Dr. Lee Martin McDonald Responds to “Wasn’t the Selection of Books for the Canon Just Political?” (Chapter 2 of Can We Still Believe the Bible?)

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In today’s post, Dr. Lee Martin McDonald responds to chapter 2 (“Wasn’t the Selection of Books for the Canon Just Political?”) of Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg.

Don’t miss other posts in this blog tour—a complete list can be found at CanWeStillBelieve.com.

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The second chapter of Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg, on canon formation, was written for a conservative evangelical audience that shares his assumptions on the authority and scope of the Christian Scriptures. Its title (“Wasn’t the Selection of Books for the Canon Just Political?”) appears to be focused on his objections to indemonstrable conclusions drawn by Bart Ehrman on the influence of political power on the scope of the NT canon. I share his sentiments completely in regard to Ehrman and also David Dungan. The chapter shows awareness of many important questions related to the formation of the Bible, and readers will learn much from Blomberg’s analysis, but there are portions of this chapter that deserve further consideration.

While he and I agree with the Protestant church traditions on the scope of the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) canons, I think that a careful investigation of primary sources would help Blomberg make a stronger case. There are several places in this chapter that deserve comment, but I’d like to briefly offer some constructive criticism on Blomberg’s use of criteria for canonicity.

In general, the issue of criteria needs some fine-tuning. Blomberg extends, for example, the criterion of orthodoxy not only to the NT writings but also to “the Old Testament books and their fulfillment in the life and times of Jesus and his first followers” (60). This statement is unclear and in need of evidence from antiquity. While the early Christians found the fulfillment of their first Scriptures in Jesus, it is difficult to find this consistently in the OT. Blomberg also discusses inspiration as a criterion for canonicity (60). This is a difficult matter, as he acknowledges, but his confidence that only the OT and NT books exhibit “marks” of being “God-breathed” is difficult to substantiate and would be strengthened had he provided examples for where these “marks” are obvious.

The criteria for canonicity are not all found in the same texts or authors in antiquity, and there are exceptions to most of them. Catholicity, essentially widespread use in churches, in particular is not easy to discern in all cases, especially in the use of 2 Peter, James, 2–3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Catholicity becomes more prominent in Origen and Eusebius, but if it were an essential ingredient for all Scriptures, then we would expect something similar in the acceptance of the OT books as well, which is not the case. As for the NT books, for centuries there was lingering doubt among some churches over the canonicity of some books. There are continuing doubts about Revelation in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and it is not read in their worship. Eastern churches never had a Council of Trent, a fact reflected in their literature well into the eighteenth century. Similarly, Catholic and Armenian churches read 3 Corinthians for many centuries after most churches adopted the twenty-seven books of our New Testament. It was never the early church’s argument that God providentially only preserved the sixty-six books in the biblical canon (76). Oddly, many of the forgotten or rejected books have reappeared in recently discovered manuscripts. What should we do with them and what can we learn from them? The ancient churches never made a biblical or theological argument for the closure of the biblical canon but rather made a historical argument for the NT (those books closest to the time of Jesus, hence apostolic in its broad sense). They also made an orthodox argument, namely whether a given writing reflected the traditional teachings passed on in churches (Irenaeus).

I especially agree with Blomberg that we can learn much about the historical and cultural context of biblical literature from persons who do not share Christian convictions, whether in the fields of biblical inquiry, psychology, science, or other disciplines. Although he stands clearly in the evangelical camp, he occasionally distances himself from its more “extreme” and less consistent conservatives, especially John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem (76–80), both of whom limit too narrowly what we can learn from those outside of evangelical biblical and theological scholarship. While Blomberg shows considerable familiarity with many of the leading questions of canon formation today and many evangelical scholars in the field, an examination of certain additional scholars would have been especially helpful: Carr, Lim, and Gallagher on OT canonization; Schröter on NT canonization; and others on pivotal ancient Jewish texts that Blomberg cites.*

*David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Timothy H. Lim, The Formation of the Jewish Canon, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Edmon L. Gallagher, Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory: Canon, Language, Text, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Jens Schröter, From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon (Waco: Baylor University Press; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013).

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Lee Martin McDonald (PhD, University of Edinburgh), before his retirement, was professor of New Testament studies and president of Acadia Divinity College. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Biblical Canon, and coeditor of The Canon Debate (with James Sanders), and The World of the New Testament (with Joel Green). He lives in Mesa, Arizona.

Comments

  1. Craig Blomberg says:

    Thanks, Lee, for taking time to write this and for your gracious interaction. In every chapter I became very much aware that I had to simplify matters for the wide audience I am hoping I’ll be addressing, and, of course, my expertise is much more in New than in Old Testament. And you’ve been doing canon for years with great aplomb! I did look at Carr, though I didn’t cite him. I didn’t know about Gallagher. And Lim and Schroter came out (and I did consult them) after the manuscript was due in early 2013.

  2. Lee McDonald says:

    Thanks Craig. Thank you for your kind words. –Lee