Last week a friend shared Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Allert is an associate professor at Trinity Western University in BC and his book one of four volumes (thus far) in the Evangelical Ressourcement Series edited by D. H. Willilams, Professor of Religion in Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor.
“Ressourcement” is a French neologism for “return to the sources” or “renewal through the re-appropriation of sources.” It was coined to describe a renewal of Thomas’ thought by early 20th century Catholic thinkers. The phrase has been picked up by others, Reformed and Evangelical, to describe the same recovery within the context of patristics. From the back cover:
The Evangelical Ressourcement series is grounded in the belief that there is a wealth of theological, exegetical, and spiritual resources from the patristic era that is relevant for the Christian church today and into the future. Amid the current resurgence in interest in the early church, this series aims to help church thinkers and leaders reappropriate these ancient understandings of Christian belief and practice and apply them to ministry in the twenty-first century.
Matthew Milliner has (Dec 2011) a nice review of theological ‘ressourcement’ efforts of this type over at Books and Culture (where he reviews Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry). Vox Nova reviews things nicely too. Other such re-appropriations include Robert Webber’s four-volume Ancient-Future Collection (intent on integrating a broad range of traditions views — Orthodox, Catholic & Protestant — with postmodern and away from modernity), and of course Tom Oden’s (as general editor) of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project. It’ll come as no surprise to our readers that Dwayne and I think these efforts a good thing. As open theists press farther back to ground their convictions historically and theologically, hopefully more and more of them will make other important discoveries. By the way, my daughter married an Oden (Thomas Oden is brother to my son-in-law’s grandfather Talmadge Oden). So hey, don’t mess with me!
I enjoyed Allert’s volume and am looking forward to reading the others. As you can guess from the title, Allert is concerned to explore how the formation of the NT canon ought to inform our doctrine of Scripture. He doesn’t finally offer any easy answers, but his emphasis upon canon formation as integral to understanding Scripture and inspiration (and related issues) is spot on. From the Postscript:
Foundational to this whole enterprise is the understanding that a high view of Scripture should be just as concerned with how the New Testament came to exist in the form we have it as with what is says. What the Bible says is certainly important, but a knowledge of what the Bible says in intimately related to where the Bible grew — in the church—and how it grew. Another way of stating this would be that the church certainly has something to say about what the Bible says because the Bible is the church’s book. Any examination of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon cannot miss the vital role played by the church and its leaders. This does not deprecate the role of the Holy Spirit in this formation, but rather acknowledges the face that the Spirit was a work throughout the entire process of sifting, including, excluding, and interpreting these documents. The early fathers understood the Spirit to be active not only through the writing that eventually came to be included in the canon, but also in the broader context of all the ecclesial canons. Yes, all were measured by these writings, but the Spirit was seen as living and active in the entire community.
The conclusions reached are also not intended to undermine the authority of Scripture, nor should they. The bottom line in ancient and contemporary appropriations of the canon is that it is the foundational and primary source against which any reflection of God’s revelation must be measured. It is thus canonical in the sense of being a standard of measurement. But it could not and did not function in the early church as the only standard for texts. For roughly the first four hundred years of its existence, the church had no closed canon, so the Bible could not have functioned as the sole criterion. This is what makes the distinction between the terms “Scripture” and “canon” so important. Failure to distinguish between them could lead to some significant distortions of the patristic age and its understanding of the nature of canon.
We must also remember that both before and after the church managed to have a closed canon, the necessity of properly interpreting these texts remained. The closing of the canon does not obviate the fact that proper interpretation is key for the Bible to inform the church’s faith and life. Simply closing the canon wold have done little to counter the Gnostics, for example, because in many cases they were offering differing interpretations of the same material. Even today the canon requires interpretation. We cannot escape from this need because we are located in a particular context, with many different influences, and thus we come to the text with different lenses. All this necessitates some sort of standard against which we may measure interpretation.
One may ask, however, if I am denying the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture by saying that the proper interpretation of Scripture is not always apparent. But the clarity of Scripture cannot be uprooted from its context. Protestants from Luther to Wesley found the perspicuity of Scripture as an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics, but always a bit troublesome when common people began taking the teaching to certain conclusions.
For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that the people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance. So, when dealing with a scholar like Erasmus, Martin Luther could champion the perspicuity of Scripture by stating, “Who will maintain that the public fountain does not stand in the light, because some people in the back alley cannot see it, when every boy in the marketplace sees it quite plainly?” But when Luther was confronted with those he called sectarians, he admitted the danger of proving anything from Scripture: “I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they are fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from the Scriptures that beer is better than wine.” Calvin’s understanding was similar: “I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure.”
I am not here denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; I affirm both of these. I affirm that in the Bible God has given us all truths necessary for salvation. It is the final authority. But the Bible is not self-explanatory. And the very canonical construction of the New Testament as Scripture was a patristic accomplishment. The history of Christian doctrine is not just the story of repeating scriptural statements. Throughout doctrinal history we see the authors of heresies invariable taking their stand on Scripture, often claiming to recognize this as the sole court of appeal. These authors were not subsequently accused of being unscriptural, but rather they were accused of misusing Scripture. Thus, the point was not contended simply by appealing to the authority of Scripture, but the real battle was won on the interpretation of the Bible…
Appeal to the Bible as authority is essential, but not without a similar appeal to the proper lens of interpretation. That proper lens of interpretation has been the ecclesial canons of the church in which the Bible grew. In the early church a high view of Scripture was not one that necessitated a text that functioned authoritatively outside of the church.