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RBL 09/2008

Allert, Craig D.
A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible
and the Formation of the New Testament Canon
Evangelical Ressourcement
Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007. Pp. 203. Paper. $18.99. ISBN
0801027780.

Garwood P. Anderson
Nashotah House Theological Seminary
Nashotah, Wisconsin
Craig D. Allert writes A High View of Scripture? for the evangelical community, which, in
his estimation, has reckoned too little with either the facts or the implications of the
history of the New Testament canon. Allert, an associate professor and the chair of
religious studies at Trinity Western University, British Columbia, states a clear agenda in
the introduction. Although he will engage a variety of historical questions regarding the
formation of the New Testament canon, he does not aspire to offer a comprehensive
treatment of the historical questions surrounding the formation of the New Testament
but, rather, to reckon with those historical data as they bear upon evangelical views of
Scripture: This book is about how a historical understanding of the formation of the
New Testament canon should inform an evangelical doctrine of Scripture (12). More
pointedly, Allert inquires how plenary verbal inspiration, the dominant evangelical high
view of Scripture, correlates with the historical realities of the formation of the New
Testament. Quite rightly, he notes the lack of reflection on this question in evangelical
circles. He also sketches what he regards as the default evangelical view of the matter with
the help of a descriptive image, the binder mentality. On this view, the documents of
the New Testament were essentially accorded canonical status almost as soon as written
and added to the binder of canonical documents until the final text was written; thus,
the close of the canon is virtually coincident with the composition of its final member.

This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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Though there is obviously an intentional element of exaggeration here, in B. B. Warfields


account of canonization and the later work of R. Laird Harris, Allert is able to cite
evangelical scholars who articulate something very much like this binder mentality. As he
will seek to show throughout the book, here Allert sees the dogmatic precommitment to a
certain evangelical view of inspiration running roughshod over the historical facts of
canon formation.
Allert defers the question of the New Testament canon in the first chapter in favor of an
introductory survey of the vexed question of the definition of evangelicalism. He offers a
very fineif somewhat long and detailedoverview, rightfully highlighting the diversity
of the movement and resisting narrow definitions that rely on a single frame of reference.
Allert concludes the survey by noting that, despite the movements commitment to what
it regards as doctrinal essentials, evangelicalism is characterized by a general disregard for
the broader Christian theological heritage. Lacking historical resources for ongoing
theological discernment, the movement not infrequently reverts to a defensive
traditionalism (which in this context means deference to the short-lived theological
traditions within the evangelical movement). Allert maintains that to the extent that
evangelicalism was forged as a reaction to nineteenth-century liberalism, its theological
distinctives, not least its theology of Scripture, lack a larger historical context. In
particular, evangelicals have insufficiently reckoned with the historical phenomena of
canonization.
With the second chapter, Allert turns his attention directly to the topic at hand with a
sweeping survey of the historical issues of the New Testament canon. Closely following
John Barton (Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity [London:
SPCK, 1997]), Allert proposes three broad models that offer answers to the historical
questions surrounding the canonization of the New Testament, each represented by a
scholar with a distinctive view of the matter. Theodor Zahn is said to have argued that
there was already a New Testament canon in existence by the end of the first century
(41), an inference drawn by reference to patristic citations of New Testament texts. Of
course, Zahn did not argue for a closed collection of twenty-seven texts, only for a core
collection of writings already broadly accepted by the end of the first century. For Adolf
von Harnack, the second century was the decisive period for New Testament canon
formation. Harnack criticized Zahns hypothesis for his undifferentiated appeal to
citation evidence from the church fathers; it is not just that a text is cited but how it is
cited that counts (e.g., with introductory formula). Moreover, as is well known, Harnack
saw Marcionism as providing a major impetus toward canonization. The third hypothesis
is that of Albert C. Sundberg, who limits the notion of canon to the results of deliberate
attempts to define the boundaries of Christian Scripture characteristic of the fourth
century. Although the early church used what would become canonical texts as Scripture,
This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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it is a category mistake to speak of them therefore as canonical prior to the late fourth
century. But Allert, again following Barton closely, is careful to show that the three
hypotheses are not in fact as far apart as it may seem. Rather, each is using a different
working definition of canon. For Zahn and Harnack, canon refers to the set of
religiously authoritative texts that are already functioning as Scripture; for Sundberg,
canon is a technical term reserved for a delimited and closed collection of scriptural
texts. Thus, the models are not necessarily incompatible; in fact, the three hypotheses are
shown to be complementary when regarded as successive phases in the development of
the New Testament canon. Allert continues with a fine introductory discussion of the
criteria of canonization, which he summarizes as three: apostolicity (broadly defined),
orthodoxy, and catholicity and widespread use. Although it is a common assumption
among evangelicals, Allert denies that inspiration functioned as a criterion of canonization,
arguing that for the church fathers the inspiration of the Spirit applies to a larger set of
Christian texts, utterances, and actions than only those texts that would become canonical.
With the third chapter, Canon and Ecclesiology, Allert sets aside the history of the New
Testament canon and engages a larger set of corollary issues. In particular he seeks to
demonstrate that evangelical construals of Scripture are characteristically flawed for their
lack of attention to the early Christian theological tradition, in which Scripture is always
an ecclesial phenomenon. He finds evangelicals frequently guilty of anachronism for
reading plenary verbal inspiration as though it were the exclusive model of
understanding Scripture in Christian history and by making facile references to the Bible
in the early Christian centuries before the church had arrived at a common definition of
its contents. He also shows that patristic appeals to Scripture are not limited to texts that
would become the Protestant canon. At the root of much evangelical confusion is a
restitutionist (or restorationist) historiography that holds in deep suspicion
developments that postdate the apostolic era, leading to a view of Scripture that sets it up
as independent of if not even over against the church. But Allert demonstrates
persuasively that in the patristic era the scriptural texts alone were not sufficient as
independent arbiters of early Christian theological disputes, for heretics appealed to
scripture no less than the orthodox. Scripture has its rightful place within the churchs
canonical tradition (following William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian
Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism [Oxford: Clarendon, 1998]), which, in addition
to Scripture, includes the churchs the rule of faith, creeds, liturgical practices, leadership
structures, iconography, and so forth. Thus, the Bible is properly the churchs book, and
any satisfactory account of biblical authority will need to see Scripture in its proper
ecclesial context.
In chapters 45 (A Closed Second-Century Canon?; Two Important Fourth-Century
Lists), Allert returns to the more specific issue of canon formation. As the chapter titles
This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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indicate, this is not a comprehensive survey but a more detailed treatment of two issues
already touched upon in chapter 2. As expected given that introduction, Allert argues that
the second century was not the decisive period for canon formation. In particular,
evidence is found wanting for the claim that any of the second-century heresies
(Marcionism, Gnosticism, Montanism) provided the impetus for canon closure. Allert
also surveys the debate concerning the Muratorian Fragment, though without taking a
strong position himself with regard to its date and provenance. He regards a second- or
fourth-century dating largely inconsequential for our view of the canonical process, as
even a late-second-century dating would not serve as conclusive evidence for an early
canon given the nature of the Muratorian Fragment. Allert also considers the status of the
Gospels and the Pauline letters in the second century. He finds evidence for a defined
fourfold Gospel collection to be inconclusive, and while the evidence for a Pauline
collection is more impressive, he notes that Pauls letters are treated with relative
indifference in the second century. In neither case, however, does the appellation
canonical apply in the second century.
In chapter 5, Allert jumps to the fourth-century canon lists of Eusebius and Athanasius.
Following E. R. Kalin (The New Testament Canon of Eusebius, in The Canon Debate
[ed. L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002], 386404),
he argues that Eusebius has only three, rather than four, categories in his list
antilegomena (disputed) and notha (rejected) being synonymous in this context. In
any case, Eusebiuss list demonstrates that even by the early fourth century the church
lacked a consensus regarding the New Testament canon. Allerts treatment of Athanasiuss
Festal Letter of 367 is uncontroversial, but he is quick to point out that neither this list
nor even that of the Third Synod of Carthage (397) with it marks a definitive closure to
the New Testament canon. Controversy over the limits of the canon and geographic
variations persisted even into the late seventh century.
With the substantive discussion of the New Testament canon behind him, Allert turns to
Inspiration and Inerrancy in the sixth and final chapter. He offers an exegesis of
evangelical loci classici regarding Scripture: 2 Tim 3:1417; 2 Pet 1:1921; and John 10:34
35. While not denying the divine inspiration of Scripture, he finds traditional evangelical
claims based in these texts to be often exaggerated and sometimes anachronistic. The New
Testament does not offer a detailed theory of inspiration, which in turn has implications
for the evangelical commitment to inerrancy. Allert urges caution in concluding that
inerrancy is the necessary corollary to inspiration. He also notes that despite evangelical
attempts to give a clear definition to inerrancy, the doctrine remains ambiguous and
sometimes even counterproductive, as illustrated by the controversy over Robert
Gundrys commentary on Matthew that led to his forced resignation from the Evangelical
Theological Society in 1983, even while he maintained his adherence to inerrancy.
This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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The book concludes with a postscript summarizing the main points and urging
evangelicals to recover a theology of Scripture that gives due regard to its relationship to
the church that is its home and place of origin. This is followed by a useful appendix that
gives a sampling of church fathers citations of noncanonical texts (in fact, many are
deuterocanonical) supporting a claim made several times in the book, that patristic
citation of a text is not a reliable index to its canonicity. The remainder of the back matter
consists of a select bibliography, an index of Scripture and other ancient writings, and a
subject index that includes modern authors.
Allert has offered the evangelical world an overdue and much-needed reflection on the
nature of Scripture in light of the history of the New Testament canon. Although
evangelicals have produced several serviceable histories of the formation of the New
Testament, theological reflection on the character of Scripture in light of what is known of
canon history is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a question heretofore rarely given
substantive attention in evangelical circles. For this reason alone, Allerts book deserves
serious engagement, and in broad terms, I think he is pointing in the right direction by
calling evangelicals to view of Scripture that is more robustly ecclesial. He rightly and
effectively dismantles special pleading apologetic accounts of canon formation, which, if
not held by all evangelicals, are at least common enough to merit the rebuttal he offers.
The book is well-tuned rhetorically for Allerts implied reader. He writes as an evangelical
to evangelicals, admirably transparent to the ways in which his discoveries regarding the
canon have propelled his own theological pilgrimage. The book is free of smugness and
full of affirmations that should quell misappropriation of his arguments. It can be hoped
that this book will start a productive conversation within evangelicalism on a topic too
long ignored.
As much as I consider Allert to be on target in general terms, several issues of execution,
though not fatal, are worthy of comment. In retrospect, the first chapter turns out to be
somewhat problematic. While the survey of evangelicalism is interesting, well-informed,
and helpful, I was never quite persuaded that it was necessary for Allerts argument. The
more substantial problem, however, is that, having succeeded in sketching the
movements diversity, Allert effectively ignores his own account by treating a typical
evangelical doctrine of Scripture as monolithic, in which all evangelicals are descendants
of Warfield who subscribe to R. L. Harriss apologetic account of inspiration and
canonization. Even if this is a well-populated set of evangelicals (and I am not sure that it
is), it is important to note that not all evangelicals are biblicist in the same way (e.g., not
all are persuaded of the felicity of plenary verbal inspiration) and that even among those
who follow Warfields account of biblical inspiration many would not subscribe to his
historical account of New Testament canonization. This is all to say that, as Allerts own
survey of evangelicalism would have led us to expect, there is not a typical view of the
This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.

canonization of the New Testament among evangelicals. On the popular level, evangelicals
are likely to have almost no awareness of the historical questions, and the theologically
trained are just as likely to accept the nontheological and nonapologetic accounts of
Bruce Metzger or F. F. Bruce as those of Warfield and Harris.
Second, I find the relationship of the second chapter to the rest of the book similarly
problematic. While the Zahn, Harnack, and Sundberg typology proves a useful
framework for introducing the basic issues of canon history, Allerts subsequent use of it
proves uneven and misleading. Like Barton, whose argument he follows, Allert initially
uses the framework to argue that what appears as conflicting positions are instead
evidence of a shifting and narrowing definition of canon, and he moves neatly from
that observation to describe three phases of the canonical process. This is all well and
good, but as the argument develops, it is clear that Allerts sympathies will lie with
Sundbergs narrower use of the term canon. This works wellmaybe too wellto
dismiss Zahn and Harnack, and with them Warfield, Harris, and the standard evangelical
view. But one senses a straw man when later in the book the nuance of the second chapter
(and of Bartons original argument) is replaced by caricature: Each of the three principal
theories offers a crucial time for when the canon can be considered closed. Theodor Zahn
claimed that the church essentially had a closed canon by the end of the first century.
Adolf von Harnack pushed the crucial time for closure into the mid- to late second
century (8788, emphasis added). This is unhelpful, for clearly neither Zahn nor Harnack
were making claims about the closure of the canon per se, as Allert himself made perfectly
clear in the first chapter (see 88 n. 1). One might attribute this to carelessness, but I think
rather that Sundbergs definition of terms so well suits Allerts interest in refuting the
typical evangelical view that nuance gives way to caricature. One of the unfortunate
casualties of setting Sundberg against Zahn and Harnack, of locating canonization proper
as a strictly fourth-century phenomenon, is that those landmarks of evidence from the
first through third centuries that bear witness to canonical process and even an emerging
consensus tend to be given less than their due. The impression leftunintentionally, I
thinkis that more of the New Testament was undetermined by the end of the second
century than was in fact the case. Meanwhile, Allert had himself already sketched a
balanced, fourth alternative in the three phases of the second chapter, and the overall
argument of the book might have been stronger had that view been advanced throughout.
These misgivings aside, this is an important, timely and readable book that offers a muchneeded corrective and that should inspire a productive conversation, especially among
evangelicals who are seeking to frame a theology of Scripture in which due attention is
paid to the formation of the churchs book.

This review was published by RBL 2008 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.