A High View of Scripture? Part 3
The Church and Canon of New Testament
This is the third post on the book “A High View of Scripture” written by Prof. Craig D. Allert of Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia, Canada. His words if quoted directly are in italic.
Prof. Allert who is Evangelical would emphasize the centrality of the church in the formation of the New Testament. He noted that this approach was a somewhat foreign conception of the New Testament for many evangelicals. According to Prof. Allert one reason is they are used to the principle of “Bible, the Holy Spirit and me” approach which makes them unconnected to the rich heritage of the community of faith through history. Prof. Allert argued that to properly understand the history of the formation of the New Testament canon, evangelicals will need to reconsider the foundational role of the church in this process. In relation to canon of New Testament Evangelicals do rely on testimony of Church Fathers, i.e. when they cited a book from our present New Testament it serves as evidence of its canonicity. Here they make mistake by equating Scripture with Canon. Church Fathers had more books or documents they considered as Scripture. The books they consider as Scripture were not equal to either Catholic or Protestant’s Bible. As example Prof Allert referred to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (martyred in 258 AD). In his treatise “To Fortunatus” Cyprian quoted or alluded to many documents that now belong to (Protestant) Old Testament and New Testament. However in the same treatise Cyprian also treated as Scripture documents known to Protestants as apocrypha like Wisdom of Solomon, Bel and Dragon, Tobit, 2 Maccabees and Sirach (all of them belong to Catholic Old Testament). Prof. Allert noted that in evangelicalism the appeal rests on two foundational presuppositions about the fathers and the early church, which subsequently distort this appeal. The first presupposition is that the Bible has always been there, and the second is that the fathers appealed only to it in matters of faith and doctrine. One wonders, however, if in actuality the presuppositions are the reverse. That is, because evangelicals regularly appeal to sola scriptura as the historical doctrine of the church, the canon needs to be established as early as possible so that they [Church Fathers] indeed may appeal to the Bible alone.
After studying the role of church in the formation of the New Testament canon Prof Allert came to realize that the Bible grew in the cradle of the church. The church existed before the Bible and both are indispensable from each other. This is something that many Evangelicals will find it hard to accept and Prof. Allert explains the reason:
The appeal to the Bible alone in evangelicalism is the result, in part, of a deep suspicion and even rejection of the [Catholic] church in patristic age as somehow corrupt. In this understanding a restitutionist view of history is at work. Restitutionism “rejects traditional pre-modern history in order to restore ‘true history’ and locates ‘true history’ not in tradition or mystery of the church but in a lost yet supposedly recoverable body of ‘facts’.” The assumption is that one group or person can be closer to true Christianity solely by studying the New Testament documents. With this assumption the Reformation becomes construed not as a reform of what had come before (Catholicism) but as a retrieval of “true Christianity”. In this retrieval a selective choice of events and figures that fit the restitutionist agenda are used to bolster their case that true Christianity was maintained in a select few who rejected the corrupt church. A dualism results between institutional church history and that of the “true” believer. The church cannot be trusted, so an independent source comes to be located in the Bible as the sole guide, untouched by the corrupting tradition of the church.
A High View of Scripture?, page 76-77
Unfortunately the Bible that is set apart as being the only trustworthy guide for the Christian was shaped from within the very church that restitutionists claim was corrupt. Prof. Allert who is Evangelical wrote the following statement: ‘to reject the church means also a rejection of its canon. There is a tacit acceptance of the institution of the historical ecclesiastical community when we accept its canon. This is why I can say that my study of the canon led me to see the indispensability of the church. I wonder how many Evangelicals out there who would agree with him.