Friday, December 07, 2007
A High View of Scripture - Part 2: NT Canon Formation
Back to Allert's book A High View of Scripture? the next chapter is "Introducing New Testament Canon Formation". He contests the "typical evangelical" view that the church consciously separated canonical from non-canonical documents and added them to the growing canon. As he sees it there are three basic views on the formation of the canon: (1) The NT as a spontaneous occurence (e.g. Zahn); (2) The NT as formed in the second century as a response to Christian heresies (e.g. Harnack); and (3) The NT as formed in the fourth century (e.g. Sundberg). The main points that Allert raises, in my view, is that just because the apostolic fathers and patristic authors cited a NT text it does not mean it was canonical because they cited alot of other texts as well like 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, and 2 Baruch cited in the Epistle of Barnabas. Also, since the church did not inherit a clear list of authoritative writings from Judaism there is no clear reason to think that they simply added their own writings to the list. At the same time, Allert acknowledges that the NT books did have a considerable amount of authority even by the end of the first century, the church did discriminate its books in the second and third centuries, and it was not until the fourth century that authoritative lists were finally drawn up.
On the criteria of canonicity, Allert begins by noting that the scheme was retrospective. He has a good quote from F.F. Bruce, "The earliest Christian did not trouble themselves about criteria of canonicity; they would not have readily understood the expression." On Apostolicity he finds this operating in relation to authorship (real or supposed) by an apostle, authorship by an associate of an apostle, and agreement with the apostolic teaching. Orthodoxy meant congruity with the faith or teaching of the church. Catholicity was concerned with widespread usage especially by the major ecclesial centres of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. In regards to Inspiration, Allert affirms that the Bible is inspired but points out that the early church did not regard only the documents of the NT as inspired. They also regarded the institution of bishops, monks, martyrs, councils, prophetic gifts, and liturgies as inspired as well.
This is an interesting chapter but nothing I did not already know. But Allert is right in pointing out that it was not a matter of the church adding to a growing corpus of writings. It is anachronistic to speak of "canon" prior to the fourth century, but we can still speak of Scripture or "a distinct body of Christian sacred literature".