Reviews

“Five Views on the New Testament Canon” — A Book Review

How did we end up with 27 books in the New Testament? Are these books authoritative because they were selected as part of the NT canon, or were they selected because they were authoritative? Various groups within Christendom think about the NT canon differently. The contributors to this monograph are Darian R. Lockett (conservative evangelical), David R. Nienhuis (progressive evangelical), Jason David Beduhn (liberal Protestant), Ian Boxall (Roman Catholic), and George L. Parsenios (Eastern Orthodox).

I am reading this monograph coming from a conservative evangelical viewpoint with a historic fundamentalist heritage. I am not unaware of my bias in this review, but I am not ashamed of it either. In all honesty, no one approaches the discussion with complete neutrality. So the editors, Stanley E. Porter and Benjamin P. Laird, write in the introduction,

We further anticipate that many readers will be confronted with viewpoints and perspectives that they have not seriously considered and that they will be encouraged to carefully examine the merits of their own positions and to engage in further research and reflection.”

Porter and Laird, p. 37

I received a free copy of this monograph from the publisher, Kregel Publications, in exchange for an honest review.

Porter, Stanley E. and Benjamin P. Laird, eds. Five Views on the New Testament Canon. Viewpoints. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2022.

Synopsis

The editors of this monograph ask each contributor to provide their perspective on three key issues regarding the New Testament Canon: (1) the historical factors that led to the formation and recognition of an authoritative collection of Christian writings; (2) the basis of the canon’s authority; and (3) the hermeneutical implications of the canon. The goal of the editors is “to provide readers with a unique opportunity to evaluate a variety of perspectives on the more foundational questions relating to the study of canon” (p. 36).

The brilliance of a series like Viewpoints is that each contributor gets to respond to other contributors. The focus of my synopsis, however, will limit itself to the main article written by each contributor. The following chart is my attempt to summarize each view.

 HistoryAuthorityHermeneutics
View #1: Conservative EvangelicalThe Church Fathers had a consciousness of a collection of NT documents prior to establishing the closed list of 27 books.The authority and inspiration of the texts were intrinsic to the documents themselves and were recognized by the church, not granted by the church.Interpreting individual texts is insufficient; each text must be interpreted within the collection of the whole canon, which provides both the limits and unity for appropriate context of a text’s meaning.
View #2: Progressive EvangelicalBecause of the a priori authority of Scripture, precise reconstructions of original author or audience are less important (e.g., historical Paul vs. canonical Paul) in solving criteria like apostolicity.The triune God is the basis of the Scripture’s authority by the act of inspiration. This inspiration takes place in the use of the documents by the church, not in their origin or composition by the human authors.Receiving the NT within its canonical context regardless of historicity removes the pressure of having an inerrant text, and the errors can be resolved in light of other passages in the canon.
View #3: Protestant LiberalChristianity existed in many varieties, and the prominent and favored texts eventually became canonical until the acceptance of 26 of the 27 books listed by Athanasius around AD 371.All Protestants must accept that the NT canon is the product of the Catholic Church and its leadership. The authors themselves understood their writings as human works. The NT books are neither verbally inspired nor equally authoritative in all parts. Authority resides in the religious experience of the communities behind the biblical texts.The hermeneutical task is to identify the relevant meaning that transcends culture, time-bound imagery, and expression through variety of methods including a careful historical-critical analysis of the background and assumptions of the author. In the NT, each author has their own unique understanding of Jesus and Christianity; authors should not be synthesized.
View #4: Roman CatholicThe discernment of the early church formed the canon on the basis of apostolicity and catholicity. The canon was officially declared by Trent.The 27 NT books are more authoritative than other Christian writings; the other writings are helpful for the history of Christianity. These texts are authoritative based on the fact that they were preserved.Canonical reading through the lens of the four Gospels and the rule of faith provides correction and balance.
View #5: OrthodoxThe development of the canon is analyzed through the criterion of “orthodoxy,” preserving the apostolic faith. While apostolicity and catholicity are significant, orthodoxy and traditional use are more prominent.The limits of Scripture are established by the church’s tradition.The canon provides unity of message in all Scripture, and the Scriptures express God’s condescension to human understanding. Thus, the principle of adaptability (or language of accommodation) is a key hermeneutical factor.

Reflections

Here are five reflections from this Five Views monograph.

First, I am surprised that Michael J. Kruger was not a contributor nor represented at all. There is one footnote of him, and it is in the introduction. See my review of Kruger’s brilliant work here.

Second, I am approaching this work as a Protestant and conservative evangelical with a heritage in historic fundamentalism. It is not surprising that I resonate with View #1 above. The best chapter, however, in my estimation is view #4. The Roman Catholic scholar, Ian Boxall, did a better job defending the contents of the New Testament canon, in my opinion, against the open views of the progressive evangelical (view #2) and Protestant liberal (view #3).

Boxall even argued against the common notion that the 27 books are a result of ecclesiastical-political manipulation. Interestingly, he says, “Catholics would describe the Church’s role as one of discernment, not so much the giving of authority to these texts as the recognition of the authority they already possess” (p. 144). This seems similar to the conservative evangelical view (Lockett agrees, pp. 197-98). The only difference is placing some level of significance in the declaration at Trent when he says,

the decisive date in the formation of the New Testament canon is arguably April 8, 1546, when the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent promulgated its “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures.”

Boxall, p. 131

Third, as a general observation, views #2 and #3 are not far apart. This is very telling on how pockets of what is labeled “progressive evangelicalism” are a lot closer to “Protestant liberalism.” This reminds me of the theological battles in the 50s where the unqualified engagement of “neo-evangelicals” (a self-created title) with the liberals brought confusion and eventual departure from evangelical beliefs. Evangelicalism was swallowed up by liberalism. While the progressive evangelical still holds to some authority of Scripture and doctrine of inspiration, practically speaking he is with the liberal Protestant in denying biblical inerrancy. They both question the authorship of some NT books (e.g., Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Letters). They both find the commands for slaves to obey their masters and wives to submit to their husbands and women’s silence in the church to be offensive and inappropriate for today’s audience (pp. 91, 116).

I am afraid that “progressive evangelicalism” is no different from many “new evangelicals” of the 1960s. They hold on to the New Testament as Scripture but place human intellect as the final authority that judges the contents and contours of the New Testament. In other words, they claim that the Bible is the Word of God and can be trusted in matters of faith, but it is not completely inerrant, especially in matters of history, science, and even claims of authorship. If you cannot trust the Bible in areas that can be easily scrutinized and researched, how can you trust it on matters of faith that are typically mystical and invisible?

Fourth, I find Lockett’s suggestion that the NT canon influences interpretation by means of collection and arrangement to be very insightful. There seems to be logic in the arrangement and collection of the NT documents. Lockett gives this example,

This historical reconstruction (Mark as the first Gospel) tells us something about the history of composition, but the canonical arrangement (Matthew as the first Gospel) emphasizes the potential connections between the opening of Matthew’s Gospel, including Jesus’s genealogy, and the end of the Old Testament.”

Lockett, p. 65

Finally, the old mantra that theology requires precision of language is true when it comes to the debate on the NT canon. The difference between the church granting authority to the NT documents versus recognizing their existing authority makes a big difference.

Conclusion

This monograph is written as an academic debate. As a New Testament student, I love the engagement in this work and enjoyed reading it. As a pastor, however, I would not recommend this book to our congregation (at least not initially). This is one of those theological-historical works that must remain in the academy.

For a really interested congregant, I would suggest first reading Greg Gilbert’s Why Trust the Bible (non-technical) or Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited (technical work; review here) to provide an introductory framework before engaging with Five Views on the New Testament Canon.

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