Friday, March 18, 2016

New book on the Authority of Scripture

Today I received my copy of a new book: D.A. Carson (ed.), The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). It is quite a big book (36 chapters and 1,240 pages), so this is not a review, more of an initial reaction and recommendation.

For information on the general motivation there is an interesting video of Don Carson on the Eerdmans website, also some discussion on Justin Taylor’s blog where you can see a detailed list of chapters. For some early push-back on Carson’s framing of the book see the comments from Nijay Gupta: Why I’m Disappointed with DA Carson’s New Book (for part of the back story see here).

Here is a list of chapters (sorry for the length):

1. D. A. Carson, “The Many Facets of the Current Discussion”

Part 1: Historical Topics 

2. Charles E. Hill, “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine”
3. Robert Kolb, “The Bible in the Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy”
4. Rodney L. Stiling, “Natural Philosophy and Biblical Authority in the Seventeenth Century”
5. John D. Woodbridge, “German Pietism and Scriptural Authority: The Question of Biblical Inerrancy”
6. Thomas H. McCall, “Wesleyan Theology and the Authority of Scripture: Historic Affirmations and Some Contemporary Issues”
7. Bradley N. Seeman, “The ‘Old Princetonians’ on Biblical Authority”
8. Glenn S. Sunshine, “Accommodation Historically Considered”
9. David Gibson, “The Answering Speech of Men: Karl Barth on Holy Scripture”
10. Anthony N. S. Lane, “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present”

Part 2: Biblical and Theological Topics

11. Stephen G. Dempster, “The Old Testament Canon, Josephus, and Cognitive Environment”
12. V. Philips Long, “‘Competing Histories, Competing Theologies?’ Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Old Testament(s’ Readers)”
13. Peter J. Williams, “Ehrman’s Equivocations and the Inerrancy of the Original Text”
14. Simon Gathercole, “E Pluribus Unim? Apostolic Unity and Early Christian Literature”
15. Graham A. Cole, “Why a Book? Why This Book? Why the Particular Order within This Book? Some Theological Reflections on the Canon”
16. Peter F. Jensen, “God and the Bible”
17. Henri A. G. Blocher, ‘God and the Scripture Writers: The Question of Double Authorship”
18. Bruce K. Waltke, “Myth, History, and the Bible”
19. Barry G. Webb, “Biblical Authority and Diverse Literary Genres”
20. Mark D. Thompson, “The Generous Gift of a Gracious Father: Toward a Theological Account of the Clarity of Scripture”
21. Osvaldo Padilla, “Postconservative Theologians and Scriptural Authority”
22. Craig L. Blomberg, “Reflections on Jesus’ View of the Old Testament”
23. Douglas J. Moo and Andrew David Naselli, “The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament”
24. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “May We Go Beyond What Is Written After All? The Pattern of Theological Authority and the problem of Doctrinal Development”

Part 3: Philosophical and Epistemological Topics

25. James Beilby, “Contemporary Religious Epistemology: Some Key Aspects”
26. R. Scott Smith, “Non-Foundational Epistemologies and the Truth of Scripture”
27. Michael C. Rea, “Authority and Truth”
28. Paul Helm, “The Idea of Inerrancy”
29. Richard Lints, “To Whom Does the Text Belong? Communities of Interpretation and the Interpretation of Communities”
30. Kirsten Birkett, “Science and Scripture”

Part 4: Comparative Religions Topics

31. Te-Li Lau, “Knowing the Bible Is the Word of God Despite Competing Claims”
32. Ida Glaser, “Qur’anic Challenges for the Bible Reader”
33. Timothy C. Tennent, “Can Hindu Scriptures Serve as a “Tutor” to Christ?”
34. Harold Netland and Alex G. Smith, “Buddhist Sutras and Christian Revelation”

Part 5: Thinking Holistically

35. Daniel M. Doriani, “Take, Read”

Part 6: FAQs

36. D. A. Carson, “Summarizing FAQs”

The essays I read were all interesting, well-informed, confident that they could defend the authority of the Bible against the challenges it faces. I especially liked Hill’s essay on Scripture in the early church, obviously that is because it dealt with a lot of things I am personally and professionally interested in, but also because it is obvious that Hill has worked in detail and for a long time with the questions he is addressing about this period. So it challenged me to think about the data and the argument. Readers of this blog will enjoy that essay. They will also enjoy Pete Williams’ essay, hopefully this will help straighten out a lot of discussions of the inspiration of the original text of Scripture (readers of this blog will have already figured this out from Pete’s posts). I dipped into some of the history chapters, read all the biblical chapters, enjoyed some of the more theological discussions and completely avoided the philosophical and comparative religion chapters.

The first thing I noticed, and needed to figure out in order to appreciate the book at all, is that in general for this book the “authority” of Scripture is basically regarded as synonymous with the “inerrancy” of Scripture. In fact the indices show that “inspiration” and “inerrancy” are addressed far more frequently than “authority”. In addition, the book does not seek to demonstrate the authority (or inspiration or inerrancy) of Scripture. It basically presumes the doctrine and is then shaped around the many challenges to the authority of Scripture. For example, there is an interesting essay attributed* to D.J. Moo and A.D. Naselli, ‘The Problem of the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament’. The first sentence is as follows:
Does the use of the OT in the NT argue against Scripture’s inerrancy? Many scholars think it does. This essay explains why it does not.‘ [my italics] (Of the 36 chapters at least a dozen could have used an equivalent first sentence for their topics.) 
The essay discusses the topic of the NT use of the OT as a “problem”. It is not discussed as part of the data by which a responsible contemporary evangelical doctrine of Scripture might be formulated, it is rather presented as a problem to inerrancy. In fact by the end of the essay it is still a problem: ‘the phenomena of the OT in the NT, then, constitute a mixed picture for the doctrine of inerrancy.’ But in the end the problem can’t trump the doctrine. The final sentence: ‘Certainly, in our view, the issues do not constitute enough “inductive” data to overthrow the clear claims of Scripture for itself, claims that the Christian church through the centuries has recognized as significant to provide clear and enduring authority for the people of God.’ But this whole issue of the relationship between a “deductive” approach and an “inductive” approach to sourcing the doctrine of Scripture is never actually addressed. I went to the index and checked for discussions of the “phenomena” of Scripture - the actual nitty gritty of the Bible as it really is - and found only two pages (p. 55 where Hill argues that we shouldn’t think that the church fathers were ignorant of discrepancies between the Gospels; and p. 1159 where I couldn’t actually find the word). (Incidentally there is no essay on discrepancies between the Gospels and how this is not a problem.)

So the second thing I noticed is that for whatever reason ‘the clear claims of Scripture for itself’ (quoting Moo & Naselli from above) are never discussed in this book. The book pretty much assumes an already formulated doctrine of Scripture and seeks to defend that doctrine against various challenges. This is important because of something V. Philips Long says in his essay on OT history:
‘it is no good defending a text with respect to claims that it never makes’ (p. 387 my italics). 
So it would have been helpful to have some constructive discussions to articulate what ‘the claims of Scripture for itself’ really are. I had an ironic moment in reading Graham Cole’s very interesting chapter ‘Some Theological Reflections on the Canon’ when he complained about Brevard Childs: ‘the paucity of references in his major work on biblical theology to the role of the Holy Spirit in the production of Scripture is a singular weakness ... 2 Timothy 3:16 hardly figures in his work and 2 Peter 1:21 not at all according to his index of biblical references’ (p. 466).
Of course the irony is that this collection is equally lacking in treating these topics. There is practically nothing on the work of the Holy Spirit (in fact the first entry under ‘Holy Spirit’ in the index is ‘inspiration’, but next to it is only blank space, no page numbers!); the only actual engagement with 2 Tim 3.16 comes in a critique of Karl Barth’s exegesis of the passage, otherwise there are only glancing references which presume rather than demonstrate what it teaches (2 Peter 1.21 does appear in the index, but is not discussed in any substantial manner).

The third thing I noticed, building on the first two observations, is that only seven of the 36 chapters deal directly with the Bible. The weight of the whole collection is spread out fairly evenly over the major areas: history, theology, Bible, philosophy, and the helpful new areas of comparative religious issues in relation to the authority of Scripture. But I found it interesting that a book about the Bible’s inspiration and independent authority over the people of God begins not with the Bible itself, but with church history - nine chapters to get the tradition straight before we get to the Biblical chapters.

The fourth thing I noticed is that in fact lots of the biblical essays don’t really deal with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture very straightforwardly. In fact a lot of them barely deal with the Bible at all (in this I would count Dempster, Long, Williams, and Waltke), but are discussions about background to or secondary discussions about the Bible. Dempster’s essay is about Josephus’ view of the OT canon, arguing that Josephus had a clear and closed view of the OT canon and then that this was (could have been?) part of the ‘cognitive environment’ of early Christianity. It is a helpful historical essay and it engages well with the issue, the arguments and the evidence. Long’s essay is a very general discussion of the problems in contemporary history of Israel study and how theists can engage with the debates. Williams defines the original text, in critical dialogue with B.D. Erhman, as the immaterial text which survives in the manuscript tradition and then mounts a brief 12 point defence of the presumption that the text of the New Testament has been transmitted reliably. Gathercole defends a broad apostolic unity around 1 Cor 15.3-11, and then spends 17 pages defending the apostolic connections to (not necessarily ‘authorship of’) the four canonical gospels. It is interesting stuff, but does Scripture itself claim apostolic authorship for the Gospels? Or is that a product of church tradition? In any case, the relationship between this discussion and the inspiration of Scripture is never articulated.

Only two of these essays reflect back on the definition of the authority of Scripture from the perspective of their subject. Blomberg discusses Jesus’ view of the OT, running a refreshed version of J.W. Wenham’s argument: ‘When it comes to the inspiration, truthfulness, authority, and relevance of the Bible of his world, Jesus could scarcely have held to higher views.’ (p. 696) ... ‘If we are followers of Jesus, we will want to adopt his view of the Scriptures.’ (p. 699)  Blomberg does then deal with the way that Jesus’ use of the OT also challenges some conservative views, especially on the interpretation of the revered Scripture. Webb describes the diverse literary genres which are found in the Bible. I found this a very interesting essay because he was not too bothered with the secondary literature and he went back to consider how the doctrine of Scripture might actually be re-shaped by the content and genres of Scripture itself. His question was: 
 ‘what are the implications of this diversity [of genres] for the kind of authority the Bible exercises?’ (p. 613) 
Personally I think I would have been helped more if this question had been asked more often.

Fifthly, there is a problem in relation to the chronology of the essays. The original essays were distributed in advance of a conference held in June 2010 and the book is published in 2016. D.A. Carson recognises the problem and suggests ‘most of these papers are sufficiently weighty and robust that they will not quickly become dated’ (p. xvi). The difficulty is obvious - you can’t expect authors to continually up-date essays while waiting for all the contributors to finish up. But the outcome does occasionally look a bit odd because the essays don’t address publications from the last five years, or we get the occasional distracting footnote: ‘Regrettably, I learned of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) too late to use it in this essay.’ (p. 545) In addition, some topics seem more important now than they did six or seven years ago (pseudonymity, OT text issues, Septuagint).

In conclusion, I confess I haven’t yet found this book deeply satisfying. Intellectually, emotionally and spiritually it didn’t engage me in the way I hoped it would. Nevertheless, I’m glad I bought it. I’ve already found several of the essays useful in helping me articulate a high view of Scripture’s authority. I’m sure I’ll refer back to it on a variety of issues.

*I have some suspicions about this essay on stylistic and content grounds.


  1. Thank you Pete! Great memories come back of the authority of Scripture discussions at Tyndale in 2012! Augustine, Calvin, Warfield, Goldingay, Enn's etc...
    You mention articles helping you articulate a "high view of Scripture". Will be helpful if you can share with us your defenition(s) of a "high" and "low" view of Scripture in relation to e.g. the synoptic problem and pseudonymity,

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  4. I think that would be a good project Ferdie. At some point I might turn those seminars into a book. But I have a few other things to finish first!!! The inspiration and truth of Scripture as the Word of God is a given. How God speaks truthfully in and through his Word must also be discerned inductively. I think the authorship of Ecclesiastes is an interesting case study here.

  5. "This comment has been removed by the author", that is, Peter Head's initial descriptions of a high and low view of Scripture. Write that book!

  6. Pete, it seems like Carson's previous volumes on this topic edited with Woodbridge are similar in that they assume a particular doctrine of Scripture (namely inerrancy) and address common objections to it. Those volumes don't address many of the "phenonema" either do they?

  7. I think there was an interest in them on formulating a doctrine of Scripture from Scripture (e.g. Grudem and Nicole in S&T), and in interacting a bit with the phenomena of the NT (Carson on Unity & Diversity; Longenecker on Letters; Carson on Redaction Criticism; Silva on NT use of OT). This book is much more comprehensive in history and philosophy and mission.

  8. One other thought, it would be great to have a book the plugs the glaring gap between chapters 2 and 3 in this book.


  10. Thank you for this review. I am eager to read most of these essays.

    Just a curiosity about the third item in your article:
    The book addresses various issues and challenges facing a/some doctrine(s) concerning Scripture that seem to be extra-biblical, ecclesial formulations. If this is true, it actually seems proper to speak of the doctrine in historical/ecclesial terms before mining the Scriptures themselves for clarification.

    The alternative would be to make explicit that the purpose of the book is to elucidate and defend only that which the Scriptures claim for themselves, then to establish those claims and defend them. But you've mentioned that doesn't seem to be what they are doing.


  11. Thanks David,

    My thoughts: I may be missing something significant about how this book as a whole works. And I have found more positive brief explanations related to the building blocks for a biblical doctrine of Scripture in some of the more theological chapters (Jensen, Blocher, Thompson). So my view is not determinative.

    Your "the alternative ..." is certainly not what the book does. I personally found it a bit frustrating, since the authors do talk about the view of Scripture which it claims for itself, but this view is pretty much presumed. Even the historical sections are more interested in defending a view than formulating it (you may have heard it said that Calvin/Luther/Wesley/Pietests/baptists/Catholics deny the full inerrancy of Scripture, but that is wrong/misleading/undocumented really they are all on our side).

    One could compile a doctrine from a historical survey and then modify/clarify it from Scripture (an evangelical Anglican approach to tradition vs Scripture), but with only one or two exceptions the biblical chapters are not here to help clarify the doctrine of Scripture, but to defend it.

    Behind all this is a pastoral problem. If young evangelicals accept a doctrine of Scripture either as a tradition or as an unsupported assumption of belonging, and then go and do a university PhD in biblical studies, they often feel the need to jettison the tradition (i.e. conservative doctrine of Scripture) in favour of the Bible-as-they-have-actually-encountered-it. Pastorally what they/we need is both a) a proper demonstration of what the Bible teaches about itself; b) a discussion of the way in which what the Bible actually is/contains can modify/shape/relate to a doctrine of Scripture; and c) a direct discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of various challenges (and not a kind of drive-by dismissal that they are not important).

    1. Dr. Head,

      All your points are heard and well taken. When I read the early church, I see a fairly confident and consistent confession that the Scriptures are perfect and true. What I do not see is nitty-gritty elucidation as to what that really means or looks like—at least, not to the extent that we discuss in our time. This may imply several things, but does imply at least one. And that is that we have a lot of room to inquire and dig in and discuss what it means for the Scriptures themselves to be perfect *without* jettisoning the simple confession of the perfect Scriptures.

      Of course, you know this. At this point, I am daydreaming. It would be nice in evangelicalism to start having this conversation (as well as many theological conversations) from a much more basic confessional starting point. As you know, these confessional starting points of the apostolic Christian faith are really quite broad and give much room for deliberation on 'how'. But of course, when our DNA is denominational splitting over doctrinal minutia, it becomes difficult to really step way back and start again from a barebones confession of the perfect Scriptures and reconstruct exactly what the perfect Scriptures claim about themselves.

      We are probably agreeing on this point, given this blog's purpose. I see the confession of Scripture-as-perfect as a prior commitment that does not really put us in a bad situation. In sum, I think it leaves us with the room to do exactly what you proposed in your last paragraph.

  12. Of course one can find in Origen, Augustine, Luther and Calvin a combination.

  13. Pete H., what were your suspicions about the Moo/Naselli chapter?

  14. I've just finished reading this ahead of reviewing for Churchman. Just a small correction on your comment: "the first entry under ‘Holy Spirit’ in the index is ‘inspiration’, but next to it is only blank space, no page numbers!"

    The "inspiration" entry is actually part of the 'See also' reference, i.e. "See also illumination: inspiration". That is masked by the line break but proved by the colon (cf. the entry for textual criticism).