good reading is the introduction in Walls New Internation Biblical Commentary on the Revelation. There are good reasons to read the Church Fathers and recite the ancient creeds but none to go back to false perceptions of the One who died for us.

  6. The earliest churches in Jerusalem, Samaria, Lydda, Caesarea, Antioch etc. were all separate entities and from the earliest times were in possession of the various letters and ‘gospels’ which form our present canon.

    The formation of the canon was due to a growing grass-roots consensus rather than a decision that was handed down by ecclesiastical authorities. The canon was not imposed by church leaders or by councils. They stand at the end of the process rather than at the beginning.

    No action of a council or a synod was early enough to have had a decisive influence on the course of events.
    The council decrees have the form: “This council declares that these are the books which have always been held to be canonical”.

    It would therefore be more accurate to say that the canon selected itself, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, than that any Church selected it.

    As regarding the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, all ecumenical Councils before 900 AD were held in the Greek East and all were convoked by the Emperor from Constantinople. At these Councils, where the ‘Nature of God’ was defined and determined for all generations, Latin bishops were numerically insignificant and made an insignificant contribution. For example, out of a total attendance of 318 at the Council of Nicea, the Latins could boast of only 7 representatives.

    There is a very cogent reason for this lack of Latin participation: the first Latin version scripture of which we have knowledge circulated in North Africa about 200 AD. Faulty Latin versions multiplied until Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to make a new rendering from the original languages. The resultant translation – the Latin Vulgate was completed about 404 AD.

    The order of church development was conditioned by the availability of scriptures in the common tongue. The Bible passed from Hebrew to Greek and thence into Latin, and the churches developed in similar order. The Latin churches, in the centuries when they were without the authoritative word, relied a great deal upon unauthoritative and wholly unreliable tradition.

  7. nicholas anton says:

    I had almost convinced myself that I would lay low and not respond to the concerns expressed on this web page for quite some time, but the last entry forbids me to do so. What we frequently forget is that the Reformation was essentially an outcry against the massive departures and abuses of the Roman Church from what the church itself claimed to be the Word of God. Neither Luther nor Calvin desired to sever the church. The issue at stake was not so much the canon, but the interpretation thereof. The printing press and the proliferation of Biblical data demonstrated to all that the church had not and did not teach the data on which it claimed to have built its doctrine accurately.

    We evangelicals are currently faced with a similar dilemma. The church needs reformation. The answer is not going back to the church from which it was expelled, but going back to The Christ as revealed in His Word, Who we believe to be it’s Author. I would gladly ask the Catholics and Orthodox to join us in this journey.

  8. Tom Hinkle says:

    Thanks, Michael, for this timely review. I need to study more about the canonization of Scripture after getting pounded for giving a less-than-central place to anything that’s outside of the four canonical Gospels or undisputedly Pauline. So I’ll have to put this book in the mix while I decide what book I want to read: this one, “Constantine’s Bible” or Bruce Metzger’s book (probably not Metzger’s because it’s 44 bucks on Amazon.com.)

  9. Tom, Metzger is worth it. He is THE authority on early texts and canon formation.

  10. I appreciate this review very much, as well as the pointed question about swimming the Tiber.

  11. bookdragon says:

    Brian has the right questions here I think. (And why does everyone assume you have to swim the Tiber? The Thames is much closer ;>)

    There are some good comments about our views of the bible at a blog I recently discovered:

    http://reclaimingthefword.typepad.com/reclaiming_the_f_word/2007/05/3_things_people.html

    “3 Things People Need To Know About The Bible.”

    (btw, f stands for faith)

  12. I’ve been reading Catholic sites regularly for seveal months and looking at the kinds of Catholic-Protestant debates that go on. I’ve been surprised to see how often the issue of canonization is brought up—by both sides, in fact.

    Maybe it’s just the approach to Scripture that I have, but I don’t see why the original method of canonization should be the ultimate issue. Even within the universally-accepted canon (say, the Gospels), you’ve got the long ending of Mark that was not original. And Christian scholars still debate the accuracy of specific lines of text, and so on. So why would I care if the canon was decided from on high by a “church council” in year X, or whether it gradually came to be recognized by the Christian world beforehand? The question of the truth (and Truth) of Scripture is an objective reality that exists independently of our understanding of it. It doesn’t depend on who pronounced it. If it was gotten wrong earlier, we can still critique it today.

    By the way, I am amused to find some Catholics fighting the good fight against The Da Vinci Code by telling Dan Brown that the canon emerged early on from its widespread acceptance, and the later church councils simply ratified the near-universal understanding of the canon. While other Catholics tell Protestants that the Bible didn’t exist until late, when the Church itself created it from on high. 🙂

  13. Following up on my previous comment:

    I’d have to read Allert’s book to see what consequences, exactly, he is arguing for as a result of looking at canonization. But the arguments I’ve seen raised before tend to run thus: if one holds to a view of Scripture as inerrant (or possibly other high views), then one must believe that the canon itself was decided infallibly, else how does one know what inerrant Scripture is? And if the canon was decided infallibly, that argues for a high ecclesiology. The Church is dominant over Scripture, rather than the other way around.

    It’s the first “if-then” that is wrong, in my view. We can believe that the canon was decided correctly, even without believing that decision was made through divine inspiration. For one thing, we can examine the provenance of the various books, the history of when and where they came about, and their language, style, and so on. These things help us evaluate their authenticity. And many of these qualities were themselves debated by the early church fathers and during canonization. Scholarship can play a big role in this.

    If we believe they got it right on the basis of scholarly evidence and tracing the books’ histories, and someone else believes they got it right because ecumenical councils are supposedly infallible, then what does it matter? Both are coming to the same conclusion as to the authenticity of Scripture.

  14. So did Allert ever respond to your questions? I’m reading his book right now ;-).