Blog Tour: “Can We Still Believe the Bible?” – Chapter 2 @BrazosPress

I have had several online engagements with Dr. Craig Blomberg over the course of several blogs, dealing with my previous venture of defending the New Living Translation (I’ve read ahead to chapter 3, and his take on the NLT is welcomed). Therefore, I was hesitant at first about accepting the offer to participate in the blog tour. After all, just after reading the title, I felt like I could guess his direction – so why should I even investigate what I already knew I knew? Isn’t that really the crux of the argument many have with Scripture? They already know they know more than enough about it, they know they know how it came together, and they know they know it is all stories. Further, when it comes to canon, most already known it is either God or Rome manipulating the texts. We insulate ourselves with our self-assured knowledge, don’t we?

From the start, I know I will disagree with Dr. Blomberg over many aspects of the canon, including dating and whether or not these are “human books.” I am a Mainline Christian; Dr. Blomberg is an Evangelical. We are going to differ as to what it means to have Scripture as authoritative. In reading my chapter, I tried not to take issue with the more overly Evangelical aspects of it. Rather, my interest in this chapter is how does he deal with the extrinsic v. intrinsic model of canon formation. Here, I think, we will find some agreement, in that we both agree the extrinsic model is simply not what happened. I greatly value Dr. Blomberg’s contributions to my understanding of canonical formation, even if I disagree with him over other things.

In the beginning, it was not Constantine. Rather, the formation of the canon was not guided by an external human hand. As such, books outside the canon are not suppressed, repressed, or otherwise. They are outside the canon for a variety of reasons. The notion that somehow Constantine had the power to create the canon is nonsensical.

And this is how Blomberg begins. He sets his course by first establishing the false hermeneutical suspicions of ]] and ]]. Both see something of a break between orthodox Christianity and early Christianity around the time of Constantine. This hypothesis, our author points out, is untenable given the amount of orthodox writings we have from even before the emergence of the canon (44)! While dabblers in political ideology may find some security against Christian orthodoxy in promoting such a rather impossible break, Blomberg is able to, in a few short lines, show why it is an illogical position. All of this, we agree on.

It is when Blomberg begins to tackle the canonical formation of the Old Testament we suffer some harm in our unity. Not all of them are worth mentioning, so I will focus on the aspects causing me the most concern. His exclusion of the Deuterocanon (by my use of this word, you should know how I will fall on this discussion) to something that is Roman Catholic and/or Orthodox is simply poor history. Trent did not create the Roman Catholic canon as he states (47-8). Such a council doesn’t explain the Orthodox’s acceptance of the hidden books, after all. Further, these books didn’t simply become “valued in early Christianity, especially after the time of Constantine.” St. Jerome (347–420) is the first to really level a charge against them, although Melito of Sardis (c.180) did voice his concerns several centuries earlier. In the mean time, and long before Constantine, Christian writers employed Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, and other books in their theological discourses. I would suggest any value that seems to develop after Constantine is because these books were under suspicion thanks to Jerome. Further, these books, as often is the charge by Evangelical apologists, are not the only books used to teach “purgatory or praying for dead” in either the Catholic or the Orthodox churches.

Blomberg is correct, however, that Jewish writers and theologians around the time of Jesus did refer to collections of books deemed authoritative. Further, in much of Judaism, we do not find license for the books used by early Christians, sans the New Testament. Of course, the Sadducees did not use anything save the Torah, but I do not see a rush to rid ourselves of those books they deemed apostate. In the end, however, Blomberg’s section on Old Testament serves to show that the charge of a political hand in the formation of the Old Testament canon is simply ludicrous. While he and I may disagree about a few things, Blomberg offers the correct framework for canon formation. It was a matter of narrative theology (52-4).

He begins to tackle the New Testament canon by correctly suggesting that regardless of whether one dates the books either early or late, they are still the earliest Christian writings (except for the Didache). Further, he is absolutely correct about the level of discussion aimed at the books included in the canon, although I would not classify the discussion aimed at the Pastorals and their ilk as “a little extra.” (54–5). His own discussion of this will yield no surprises as to why he thinks there were included.

He gives the traditional marks of canonicity. They are apostolic witness, catholicity, and orthodoxy. There is nothing inherently wrong with these characteristics, although one should wonder if the marks are germane to the canon or written into history as an excuse for the selected works. Here, he allows that Ehrman and Dungan are somewhat correct, that orthodoxy did win out; however, they are orthodox because they won. Blomberg also shows, via some help by recent canon defender Michael Kruger, the inconsistency of those who suspect of historical suppression in the formation of the canon. Regardless, Blomberg delivers quite well here, albeit my Gnostic friends may find it somewhat difficult to take. My only real issue is with the defence of orthodoxy as a criterion.

My concern is that in the way it is written and often portrayed, it seems the mark of orthodoxy is an extrinsic force acting upon Scripture. While some may see that as a positive proposition, I do not believe it accurately explains either the role Scripture has on orthodoxy or orthodoxy on Scripture. Further, like some of the criterion used to discuss the historical Jesus, it is based on the flimsiest suggestion. Blomberg maintains that the reason the 27 books are orthodox is because they exhibited the “best… continuity between the prophetic roles of the Old Testament and their fulfillment in the life and times of Jesus and his first followers.” (61) I believe there is an entire religion that would find fault with Blomberg’s premise here. This notion of continuity, however, is important for what I believe is a better approach to canonization, and it is a notion he returns to later in the chapter.

At this point, Blomberg delves into apologetics of Jesus as Messiah (62), something that is a bit distracting, but he quickly recovers by comparing the closed narrative of the New Testament to the rather open, and expecting, narrative of the Old Testament. For those who study the great Greco-Roman epics, this formulation Blomberg presents must ring familiar and equally, must be accepted as something as found in other works of literature. Here, he is marvelously brilliant.

However, I wish he would have spent more time on this rather than moving on to self-attestation. Such a move does not mean something is true, inspired, or whatever word we choose to apply to it. His argument (63–4) is rather weak, although I believe he acknowledges this by calling it a “much more subjective criterion.” As such, I do not feel a response his needed, except to say he provides the expected answer on inspiration.

I find myself so frustrated with Blomberg’s apparent Evangelicalism but then he hits the nail so squarely on the head, I’m back in awe of his masterful work. This is very true in reading The Process of Canonization (64–8). Yes, I disagree with him about dates, about the interpretation of John, and the connection between oral Jesus tradition and the written Gospels, but his argument about the self-attestation between 1 Timothy and Luke and between 2 Peter and the (undetermined) Pauline Corpus is exactly what I am looking for when reading this book. The New Testament itself speaks of canonization, long before official lists were promulgated. Further, his use of the Apostolic Fathers to bear witness, not just to the canon, but so too to orthodoxy (66) is quite logical.

His position on Rehabilitating the Gnostic Texts is surprisingly open. By that, I mean he suggests to the reader to simply “access the texts of these documents, read them, and decide for themselves.” (68). If the reader of Scripture is even barely awake, he or she will see a remarkable difference between the canonical texts and the gnostic texts, something Blomberg demonstrates easily enough. Even the work attributed to Thomas (70–4) valued by so many today is vastly different than the closest canonical treatment (Mark). I note at this juncture the dovetail that Blomberg’s argument of a continuing narrative from the Jewish Scriptures the Christian works present as compared to that of the Gnostic works (73).

At the close of each chapter, our author includes a section to help the reader avoid the opposite extreme, a fallacy too many are engaged in. In this section, he presents a welcomed and much needed response to biblicalism, something he contends is not in the Evangelical worldview. His challenges here to both the liberal and ultra-conservatives are spot on and, I find myself wishing, stressed more and more. In the end, Blomberg presents such a strong and pointed challenge to the biblicalism taking holding in Evangelical I found myself wondering if he will be able to long remain calling himself such.

Final Reflections:

I cannot help but to approach this chapter from my perspective for a recovering fundamentalist previously beset with biblicalism and a mainliner (UMC) with strong Catholic tendances in my view of Scripture. Rather than sola scriptura, I believe in prima scriptura. Regardless of how I may disagree with Blomberg about dates and why some books were excluded the the Protestant canon, I find much to affirm in his stances on canon formation, self-attestation in the New Testament to an early shaping of authoritative books, as well as budding literological designs about orthodoxy and finalization of the canonical process. Indeed, in this single chapter, I believe Blomberg has written a well versed argument against the supposed conspiracy of Constantinian orthodoxy as the extrinsic force for canonization and did so without having to rely upon the old cliche of “God did it” I’ve found in recent canonical premises.

I’ve let this review sit for a while to allow further reflection. Blomberg, even with his conservative/liberal divide so pronounced he is ridiculously close to a solution all scholars must recognize as tenable. He has laid down a solid path forward in discussing, without vast conspiracy theories or illogical attacks on the canon and orthodoxy, how an intrinsic model of canonization, especially of the New Testament is not just better but provable. While Blomberg never really offers who the non-political manipulation allows us to “believe the bible,” he offers us a deeply intellectual position for understanding the canonization of Holy Writ — and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

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