An Evangelical Takes Evangelicals to Task about Inspiration
Today, let’s consider more from Craig D. Allert and his book, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. As we do, here are just a couple of reminders:
- Craig Allert is an evangelical who teaches at an evangelical university, Trinity Western Seminary.
- Here is his affirmation about scripture: “I affirm the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity, and as such I affirm that it is the final source for the believers’ faith and life.”
- Nevertheless, Allert says this about evangelicalism and the Bible: “…we evangelicals have come close to deifying this collection of texts with little to no understanding of how they came to be collected into the Bible. Even when evangelical treatments of Scripture cover the issue of canonicity, this near deification of the Bible sets the agenda.”
- In contrast, his position is this: “My position is that a high view of Scripture demands an understanding and integration of the Bible’s very formation. The Bible’s living authority in the life of believers is implicated in this formation because the Bible was formed and grew within the community of faith. This means that the Bible did not drop from heaven but was the result of historical and theological development.”
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In his chapter, “Inspiration and Inerrancy,” Allert deals with some of the most important fundamental commitments of evangelicals regarding the Bible and questions the accepted narrative. For evangelicals, two concepts, “inspiration” and “inerrancy” are key. With regard to inspiration he writes, “Many have stated that the only criterion for the canonicity of the New Testament documents was inspiration, and that when the church recognized this inspiration, the New Testament canon was a done deal” (p. 147).
Allert is skeptical of this approach, noting that the idea of “inspiration” in the early church was broader than simply the inspiring of the sacred writings that became the canon of scripture. Knowing that evangelicals like himself will base their arguments ultimately on what the Bible says on the subject, Allert examines some of the most common texts regarding scripture and inspiration, making two extremely important points.
1. There is no “Bible” in the Bible.
2 Tim 3:15-17 — “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…”
Craig Allert convincingly makes the point that, first of all, “Scripture” here does not and cannot mean “the Bible,” for there was no “Bible” at the time these words were written. Nor does it refer to the Old Testament canon, for the church at this time had not yet inherited an OT that was complete as a single document. Certainly, the early church had “scriptures” or “sacred writings” that they looked to, but to posit that they had anything like what we know today as “the Bible” is anachronistic.
2. “Inspired by God” — your guess is as good as mine.
Secondly, Allert notes that the word theopnustos, translated as “inspired by God” or in some versions as “God-breathed,” is a hapax logomena — a word used only once in the New Testament, and possibly one that was even coined by the author of 2 Timothy himself.
If you break down the word etymologically, it yields “God-breathed,” but etymology is not determinative of meaning. For example, if I, a minister and hospice chaplain, carry a “briefcase,” it is unlikely that I am using it daily to transport legal documents to and from court. In 2 Timothy here, it is probable that the author is talking about the divine origin of scripture — yes, the sacred writings we have been exposed to come from God, he affirms — but to build any kind of detailed definition of “inspiration” from these words is a questionable enterprise.
Here is Allert’s conclusion.
When it comes to the issue of inspiration, the biblical data are surprisingly vague on a theory of inspiration. They certainly affirm that Scripture is inspired, but how that inspiration functions is not explained. When the biblical passages used to undergird verbal plenary inspiration are understood in light of the later formation of the canon, this should tend to correct some unwarranted presuppositions about what the Bible does and does not say; it also affects the related concept of inerrancy.
The presupposition that any reference to Scripture is to be understood as a reference to canon is foundational here. If we make this assumption, we actually end up questioning the canon that we employ today as God’s Word. As we have seen, the church fathers often refer to noncanonical documents as Scripture. If we were to make the assumption that Scripture equals canon, we would be forced to adopt a much wider canon than we acknowledge today. No evangelical that I am aware of would make this argument.
If we were to argue that the church fathers were wrong to claim scriptural status for these documents or that they belonged to the postapostolic (i.e., corrupt) church, we would be faced with a further difficulty. We would need to explain how the Bible can remain the pure and uncorrupted word when it was canonized in large part by supposedly corrupt church leaders in this church. How could the leaders in this church have been correct about what went into the canon but wrong about the scriptural status of other books? If we trust them for the canon, how can we distrust them on the issue of noncanonical documents? Our reliance on the Bible as our guide for faith and life certainly implies that we affirm that those who collected Scripture into the canon did so because they were led by the Spirit in the church.
There is nothing that necessitates understanding Paul’s appeals to Scripture as an appeal to a closed canon. There is little warrant for this anachronistic presupposition. The fluidity of the New Testament documents even into the fourth and fifth centuries should caution us about making broad claims concerning what the biblical data says about “canon.” The Bible does not speak of how the various documents came to be included into a canon. So when a claim is made that the definition of inspiration requires a “careful study of those biblical texts that speak of the formation of the canonical literature,” we see this presupposition at work. (p. 171)