Review: Metzger, The Canon of Scripture

Metzger, Bruce.  The Canon of The New Testament. Oxford.

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Metzger traces the historical development of the New Testament canon from apostolic times until the Reformation. Admittedly, there is little in here that is different from the approach of F. F. Bruce. However, Metzger does thoroughly cover much ground in relatively little space. The book is easy to read and follows a strict structure. There is some repetition, but it does not detract from the overall narrative. Metzger ends his book with a balanced and thoughtful discussion on the criteria of the canon.

Metzger begins with a survey of various works on the canon in the last two centuries. Much of this will not be useful to any except those who are working on theses and dissertations, in which case it is very useful because Metzger provides helpful bibliographies and discussions of various works.

Metzger surveys the Church Fathers in how they used various scriptures. While mainline scholars continue to debate the dates of the New Testament, and these debates are highly unsatisfactory, many scholars use the writings of the Church Fathers as a limit for the date of said book. It also clues scholars in to the extent of a book’s usage at a certain time period. Metzger uses this methodology and surveys the post-apostolic fathers, the apologists, and the Eastern and Western fathers. The problem with this method, as Metzger notes, is many fathers quoted the Scriptures from memory, and not from looking at a piece of writing. This is particularly problematic concerning quotations from the synoptic gospels. If a father quoted from memory, he probably collapsed a number of “bible verses” into one citation, making it difficult for scholars to tell if he is quoting Matthew, Mark, or Luke, or all three at once.

Metzger gives a helpful survey of the “Gospels according to…”, various apocryphal writings of mixed value and spurious authenticity. Metzger notes while many spurious gospels were obviously false because of Gnostic or Docetic tendencies, many did not have these tendencies and authors such as Clement, Jerome, and Athanasius had a neutral opinion on them. This section is valuable because of the “lost gospel” nonsense being perpetrated today. Metzger outlines many of their false teachings, almost all of which are wildly absurd even by feminist standards.
The most valuable part of the book is the discussion of the importance of the canon for the church today: how was it developed, is it still open, and how does it impact discussions of “inspiration?” Metzger gives the standard for determining canonicity of a book: authenticity and orthodoxy (Metzger 1997: 251). Is it written by an apostolic authority and does it conform to the rule of faith? (It is interesting to see that Scripture is being judged by tradition, and not the other way around). The test for apostolicity is a bit more difficult, though. Luke and Mark weren’t written by apostles, and Hebrews might not have been, either. However, one can say these books were written under apostolic authority, which then qualifies them for the canon.

Metzger notes that while the fathers thought the Scripture was inspired, they did not consider that a valid enough reason for canonicity. This is because they did not have the same distinctions about “inspiration” that moderns do. Clement of Alexandria thought numerous non-biblical writings were inspired, yet no one seriously thought they were canonical. Later fathers would acknowledge their predecessors as “inspired,” but no one thought St Athanasius should be in the canon (255). Many apologists love to point to the fact that St Paul says the “Scriptures are theopneustos” (God-breathed), but numerous Greek Christians afterwards applied that same adjective to their own theologians. Therefore, in the Greek-speaking cultural milieu in which the New Testament canon was formed, the fact that the Old Testament scriptures were designated *theopneustos* does not make them unique. Metzger ends the discussion on inspiration with a very important comment:

“While the fathers again and again use the concept of inspiration in reference to the Scriptures, they seldom describe non-Scriptural writings as non-inspired. When, in fact, such a distinction is made, the designation “non-inspired” is found to be applied to false and heretical writings, not to Orthodox products of the Church’s life. In other words, the concept of inspiration was not used in the early Church as a basis of designation between canonical and non-canonical orthodox Christian writings” (256).

Why is a book canonical?, Meztger rhetorically asks, because it is an “extent literary deposit of the direct and indirect apostolic witness on which the later witness of the early church depends” (257).

Metzger asks the popular question, “Is the canon open or closed” (271)? He frames his answer in a thoughtful way: either we believe in a list of authoritative books or in an authoritative list of books (282). From this discussion we see the problems both answers will take: if we say the former we lend credence to the idea that the Church created the canon; if we say the latter we end up with the idea that the church merely recognized the self-authenticating canon. Both answers are highly problematic. The Church did not merely create the canon, but received the Old Testament scriptures and the church did in fact recognize a list of authoritative books over time. On the other hand, it may be true that the canon is self-authenticating and the church simply recognized what was already true, but the fact of the matter is very few (if any) in the early church saw it that way.

At the end of discussion the issues of the canon today, Metzger ends with a few unsatisfactory conclusions, yet if dwelled upon and corrected at points, they offer more satisfactory answers. Metzger quotes St Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of any human being but as what it really is, the word of God which is at work in you believers (I Thess. Ii. 13). Metzger places this “word of God” in some form of Scripture (287).  Further, as Metzger has noted elsewhere in his writings, the writers of the New Testament did not think they were actually writing inspired Scripture equal to the Old Testament when they sat down to write.

This is a fine work that summarizes all of the major developments in the canon from earliest times until now. It wrestles with extremely complex issues, but never does the argument get away from the author, nor is the reader ever lost or confused. The book is helpfully outlined and cross-referenced, and may it be a mandatory text for all introductory New Testament classes. Even when we disagree with some of Professor Metzger’s conclusions, we stand in awe of his magnificent scholarship.

2 thoughts on “Review: Metzger, The Canon of Scripture

  1. An idea I had: Reading elsewhere, someone has made the argument that Paul’s appointment of Timothy and Titus reflected the Jewish practice of appointing a ‘shaliach’, a personal messenger, reflecting the process of Apostolic procession. This is distinct from the appointment of episkopoi or presbyteroi. But what made me wonder was whether some of the “pseudo” letters of Paul reflect a kind of apostolic editorial hand in the person of Timothy and Titus, explaining grammatical differences and/or dating. This phenomenon might also explain what we see with 2 Peter. This doesn’t mean an indefinite apostolic succession, as no one beyond the life time of the apostles ever is described in such a way.


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