Book Review: Five Views on the New Testament Canon

Book Review Five Views on the New Testament Canon

I always enjoy a multi-perspective book – whilst they don’t offer the depth of a full monograph, or the potential for a hidden gem of an edited collection, books like this help orientate a non-specialist reader like myself to an important topic, and some of the key views on it. No volume like this can be exhaustive – for example, having picked it up at AAR/SBL/ETS last year, I could have wondered about a secular or ‘study of religion’ approach to Canon formation – but this is where a good example of the genre can be helpful, because it invites you into deeper engagement.

The structure of these is fairly uniform – x number of essays, then some responses. This volume, from Kregel Academic and edited by Stanley Porter and Benjamin P. Laird, slightly varies from Zondervan/IVP USA volumes I’ve read before, by having the major essays, and then five responses where each responded to the other four essays. Copied straight from the back cover/website, here are the perspectives and their proponents:

A Conservative Evangelical Perspective — Darian R. Lockett
A Progressive Evangelical Perspective — David R. Nienhuis
A Liberal Protestant Perspective — Jason David BeDuhn
A Roman Catholic Perspective — Ian Boxall
An Orthodox Perspective — George L. Parsenios

It’s worth saying at this point that I’d identify as a conservative evangelical (with some important modifiers, like ‘Reformed’ and ‘Charismatic’, as well as stressing that I’m evangelical in the Global/British sense, rather than the Trump-supporting American sense) – so read this review with that in mind! Porter and Laird offer an introduction which is helpful as a stand-alone introduction to the field of NT Canon, as well as to the shape (and, crucially, the scope) of the book. Echoing that, to understand how this review works, I’ll offer brief comments on each perspective, before a longer passage about the responses.

Lockett’s ‘conservative evangelical view’ seems sound and strong to me. Helpful emphasis on canonicity. In his own words, “The distinctive of this perspective, in my view, is the early dating of the New Testament canon, the theological conviction of an authoritative and inspired text recognized (Rather than created) by the church, and the historical and hermeneutical importance of authorial intention” (p.42). An interesting part of his argument (not seemingly picked up on by some of his more critical responders responding to him) is a recognition of distinct sub-units in the NT Canon (p. 55). With a strong reliance on the work of John Webster, Lockett notes that “in claiming inspiration for the New Testament there need not be a denial of the historical development of the canon. Rather, the divine-human reality behind the origin of the canon is affirmed” (p.59). Crucially, as Lockett notes in his conclusion, canonicity has to look like “a canonical approach [that] guides interpretation of the New Testament by enabling the interpreter to recognize that Scripture is in essence a unified two-testament witness to Christ” (p. 71).

Neinhuis’s ‘progressive evangelical view’ felt to me a lot like what we in the UK call ‘open evangelical’ (for more check out this blog post). Nienhuis  notes at the outset he isn’t clear what that means! The footnote at the start of his essay is very revealing and honest – balancing a high view of Scripture with anarticulation “that is noticeably different from the conservativism(s) of mainstream American evangelicalism” (p. 73, fn. 1). Overall I found it interesting but a bit scattergun – ‘open’ or magpie would be a good description in my view. I did appreciate a couple of observations, though; “The results of the separation between the study of the Bible and theological reflection have been disastrous for scholar and layperson alike. We see it in the academiy, where the biblical studies guild continues to operate mostly independently of theology… as though they do not ultimately address the same subject matter and can get their work done in isolation andwithout myopic distortion” (p. 79). I resonated with quite a lot of what Nienhuis had to say, which is perhaps no surprise.

BeDuhn’s ‘Liberal Protestant Perspective’ is just that – he plays his rather tired cards (you can probably guess what ‘issues’ in the New Testament need to be modified for contemporary mores) early and I could almost have written this chapter based on half-remembered undergraduate notes about the history of biblical interpretation. For example, perhaps better representing some European ‘liberal’ scholarship rather than anything recognisably Protestant ina historic sense was this observation: “liberal Protestant Christianity practices a kind of ‘dynamic equivalence’ translation of the faith, a translation from the terms and tropes and themes and metaphors in which it was expressed in Greco-Roman civilization, to modern equivalents capable of producing the same faith effect in contemporary people” (p. 100). The idea of ‘producing a faith effect’ is almost as concerning as the chronological snobbery inherent in what’s being said here – particularly (And it is here that the Western/European bias of this sort of position is fairly implicitly clear) as as some of these ‘terms and tropes and themes and metaphors’ are not as culturally bound as might be imagined. Contrasting with confessional Christianity of a variety of flavours, as I understand it, it seems to me to be somewhat lazy in saying that “even on core matters of faith, such as Christology or eschatology, differing positions may be observed throughout the writings” (p. 117). This charge of ‘inconsistencies’ feels somewhat out of place – and I wonder what particularly the Orthodox and Roman Catholic interlocutors reckoned of that statement!

Boxall’s Roman Catholic perspective was fascinating, particularly to me as a convinced Reformed Protestant. I appreciated his self-awareness, particularly around his own theological biases and commitments, and overall I thought his chapter was one of the most thoughful. His opening words say a lot in a sentence: “From a Roman Catholic perspective, 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’” (p. 131). Contained in that are some profound ecclesiological, historical and theological differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant thought. A key distinction from Lockett, at least, is contained in Boxall’s summary that “the formation of the New Testament canon as a widely accepted, closed list of authoritative and normative early Christian writings was a long and complex process of community discernment” (p. 140) – with no idea of ‘givenness’, for example, though his conclusion is Pneumatological: “The New Testament canon reflects the early church’s Spirit-led discernment of this authority…” (p.156). There is also an interesting notion that having a defind canon is the beginning of something, rather than the end of matter – which is something to ponder.

Parsenios’ ‘Orthodox Perspective’ is fascinating not least in the way he ignores the format the other perspectives adhere to! To this Protestant Western evangelical layman it read instead as a fascinating apologia and understanding of Orthodox canon formation and biblical interpretation. Contra a conciliar decision (Roman Catholic), or gift (conservative evangelical), he suggests “The twenty-seven-book New Testament has been codified… by the practice of the church” (p. 159). This position is thoroughgoingly pneumatological (which the Charismatic element of my theology finds very attractive!) – for example “Tradition, as Irenaeus said earlier, is the life of the Holy Spirit in the church, guiding it in the truth” (p.174). This notion of divine guidance has greater resonance with my own conservative evangelical Protestant view, than the rather clinical methods of liberal Protestantism, for example.

The response essays get quite heated, which makes for rather enjoyable reading! I enjoyed Lockett’s challenge of Nienhuis on the usage of Webster (p. 192), and his firm challenge to DeBuhn (bold reflecting his emphasis):Whether or not BeDuhn is committed to metaphysical naturalism, his dependence on historical criticism suggests a kind of methodological naturalism which limits the ability of his position to assess both the historical and theological elements of the New Testament canon” (p.196). His engagement with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox views is even-tempered, with a helpful clarification regarding the latter that “I would argue that the church’s role in canon formation is a passive one of reception and recognition” (p. 199). I resonated with Nienhuis’s statement that “I am deeply sympathetic to the unabashedly ecclesial and pneumatological approach to canonization presented by those who have written from their respective locations in the ancient Eastern and Western Christian traditions” (p. 201), though differ in his concerns with his Protestant friends: “Whilst I have raised concerns with Lockett’s more anti-institutional perspective, at least I can share with him a scholarly commitment to approaching the Bible according to its primary identity as Christian Scripture. I do not think I can say the same for BeDuhn…” (p.208). BeDuhn’s own response seems to backpedal some of the extremes of his essay, and seems to be representing the view that no-one has ever thought about different kinds of literature or multifaceted voices in the Biblical canon. For example, his closing words are concerning, I think, to those that believe in the Bible we can in some way hear God’s voice: “If modern Christians are not to silence the spirit, then they must discern it between and among the many voices collected into the one Scripture” (p. 223). It is telling, too, that BeDuhn acknowledges his own position is closer to aspects of the non-Protestant views than the other Protestants. A strange essay, representing a strange and in my view confused position.

Boxall begins his response with two areas of broad agreement – the complexity of the task, and a recognition that lots of differing theological terms are at play (p. 225). He recognises that “Perhaps most surprising for westerners is Parsenios’ observation that there is no discernable ‘moment’ which marks the ‘end’ of the canonical process for Orthodox Christians” (p. 235). This is one of the more obvious differences – for the most part Boxall is keento emphasise commonality, and to keep the conversation moving. Parsenios begins his response with a lengthy quotation from William Wrede, going on to write of BeDuhn’s essay that it “is the polar opposite of the Orthodox position on the canon” (p. 240) which did rather amuse me, depending on how one capitalises the ‘o’ there. Parsenios’ engagement with Nienhuis and Lockett is fair and penetrating – his questions left me thinking, and thinking that the two could combine to make a stronger case, in this debate. What is interesting is that whilst Nienhuis writes admirably of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic positions, Parsenios sees Nienhuis’s position as “from an Orthodox perspective, … beautifully articulated” (p. 246). His critique of BeDuhn is sustained, and not just from an ‘Orthodoxy is better’ standpoint: “My critique of BeDuhn comes from a closer look at the details of his historical reconstruction” (p. 247). This is a model of robust engagement – if someone claims to be making a historical argument, engage them on historical grounds. Porter and Laird’s concluding essay wraps the volume up nicely, including the provocative observation that “one might be surprised to see that… the conservative evangelical position has some striking similarities with the liberal Protestant view… whilst the progressive evangelical view has several similarities with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox positions regarding the role and influence of tradition” (p. 254). One comment I would make is that this is not surprising given the shared historical roots of the conservatve evangelical and liberal Protestant traditions (And their antagonism towards each other!) – and the (in my view good) desire of ‘open’ or ‘progressive’ (in this sense) evangelicals to be more mindful of tradition and history.

Overall, this is a multi-perspective volume that rewards careful reading, and will certainly get you thinking. I would say I identified about 90% with Lockett, 75% with Nienhuis, 30% with BeDuhn, and around 40% with Boxall and Parsenios. Your own reading/theological reflection will likely vary! This would be a good book for pastors thinking seriously about apologetics and ecumenical issues, but I imagine will be most helpful to students of theology and religious studies thinking about canon and New Testament, particularly in ecumenical settings or ‘secular’ universities. The only weaknesses of this as a book in my view were the leeway given to Parsenios to go off-format in his original essay, and the lack of a complete bibliography (There are subject and name indices – a full bibliography either at the end of each chapter [ugh] or at the end of the volume would enhance it’s utility for the student and reader).


If you’ve enjoyed this review, and want to look into some related books, here are some more book reviews!

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