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January 28, 2008 / vivator

A High View of Scripture? Part 1

The title of this post comes from that of a book written by Prof. Craig D. Allert of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.  It was published in 2007 by Baker Academic. First, what is “high view of Scripture”?  From what the author wrote “high view of Scripture’ is that of Evangelicals who start with doctrine of inspiration when they view Scripture and pay little or no attention on the historical issues related to the formation of the Bible. The author argues that high view of Scripture demands an understanding and integration of the Bible’s very formation (page 13, from here onwards words in italic mean they are cited directly from the book).

Most evangelicals, particularly at the popular level, have what I call a “dropped out of the sky” understanding of the Bible. What I mean by this is that since the Bible is the primary source for evangelical faith and life, it is taken for granted as being always there and handed on to us as such. We give little thought to the question of why we have this particular collection. How, when, and why did this collection come into being, and why was it raised above all other documents of the early church? How as the authority of this collection recognized and appropriated in the early church? Did it act as the church’s sole authority?

A High View of Scripture?, page 10

Prof. Allert noted that Evangelicals have typically given little consideration to the formation of the New Testament and its possible implications on a doctrine of Scripture. Many assume that as soon as a New Testament document was available, it was consciously separated from all other noncanonical documents and added to a growing New Testament canon. Prof. Allert refers this kind of thinking as “binder mentality“, i.e. like keeping documents in three-ring binder one by one from the first to be written to the last one and then the binder was snapped shut forever and its content became our canon of New Testament.  History shows that this was not the case. How and why did the church come to accept as authoritative Scripture a New Testament containing no more and no less than twenty-seven books, and to place alongside either the Hebrew or the Greek [Septuagint or LXX] Scriptures, renamed the “Old Testament”?  There are three answers or theories to this question:

  1. New Testament canon as a spontaneous occurrence: The existence of quotation from New Testament books in early Christians’ writings indicates the existence of core collection of accepted writings. The problem is quotation from a book does not automatically give it scriptural status.  This is what the second theory attempts to correct.

  2. A Second century canon: If a book is preceded by a citation formula referring to it as Scripture, this then becomes the test for canonicity. It is referred as second century canon because such citation appeared from second century AD. The theory assumes that there was already closed canon of Old Testament to which second century Christians cited as Scripture – then when they applied the same to Christian’ writings, it will indicate their canonicity.  The problem with this theory is second century Christians cited as Scripture not only those belonging to our New Testament books but also other writings, even their own. This leads to the third theory:

  3. Scripture does not mean canon:What the church received from Judaism was not closed canon of Old Testament but religious literature that circulated freely in Judaism before 70 CE [Common Era = AD]. This comprises a closed collection of Law, a closed collection of Prophets, and a third, open body of undefined literature that included the latter defined Writings, the books Protestants have come to call the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and other books known only by name or no longer extant. In relation to this statement my readers can read my two posts: “New Testament quotation from Old Testament” and “Jamnia council and (Jewish) Canon of Old Testament. Only in the third century did the church come to the issue of defining the Old Testament for itself. If the church did not receive an Old Testament canon from Judaism, but rather Scripture on the way to canonization, then the comparison of the citations of Christian literature with Old Testament citations cannot establish canonicity for Christian writings. In other words Scripture does not mean Canon.

According to Prof. Allert each of three theories is correct on some important points; they are also flawed in their understanding of some fundamental points. Instead of considering two categories (Scripture and Canon) Prof Allert suggests three classes of them based on how often they were cited and he proposed three phases of the formation of New Testament canon:

  1. Phase 1: This phase lasted before end of first century AD.  Christians already have as central core (or first class) some books that was accepted as Scripture.  Others like Acts, shorter Catholic epistles, some minor Pauline epistles and Revelation belonged to second class together with Shepherd of Hermas.

  2. Phase 2: We have levelling out during second and third century AD.  We have more citation from books of the second class and Old Testament and New Testament scripture came to have equal status. We have three classes of books: much cited books (central core), little cited books (that later entered canon) and those that are discouraged or explicitly directed to be used only for special purposes.

  3. Phase 3: Fourth-century rulings about the canon become firm. Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39 (367) is recognized as the first document to list our present twenty-seven book New Testament as “canonical”.

Prof. Allert concluded that rather than conceiving of a closed New Testament canon in the second century, to which the church appealed for its sole source of teaching, this three-class paradigm forces one to consider how the church judged and appropriated the very writings that the church included in its canon. This has direct implications for the argument that the early church appealed to the Bible and the Bible alone for its doctrine [or sola scriptura, one of fundamental tenets of Protestants and “Bible only” Christians]: one cannot properly speak of a Bible in the first several centuries of the church’s existence. To state it in simpler words: the Christians in the first several centuries AD did not adhere to “by Scripture alone” as source of authority because they did not define the limit or canon of Scripture yet.  Note that Prof. Allert is not Catholic – while he did refer to John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890) who later became Catholic, he wrote (page 76): ‘Theological history drove Newman away from Protestantism and to the Roman Catholic Church. I, however, was driven to a deeper appreciation for the church while I remained in the Protestant tradition.

To be continued

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