The Bible’s Formation: Beyond a “Binder” Mentality

Gethsemani Impressions: Stations of the Cross Walk (2017)

One of the best books available on the subject of how the NT canon was formed is Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture. Allert is an evangelical, but he became troubled with the “dropped from the sky” view of scripture that evangelicals hold. He came to believe “that a high view of Scripture should take account of the historical process that bequeathed to us the Bible, and that examination of this issue should actually precede an investigation into what the Bible says” (p. 10).

Though it may be hard for evangelicals to grasp, “the Bible” (as an accepted delimited collection of authoritative writings) was not known until the fourth century. For hundreds of years, there was no canon of scripture. Yet the Church functioned in its absence.

Here is an excerpt from Allert’s fine work, which adds much needed human context to the story of how we got our Bible and what that means for our “view of scripture.”

Evangelicals have typically given little consideration to the formation of the New Testament and its possible implications on a doctrine of Scripture. Most evangelical consideration of canon history, if considered at all, assumes the existence of a New Testament canon from the very beginning of Christianity itself, or at least when the first document of the New Testament was completed. Many assume that as soon as a New Testament document was available, it was consciously separated from all other noncanonical documents and added to a growing New Testament canon. In this understanding, the closing of the New Testament canon occurred when the final document was received and added by the apostles, resulting in our twenty-seven-book New Testament. This understanding of the formation and closing of the New Testament canon, however, pays little attention to the historical details.

…I have called the type of understanding represented by [Benjamin] Warfield and others a “binder mentality” concerning New Testament canonicity. The picture here is that of an open three-ring binder: the church simply accepts and receives as authoritative a canonical document and then places the received document, without judgment, into the waiting binder. Once the last document has been written, received, and accepted, the binder is snapped shut forever, making the New Testament a closed collection, a closed matter.

…[With a more accurate understanding,] one can see three phases of the formation of the New Testament canon.

Phase 1. The central core of the present New Testament is already beginning to be treated as the main source for Christians. This stage was completed quite early, certainly before the end of the first century.

Phase 2. A leveling out occurs in the second and third centuries. Books in the second class now start to be cited more often, and Old Testament Scripture and New Testament Scripture come to have a more equal status. But here we still need to affirm that there is no clear distinction between books in the New Testament and books outside it. The distinction is, rather, between much-cited books and little-cited books plus books whose use is discouraged or that are explicitly directed to be used only for special purposes, such as instruction of catechumens. Here the core has long ceased to grow, but still no one thought of Scripture as forming a fixed collection. Thus, there is no simple “canonical” versus “noncanonical” distinction.

Phase 3. Fourth-century rulings about the canon become firm. But there is a paradox here. Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39 (367) is recognized as the first document to list our present twenty-seven-book New Testament as “canonical.”[38] Yet even there the threefold distinction alluded to in phase 2 still appears. Alongside the canonical (much-cited) books and the rejected (little-cited) books are books like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache (along with apocryphal books like Wisdom of Solomon), which are stated to be useful for catechism.

In this understanding we can conceive of an authoritative body of Christian Scripture in the first century, but even into the fifth century, we cannot claim that this body of literature was closed. This has direct implications for the argument that the early church appealed to the Bible and the Bible alone for its doctrine: one cannot properly speak of a Bible in the first several centuries of the church’s existence.


• Craig D. Allert. A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future) (pp. 38-51).

52 thoughts on “The Bible’s Formation: Beyond a “Binder” Mentality

  1. On this beautiful day don’t any of you have anything to do but pontificate on issues you have no clue


  2. I understand, but that tolerant attitude is not the view the creators of the “deeper and older” ways of interpreting Scripture would’ve taken. That we have such tolerant attitudes, or aspire to them, makes us very distinctly modern people; we can only go so far with the ancients, because we part ways with them here.


  3. I have developed a high tolerance for unanswered interpretative questions, and also for the idea that biblical texts have more than one “right” interpretation. As a former Anglican/Episcopalian, I am not averse to taking older interpretations into consideration,or listening to them, including and especially those of the church of the first five centuries of our era. But I don’t believe they are exhaustive interpretations, or always conclusive, and I don’t believe they are always valid ones, particularly for our time.

    My problem with the “deeper & older” ways is not that they make us reliant on others for our understanding of the texts, but that they do not include enough different others as part of the authoritative, interpretative community. For instance, not included are gay people, and women, and the poor and disadvantaged. There are valid new ways of interpreting old texts; especially since we think of sacred texts as living, it is wrongheaded to leave their interpretation solely to the ancients who wrote or selected them. Even a secular literary work often conveys meanings to its audience that the author may not have been conscious of intending; all the more so with a truly living religious text. We should take for granted that those ancients were getting into more than they had bargained for, and that they were limited in understanding and interpretation by their historical and social locations (as are we, though in different ways).

    As you say, we each have our own journeys …yet who would say that but a thoroughgoing modern?


  4. Thanks Robert. I’m sure you’re right about SOP, but I still have a lot of newer questions about reading the Bible in ways historically unknown to most of the church, & thinking that church sources were good enough at spotting the Gospel to ratify those texts, but not good enough to listen to in other ways.

    It’s drawing me to look at the Bible in a deeper & older way, because I could never make it work in a sola scriptura way – I ended up with questions about interpretation that could not be answered without recourse to some external source of some kind. And of course, we’re reliant on others in our Bible reading even in terms of the translators of our texts, & those who taught them Biblical languages & so on. But my journey is my journey, & not the same as yours.


  5. You could certainly be right about that. History tends to be wrapped in simplified, digestible baskets. The complexities and conflicts are often watered down in favor of a clean teachable tale.


  6. Oh, I see. The Apostles’ Creed is an expression of “The Rule of Faith”. Somehow I missed that.

    That’s sort of a bare bones, minimalist standard, very different from the flesh-on-the-bones character of the gospels. It completely lacks the narrativity that makes the New Testament Jesus come alive as you read about his words and deeds. I don’t see how it is an adequate expression of the full bodied kerygma expressed in the gospels.


  7. Thanks Jon. My comment about evangelicals was born out of nearly 40 years of immersion in the evangelical subculture and wasn’t really meant to be condescending, just my observation. If I have a complaint against evangelicals it is against evangelical scholars and teachers who seem immune to seriously thinking about the human side of scripture. As for the evangelical community as a whole, I just think the idea of the church without a Bible would never even cross most minds.


  8. I know about the rule of faith and how it was used as one of the criteria for determining which books should be considered scripture and which should not. They also used authorship and universal acceptance as well. I don’t really think that changes my illustration any. I’ve been thinking about this post and what is the major problem you think evangelicals in general have with scripture, and you can tell me if I am right. Most evangelicals claim that scripture is the ultimate authority, and that all creeds, traditions, and doctrinal standards must be tested against scripture. But this is a problem when scripture itself was formed out of tradition, and there were standards for determining what is scripture. After thinking about it I can see how this might be a problem for some people. It isn’t so much for me. I would still appeal to scripture as the primary authority for doctrine, as it contains the oldest written sources that we have, possibly even older than the apostles creed, since no one really knows when it was written. And oral tradition is much more difficult to verify after a few hundred years. I call it the primary authority because even if you look to scripture alone, (which is really solo scripture, not sola), it has to be interpreted, and every group gives some authority to their interpretation. My main gripe with your post was actually kind of petty. When you said, “This may be difficult for evangelicals to grasp” I found it condescending, even though I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way. So I apologize for not giving you a charitable reading there.


  9. Robert F. It is in my link to u tube, got a commercial but it is a redneck classic. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately for the world that is all I can add today

    My Bible came from Amazon, however we all know it , because everything comes from. Amazon..


  10. You threw a Hank Williams Jr. song in? Where?

    But then, I wouldn’t know a Hank Williams Jr. song if it hit me upside the head.


  11. sever the church from the bible and what you get is 600,000 denominations…

    I’m very happy that several of those denominations, like the one I’m in now, invite divorced and remarried Christians, like my wife, to partake of Holy Communion along with the rest of the Body of Christ, and to be full participants in the life of the church without first having to go through the religious fiction of getting an annulment.


  12. Robert F. I am not sure I understand my question LOL. My understanding is the hadith is the wisdom and words of the ;prophet Mohammad that is not a part of the Koran .

    My query and lack of knowledge in this area again leads to my often stated boast , that I am illiterate in 7 languages and ignorant in 10. I have provided more proof of this.

    As CM is going to expand on this I am content to go where it leads and will follow trail .

    I just threw the Hank Williams Jr. song in as I like it and it does seem to have a lot of truth.

    If I recall you went though a leg problem at a time when I was also so we probably have a leg up on everyone else.

    Take Care Robert F.

    I do enjoy you haiku poems.


  13. Robert, I’m a practicing Catholic, and the word ‘Protestant’ is not a dirty word to me. (Now the word ‘fundamentalist’ in all religions is a problematic word for me, but for reasons that people involved can be quite destructive and unkind to ‘the others’ and that is not a pattern of behavior consistent with Christian values)


  14. sever the church from the bible and what you get is 600,000 denominations all claiming to have the correct interpretation of what ‘the Bible clearly says’

    surely, there is some constructive good that will finally come out of all of this division of opinion?

    surely, some of the ‘division’ is more a matter of what is ’emphasized’ rather than what is different?

    surely, in time, we will come to see that diversity in the Body of Christ has had a better chance to express itself in the ‘divisions’ which are observed, but in reality, cannot exist in the seamless robe of Our Lord’s Church?

    maybe the word ‘surely’ would be better said as ‘hopefully’ ????


  15. the spoken Word 🙂

    The ‘Kerygma’ was the SPOKEN proclamation of Peter and all the Apostles who were WITNESSES.
    This great proclamation of Jesus Christ, Kyrios, Lord of the Cosmos, Crucified and Risen From the Dead, poured forth from the Apostles after the Pentacost (Coming of the Holy Spirit upon them)

    These men were the WITNESSES who heard, and saw, and touched; who were later many of them to die for what they had witnessed and then to be called by the title of ‘martyr’, which means ‘witness’.

    The Bible? yet to be written down

    some time would go by BEFORE the NT Scriptures were written down BECAUSE the Apostles and the new Church looked for Our Lord to return quickly . . . . . St. Paul was still ‘Saul’ at this time, and was converted by the Risen Christ, so Paul did not start his letters until after that event . . .

    HOWEVER, some of the preaching of the Kerygma (Proclamation) did involve the Apostles pointing to OT Scriptures that ‘foretold’ of the coming of a Messiah. . . . .

    In time, Paul would begin his ministry and the writing of his letters, and the Holy Gospel would become written down, as recorded testaments of what the Apostles had seen and witnessed . . . . this did not happen until it became clear that Our Lord was not returning imminently, as His followers had hoped.

    And so the recording began. But many records were kept, far more than what is listed in the ‘Canon’ and in time the Church Councils would set a plan of how to ascertain what WAS to be included in the NT and what was not to be included.

    In the meantime, it is interesting to take a look at all the various liturgies of the first Christian areas that formed as the Church spread out from Jerusalem. What is essentially shared in those ways of praying likely was also done originally in Jerusalem by the early Christians.

    A prayer from the liturgy of the Coptic Christians:

    ““. . . You are the life of us all, the Salvation of us all, the Hope of us all, the Healing of us all, and the Resurrection of us all.”

    This prayer is not distant from what we know of the Apostolic teaching, so I believe the liturgies are worth looking at by scholars in order to know more about practices of the early Church.


  16. It’s a long story, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into it here, or at this time.

    I believe the church has always been accountable to the words of Jesus as they are expressed in the New Testament, from the beginning. I include myself. Very often, both before and after the Reformation, the church has served as an insulating buffer against the the teaching of Jesus, rather than its representative, putting its own secondary traditions first and his words second. There have been long ages when this was the standard operating procedure of the church, and in many places, it still is.


  17. I was using protestant as a methodological descriptor, not as an insult. And I’m sure reading back has happened many times, but that still doesn’t make this time true.

    Can I ask what happened with the Catholic church? Feel free not to answer this though. I was born & raised a Catholic, but dropped out very young, without ever believing it. Most of my family are lapsed Catholics.


  18. I sometimes think the notion that a unified, authoritative church at some point definitively established the New Testament canon may itself be an anachronism of the later churches, both before and after the Reformation.


  19. And I say what I say as someone not altogether sure that, apart from local councils both before and after the Great Schism, the unified church ever defined the content of the New Testament we have in its entirety as the finished or closed canon. Could someone please provide me with a date and location of a general council of the whole church when the New Testament canon was clearly defined as the one we have now, with its contents? I have yet to see evidence of it.


  20. For me, an alienated former Catholic, Protestant is not a dirty word. Reading back into that period has taken place many times in the history of the church, some of them well before the Reformation.


  21. What’s next in time & closeness to the apostolic community in terms of tradition? And did the ‘relationship of accountability’ the church entered resemble what we would recognize by this today?

    I have a feeling that a lot of reading back of modern concepts into that period is happening. It all sounds very protestant.


  22. But at this point, and I would argue ever since the canon was established (though I am not exactly sure when this was defined in the history of the undivided church), it is equally true that you cannot have the authority of the faith community in Christ without the authority of scripture. Sever either one from the other, and both wither.


  23. Yes! And Allert’s study regarding canonicity shows me that even the acceptance and use of writings as “scripture” and ultimately as the “canon of scripture” also happened within the interpretive community. That community therefore shares in the “authority” evangelicals want to attribute to scripture alone. You cannot have the authority of scripture without the concurrent authority of the faith community in Christ.


  24. Jon, but you are missing something. It is something Allert deals with later in his book. There was a standard, an authoritative rule by which teaching and writing was judged. It was known as “The Rule of Faith.” There are various iterations of it, but it was roughly equivalent to the Apostles’ Creed. It is not just that the scriptures were self-authenticating — that is the common evangelical argument — but that they are authenticated because they conformed to an already established standard — the kerygma, the creedal story, the gospel.


  25. I don’t quite understand your question, jb, nor am I very familiar with the development of the hadith.


  26. Exactly — the New Testament precedes all other strata of tradition that we have in time and closeness to the apostolic community. To the degree that canonicity was conferred on it or recognized in it by the church (and I’m not exactly sure when this was done, at least not for the undivided church rather than different shards of the splintered church), the church then also put itself in a relationship of accountability to the canonized New Testament. There’s no going back or getting behind this, because doing so makes the New Testament’s authority evaporate, and so inextricably is the church linked to the New Testament/Bible ever since its canonization that it also makes the church’s authority evaporate.


  27. The authority of the criteria is of a similar kind to, and overlaps with, historiography, with similar limitations; they have a job of work to do, and to the degree that that work is done, they are finished and step aside. They may have been an adequate or inadequate set of criteria, but their purpose was to determine the authenticity of the texts; insofar as the church believed they did that, whatever practical authority the criteria had or has is superseded by the religious authority of the texts. As for the church, it recognized the authority of the canon in relationship to itself, and its accountability to the canon. The authority of the criteria is special and highly limited; the authority of the established canon is general, religious, and far more expansive. These are two different orders of authority.


  28. There’s a big difference, isn’t there, from saying ‘these things alone are scripture’ to saying we use these documents in a modern ‘sola scriptura’ way? Especially when the church & Christians that ratified them didn’t use them in that way? My understanding is that they used them within an interpretative community, the church as it was thus far, alongside the wisdom of those early Christians who had walked with Christ, & the few generations after, & that their interpretations of the scriptures were considered authoritative, taken in consensus, & that’s what they consider ‘tradition’.

    We need Dana & others to pop up & talk about Orthodoxy, but I’ll just say I was very surprised to find out how modern & how unusual the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ turned out to be, & that practically all Christians through time have used some form of ‘prima scriptura’ within an interpretative community of some kind, acknowledged or not.


  29. Yes, I agree. The only truly reliable record of that church we have, though, is the Bible.


  30. the evangelical argument for sola scriptura has been so dominant that most evangelicals — including evangelical theologians — teach that “the Bible” as we know it has always been the church’s sole authority.

    Like a Koran in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe.


  31. I think it can be somewhat compared to authenticating artwork. If art experts determine that a painting was made by Picasso, that is not what makes it a Picasso. It is a Picasso, because he painted it. But there authentication gives me confidence that what I am looking at is actually a Picasso. The early church councils didn’t make the books of the New Testament holy scripture. They already were. But their authentication of those books gives me confidence that these books are really holy scripture.


  32. I repeat my question. If there were criteria by which writings were judged so as to be included/excluded from the canon, aren’t those criteria and the church that developed and applied them the true ultimate authority for faith?


  33. I don’t see that the authority of the Bible is undermined by the canon having been decided upon through centuries of study, discussion and prayer, more enhanced. It’s the dismissive attitude to the historical Christian tradition displayed by fundamentalists that is undermined, since the Bible only exists precisely because of and out of that tradition.
    That being said, to an extent the way the canon was formed does support a “sola scriptura” approach. The canon was formed as much by what was excluded as what was included, so any traditions etc that didn’t make it into the canon did not make it because they weren’t regarded as sufficiently reliable or fundamental to be included, and to give extra-biblical tradition the same or similar authority to the Bible is to undermine the centuries of considered scholarship that decided it shouldn’t be.


  34. I was not taught this at my evangelical seminary, one of the worlds finest.

    Evangelical scholars have a way of avoiding or talking around the human side of the canonical process because it doesn’t fit their inerrancy or sola scriptura narrative.


  35. “New Testament formation isn’t something that is taught in a lot of churches. I went to an evangelical seminary and was taught basically what you quoted from the book, and in a classroom full of other evangelicals no one raised their hand and said, “Wait a minute, I just can’t wrap my mind around this.””

    There is a huge gap between evangelical intellectuals and theologians, and the typical evangelical in the pews. You are correct that NT formation isn’t taught in a lot of churches – and it’s probably not because the pastors don’t know it. It’s probably out of fear by those pastors that they would lose their jobs if they DID teach what they learned and accepted in seminary.


  36. -> “Before the Word was written, it was spoken.”

    Actually, even before it was spoken, it “was”. John 1:1. This is where the “Bible Uber Alles” people really miss the mark.


  37. I would agree with most of what you say, Jon, but in the author’s experience (and mine), the evangelical argument for sola scriptura has been so dominant that most evangelicals — including evangelical theologians — teach that “the Bible” as we know it has always been the church’s sole authority. The story is more complex than that.

    Then there is the question about what criteria the church used to determine which writings were sacred scripture, and what should ultimately be included in the canon. If there were criteria for determining this — aren’t those criteria and the church that applied them the real authority here?


  38. “Though it may be hard for evangelicals to grasp,” I don’t think so. They may not know this information, but that’s because New Testament formation isn’t something that is taught in a lot of churches. I went to an evangelical seminary and was taught basically what you quoted from the book, and in a classroom full of other evangelicals no one raised their hand and said, “Wait a minute, I just can’t wrap my mind around this.”
    And though saying, “For hundreds of years there was no canon of scripture, yet the church functioned in its absence” is a true statement, it could be a bit misleading. Was the canon set as it is today? No. But was scripture recognized and appealed to as an authority? Yes. Do we need a canon of scripture? I would argue yes. In fact I think the further in time we get from Jesus and the apostles the more necessary the canon becomes. We may disagree about interpretation, as least we still have a basic source to come back to. There is a reason we put things in writing.


  39. There were always stories in written or oral form circulating in the church concerning the words and acts of Jesus. The ones we have in the New Testament are the oldest and closest to the origins of the church in Jesus actual life and teaching that we have, and, insofar as we know, are available. If they were to disappear from us today, there is little doubt that we would lose all touch with what he said and did in his life, and what the earliest church said about his crucifixion, resurrection, and their meaning.


  40. “At first, traditions and teachings about Jesus Christ were spread
    orally-through the KERYGMA.

    But as time and distance separated that revelation a more reliable form of teaching became necessary-written documents. ” But even this more reliable form of teaching is subject to differing interpretations. Thus, we may at once see the relationship and the tension that is present within these four concepts of Revelation, Truth, Canon, and Interpretation.

    If Jesus is revelation and the embodiment of truth, how did the early church regard the writings
    about Jesus?

    Further, what norms were in place to ensure a unified understanding or interpretation of these writings? ”

    Click to access 391541.pdf


  41. Before the Word was written, it was spoken. There is an ‘oral’ tradition in the Church that is rich with imagery and stories, not found in sacred Scripture, but strangely, not ignored by evangelical people.

    A story:
    A lady in our community when I was growing up as a child was a very religious person, a Baptist, who had named her daughters Christian names. She thought the names were ‘biblical’. One was: ‘Naomi’, the younger child. But the older daughter’s name was ‘Veronica’ and her mother had somehow heard of the legend and may have thought it was biblical:

    the legend? it’s a story from tradition, that a young woman wiped the face of Christ as he carried His cross to be crucified; and when she later looked at the cloth, on it was printed the ‘face’ of Christ . . . . a miracle . . . . . in tradition, the young woman is named ‘Veronica’ standing for ‘vera icon’ or ‘true image’, and her act of kindness although not recorded in sacred Scripture, is thought to be a true story. (of course, it may not be, but the truth of it is lost somewhere in the mists of time, only the legend remains.

    So even evangelicals can get it wrong. (Or maybe not.) Not everything that Our Lord did was written down, no.
    And miracles did happen. I think they still do, some say. The rest of us take everything for granted. Maybe we shouldn’t. 🙂


  42. Allert’s position regarding the formation of the NT canon and its implications for the idea of the Bible’s authority is incontrovertible. It is also an exceedingly common understanding among sober and historically careful Biblical scholars. The evangelical idea that the New Testament was a formed collection of texts assembled into a single volume, and separated as uniquely authoritative from what we now consider other apocryphal texts, is a misleading fiction. It can only be maintained by refusal to acknowledge the plain historical truth of the matter.

    At the same time, given the fact that all the texts that were later included in what we now consider the canonical New Testament existed in finished form at a very early time, and had their sources in the very earliest strata of the Christian tradition, there is good reason to measure the authority of all later-sourced and developed traditions against the witness of the canonical New Testament. It’s authority exceeds that of other elements of tradition not because it was formed and available from the beginning — it was not — but because the texts that were ultimately included in it are indeed closer in proximity to the apostolic witness than any other element of the traditions we possess in stable form.


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