Saturday, December 15, 2007

A High View of Scripture - Part 3: Canon and Ecclesiology

In chapter three of A High View of Scripture, Craig Allert looks at the relationship between canon and ecclesiology or "the centrality of the church in the formation of the New Testament" (p. 67). In his mind the problem is that: "In contemporary evangelical discussions of the doctrine of Scripture, the importance of the ecclesial context is often lost or, at best, downplayed. What I mean by this is that many tratments of the doctrine of Scripture assume that the overriding concern of the church was to form a written collection (a New Testament canon) so that it might have a solid rule by which to govern its faith and life" (p. 68). All valid points in my mind. Allert's main point is that in the early church when the Church Father's spoke of "Scripture" they did not necessarily mean "canon" and when they spoke of "inspiration" they did not see this as limited to the Church's Holy Writings.
At one point Allert states what is at stake for him in the discussion: "Much is at stake for me in this study, for as an evangelical I have been taught and still maintain that the Bible is central in the Christian life; this has not been a merely academic study. As I trace those ten or so years, I can see how the study of theological history, particularly the function of Scripture in the early church, has impacted every otehr area of my theological study" (pp. 75-76). Whereas Allert claims he once believed in "No creed but the Bible" he has come to realize that "The church existed before the Bible" and that "the Christianity of history is not Protestantism" (p. 76). Thus John Henry Newmann was right, though Allert claims to be driven to a deeperer understanding of the church while remaining within Protestantism.
On canon itself, Allert points out that "canon" usually meant the rule of faith and could be used to refer to conciliar decisions, monastic rules, clerygy and various ecclesial lists. Resultantly: "The canonical tradition in the church was meant to be seen as awhole, as contributing to the life and well-being of the entire community" (p. 82). Isolating the Scriptures from the Rule of Faith leads to the problems that Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Vincent of Lerins saw, they become employed in service of heresy. The Father's saw Scripture as authoritative and normative for the early church and they cite it on nearly every page, but Scripture was understood and applied within the context of the life of the church and alongside the Rule of Faith. He writes, "the authority of Scripture in the early chruch is inadequately conceived when it is yanked outo f the context of teh believing community and placed at the whim of the individual".
My own reflections on this are:
1. I am starting to think that a doctrine of Scripture should be a subset of ecclesiology rather than as a stand alone topic of bibliology. To many this will probably sound like a step towards Catholicism, I hope it is rather a step towards the ancient churches of Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. I should note that my colleague at HTC, Prof. Andrew McGowan in his book The Divine Spiration of Scripture, has recently argued that a doctrine of Scripture should be placed in the context of the Doctrine of God!
2. The idea of situating one's beliefs in the context of the great tradition of the church is an idea explored by Steve Harmon in his excellent book Towards Baptist Catholicity.
3. On the Rule of Faith, Peter Balla in his book Challenges to New Testament Theology, has argued that something similar to the Rule of Faith is in fact the centre of a NT Theology. In which case the Rule of Faith is created by Scripture, the upshot is that Scripture itself creates the framework in which it is to be interpreted.

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