A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, Craig D. Allert (Baker, 2007)
Craig Allert teaches at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. I was first given this book by Baker in its prepublication form, and I was quickly brought into the author’s argument. On the level of specifics, there are always issues that can be debated about this or any book; but on the level of the author’s general observation, this is a book that should be read by any who have a strong interest in issues pertaining to the nature of Scripture.
As I first read the book, I had one of my “it’s about time moments.” Allert has given us a highly accessible yet nuanced Evangelical case for why an understanding of the historical issues surrounding canon formation should be part of the Evangelical theological discussion. Canon is not just a matter of prolegomena, but a subject that requires penetrating theological inquiry—all the more so if one is familiar with some of the historical issues.
To be upfront, what also attracted me to this book was statements such as the following that echo some of the concerns I expressed in Inspiration & Incarnation:
“When it comes to understanding what the Bible is, evangelicals…have usually asserted the divine authorship of Scripture while recognizing the human aspect. But when it comes to actually expressing what the Bible is, the divinity of Scripture has virtually eclipsed the humanity, and concerns about the process of canonicity are thus implicitly moot” (p. 11, emphasis original).
Allert explicitly affirms inspiration, but, he goes on, it is not enough to say that inspiration guarantees the text’s divinity and thus neglect the historical process by which the canon was formed. This is not a plea for a godless historicism, but for an understanding of how the process of canonization, which God seems to have allowed, and how such an understanding should play into our view of biblical authority. As Allert puts it,
“The title of the book, A High View of Scripture? is somewhat of a wordplay. Essentially, I am asking whether the most common evangelical view of Scripture [by which he means the virtual “deification” of Scripture, explained in the preceding pages] is actually a “high” view, or at least “high” enough. My position is that a high view of Scripture demands an understanding and integration of the Bible’s very formation. The Bible’s living authority in the life of believers is implicated in this formation because the Bible was formed and grew within the community of faith. This means that the Bible did not drop out of heaven but was the result of historical and theological development” (pp. 13-14).
In my opinion, this statement pretty much summarizes the point of the book. How readers react to a statement such as this will likely determine what mood they will be in for the remaining pages.
Allert covers a lot of ground in this book, and at points leaves himself open to criticism. For example, I wonder whether the issue of biblical authority proper is really at issue in the process of canon formation, or more how it has been construed in Evangelicalism. Allert seems to mean the latter but I can see some thinking the former is being questioned. I would rather attribute Scripture’s authority to its divine origin while recognizing that that very same God in whom Scripture originated was pleased to allow a rather complex and veiled process of canon formation to take place. In other words, what may be at stake is not so much whether the Bible is authoritative, but how a better understanding of Scripture’s canonical development can help us articulate better how we understand such authority. And I might add that the matter of canon is only made more complex when the OT is brought into the picture, where the greater time span involved introduces the greater likelihood of a significant period of textual, and oral, transmission. In other words, tradition history, as it is often called, adds an important, if also ill-defined, ingredient to the mix. (That can be taken as a plea for someone to write a comparable volume on issues of OT canonization.)
At any rate, criticism will come from Evangelical readers. This is inevitable in a book that attempts to discuss perennial issues in an accessible style. In the span of about 170 pages, Allert discusses numerous topics that (as Allert is fully aware) have been the focus of much scholarly attention for a very long time: the Evangelical tradition; the basics of NT canon formation; the first four centuries of the church. Along the way he comments on inspiration, inerrancy, ICBI, and the Gundry case at ETS. There is a lot here opportunity for criticism, and Allert does not seem to have any intention to back away from it.
Allert hits Evangelicals pretty hard, but I hope that does not produce purely defensive reponses. (An irony of the book is that Allert decries a reactionary posture so apparent in Evangelicalism, but his book may suffer from the same fate.) His aim is a noble one, to bring Evangelicals into conversation with important issues that will not go away simply by turning a blind eye and deaf ear.
It is almost a stock phrase in book reviews to end by saying something like “While not everyone will find the author’s views convincing, it is still a worthwhile read….” Or something like that. Well, in this case it is true. I hope that Evangelical theologians (not simply biblical scholars) will interact with the points Allert makes. At the end of the day, Allert is simply asking how we as Evangelicals can think about our Bibles in light of what we know about this one area of study, canon formation. Theologians are often the ones working directly in the area of articulating the nature of Scripture. It is my hope that book such as this, regardless of first reactions, will engender much needed conversations as Evangelicalism continues to explore new frontiers in self-definition.