Wednesday, April 07, 2010

REVIEW: The Canon of Scripture

F. F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988. 349 Pg. $18.30.  ISBN-10 0-8308-1258-X. Reviewed by Christopher L. Sanchez, Seminary Student.

 The question of how the Canon of Scripture came to be and the contents of that Canon have been written about by many scholars over the years.  In 1988, the late F. F. Bruce (1910 – 1990) published his award winning work on this topic.  Bruce was educated at the University of Aberdeen, Cambridge University, and the University of Vienna.  Bruce has been described as a prolific writer during his career publishing over thirty books and numerous articles.  Most of his writing was scholarly including The Canon of Scripture.  In this work, Bruce gives careful attention to the key issues during the formation of both the Old and New Testaments discussing the various side of each debate.
                        Bruce chose a simple yet effective approach to the divisions of the 349 page book; Introduction, Old Testament, New Testament, and Conclusion.  Bruce also includes two lectures from the 1970’s as appendices at the end of the book though this reviewer notes that these relate to the topic of canonicity in a very limited way.[1]  In his brief seven page introduction, Bruce reveals to his readers of the origin of the word “canon”, the use of the phrase “people of the book”, and the two testaments of the Christian Bible his book focuses on.[2]
                        Bruce spends the next six chapters discussing the Old Testament specifically focusing on how those Scriptures became a new book when interpreted through the lens of Christianity.  This is a precedent set by Jesus himself as throughout His ministry He appealed to the Scriptures.[3] In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, references to “the Scriptures” were understood to be the Jewish scriptures that Christians now refer to as the Old Testament.[4]  While the Old Testament was a closed canon by the time of Christ, there was a great deal of debate over the centuries as to what exactly was part of the Jewish Scriptures. 
                        Detailed explanations for the exclusion of the Apocrypha, how the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate were written, and the importance of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are offered.  Here Bruce discusses the textual evidence from the East including the early uncials and the book listings each contain as well as important figures such as Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, and Origen among them.[5] Bruce continues this section with a discussion of the Latin West and key figures such as Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine concluding with a treatment of the Old Testament before and after the Reformation.[6]
                        In the preface, Bruce states clearly that he is more concerned with the New Testament canon than with the Old Testament canon.[7]  This is obviously the case given that Bruce spends 180 pages, just over half his book, addressing the New Testament.  These thirteen chapters are rich in historical detail including entire chapters focused each on Marcion and Eusebius.  In the highly informative final chapter of the third section, Bruce discusses the New Testament canon in the age of printing.  Of particular note is the detail given about Laurentius Valla, the man who demonstrated what Bruce calls the “spurious character” of the ‘Donation of Constantine’ which was used to justify the secular dominion of the papacy.[8]  As with so much of the history he discusses, Bruce provides great detail about Valla including his dislike of biblical commentaries written by theologians that do not take the Greek text into account.[9]
                        The concluding three chapters may perhaps be the most important.  Here Bruce discusses the criteria of canonicity and the possibility of a discovery of a genuine apostolic letter, the idea of a canon within a canon, and finally the canon, criticism, and interpretation.  Of particular note is the idea of canonical exegesis which Bruce defines as the interpretation of individual part of the canon in the context of the canon as a whole.[10]
                        Throughout his book, Bruce provided his readers with an exceptional level of detail.  Given that his intended audience was other theologians and possibly seminarians, the level of historical detail is exceptional and exactly what one would expect from a scholar of Bruce’s caliber.  It is difficult to find any area with which to be critical save one.  Throughout the book, Bruce frequently referred readers to other parts of the book, especially to pages that followed the current topic.  For accomplished scholars, this likely is not an issue but for this seminarian it added a level of complexity to the reading that frankly was unnecessary.  Perhaps this is a common trait among Christian scholarship focused on historical matters.
                        This challenge notwithstanding, Bruce’s work is so very rich in detail as to make it a vital part of any serious Bible student’s personal library.  In fact, if one had but a single volume to become acquainted with the history of the biblical canon, this one would fill that role well.  Bruce’s readability and providing historical detail that can be easily remembered make this book one for the ages.

                [1] The first of these is a lecture from 1974 called The “Secret” Gospel of Mark beginning on page 298.  The second lecture is from 1976 and is called Primary Sense and Plenary Sense.  These lectures are fascinating from the perspective of this seminarian and worthy of attention.  It would be rather easy to write a review the length of the current assignment on either of these lectures. 
                [2] Bruce, Fredrick Fyvie. The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 17-22.
                [3] Ibid, 27; 55.
                [4] Ibid, 28-29.  Bruce reminds his readers that the New Testament had not yet been written much less canonized at the time of Christ’s ministry on earth. 
                [5] Ibid, 68-82.
                [6] Ibid, 98-114.
                [7] Ibid, 9.  At the time of publication, two other recent works had been published that Dr. Bruce felt limited his need to offer a treatment more comprehensive than The Canon of Scripture already did.  Other works are also mentioned but Bruce goes on to state that perhaps he simply needed to get this book “out of his system”.
                [8] Ibid, 241.
                [9] Ibid, 242.
                [10] Ibid, 291.  This largely takes place today throughout Christendom.  For most Christians, the Old Testament cannot be understood without viewing it from a New Testament perspective.