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A REVIEW OF FORMATION OF THE BIBLE BY LEE MARTIN MCDONALD
February 5, 2015
Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Churchs Canon. By Lee Martin McDonald. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012. 173 pp. $24.95. ISBN 978-1-59856-838-7.
Christians debate about a lot of questions, some more important than others. One question that should be primordial for Christians, but which is frequently ignored, is the question of the canonwhich books should be considered inspired? This is the question that Lee Martin McDonald, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia, seeks to answer in this book. In this book review we will note the purpose and intended audience of the book. How the author goes about developing the subject, and the relative worth of the book.
The purpose of this book is, in the words of McDonald, to help readers fill in some of the important background information on the formation of the Bible and to answer some of the more important questions that emerge from such an investigation. (p. xi) The intended audience for this book are those Christians who have not investigated this subject at an academic levelChristian laymen (p. xii, 8). We can, therefore, refine McDonalds purpose statement to say that the purpose of this book is to help all Christians everywhere, especially those who have never studied the subject of the canon, to understand the questions and difficulties that are related to the formation of the Christian canon, as they are discussed at an academic level (cf. p. xi, 8.).
The book is divided into 8 chapters that seek to explain the formation of the Christian canon. In the first chapter the author explains what the Bible is, explains what is meant by the term canon, and seeks to establish a number of important facts about the Bible, as well as to dispel a number of myths that are commonly believed about the Bible. The author claims that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments in all of its teachings, as the churchs sacred and authoritative Scripture. (p. 17), but that this authority is a derived authority and that the final authority for all Christians is Jesus Christ. (Ibid.) By such a claim he is trying to avoid what some theologians have called bibliolatry. In the second and third chapters McDonald discusses the canon of the Old Testament, arguing that the canon of the Old Testament was not yet established in the time of Christ (p. 43, etc.), and was not established, for Christianity until the 4th and 6th centuries (p. 64). In the fourth chapter he discusses what made up the canon for early Christianity. In the fifth chapter we look at the formation of the New Testament canon. The sixth chapter summarizes and provides a great deal of important information concerning the manuscripts themselves (writing materials, manuscript preservation, copy-making, translations, etc.). This chapter provides much material for reflection. In the seventh chapter McDonald notes the essential role of the church fathers and the church councils in the formation of the Canon. In the eighth and final chapter, the epilogue, McDonald asks whether or not the early church got the canon right. This is the most important chapter of the book, but should be read without having first read the first seven chapters. In this final chapter McDonald notes that with the exception of a couple books, there is almost unanimous agreement between all branches of the Church (Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Orthodox churches, p. 159.). He also makes a very important point about the fact that even today, a lot of people have created their own personal canon. In his words, If we are not willing to allow the biblical message to inform and impact our beliefs and behavior, what value does a biblical canon have? (p. 160) In other words, if I pick and choose what I like in the Bible, then I have essentially created my own personal canon. We do not have a biblical canon unless we are willing to follow its guidelines for ordering our lives. (p. 161)
Throughout this book McDonald notes a number of facts about the manuscripts that might make a person doubt the canon of the church, the trustworthiness of the scriptures, etc. However, McDonald also claims, at a number of points, that the facts that he is pointing out should not change our understanding of scripture. Unfortunately his assurances are not as convincing as he would like. Though this book is written for laymen, I would not advise a person to read it without having a second opinion on these subjects, as McDonald interprets a number of facts about the canon and the manuscripts in a way that seems obviously negative, when there are other ways of interpreting the facts that he rejects out of hand, but which throw a much more positive light on the manuscripts and the canon. I think that whoever reads this book will greatly profit from a careful reading of this book, from the many charts and pictures that McDonald has included (which provide great resources for further study), and from the glossary of terms at the back of the book. One of the drawbacks of this book is that the author very rarely provides any quotations, which would be valuable even for the Christian Layman (as it would allow him to verify what McDonald is saying by considering other positions). McDonald tries to make up for this lacuna by providing a good bibliography at the end of the book. All in all the book is well written, easy to read, and worth the time it will take to read it. It cannot, however, stand alone. In order to truly understand the canon one will need to consult other books that provide different interpretations of the various facts that are brought out by McDonald.
In light of the barrage of attacking media on the Bible these days, canonicity is suddenly a hot topic. Sadly, most Christians do not really know how to discuss the topic of how our canon of Scripture came about, or more importantly, how it can be trusted. So we need volumes to educate us such as we have in this volume published by Hendrickson.
We have to either remove the rustiness that has developed or come up to speed as the world is asking the tough questions. The book can distinctly help us. This subject is complex and so subject to easy potshots! You will need a basic knowledge if, say, someone starts reading Bart Ehrman and says your Bible is hopelessly an untrustworthy text of antiquity and dares you to answer. Mr. McDonald is a scholar who gives us an introduction, a starting place, that assumes we may not the story of the our canon.
Though it comes as a surprise to some there were pseudepigraphal and apocryphal books that rose up to compete with the cannon that became what we know as authoritative Scripture just as the critics say. What is not true is the level of acceptance. This volume weaves through how that worked out.
The key value in this book is the way unfamiliar things are defined and explained. Both in the text and in an outstanding glossary of terms one can learn the language of canonicity. He gives full charts on all the books that you may hear of as "lost" too.
I do not reach every conclusion he does, but my only real fault with this book is that it does not hold up as a work of apologetics nearly as well as it as simply an educational one. On occasions he raised more questions than he answered, or at least answered powerfully. I believe an even stronger case can be made. Still, this book will be handy to have on the shelf.
I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.
Several friends and I have all enjoyed reading and studying the book entitled Formation of the Bible. It is very informative and interesting and I would recommend it to anyone to read. It is a value for money book and I learnt a lot from reading it.