Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book Review: The Bible Canon - L.M. McDonald

Lee Martin McDonald
The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority
3rd ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
Available from Alban Books
Available from

At SBL last year I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lee Martin McDonald for a few minutes for a chat about various things. McDonald is former President of Acadia Divinity School, current President of IBR, and soon to be adjunct at Fuller Seminary in California. His expertise has been in the history and reception of the Christian canon and the third edition of his The Biblical Canon is an excellent analysis of the issues relating to the canon (OT and NT but mainly with a focus on the NT). As a seminary instructor he is also cognizant of providing a readable and accessible treatment of the primary sources for students.

My favourite quote from the book is this one:

"No credible person today seriously believes that the Bible fell out of heaven fully bound in its current state with guilded edges and with a highly precise interpretation from God in it. The human dimension of the origin and production of the Bible, as well as how the divine message is conveyed through human words and ideas, cannot be ignored. Human beings were involved in the origins and production of hte Bible, and all of the words and ideas in the Bible are also reflective of human involvement. How the Bible is the word of God and yet comes to us in human form continues to be a mystery to Christians of every generation. This is not only an important part of the church's understanding about the Bible, but also about God's involvement in the human activity of Jesus, whom the church continues to confess as Lord and Christ.
Some of us were taught in seminary that the early church received from Jesus a closed biblical canon, our present OT, that was later expanded by the Catholics to include noncanonical (and thereby uninspired) apocryphal writings. In regard to the Hebrew Scriptures (or the OT), we were often taught that Jesus, the church's final authority, cited or referred to a closed canon of Hebrew Scriptures and that his authentication of them (he cited verses from teh three major parts of the OT: Law, Prophets, and Writings) was th echurch's mandate for accepting them as authoritative Scripture. In other words, the church simply adopted the canon of Jesus. In regard to the NT writings, man of us were taught that the early church simply recognized (as opposed to determined) its own inspired NT Scriptures that were believed to be apostolic, that is either written by or authorized by an apostle within general proximity to the time of Jesus and the apostels or at least written in the first century. We were further taught that these NT writings were unified in their teaching (i.e. they were orthodox) and for these reasons they were recognized by the majority of the churches to be inspired by God" (pp. 5-6).

McDonald's book reminds be of Craig Allert's A High View of Scripture with the exception that McDonald is far more detailed and methodological in his approach to the historical circumstances surrounding the canonization of the Christian Bible. But both are a good example as to why we cannot propagate the myth that the church simply recognized the inspired writings that became our New Testament. The Church was more active in the creation of the Scriptures than being a passive receptacle. However, McDonald certainly does not think the Scriptures any less divine or any less authoritative in the early church because of this. He still writes as an ordained Baptist minister and as a seminary lecturer.
An outline of McDonald's book runs:

1. Introduction
2. The Notion and Use of Scripture
3. The Notion and Use of Canon
4. Origins of the Hebrew Bible
5. Early Jewish Scriptures
6. Stabilization of the Hebrew Bible
7. Rabbinic Tradition
8. The Scriptures of Jesus and Early Christianity
9. From Story to Scritpure: Emergence of the New Testament Writings as Scripture
10. From Scripture to Canon: Tracing the Origins of the New Testament Canon
11. Influence of "Heretics"
12. Books, Texts, and Translations
13. Collections and Citations of Christian Scriptures
14. The Criteria Question
15. Final Reflections

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