Review of Lee McDonald’s The Formation of the Christian Canon

Review of Lee McDonald’s The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon: Revised and Expanded Edition

Aside from a few howlers, this book is a balanced and thorough investigation to the context and mindset of the church that formed the present biblical canon.  McDonald interacts with the doyens of biblical studies and their best arguments.  He is always cross-examining weak arguments and asking questions that many evangelicals have ignored (or prayed their students didn’t ask).

The notion of Scripture as “canon” is a tricky one.  In our post-enlightenment era, we think of any mention of a list of writings a proof that ancient cultures have the same view of canon as 21st century Protestants.  There are several problems with this line of reasoning:  1) with the possible exception of Josephus, ancient men usually defined a canon not as a list of writings; and 2) there are numerous lists of books in ancient sources (and the bible) that are not recognized as proto-canons.

This leads into what will be McDonald’s thesis:  Jesus is the canon!  The early Christians’ faith was not in a codified set of writings but in the Risen Lord.  The message of this Risen Lord was passed down from the apostles to the bishops to the elders:  it was tradition.  This tradition testified of Christ.

But didn’t the Old Testament testify of Christ?  And wouldn’t this mean that there was a clear and complete Old Testament canon?  The early Christians (especially St Justin Martyr and St Irenaeus) did see the Old Testament as prophesying of Christ, but the outer limits of the Old Testament canon were not yet set.

This leads to McDonald’s next point:  he takes aim at Roger Beckwith’s thesis that the OT Scriptures at the earliest were defined a few centuries before Christ and at their latest at the council of Jamnia in AD 90.  Many point to an earlier dating of OT canonization because of claims by 2 Maccabees that prophecy had ceased in Israel, presumably pointing to the last prophet around the time of Malachi.  But as McDonald points out, entrance to the canon was not a matter of whether or not a prophet was inspired, but whether this particular writing was used in liturgy (53).

McDonald’s most pointed question is that if the Church received a completed OT canon it nowhere identified it.  If, as Beckwith says, it was so obvious and universal and did not need to identify it, this is a huge argument from silence and assumes a lot of what it needs to prove.  True, the church did receive the story of Israel and was likely familiar with most of the present OT canon, but that does not mean that ALL of the OT canon was there.  This is yet to be proven, and McDonald scores huge points on this issue.

New Testament Use of the Old Testament “Canon”

McDonald argues against a strict view of an existing Old Testament canon in the first century.  Further argues that NT church did not have a rigid view of the Scripture’s ultimate authority in the early church.

“If the NT writers were concerned with the text of the OT as the inviolable word of God, why does Paul feel so free to change significantly the focus of the text of the Scripture he is citing in Ephesians 4:8 (compare Psalm 68:18) and change the meaning of the text from “receives” to “gives” (105)?

I know the standard answer to the question—“Paul was inspired.”  Yes, that’s true but that’s still dodging the issue.  Even if you say “inspired,” you still have the fact that Paul is altering the very inviolable word of God.  Either God is moving the goal line back during the game, or we need to change our view of Scripture’s authority.

St Paul says that the Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth, and as such can reinterpret texts accordingly.  Secondly, assuming that God doesn’t have double standards, we can read backwards and say that is not how the original text was viewed (in terms of inviolable authority).

Simply put, and this is part of McDonald’s main point, later notions of “canon” simply weren’t part of the mindset of early Christians and most Jews.

We must go back to what Canon means:  it means “rule of faith.”  St Clement identified it as a way of life.  St Irenaeus identified it with the story of Jesus.  Canon for these men, it appears, was simply the tradition passed down.  This is important for several reasons:  1) Jude 3 says that the Church has received the apostolic deposit of faith, but the canon, if it was complete, was not yet recognized.  Presumably, this means that the canon as we know it today was not part of the apostolic deposit.  Does this threaten the faith of the Church?  No, for the Church had Tradition, the liturgy, the bishops, and the sacraments.  It had the promise from Christ that it would be made full and complete.   2)  our faith is in a Lord, not a book.  Ironically, the authors of the New Testament make no claim that the entire corpus of the New Testament should be viewed as a complete canon.  This irony should not be lost on us.  Not only can you not locate the canon of the NT using only the NT, you can’t even locate where the NT says it will later be a canon!  Let us go back to the faith of St Irenaeus who held to the bishops, the sacraments, and the unbroken story of the risen Lord.

What makes a book canonical?

Normally, people say that for a book to be canonical it must have apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, inspiration, and usage.  This isn’t a bad list.  It’s incomplete by itself, but it is a good start.  There are some inadequacies with each point:

  • apostolicity:  a book must be dated back to the time of the apostles.  McDonald says this won’t work because many of the books of the New Testament weren’t actually written by the people that claim to have written them.  McDonald has a point, but he is wrong.  If all the evangelical has to go on is “simply da bahbal,” then he has no way to answer the fact that some books have discrepancies in language, grammar, etc.  (This is the same argument we use against Mormon claims that the Book of Mormon was written by God or Joseph Smith or both).  But if the evangelical relies on sacred tradition, this isn’t a problem.  It’s not a problem because the bishops who received this book from the apostles themselves know who wrote the book.
  • Orthodoxy:  the book must represent the truth of the church.  Again, this is quite correct but acknowledging it presents a problem for evangelicals.  Adherents to sola scriptura usually deny the reality of oral tradition, yet here they temporarily assume it to make an argument for the canon!  This, however, isn’t McDonald’s problem with it (and again, I disagree with McDonald).  McDonald doesn’t like this argument because it assumes a unified theological core to the NT church.   I really don’t feel like refuting this at the moment.  McDonald is right to point out inadequacies with the “orthodoxy” approach, but he is wrong on what those inadequacies are.
  • Antiquity:  closely linked with apostolicity.  This is difficult to use because, even on a very conservative dating of the NT, many documents of acceptable orthodoxy predate some NT books (the Didache, the letters of Clement, possibly the Shepherd of Hermas).
  • Inspiration: all of the Church fathers believed the Bible was inspired, but they had a different definition of inspiration than we do.  St Athanasius though the Shepherd was inspired.  Further, even the apostles at times did not view all of their corpus as inspired (1 Corinthians 7).


McDonald makes a few howlers in his final chapter.  He stared modernity in the face, and like all men of Fuller Seminary, suffered a failure of nerve.  He blames the Bible for the continuance of slavery and not speaking clearly about civil rights and ecological irresponsibility.  Umm…yeah.

But he does make other good points.

“Should the Church be limited to an OT canon to which Jesus and his disciples were clearly not limited?  Also, we have seen that the final limits of the OT canon used by Protestants was in part shaped by a Judaism in polemic against the Church” (255).

McDonald, although coming from flawed presuppositions (and certainly to wrong conclusions), asks a very loaded, very poignant question:

“Those who would argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances left us with our present canon.  This is apparently what would be required if we were to only acknowledge the twenty-seven NT books that were set forth by the church in that context.  Was the church in the Nicene and post-Nicene eras infallible in its decisions or not” (256)?


One comment on “Review of Lee McDonald’s The Formation of the Christian Canon

  1. […] Lee.   The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon.  Documents how difficult and rough the canonical process was.   While not seemingly aware of […]

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