Due to the work of some folks like Bart Ehrman, questions over how the New Testament canon was formed are being asked by more of the general population than before. The New Testament has had a profound impact on culture and history, being, As the editors Stanley Porter and Benjamin Laird note in the book’s Introduction, “the most influential collection of writings—religious or otherwise—since the time they were composed some two millennia ago” (16). The New Testament is the foundation of the church’s doctrine. But historically, how was the New Testament formed? Were the correct books selected? Who was responsible for deciding what was canonical and what was not? Was the “process designed to suppress certain forms of Christianity that were viewed as unacceptable?” (16).
These questions are important for they shape how we read the New Testament. So even though this book is about how the NT canon was formed, there are hermeneutical factors involved. The 27 books chosen give us particular theologies about God, Jesus Christ his Son, salvation, eschatology, etc. Certain books are placed together to be read and interpreted together. Luke and Acts are two volumes written by Luke, but they are separated with Luke being placed between Mark and John, and Acts coming after John. Mark is believed by many to have been the first Gospel written, but Matthew comes first. John is believed to have written the Gospel of John, three epistles, and Revelation. Many who write “theologies of John” compare the Gospel with the three epistles. Yet John is placed among the Gospels and his three epistles (and Revelation) are at the other end of the New Testament. Something else is going on here than mere historical facts. we are meant to read these books in a certain way.
There are five contributors in this volume:
- Darian Lockett—Talbot School of Theology, Biola University—a Conservative Evangelical Perspective;
- David Nienhuis—Seattle Pacific University and Seattle Pacific Seminary—a Progressive Evangelical Perspective;
- Jason David BeDuhn—Northern Arizona University—a Liberal Protestant Perspective;
- Ian Boxall—The Catholic University of America—a Roman Catholic Perspective;
- George Parsenios—Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology—an Orthodox Perspective.
Lockett gives an early date to the NT canon and believes the texts were already authoritative and inspired “recognized (rather than created) by the church” (42). Rather than single books being placed into the canon (aside from Revelation), it is likely that there were various subcollections: the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Catholic Epistles (those written by the pillar apostles: James, Peter, and John). (Acts fits in somewhere.)
Hermeneutically, the fundamental role of canon brings together history and theological significance. As I wrote above, Matthew comes as the first of four Gospels instead of the (probably first-written) Gospel of Mark. This is most likely due to “the canonical association between Matthew and the Old Testament” (65). Noting the separation of Luke and Acts, Lockett writes, “The logic that recognized and led to the fourfold Gospel collection was the historical and theological witness to the life and message of Jesus” (66). Each text in the New Testament must be read and interpreted in light of the other texts.
Although Nienhuis presents the “progressive evangelical” perspective, he confesses in a footnote that he has “no real idea what a ‘progressive evangelical’ actually is!” He holds a high view of Scripture, but he articulates a view that is different from conservative streams of American evangelicalism. He regards the New Testament writings as being in a different class when it comes to authoritative ancient Christian literature. It is Holy Scripture, and these texts “were set apart from other early Christian writings in order to function as a particular instantiation of God’s self-communication for the purpose of Christian sanctification” (83). God alone gives this authority, and we see his blessing on these texts through their use in the history of the church.
Hermeneutically, no text stands alone. This means that no one text “needs to bear the weight of providing a faultlessly complete articulation of the gospel” (92). The good news of the gospel can’t be contained in a few verses. It is spread through the whole New Testament. While this means “the pressure is off for any text to be immaculate,” Nienhuis writes that there are texts that are “questionable” (1 Cor. 11:14), “offensive”(1 Cor. 14:34), “unjust” (Eph. 6:5), “uncouth” (Titus 1:12), and may even include teachings that “the majority of Christians do not affirm today” (Heb. 6:4, 6). This is no problem because “where one [text] falters or offends or confuses, another steps in to bolster or counterpoint or correct” (93).
Like his A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament, lists some ways the shape of the NT canon informs how we read the NT. But the purpose of the canon, according to Nienhuis, is spiritual formation. It is a mirror where we stand and abide so that the Spirit can work in us.
Jason BeDuhn, as a Liberal Protestant, wants to see “a dynamic experience of faith in the modern church like that which may be observed in early Christianity” (100). We do this not by living as people did 2,000 years ago, but understanding how terms and metaphors were used in their culture and transferring the meaning over to today’s culture. We need to understand the words of the Bible and “the inner logic and intended effect” of these words in their original context (100). Doing so allows us to understand “the possible meaning that transcends time and place” (100). BeDuhn believes that God reveals himself through the people and events that occurred, not in the textual words themselves. The books of the NT are not equally authoritative, and those who wrote them, while perhaps being “the wisest and most insightful followers of Jesus,” were still fallible (114).
Hermeneutically, certain scholars and historians believe that some half of Paul’s letters are authentic—actually written by him—and the others are inauthentic—written by someone else posing to be Paul. This constitutes a “canon within a canon,” where the authentic letters are to be held in higher regard than the inauthentic. Yet, according to BeDuhn, Paul affirmed a low Christology in Romans 1:3–4 and a high Christology in Colossians 1:15–17. If so, then he didn’t place much importance “on a definitive understanding of the metaphysical nature of Christ” (117-18). This helps us when we read certain contradictions in Paul’s letters. He tailored his messages to his audience, which helps us determine what is essential to the Christian faith. Unlike Lockett and Nienhuis, BeDuhn doesn’t put much (if any) stock into reading the NT books together as a collection. They were written for different audiences in different areas, they have different emphases, and the canonical form was later imposed upon them. Reading John’s high Christology into the low-christological Synoptic Gospels isn’t a good idea.
Ian Boxall presents the Catholic perspective, one that is historical, theological, and hermeneutical. He looks at factors that led to the NT canon and how it was defined at the Council of Trent. He examines the theological question of the canon’s authority and the basis for it. While the historical process of canonization was messy, discerning which texts were authoritative was guided by the Holy Spirit—”the conviction… that the Spirit-Paraclete “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13)” (145).
Hermeneutically, Boxall uses Revelation as a test case. This is a great example, since Boxall wrote a commentary and other books on Revelation. He looks at the boundary between the canonical Revelation and the extracanonical apocalypses, the christological implications of reading Revelation through the “rule of faith,” the relationship Revelation has to other canonical texts, and the question of canonical shape and order.
George Parsenios presents the Orthodox perspective. Following Theodore Stylianopoulos, there are four factors that served as criteria in the recognition of biblical writings: apostolicity, catholicity, orthodoxy, and traditional use. The criterion of “orthodoxy” refers to the doctrine in a particular book. So, a book could technically have been written by an apostle, but if it contains false teaching then it can’t be included within the canon. expressed in a given book. The criterion of “traditional use” seems to be just that so many people had been using a particular book for so long and understood it to be holy. There is much more to be said here.
Hermeneutically, just as God is one, so do the Scriptures have a unified message. As well, “the Scriptures are an expression of God’s condescension to human understanding” (179).It is through the Scriptures that human beings can have a living dialogue with Christ in their ascetical life (181). God adapted how he spoke to Israel at different times and Paul adapted how he lived among different people of various cultures. When he come to Scripture, God meets us where we are at. He diagnoses the circumstances of his people, and then either offers them a cure for their spiritual disease or gives them the necessary instruction to know him better.
After this comes a section on responses where each contributor responds to critiques from the others. The book ends with some final thoughts from the editors.
This is a very helpful book, especially since it treats the canon through the lenses of the historical process, theology, and hermeneutics. I think the value in this book is to read and perhaps be confronted with these five perspectives, four of which are probably not quite your own. I was surprised at how much I had in common with the contributors, even with BeDuhn, though I also disagreed with him the most. Read these, learn about the historical processes and the theology behind them, see where you have common ground, and get a fuller view of the canonization process. Though I do hope that by reading what these five authors have to say, you will be further convinced of the authenticity and authority of the New Testament canon.
- Editors: Stanley Porter / Benjamin Laird
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Kregel Academic (October 18, 2022)
- Read most of the Introduction
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