Review: Five Views on the New Testament Canon

Five Views on the New Testament Canon, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Benjamin P. Laird. Contributors: Darian P. Lockett, David Nienhuis, Jason David BeDuhn, Ian Boxall, George L. Parsenios. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022.

Summary: Statements from five different theological perspectives on the history, theology, and hermeneutic related to the formation of the New Testament canon, with responses from each to the others.

Many of us in Christian churches give little thought to how the New Testament became the New Testament–how the 27 books that comprise this part of the Bible, originally written by different people, at different times, and from and to different locations, came together as a collection, and in the order we find them in. More recently, questions have arisen anew about works like the Gospel of Thomas, basically the question of “why these books and not others?” Was it, as many assume, simply a consequence of who won the “doctrine wars” of the early centuries?

This work, while not representing every stream in scholarship around the New Testament canon, does offer a well-articulated survey of the different understandings of canon among different persuasions of Christians. The five views and their authors in this book are:

  • 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

The editors asked each contributor to address three fundamental concerns: 1) the historical factors leading to the formation of the canon, 2) the theological basis of the canon’s authority, and 3) the hermeneutical implications of the canon. The editors also offer an introductory essay on the state of canonical acholarship and a concluding chapter that summarizes common themes and differences among the scholars. Each scholar also responded to the contributions of the other four.

I will not try to outline each of the contributor’s presentations but rather share some of my own observations of the discussion. One thing all the contributors had in common was admitting that the history of the canon’s emergence was both complicated and there is much that is missing in how all this occurred. We learned that at some point the four gospels began to circulate together as well as the Pauline corpus, but we’ve no idea how this came about (Lockett is particularly interesting in this regard). We know that by the fourth century (or perhaps earlier depending on how much credence we give to the Muratorian fragment), the list of books that comprise our present New Testament was being attested to by church leaders by Athanasius.

I was not aware that only at the Council of Trent did the Catholic Church formally codify the canon, mostly in response to the reformed churches rejection of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and that the Orthodox Church, having broken away before Trent, never specified the canon, although the twenty-seven books did serve as its rule, with other texts treated as helpful to Christian formation.

Another matter all of the writers address is how the formation of the canon shapes interpretation of the texts of the individual books. Matthew’s placement, even though most likely not the first gospel, as first in the collection, links to the Old Testament. The placement of Acts at the head of the Pauline corpus rather than with Luke encourages us to read Paul in light of Acts.

Lockett is the only one who unequivocally articulates the conviction that the authority and inspiration of the texts was intrinsic to the texts that the church recognized, that canon is the “norming norm” rather than the “fixed list” of books that the church subsequently treated as its “normative norm.” Others give more sway to the role of the church in defining canon, and BeDuhn allows that although twenty-seven books were delimited, this should not limit the sources of contemporary Christian nor be normative. George Parsenios, the Orthodox contributor, rightly, I believe, notes this arises from a strong conviction that there was no theological center to the early church, nor ought there to be at present.

I personally most appreciated the clarity of the essays by Lockett and Boxall, even though they articulated different positions. At the same time, especially in the responses to one another, both gracious engagement and clear distinctions came through, and it seemed that several understood their own positions with greater precision through engagement with others. I thought Parsenios clearer in response than in setting forth his own position. Nienhuis seemed to me to be trying to navigate between an evangelical and a more historically nuanced discussion of the church’s role in canon that seemed very much in progress. I not only found BeDuhn’s centerless Christianity unappealing but thought he gave short shrift to the awareness of the writers of scripture that they were writing something authoritative for the church.

This is quite a useful survey of the current state of play in scholarly discussion of the canon. It gives anyone interested a good pictures of the shared challenges all scholars in this field face, as well as the divergent views and the reasons for them. The spirit is irenic rather than polemical without muting disagreements, one that models substantive argument while maintaining respect for one another. The editors, contributors, and the publisher are to be commended for the publication of such an even-handed treatment of this important subject.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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