Friday, August 18, 2017

How the Bible Came to Be (pt 9)


The Result: One Holy Book 
The result of this gradual process is the final form of the canonical text, or the Bible as we now have it. The Christian confession is that in the books of the Old and New Testament, the churches possess one, holy Book. A high view of God’s providence also maintains that the process of canon formation happens under the sovereign guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, what this process produces is what God wanted his people to possess.

The lines of inquiry that we have discussed are some of the ways that contemporary believers can have historical confidence we have the “right” books in the Bible. Each of theses areas could be expanded and considered more carefully. However, our study has provided an outline of the types of evidence that help answer critics of the canon and also help you see the strong foundation you have as a believer in the value, reliability, and authority of the Bible as a whole.

Scholars and historians have formed similar conclusions after examining this process:
  • For example, Carson and Moo summarize, “It is important to observe that, although there was no ecclesiastical machinery like the medieval papacy to enforce decisions, nevertheless the world-wide church almost universally came to accept the same twenty-seven books. It was not so much that the church selected the canon as that the canon selected itself” (Introduction to the NT, 735).
  • Bruce Metzger also observes that “in the most basic sense neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of those writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church”
    (The New Testament, 276).
  • William Barclay articulates this point memorably by stating that “it is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so" (Making of the Bible, 78).  
In other words, contemporary Christians have sufficient historical and theological grounds for trusting that the books that are currently in our English Bibles are what God intended believers to have, until he comes.

In terms of apologetics, our study of how the Bible came to be can also inform our understanding of the Bible as a whole. It can help you grapple with the big picture of the grand storyline of the Bible. Having worked through the basic lines of evidence for trusting in the reliability and authenticity of the biblical canon, readers are now left with the content of the canon itself.

What do you say about what the Bible says? How do you respond to the gospel message about Jesus, the long awaited Christ who conquered sin and death and beckons you to forsake all others and follow him? What will be your refuge on the great and terrible day of the Lord?

In Acts 24, Paul gives a defense of himself before a Roman official. In his defense, Paul briefly summarizes the foundations of Christianity. As he states, "This I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:14-15). Paul's gospel message about Jesus and the future is shaped by "everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets."

Because of this, for a believing community to flourish, it must be a people of the book, the two-Testament witness to the risen Lord Jesus. A community of ideal readers of the biblical canon is pictured by the noble-minded Bereans, who "received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11).

Your study of the biblical canon can help you recognize the validity of this canonical collection. But, more importantly, it can also provide a pathway to begin to receive this word with eagerness and examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.

Because the historical, hermeneutical, and theological characteristics of the Bible are intertwined and mutually reinforcing, the study of the biblical canon has always been located at the nerve center of the believing community's foundational commitments.

Accordingly, the prayer of a biblical scholar must include, "May God bless the reading of his Word."

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

How the Bible Came to Be (pt 8)

Retrospective Criteria for Recognition 

In our final section, we can consider some of the factors that the earliest churches used as they considered whether or not a specific writing was to be understood as a legitimate part of the collection of Scripture. These factors are sometimes called the “criteria for canonicity,” though as we have discussed, the self-understanding of the believing community was that they were recognizing rather than establishing the limits of the collection. So, a better descriptor for these factors might be retrospective criteria for recognition. 

As the churches reflected on the biblical writings, there were several key characteristics that influenced the reception of these books in various communities. These retrospective criteria for recognition were not clear-cut “tests” for biblical books; rather, these were ways of thinking about the books that were in use among the churches. So, what characterized an authentic New Testament writing?

These are a few of the questions the earliest churches were asking about the writings they were circulating.

Prevailing Question #1: Does this Writing represent True Teaching? 
The prevailing criteria for recognition among the earliest stages was continuity with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. This factor is sometimes understood as a writing’s orthodoxy and apostolicity. Orthodoxy refers to the question of truth. Is what is written here true? The criteria for what was true in a New Testament writing was whether it accorded with the Hebrew Scriptures and whether it accorded with the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

Accordingly, the feature of “apostolicity” was perhaps the central criteria for inclusion in the growing group of New Testament writings. Apostolic here can refer to whether a writing was actually written by an apostle himself or also whether the author was a close associate of the apostles. More broadly, and perhaps more centrally, “apostolicity” referred to a writing that represented the teaching of the apostles and was from the time of the apostles. Later writings, such as apocryphal gospels, pseudonymous letters, or general Christian literature from later periods were rejected because they were not written in the apostolic age.

For example, in the Muratorian Fragment, the author affirms the readability of Shepherd of Hermas (an influential early Christian writing) but rejects its authoritative status. The author writes, "But Hermas wrote The Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the chair of the church of the city of Rome. And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets, whose number is complete, or among the Apostles, for it is after their time" (lines 73-80, emphasis added).

Here the author is concerned about when the book was written, its connection to the prophets and apostles, and its widespread usage in the churches ("but it cannot be read publicly to the people in the church"). Most of the time, there were not just one but several factors in play. The characteristics of "apostolicity" and "continuity with the Hebrew Bible" were essentially the anchors of this discussion. A two-fold question, then, dominated any deliberations: Is this writing apostolic (from the time and teaching of the apostles) and does it "accord" with the Hebrew Scriptures? 


Guidance for this combination of characteristics is found in 2 Pet 3:2. As Peter states, "you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles" (2 Pet 3:2). In other words, truly "apostolic" writings would have a direct connection to the "holy prophets" and "the commandment of the Lord and Savior." Identifying the presence of these two types of connections generally and quickly "ruled out" most possible rival writings.

The beginning and end of Paul's letter to the Romans is a good example of how these elements (the prophetic witness of the OT, the teaching of Jesus, and the gospel preached by the apostles) mark the blazing center of New Testament writings. 
  • Rom 1:1-6: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David  according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."
  • Rom 16:25-27: "Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen." 
Prevailing Question #2: Is this Writing Widely Recognized? 
The second prevailing question early readers asked of possible Scriptural writings was, "Is this writing widely recognized as authoritative Scripture?"

A distinctive feature of the books that became canonical was their early and widespread authoritative usage in the churches. This feature is sometimes called "catholicity." The writings of the New Testament were the “catholic” writings. Here, “catholic” does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church but rather to the fact that these writings were utilized not by a single group but by many diverse groups in many diverse locations. They were in this sense “universal” (the ancient meaning of “catholic”). The canonical writings were not deemed authoritative Scripture necessarily in every church, but in churches “everywhere.”

Of course, there were a myriad of social, political, and theological factors that influenced each community as they considered these questions. However, these particular types of questions were asked with regularity and consistency. What is more, there were also disagreements and differences of opinion about certain writings or about the importance of these various criteria. However, as some of the external evidence indicates (see pt 7), these debates took place within the context of an early church community that had a remarkably consistent shared emphasis on the types of concerns noted above.
Or: Go to pt 1

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method, Book Review

Title: Canonical Theology: The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and Theological Method
Author: John C. Peckham
Publisher: Eerdmans, 2016
Price: $35.00 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 295
In Canonical Theology, John Peckham brings together a discussion of the biblical canon, the authority of Scripture, and the nature of theological method. The prevailing question that guides Peckham’s study relates to the locus of authority. Does it reside with the canon or with the community? This guiding question allows Peckham to navigate the variegated waters of scholarship on the nature of the biblical canon and the relevant debates about theological method.

After establishing this framework (chapter one), Peckham defines an “intrinsic canon” model (chapter two), and then seeks to demonstrate its superiority to a “community approach” to the nature of the biblical canon (chapter three). The intrinsic canon approach argues that the books of Scripture are authoritative by virtue of “the intrinsic nature of the books as divinely commissioned” (5). In other words, “divinely appointed books are intrinsically canonical independent of extrinsic recognition” (5). Conversely, the community canon model “defines the canon as a set of writings that are determined by the community as a standard” (3). The biblical books, in other words, are chosen based on some sort of external standard. For Peckham, the issue that plagues the community model is its inability to answer with clarity the question, “Which community (at which time) is adequate to determine the canon?” (48, 72).

Moving from biblical/historical studies to theological method, Peckham next surveys communitarian approaches to theology (chapter four), and then discusses the way various groups appropriate the rule of faith (chapter five). Using the categories of the previous canon discussion, Peckham states that a canonical approach to theology “views the biblical canon as the uniquely authoritative, sufficient source of theological doctrine, adopts the biblical canon as the rule of faith, and denies the positing of any normative extracanonical interpretive authority” (73). Conversely, various communitarian approaches “posit the primacy of the biblical canon while emphasizing the theological authority of the community and adopting a community-determined extracanonical rule of faith or other normative interpreter for theological doctrine” (74).

Having established the community versus canon framework in both canon studies and theological method, Peckham homes in on the authority of Scripture (chapter six). Is an affirmation of the Scriptures as the final authority (sola scriptura) absurd or self-referentially incoherent? Peckham maintains that critiques coming from communitarian approaches to the canon and theology are not capable of overturning the coherence of this position. Further, for Peckham, an “intrinsic canon” model adequately meets the most significant criteria for coherence. To illustrate his approach, Peckham addresses recent debates about the nature of the Trinity (chapter seven), the issue of theophatic language in Scripture (chapters eight and nine), and the nature of divine love (chapter ten).

A question that lingers around studies of canon involves the movement from theory to practice. What does a canonical approach look like? In his final chapters, Peckham outlines some parameters to a “canonical systematic” approach to the theological task. As he explains, a canonical systematic approach “looks for the patterns and inner logic of the texts in relation to the whole canonical text, rejecting any dichotomy between limited pericope and broad overarching reading, embracing both in mutual reciprocity such that ‘system’ is not sought at the expense of the particular complexity and variety of individual texts” (206). A canonical theological method would seek “the maximum achievable correspondence to the text” (210). Significantly, as well, this approach also “accepts hermeneutical diversity as an unavoidable result of the universal hermeneutical circle” (258).

Possible “steps” that a reader would take in this approach include identifying the prevailing issues or questions on a certain topic, engaging an inductive reading of the entire canon, and then analyzing the canonical data with an eye towards any emerging patterns. Next, a theologian would seek to construct a “minimal model” from this data, systematize the “minimal theo-ontological implications,” and then maintain an openness to further investigation (see 246-57). This type of methodological procedure is designed to prioritize the idiom of biblical texts and produce modest theological formulations.

One particularly instructive feature of Peckham’s study is the way he draws together canon studies and theological method discussions of the nature and application of sola scriptura. Highlighting the role of canon and community within a spectrum of approaches yields significant insight into the nature of debates about the canon and also the authority of Scripture. Peckham engages theoretical discussions but also tests his methodological conclusions on several case studies. Moving from the beginning to the end of Peckham’s volume forces you to traverse the terrain of these disciplines. Someone drawn to the “canonical” aspect of Peckham’s study might be surprised to encounter a series of distinctions more at home in systematic theology (e.g. the nature of microhermeneutical and macrophenomenological exegesis, 212; or, transcendent-voluntarist and immanent-experientialist models of divine love, 247). Conversely, someone interested primarily in theological method and systematic theology will likely be surprised by the lengthy initial historical and textual discussion of the canon debate.

However, this initial disjunctive actually represents one of the deeper strengths of the book. Peckham takes these broad disciplinary issues and renders them dialogue partners. In this regard, he not only juxtaposes these concerns but demonstrates the depth of their connection. For instance, the way Peckham navigates the canon debate in broad categories of “communitarian” and “intrinsic” models provides a natural transition to communitarian or “sola scriptura” brands of theological method. Readers who have only dug deep into one of these areas will benefit from Peckham’s articulation of their organic interconnection. Moreover, the methodological clarity Peckham provides in each of the areas he covers makes this volume a top-notch resource for careful thinking about both the canon and theological method.

Also in Themelios, forthcoming.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, Book Review

Title: The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary
Author: Paul M. Hoskins
Publisher: CreateSpace, 2017
Price: $24.99 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 491
In this new commentary, Paul Hoskins seeks to make the book of Revelation accessible to a broad audience and also to demonstrate the depth of its connection to the rest of the biblical canon.

Hoskins teaches New Testament studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has an ongoing interest in hermeneutics and the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. His prior works include Jesus and the Fulfillment of the Temple in the Gospel of John and That Scripture May Be Fulfilled, both of which inform his analysis of Revelation.

Throughout his study, Hoskins takes care to focus on the flow of the discourse. Some commentaries on Revelation maximize any possible connection to historical background information or details that might correspond to contemporary events. Hoskins does treat several issues surrounding the historical setting of the book. For example, he makes a plausible case for John the apostle as the author (13-21) and he surveys the social and historical context of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (68-119). However, he is quick to shift to a focus on the text of revelation itself as the surest guide to its interpretive context. As he argues, “in spite of gaps in our historical knowledge, the book of Revelation is able to communicate a powerful message that resonates across the centuries” (9). For Hoskins, John depicts a great conflict that stretches from the Genesis narratives through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Consequently, “the biblical account of this conflict is more important background for most of the book of Revelation than the historical particularities of John’s day” (9).

Instead of fully reconstructing the Sitz im Leben of the seven churches, for instance, Hoskins begins his treatment of Revelation 2-3 with a discussion of the common structure of the seven letters (69-71) and ends it with an analysis of the layered interrelationship of these letters (119-23). At the end of each major section, Hoskins also provides a “synthesis” that summarizes the preceding textual block and relates it to the immediate discourse context and the message of the book as a whole. In this vein, as the commentary unfolds, Hoskins keeps an eye on the structural function of the twenty-one judgments (7 seals, 7 trumpets, 7 bowls) that dominate the bulk of the book (see 24-26, 305-06). These features will be particularly helpful for readers seeking to get a handle on Revelation’s sprawling shape.

Two of the primary contexts that Hoskins brings into dialogue with Revelation are the Gospel of John and the Old Testament. Throughout the commentary, Hoskins notes literary and thematic connections to John’s Gospel (see 17n23). He also emphasizes how important the Hebrew Scriptures are for John as he composes his book. Though Revelation does not include direct quotations of the Old Testament, there are constant allusions to texts, themes, and theological foundations of the Hebrew Bible. Recognizing the elusiveness of allusions, Hoskins uses the criteria of verbal and thematic connections in order to identify legitimate instances of allusions. Important examples include (inter alia!) the allusions to Daniel’s concept of the son of man, the exodus event and the plagues on Egypt, the Passover ceremony, the fall of Jerusalem, and the Day of the Lord.

Alongside an examination of Old Testament allusions in the book, Hoskins is also keen to uncover the interpretive strategy of the author. In other words, why is John utilizing these particular texts in these particular ways. Sometimes, an Old Testament text predicts an event or situation that a later event or person fulfills in a direct manner. Other times, however, a New Testament author will point to the fulfillment of an Old Testament text that is not directly predictive. For Hoskins, the concept of typology helps explain this textual phenomenon (see 39-43). Hoskins defines typology as “the aspect of biblical interpretation that treats the significance of Old Testament types for prefiguring corresponding New Testament antitypes or fulfillments” (40).

So, for instance, the ten plagues of the Exodus narrative prefigure the plagues mentioned in Revelation. The relationship between the fall of Babylon in the preaching of the prophets and the fall of the Great Harlot, Babylon in Revelation is another place where a typological interpretation can assist interpreters trying to make sense of the comparison. This careful attention to subtle allusions and the nature of typological connections are two features that Hoskins uses to forefront John’s frequent and varied use of the Old Testament. 

Many readers of a Revelation commentary will be interested in theological conclusions. Hoskins takes a “Historic Premillennial position” on the nature and timing of the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20 (see 32-35, 393-423). For Hoskins, this position allows him to understand some aspects of the book symbolically (an emphasis of amillenialism) and also maintain at future-looking orientation to much of John’s vision (an emphasis of dispensational premillennialism). Proponents of alternative approaches will certainly have disagreements on this point of the commentary. However, a central strength of Hoskins’ approach is his attention to John’s wording and the internal development of the book’s argument.

In other words, he shows what a non-dispensational premillennial reading of the book would look like. Likewise, Hoskins addresses theological implications in his synthesis sections, although he usually prioritizes textual analysis over theological formulation. Thus, while Hoskins certainly engages in “theological interpretation” and addresses several topics of eschatology, his commentary does not trade in the categories of systematic theology (see his brief survey of theological approaches to Revelation in the introduction, 29-35).

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators” (Orthodoxy [New York: John Lang, 1908], 19). Hoskins’ study would be a breath of fresh air for someone only familiar with sensational or speculative treatments of Revelation. In the end, Hoskins’ commentary allows the reader to grapple with what is actually there in the text and thus hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches through this challenging and rewarding biblical book.

Also in Themelios, forthcoming.

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