Historical Theology: The Canonicity and Inspiration of Scripture

August 23, 2011 — Leave a comment


[This post is part of the Historical Theology mini-review series]

Like Grudem’s layout in Systematic Theology, Allison starts with the Doctrine of the Word of God in Historical Theology. Each author covers the canonicity, inspiration, authority, inerrancy, sufficiency, clarity, and necessity of Scripture. Allison starts with canonicity, while Grudem starts with inerrancy. Allison combines sufficiency and necessity into a single chapter and then adds a chapter on the history of interpretation. Here though, we’re just going to look at canonicity and inspiration.


Allison’s chapters are more or less uniform. Using the chapter on canonicity as an example, here’s how Allison outlines each chapter:

  • Statement of belief
  • The Canon in the Early Church
  • The Canon in the Middle Ages
  • The Canon in the Reformation and Post-Reformation
  • The Canon in the Modern Period

This allows for the reader to follow how the specific doctrine was understood through numerous direct quotations from primary sources. The uniformity of the outlines in each chapter allows one, if you wanted, to do a study of a doctrine in only the early church period by just reading each section on the early church in each chapter. (In other words, like we talked about in the first post, one can either study historical theology synchonically or diachronically). By comparison, look how Grudem outlines his chapter on canon:

  • Explanation and Scriptural Basis
  • Questions for Personal Application
  • Special Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Memory Passage
  • Hymn

Under Explanation and Scriptural Basis, Grudem develops the doctrine first from the Old Testament and then from the New. In each of Grudem’s chapters the outline under Explanation and Scriptural Basis differs from doctrine to doctrine. In every case though, you can see his focus is on explaining the doctrine as we understand it today, demonstrating its basis in Scripture, and then helping you apply it. Kudos to Grudem as well for cross referencing to other systematic theologies that discuss the same doctrine and then encouraging Scripture memory as well.

The gap that Allison fills is the historical development of the particular doctrine that Grudem lacks. In Allison’s analysis, he provides several canon lists from key church figures in the early church, as well as how the church has understood canonicity since then. Allison notes that the first list of canoncial New Testament books that exactly corresponds to our current list appeared in AD 367. Critics sometimes point this out to argue for previous early acceptance of books like the Gospel of Thomas, but what they miss is these particular books were never accepted in the mainstream and were never considered canonical by any reputable church leader. The general basis for our list of New Testament books emerged as early as 170, which is fairly impressive considering they didn’t have the internet, were being heavily persecuted, and did not have numerous copies circulating all over the place. The chapter then chronicles the divide between Protestant understandings of canonicity and Roman Catholic views. This helps explain how the Apocrypha should be understood by us today.


Moving to chapter 3, Allison does a masterful job of demonstrating that only in very recent times has there been any kind of significant debate over the inspiration of Scripture. He does admit however that “theologians of the early church tended to accentuate the divine authorship of the Bible. At times this emphasis resulted in neglect of the role of the human authors” (p. 60). He also notes that in the early church there was a tendency toward the mechanical inspiration view (p. 61), but when it came down to it Allison says, “the early church clearly and unanimously affirmed the plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture” (p. 62-63).

Because of this, Allison sees the medieval church basically reiterating this position with little advancement. This meant that it was not one of the doctrinal clashes between the Reformers and the Protestants. It wasn’t until the post-Reformation period that “careful, meticulous explorations of the doctrine of inspiration” occurred (p. 67). In this, post reformation authors maintained that inspiration applied especially to the authographs, or original writings themselves (p. 68). They viewed inspiration as apply to the original writings, and providence applying to faithful copying of those originals.

When Allison comes to the modern period, he notes that “except for the occasional eccentric denial of the inspiration of Scripture, this church doctrine prevailed unscathed until the modern period; only then did the consensus come under attack and fall apart” (p. 69). Allison attributes the collapse to the influx of anti-supernaturalism and the advent of biblical criticism resulting in a more watered down general view of inspiration that may or may not apply to the particulars of the biblical text. Eventually, the idea of inspired writings subtly shifted to inspired writers (p. 72). As Allison summarizes, “theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries questioned and then abandoned the view of inspiration that the church had held from its inception” (p. 74). He then closes with a discussion of the Chicago statement before reiterating the position he started the chapter with.

All in all, I thought these two chapters were solid and presented a broad sweep of the historical development in a very concise form. Hopefully, the rest of the book will continue to follow suit.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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