Friday, November 30, 2007

A High View of Scripture - Part 1

I'm now reading through Craig D. Allert's book A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
In the Introduction Allert introduces his book by saying that it's not the history of the canon, rather, it is about how the historical formation of the New Testament canon should influence the evangelical doctrines of Scripture. He says, "Most evangelicals, particularly at the popular level, have what I call a 'dropped out of the sky' understanding of the Bible" (p 10). What that means is that evangelicals treat Scripture as the primary source for their faith without properly recognizing how this collection came into existence. Allert takes exception to L.I. Hodges' proposal that either one works deductively from the self-teaching of Scripture which interprets the human phenonemon within that grid, or else one works inductively from the phenomenon of Scripture even if it requires a modification of Scripture's own self-teaching. The former is a "high" view of Scripture and the latter is a "low" view of Scripture. In Allert's opinion: "The problem here is not that evangelicals have a high view of Scripture but rather that a high view of Scripture has been usurped by verbal plenary theorists - the determination of what is high and what is low comes from them. The difference between a high and low view of Scripture has been reduced to the difference between what the Bible says or teaches (high view) and what the Bible is or its phenomena are (low view) - yet surely what the Bible is has much importance for what the Bible says, and a high view needs to take this into consideration" (p. 11). That sets him towards his task which is "how a historical understanding of the formation of the New Testament canon should inform an evangelical doctrine of Scripture" (p. 12).
In chapter one Evangelicals, Traditionalism, and the Bible Allert looks at evangelicalism and its approaches to the Bible (from a decidedly Canadian perspective). Importantly (and do heed this) Allert is writing as a self-confessed evangelical who believes that Scripture is inspired. He follows Dave Bebington's quadrilateral approach to defining evangelicalsm (biblicist, crucicentric, conversionist, and activist) and notes the diversity within the evangelical movement as a whole. Allert believes that evangelical debates with liberalism have forced it into a form of "traditionalism". He writes: "Evangelicalism has a narrow theological foundation because it has mostly focused its theological liberalism. Many evangelicals today affirm the essentials that grew out of that battle with little understanding as to why these doctrines were raised above others ... This traditionalism has left evangelicals not only with withered roots as to the sources of the early church that should assist in sustaining it, but also with a mentality that protection of the essentials is more importaht than understanding how they actually came to be essential" (p. 35). His recipe for the volume is then to broaden evangelicalism's narrow theological foundation by considering how the formation of the New canon can make us all more faithful evangelicals.
At this point I have voice my utter disgust at Allert's project: He has written the book that I've been planning to write for the last two years (curse his Canadian socks). I agree with his diagnosis of the problem (lack of historical awareness of how the Bible was formed) and his prognosis (it gives us a skewed "Bible fell from the sky" bibliology). The question is will his procedure lead to an enrichment of an evangelical bibliology and maintain a genuinely high view of Scripture that is historical informed and consistent with Scripture's own self-teaching? How does Allert intend to explain Jude's incorporation of 1 Enoch, the Synoptic problem, Paul's use of the extra-biblical "rock" story in 1 Cor. 10, the churches preference for the Septuagint over the Hebrew text, biblical parallels to ANE traditions and second temple literature, and the fact that the church did create the Bible rather than merely receive it* in a way that satisfies those who pursue a deductive theological approach? I guess we'll see!
* I would say that God used the church to create the Bible that he intended us to have. But I don't think it is the case that the church merely discovered the canon whereby certain documents forced themselves onto the church by virtue of their inspiration. The issue of which documents are inspired was precisely the question!


Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this issue for several weeks from a slight different angle.

Often times when I discuss theological issues with other believers I get the sense that history matters very little in their understanding of the Bible.

Its as if when it comes to the resurrection evanglicals are the first to announce that our's is a historical faith grounded in history, but then when it comes to actually interpreting scripture, whether the issue be how to interpret 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 11 on women history goes out the window. Regardless of whether 1 Tim 2 is "universal" or not, we cannot do theology before we do history, but that is exactly what happens.

Its the same thing with numerous other topics.

Skjou said...

Thanks for this review mike. Keep them coming. I picked up this book at SBL and your comments are pushing me to actually read it.

Tim Gombis said...

No worries, Mike, there still may be quite a bit of room for your planned volume! Allert's book goes a long way in opening up this dialogue for evangelicals, and doing so in a way that isn't as threatening as it feels it's going to be, and he sets the table very nicely for future discussions. But he leaves many questions unanswered by the end of the book, or many doctrinal shibboleths still intact. I would have liked to see some more proposals for how he would actually reconfigure an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Though I must say that his discussion of the R. Gundry/ETS debacle at the end was a good start. It's a great volume but only the start of a conversation that evangelicals desperately need to have.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

When I was in seminary I had the distinct impression that some of my professors were of the opinion that evangelicals were ignorant and un-thoughtful people who had failed to wrestle with these sorts of questions at all. I'm glad to see there is good stuff being written out there - though I do not have high hopes that some of the professors I have in mind will ever read such a book - it's published by Baker and not Fortress or HaperCollins after all...