Thursday, July 24, 2008
Book Review: Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture?
The last few months I've been working through Baker Academic's Evangelical Ressourcement series and I've finally reached the latest book in the series, Craig D. Allert's A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. This book is an interesting application of patristic studies to a quintessentially evangelical topic: the authority of the Bible. Or, to be more precise, the inerrancy of the Bible and the issue of verbal plenary inspiration. For those not familiar with the evangelical theological world, Dr. Allert includes a discussion of how to define that most shadowing theological sub-group, the evangelical and a good discussion of evangelical attitudes to the Bible and the process of canonization. In the course of this discussion, he reviews scholarship on the process of canonization and brings us up to date with recent scholarship on this question.
The gist of Dr. Allert's argument concerning the canon is that we can't really speak of a closed canon until the 4th century at the earliest. The arguments of Harnack and others (popular among evangelicals as well) that the canon was more or less closed by the second century can only be judged as premature because, while we can say that the books of what we recognize as the canonical writings were recognized as being peculiarly authoritative, the question of canon stayed either unasked or unanswered. Other writings retained authoritative status and the concept of a closed canon had not yet crystallized. His main point in emphasizing that this is the process of canonization was a slow one and has to be considered as an issue which the Church struggled with over, at least, three hundred years.
This latter point also emphasizes Dr. Allert's other main argument: the centrality of tradition and the Church in forming the Scripture. This is opposed to the commonly held evangelical view that the Scriptures are functionally separate from both tradition and the Church so that the proper province of interpretation was with the individual, not with the Church as a whole.
He also ends his book with an extended discussion about how this view of the canon would affect discussions and disputes about inerrancy which have plagued evangelical scholarship for some years. His contention is that the concept of inerrancy should contain within it a recognition of different genres, historical periods and other factors in order to help us interpret it more effectively. He argues that this should be considered consistent with the concept of inerrancy suggested in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Evangelicalism (a recognized, if not universally recognized, standard agreed upon in 1978).
While I characterize myself as an evangelical Anglican, I must admit that I really don't have a dog in this fight. The kind of rigourous inerrancy which Dr. Allert addresses in this book is not a part of my experience, except in a few encounters on internet bulletin boards. Dr. Allert's form of inerrancy makes better sense to me, although I would also fight shy of the term to avoid misunderstandings. Clearly, the Scriptures are authoritative, but equally clearly we need to interpret them. Furthermore, I also agree strongly with Dr. Allert that it is one of the peculiar jobs of the Church to interpret Scripture and help its parishioners to do so. I've seen what can happen when we try to interpret the Bible without the aid of the wisdom of the Church and it ain't pretty. Still, I do have a couple of caveats about this book.
First, I wonder if we aren't over-defining the term, canon. In canon studies, as presented by Dr. Allert, the term seems to be rather closely defined as a closed-canon. That is, a set of books to which none can be added or subtracted. Yet, as Dr. Allert points out several times, the Greek term canon wasn't not ever used this way, but rather seemed to apply to a set of something (anything, it seems). This makes me wonder if we aren't trying to impose a modern understanding of canon (the closed- canon) on a period when this was not understood. What I wonder is whether there is any contradiction about talking about the second century as producing a partially open canon. This, it seems fits the evidence and respects the idea that the canon wasn't really fixed until later. I wonder if our obsession with canon hasn't caused a distortion right off the bat- a distortion which, despite an effort to avoid it, is reflected in Dr. Allert's argument.
A second concern is Dr. Allert's use of the term, Scripture which is used as a middle term between strict canon and any old Christian writing. Dr. Allert defines Scriptures as being any writing quoted by a later Christian author. I wonder about this because I'm not sure it is sufficiently nuanced. I would add that it would be a writing considered in some way as authoritative. This keeps the door open to writings which were to become non-canonical, but were considered authoritative in some way. In that sense, the process of canonization may be considered to be a sorting of Christian writings into levels of authority, not just restricting what books may be read and how.
A last concern is a more technical one. On pp.153-5, Dr. Allert discusses the use of the term theopneustos in 2nd Timothy 3,16, common translated as 'God-breathed' or 'inspired by God'. The context of this discussion is Dr. Allert's argument against verbal plenary inspiration in which he argues that the Bible doesn't have a clear concept of inspiration. The use of this term in 2nd Timothy, it is argued, gives evidence for just that concept, but Dr. Allert disputes this assumption. He argues that this term is unclear because it is only attested once in the New Testament, so it is difficult to know just what was meant here. He further argues that attempts to use its etymology to elucidate that meaning can be misleading because the etymological origins of a word may be very different from the eventual meanings assigned to that word. This is true, but I don't think that we are as resourceless as Dr. Allert assume we are. After all, pneuma and its cognates (like theopneustos) are well attested in both Christian and pagan literature. The fact is that inspiration is a common meaning for pneuma and its cognates even in pagan literature, so the common translation of 'inspired by God' isn't that outlandish.
These flaws are perhaps understandable, given Dr. Allert's concern to challenge evangelical thinking on the Bible nor do should they cause this book to be discredited. Dr. Allert's book is an excellent discussion of the issue of canonization and an excellent application of patristic thinking to contemporary debates within evangelicalism.