Book Review

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

Douglas D. Webster
Craig Allen
Tuesday, July 1st 2008
Jul/Aug 2008

Craig Allert chairs the Religious Studies Department at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His area of expertise is patristics and most of his published work focuses on issues related to biblical authority and evangelical doctrines of Scripture. In Allert's latest work, he seeks to investigate "the implications of the formation of the New Testament canon on evangelical doctrines of Scripture" (10). During this lengthy process of formation, the early church depended upon the Scriptures, along with other authoritative sources, and the church's authoritative interpretation. This dynamic interplay, guided by the Holy Spirit, appears to be Allert's ideal of a high view of Scripture.

To clarify his perspective, Allert draws a number of distinctions to which evangelicals will be sensitive. He distinguishes between what the Bible is and what the Bible says (11). Allert believes we should be "just as concerned with how the New Testament came to exist in the form we have it as with what it says" (173). Inerrancy is one way to champion biblical authority; infallibility, he contends is quite another (20). Evangelicalism is a movement without a theological system (17, 33). Biblicism is a problem that must be distinguished from a high view of Scripture based on an understanding of how the canon was formed (26). In the early church, Scripture was not synonymous with canon (39) and inspiration was not limited to today's Bible (59). Furthermore, Allert distinguishes between responding to the Bible and interacting with the community of faith: "The Christian faith did not grow in response to a book but as a response to God's interaction with the community of faith" (145).

The theme running through these distinctions is Allert's conviction that the early church fathers had a better doctrine of Scripture than evangelicalism. "In the early church a high view of Scripture was not one that necessitated a text that functioned authoritatively outside of the church. This would have been unthinkable to the fathers. In evangelical circles today, however, we are still being encouraged to think that this was how the church fathers viewed Scripture, and how we in turn should view it" (175-76).

Allert is especially concerned with evangelicals imposing their understanding of Scripture on the early church fathers. "We must be aware of not forcing our twenty-first-century closed New Testament canon perspective back onto the first and second centuries" (40). "An appeal to the 'Bible' as the early church's sole rule for faith and life is anachronistic" (145).

He defines evangelicalism (chapter one) as a movement with "incredibly divergent strands" that tends to be defensive and reactionary. Evangelicals have fallen for the modern perversions of rationalism and individualism, instead of conserving historic Christian orthodox. Allert paints a bleak picture: "There is no real historical theological tradition underlying evangelical soteriology, no interpretive guidelines underlying bibliology" (30). In chapter two, Allert argues that evangelicals have a naive understanding of how the canon was formed. Throughout the first four centuries of the church, the authoritative body of Scriptures was more fluid and less certain, more broad and less defined, than most evangelicals realize. For Allert, the main question is not "What is in and what is out?" as much as it is "How did these documents function?" (51). He contends that it is important to distinguish between "Scripture" and "canon" because this body of literature was not closed until the fifth century. Moreover, Allert demonstrates that Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and others used theopneustos (God-breathed) to refer to commentaries and expositions outside what came to be included in the canon. Allert, however, does not demonstrate that the early church's expansive view of inspiration works against the unique character of the biblical books that eventually became the canon. Nor does he describe any ways in which the early church fathers might have challenged evangelicalism's doctrine of inerrancy or distinguished between infallibility and inerrancy. Undoubtedly Allert would criticize this suggestion as anachronistic-a case of reading back into the early church evangelicalism's high view of Scripture; but it is a fair question for several reasons. First, how does the early church's understanding of Scripture compare to evangelicalism's doctrine of Scripture? Would Irenaeus of Lyons' understanding of Scripture be closer to John Stott's or Luke Timothy Johnson's? We might expect some evidence from patristics that would indicate either continuity or discontinuity with the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, but Allert presents none.

Second, Allert may be guilty of his own anachronism, reading his opposition to inerrancy back into his study of patristics. It is not altogether clear how his contention of a lengthy and convoluted process of canon formation makes evangelicalism's doctrine of Scripture modern and naive. At some point, the formation of the canon was completed and it seems reasonable that evangelicals based their doctrine of Scripture on that closed canon, rather than renew the debate previously experienced by the early church. Can it not be argued that evangelicals stand in the tradition of the early church by faithfully accepting the closed canon rather than engaging in a debate as to what texts are authoritative today?

Many evangelicals would agree with Allert that the formation of the New Testament canon stands in "the wider canonical heritage" (86) and that the "reliable apostolic tradition" was not fixed "in the canonical Gospels" until the fourth century or later. But evangelicals may fail to see how this undermines their doctrine of Scripture, minimizes the apostolic tradition, and devalues the early church. One might reason that the serious debate over which books to include in the canon was in fact a testimony to the importance the early church attributed to the "God-breathed" Scriptures. But does the process of canonization in the early church suggest that the only way today's church can "hope to understand the inspiration of Scripture" is through ecclesiastical authorities properly interpreting the Bible (145)?

In his comparison between the early church and the contemporary church, Allert bypasses the Reformation, making it difficult to understand his criticism and his concern over tradition. All he says about the Reformation is that evangelicals have failed to uphold the "Protestant" tradition of bearing witness and declaring openly, because they have become defensive and reactionary. Allert contends, "In our desire to avoid the corrupting influence of tradition, we have often missed the fact that the very Bible we claim to accept as our only guide is itself a product of the very tradition we avoid" (145).

Allert is sensitive to how others will read his work. "I affirm the authority of the Bible as God's revelation to humanity, and as such I affirm that it is the final source for the believers' faith and life. Nothing I write in this book should be read as a denial of this" (14). Authors don't usually advise their reviewers, but Allert concludes his introduction with a preemptive concern. He warns against imposing a "traditionalistic bibliology" on his work and criticizes those who might be tempted to use their review of his book as "a platform for a defense of the verbal plenary theory of inspiration and its logical conclusion of inerrancy" (15). He contends that traditionalism has left evangelicals rigid, defensive, and unaware of how their cherished doctrinal essentials became essential in the first place. "Nowhere do we see this narrow theological foundation more clearly than in the evangelical doctrine of Scripture" (35). His basic thesis is that evangelicals ought to be honest enough to admit that the Bible did not drop out of the sky and that the formation of the canon was a slow process carried on over three centuries within the tradition of the church. Allert argues that if evangelicals understood the fluidity of this long process and the controlling significance of church tradition, then they would not limit "inspiration" to the sixty-six books of the Bible nor conclude that the text is inerrant. Instead of being monopolized by the concept of inerrancy, evangelicals would realize that "Scripture" and "canon" were not synonymous for hundreds of years and they would learn to appreciate "the wider canonical heritage" (86).

Allert argues that the biblical meaning of inspiration taught in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 does not refer to the "divine origin" of Scripture but how the "sacred writings" function in conjunction with other sources of teaching and influence. He reasons that the Scriptures function alongside other sources that comprise a tradition of faithful witness. Allert embraces Luke Timothy Johnson's conclusion that those who use this passage "to argue for the origin of Scripture are captivated by 'theological concerns about the inspiration of Scripture that are driven by an anachronistic literalism'" (149). How can Allert be so confident in this conclusion? I would be inclined to think just the opposite-that the bifurcation of "origin" and "function" is more in the mind of the modern scholar than it is in the mind of the apostle.

Are we to accept tradition as a paradigm of fluidity and debate or are we to embrace the solid conclusions of tradition? The early church blessed evangelicalism with a high view of Scripture, a deep understanding of the Trinity, a true comprehension of Christ, and solid doctrine of salvation. Evangelicals depend upon that dynamic heritage. If Tertullian, Augustine, and Irenaeus were to return to the contemporary church, where would they feel most at home? With those who affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture or with those who believe that Matthew's magi were invented to get a point across?

Tuesday, July 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology