Monday, June 11, 2007

A Response To Craig Allert's Recent Book On Scripture

D.H. Williams, a Baptist patristic scholar, has been editing a series of books entitled Evangelical Ressourcement. The first book came out in 2005, and the third in the series was published earlier this month. The first two books were written by Williams, and the third is authored by Craig Allert. That third volume is titled A High View Of Scripture? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), and it primarily addresses the New Testament canon and Biblical inerrancy. On the back cover of the book, we read the following about the Evangelical Ressourcement series:

"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."

I've read all three volumes in the series. Though I disagree with Williams and Allert on some of the issues they address, I agree with the general thrust of the series as outlined above, and I think that they make many good points along the way. Williams is correct, for example, in noting that justification through faith alone is found in some of the church fathers, a fact that's often denied or underestimated.

However, I have more disagreements with Allert's volume in the series than with either of the previous two. I think that the series has always had a problem with being too negative in its assessment of Evangelicalism and too positive in its assessment of patristic Christianity and groups such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Allert's book seems to me to take the series even further in that direction, partly because of its own content and partly because the series has now gotten into its third volume without having had much positive to say about Evangelicalism or much negative to say about the alternatives. Men like D.H. Williams and Craig Allert consider themselves Evangelicals, but the series hasn't yet done much to explain why they would remain Evangelicals in light of the criticisms they've brought against Evangelicalism.

There's a lot that's good about Evangelicalism, in addition to the many bad elements that do deserve criticism. If the level of scrutiny Craig Allert brings to common Evangelical beliefs about the canon and Biblical inerrancy were also brought to common patristic beliefs about the church or tradition, for example, or were brought to common Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox views on such subjects, what would be the result? I think that Evangelicalism can withstand such scrutiny better than a system like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy can, and the fact that men like Williams and Allert still consider themselves Evangelicals suggests to me that they've reached the same conclusion. But it isn't reflected in what they're writing as much as it ought to be. Michael Spencer has written a review of Allert's book that's more positive than my assessment of it, but at the end of the review he raises some issues similar to what I've discussed above.

Allert criticizes a lot of Evangelicals by name. He criticizes B.B. Warfield and Norman Geisler at length, for example. Perhaps some of the people he criticizes will respond, but that may not happen for months or years, if at all. In the meantime, I want to provide a relatively brief response that might be helpful to people thinking through these issues. I hope that some people who know the relevant issues better than I do will respond to Allert in more depth.

I hold a position on the early church's view of scripture similar to what Allert describes in the last full paragraph on page 107 as an "open canon" position. Thus, much of what Allert criticizes in Evangelical assessments of the canon isn't applicable to me. Allert frequently refers to how Evangelicals see references to scripture in the church fathers and "immediately and automatically view these passages as references to a closed sixty-six-book biblical canon" (p. 71). See also page 151, for example, where Allert criticizes the Living Bible for using the phrase "the whole Bible" in its rendering of 2 Timothy 3:16. He comments:

"The very document (2 Timothy) that includes this reference was not part of any canon when Paul wrote these words. This paraphrase is misleading here and could cause its readers to commit an anachronism by taking this to be a reference to the entire canon of Christian Scripture, including the New Testament."

How many Evangelicals would interpret the Living Bible's rendering of 2 Timothy 3:16 in the manner Allert suggests? And how many Evangelicals assume that a source like Polycarp or Augustine must have believed in their 66-book canon of scripture whenever they see any reference to a phrase like "scripture" in their writings? I don't deny that some Evangelicals would be so careless, but how representative of Evangelicalism as a whole are such people?

Allert makes much of Evangelical disagreements with sources like The Epistle Of Barnabas, Cyprian, and Athanasius regarding which books are to be classified as scripture (for example, pp. 47, 51, and 71-73). But Allert himself presumably accepts Athanasius' New Testament canon while rejecting his Old Testament canon, for example, and other Evangelicals could do the same for reasons similar to Allert's. If an Evangelical is following a canonical consensus, then no one person, such as Athanasius, would be determinative. And if an Evangelical believes that a Jewish canonical consensus is more relevant than a Christian consensus in arriving at an Old Testament canon, then Jewish sources would be more relevant than a source like Athanasius. When examining what Christian sources said about a New Testament canon, however, Athanasius would be more relevant. Similarly, The Epistle Of Barnabas' acceptance of the gospel of Matthew as scripture adds weight to the similar view of Matthew found in many other early sources, whereas The Epistle Of Barnabas' acceptance of 1 Enoch as scripture is contrary to the large amount of evidence we have from other sources leading to the conclusion that 1 Enoch shouldn't be part of the Old Testament canon. Allert is correct in suggesting that The Epistle Of Barnabas' credibility is diminished, for somebody who takes a canonical approach such as mine, by its acceptance of documents like 1 Enoch. But I doubt that many of the Evangelicals who cite The Epistle Of Barnabas to support something like the canonicity of Matthew would assume that The Epistle Of Barnabas is right about every issue related to the canon. Its diminished credibility still carries some weight.

Allert frequently argues that it's problematic for an Evangelical to cite a church father as agreeing with his view of Biblical inerrancy if that father held a different view of which books are scripture and which aren't (for example, p. 73). But we can agree with a source regarding inerrancy without agreeing with that same source on another issue, like the canon.

One reason why Allert tries to associate canonical issues with inerrancy might be because he doesn't have much of a basis otherwise for rejecting an Evangelical appeal to the church fathers to support inerrancy. The church fathers seem to have largely agreed with modern Evangelical views of the nature of scripture. They don't have to have held a view as detailed as what we find in the Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy in order to have held a view that's similar in some significant ways or one that seems to imply something like the Chicago view if carried out to its logical end. We don't find the Chicago Statement in the writings of Augustine, but would anybody deny that Augustine's view is much closer to B.B. Warfield or R.C. Sproul than it is to Raymond Brown or John Spong (or even the more conservative opponents of inerrancy)? The patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly commented:

"This attitude was fairly widespread, and although some of the fathers elaborated it more than others, their general view was that Scripture was not only exempt from error but contained nothing that was superfluous." (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 61)

Even if some Evangelicals have been wrong in claiming or suggesting more patristic support for their view than actually exists, the fact remains that there's at least widespread patristic support for a highly similar view, one that's more supportive of an inerrantist perspective than the perspective of an errantist.

Two of the most significant lines of evidence for Biblical inerrancy are the high view of scripture held by the ancient Jews and the high view of scripture held by the early post-apostolic Christians. Allert does little to undermine either argument. He briefly distinguishes between Philo of Alexandria's dictation view of inspiration and that of the apostle Paul (pp. 155-156), and he quotes Origen in a manner that suggests that Origen held a lower view of inspiration than what many Evangelicals hold (pp. 183-185), but he doesn't say much else about the ancient Jewish and Christian views of scripture relevant to inerrancy. I see nothing in Allert's book that would lead me to disagree with J.N.D. Kelly's summary quoted above.

Allert correctly notes that many patristic sources refer to some type of inspiration for sources other than the 66 books of the Evangelical Bible. They sometimes refer to how the Holy Spirit inspired them to write something they wrote, they sometimes apply the term translated as "God-breathed" in 2 Timothy 3 to entities other than scripture, etc. But don't modern Evangelicals sometimes do things that are similar (claiming that the Spirit led them to make a decision they made, etc.)? It's not as if such a manner of speaking is absent from Evangelicalism. But not all claims to Divine inspiration of some sort are of a publicly verifiable nature. And not all such claims are equally credible. The same patristic sources who refer to extra-Biblical inspiration in the manner Allert discusses also frequently refer to the unique authority of the apostles and the apostolic documents. Allert acknowledges some examples of what I'm referring to, such as in his discussion of Ignatius of Antioch's admission that he had less authority than the apostles (p. 62), but many more examples could be cited. I don't think that Allert gives enough attention to comments such as the following from Augustine, which are found often in the patristic sources:

"For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error." (Letter 82:1:3)

"As regards our writings, which are not a rule of faith or practice, but only a help to edification, we may suppose that they contain some things falling short of the truth in obscure and recondite matters, and that these mistakes may or may not be corrected in subsequent treatises. For we are of those of whom the apostle says: 'And if you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.' Such writings are read with the right of judgment, and without any obligation to believe. In order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions, there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind. If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood. In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself. In other books the reader may form his own opinion, and perhaps, from not understanding the writer, may differ from him, and may pronounce in favor of what pleases him, or against what he dislikes. In such cases, a man is at liberty to withhold his belief, unless there is some clear demonstration or some canonical authority to show that the doctrine or statement either must or may be true. But in consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist." (Reply To Faustus The Manichaean, 11:5)

Again, I'm not suggesting that Allert has denied the existence of such passages in the fathers. He hasn't. But I think that his book gives too little attention to such passages while giving far more attention to less significant passages referring to some sort of inspiration behind extra-Biblical sources.

Much could be said about Allert's treatment of the Biblical evidence relevant to inerrancy, but I'll limit my comments here to one line of evidence that I think he's underestimated. He discusses John 10:34-35 as representative of a series of passages that Evangelicals often cite to support their view of inspiration. Allert distinguishes between Jesus' appeal to scriptural authority in passages like John 10 and how Jesus would have viewed the inspiration of scripture. He doesn't go into much detail about how he views the distinction between authority and inspiration. But as far as inerrancy is concerned, I wouldn't just cite a handful of passages like John 10. I would cite the overall pattern of dependence on the reliability of scripture, including in its details (Matthew 5:17-18, 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, etc.). It would still be possible that Jesus, the Biblical authors, and other relevant sources thought that other details in scripture could be in error, but the lengthy pattern of trust in the details of scripture, without any accompanying references to some errors in scripture, adds weight to the case for inerrancy.

Allert sometimes refers to how we should be concerned with how the first readers of scripture interpreted the documents (p. 86). He refers to the canon as a "patristic accomplishment", and he tells us that scripture should be interpreted through the lens of the church (p. 175). He refers to how the church has been "central" in bringing God's word to us (p. 176). But the early church consisted of more than the church fathers whose writings are extant. And the early Christians weren't the first people to read the writings of Moses or David's Psalms, for example. While the early post-apostolic Christians did have a large role in bringing us the Biblical documents and in helping us make canonical judgments, other sources have been part of the process as well (Jewish sources, the internal evidence of the Biblical documents themselves, ancient opponents of Christianity who corroborated some of the claims made by the early Christians, modern scholars who have helped discover, translate, and preserve some of the relevant documents, etc.). Allert often makes vague references to "the church", "tradition", etc., but such terms can be and have been defined in many different ways, as he sometimes acknowledges (for example, n. 44 on p. 80). As I said early in this review, if Allert applied the same level of scrutiny to concepts like "the church" and "tradition" that he applies to scripture, much of what Evangelicals have said about the uniqueness and authority of scripture would be vindicated.

And, as I also said near the beginning of this review, I think that Allert would agree with me. But since his book does so little to argue for Evangelicalism and so little to argue against alternatives such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, many readers probably will come away with impressions much like those of Michael Spencer in the review I linked to earlier. I think that D.H. Williams and Craig Allert are wrong on some of the issues they address, such as Biblical inerrancy. They're also right on many issues, but so far they've had too little to say about what's right with Evangelicalism and the many places where Evangelicals agree with patristic Christianity.

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