Five Views on the New Testament Canon

by | Nov 9, 2022 | Book Review

A Book Review

While the canon of Scripture is settled, a consensus on the questions of its formation and entailments is not. In Five Views on the Testament Canon, five biblical scholars respond to three questions:

  1. How did the 27 books of the New Testament come to be considered Scripture?
  2. What authority does the canon have?
  3. How does the canon affect biblical interpretation?

The five authors represent a broad range of perspectives. Darian R. Lockett of Talbot School of Theology, Biola University defends a conservative evangelical position. David R. Nienhuis from Seattle Pacific University and Seminary shares a progressive evangelical view. Jason David BeDuhn of Northern Arizona University is the liberal protestant. Ian Boxhall from The Catholic University of America is Roman Catholic. George L. Parsenios from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is Orthodox. The editors of this book are Stanley Porter and Benjamin Laird.

Darian R. Lockett points to early subcollections (i.e.,  four Gospels, Pauline Epistles, Acts and Catholic Epistles, and Revelation) as evidence of canonicity (52–55). Regarding canon formation, he says, “ it might be more cautious to claim that Providence rather than inspiration per se is the way to talk about God’s superintending of the process of collection, arrangement, and final canonization of the New Testament” (60). One small critique is that Lockett references the arguments of Stephen B. Chapman with excessive frequency.

David R. Nienhuis seeks middle ground between an inerrantist and purely secular view. He claims that “the proto-New Testament texts were not written as Scripture per se but became Scripture as they were gathered together into fruitful relationships with other texts” (91). He sees canon as a solution to difficult texts (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:4; 14:34; Eph. 6:5; Titus 1:2) containing “questionable material” (92). In his view, Scripture is “mutually correcting” (93).

According to Jason David BeDuhn, “the books of the New Testament are understood as humanly composed records of the spiritual experiences and insights of key figures and communities within early Christianity” (112). BeDuhn assigns heavy weight to the impact of Marcion and Constantine’s Edict of Milan. He points out that Codex Sinaiticus includes the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas (111), but omits that they are located at the very end, after the Book of Revelation. He also notes the inclusion of  1 and 2 Clement but fails to note that they also appear at the very end.

Ian Boxall’s contribution is beneficial for explaining how Roman Catholic theologians view the canon. He recognizes the 1546 Council of Trent as “the decisive date in the formation of the New Testament Canon” (131). It was also illuminating to understand how Roman Catholics can justify textual criticism based on their interpretation of the Council of Trent’s declaration that the books of the Bible are canonical “in their entirety and with all their parts” (145). Overall, Protestants—conservatives included—will find a good deal of agreement between their own views and Boxhall’s. Although, readers of all persuasions may desire further explanation over Boxhall’s claim that the Gospels have “hermeneutical priority” (147).

George L. Parsenios contends that “the practice of the church is an essential factor in determining and defining the church’s faith in many essentials” (174). According to the Orthodox view, the Holy Spirit guides the church in recognizing the canon. This culminated in 1627 at the Council of Jerusalem. Parsenios explains the relationship between Scripture and tradition, which is important for understanding the role of icons. For instance, the Orthodox Church rejects the Proevangelium of James but accepts icons depicting scenes from this non-canonical text (see pp. 178–179).

Each contributor also provides a second chapter in which they respond to the views of the other authors. These chapters helpfully identify common ground and potential weaknesses of each view. One example I benefited from was Parsenios’s critique of BeDuhn’s claim that the New Testament letters are best understood as analog to the letters of ancient voluntary associations (see 248–250). 

Porter and Laird, the editors of this volume, then conclude with a summary chapter that also helpfully orients interested readers who wish to study the primary historical sources (i.e., patristic writings, biblical manuscripts, and canonical lists) who wish to study the New Testament canon. 

This book is a useful orientation to a major doctrinal question. It will no doubt help readers better express their own views and better interact with differing views. My initial expectation was to read about five different views on canonicity within Protestantism, but I benefited from seeing how Roman Catholics and Orthodox grapple with this question. Hopefully someone will next produce a book presenting different views on the OId Testament canon.

Special thanks to Kregel Academic for a free copy of this book, for which they did not require a review. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I know. 

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Chief Editor at Positive Action for Christ in Whitakers, North Carolina. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

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Brent Niedergall