Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church’s 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 canon—which 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 level—Christian laymen (p. xii, 8). We can, therefore, refine McDonald’s 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 church’s 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.