Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: CANON AND CREED by Robert Jenson [Vol. 3, #38]

“Clinging to Scripture and Doctrine”

A review of

Canon and Creed
(Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church Series)
By Robert W. Jenson.

Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown.

Canon and Creed
(Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church Series)
By Robert W. Jenson.

Hardback: Westminster John Knox, 2010.

Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

CANON AND CREED - Robert JensonCanon and Creed is the second book in Westminster John Knox Press’ new series, Interpretation: Resources for Use of Scripture in the Church.  The series supplements Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Canon and Creed’s author, Robert Jenson, is a Lutheran theologian whom David Bentley Hart calls, “America’s perhaps most creative systematic theologian” (First Things Oct 2005, “The Lively God of Robert Jenson”).

In Canon and Creed, Jenson seeks to move beyond understandings within the church and the academy that “we can cling to Scripture or cling to church doctrine, or possibly to both in different contexts, but cannot cling to both with the same grasp” (2).  Instead, through the work, Jenson emphasizes the mutuality of canon and creed as “Spirit-given reminders of what sort of community the church must be if it is indeed to be the church” (2–3).

While some scholars might argue that a canon did not exist within the church until formal criteria for canonization developed in the fourth century, Jenson argues instead that there was a functional canon by the latter part of the second century.  He cites Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written around AD 180, for support.  While some find such a canon vague, Jenson argues, “A canon with fuzzy edges . . . can be authoritative Scripture as well as one with absolutely set edges” (12).

Against Marcion, Jenson affirms that the Christian canon includes both the Old and New Testaments.  While some Christians have asked why Christians need the Old Testament, Jenson instead says, “The real question was and is this: ‘Can Israel’s Scripture accept this proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and this new movement within Israel?’” (20).  Jenson argues God answers this question by vindicating Jesus Christ in the resurrection.  The God who rescued the Israelites from slavery is the God who raises Jesus to life.  Jenson advocates a Christian reading of the Old Testament that avoids supersessionism and is rooted in the overarching narrative of Scripture.

In relation to the New Testament documents, Jenson notes that in addition to apostolicity, early Christians recognized their canonicity due to the fact that “they witnessed to the apostolic faith” within the regula fidei (“rule of faith”; 40).  Jenson thus notes that the relation between the canon and regula fidei is circular: the regula fidei comes from Scripture and Scripture is recognized as canonical due to its coherence with the regula fidei.

By “creed” within the volume, Jenson not only refers to the ecumenical creeds, but also to catechetical-baptismal confessions and the regula fidei in its various forms.  While Jenson advocates the importance of contemporary Christians studying Scripture in light of the creed, he does not support the creeds uncritically.  Jenson notes that no creed is a complete summary of the Christian faith.  Jenson critiques the creeds for their lack of references to the Old Testament (apart from naming God as creator) and to the life of Jesus in between his birth and death.  Jenson thus argues, “We have arrived again at a point to which . . . we will repeatedly come: the canon without the creed will not serve to protect the church against perversion of the gospel, and neither will the creed without the canon” (32).

Jenson then discusses dogma, which he says “reprises the original creedal development and participates in its authority” (63).  Dogma differs from creed, “For dogma responds to questions that did not arise in the second- or third-century church, and to which the regula fidei and the creeds may not supply obvious answers” (65).  We do, however, see the development of creed to dogma even within the Nicene Creed (AD 325), Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381), and within the Chalcedonian definition (AD 451), which sought to answer new questions raised within the church in the light of canon and creed.

Jenson also notes that in the second century, “the church received a trio of institutions to guard its identity through time: canon, creed, and episcopate” (71).  The bishops played an important role in maintaining the church’s teaching and served as delegates at the ecumenical councils.  While many Protestants from non-episcopal traditions may have difficulty with Jenson’s chapter on the episcopacy, he raises some important issues for consideration.

Rather than simply stating his case that contemporary exegetes should study the canon and creed together, Jenson gives examples of his approach in the last three chapters by exegeting Genesis 1:1–5 and Luke 1:26–38 in light of the creed and Mark 14:35–36 in light of dogma.

Throughout Canon and Creed, Jenson demonstrates that while the historical-critical method does have a place in the study of the Bible, the method is not an end in itself.  For example, Jenson criticizes some historical Jesus scholars for “mistaking a pile of scholarly reports for a person” (58).  Jenson thus follows after theologians like Karl Barth, who criticized some critical scholars for writing commentaries that discuss the meaning of various Greek words and phrases and archaeological finds.  Barth argues, however, that their work is “no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary” (Epistle to the Romans, 6).  Jenson argues that until the birth of modernity, “theology was not thought of as an enterprise distinct from biblical exegesis” (118).  Jenson thus advocates a way of reading of the Bible not simply for the academy, but one for the church, in which Christians in their reading of Scripture “seek to discern a ‘christological plain sense’” (82).

Jenson presents a balanced approach to the study of canon and creed which makes use of helpful sources both ancient and modern.  Canon and Creed is a work that would benefit preachers, teachers, and students interested in the formation of the canon, the ancient creeds, and their importance for the contemporary church.  Readers from the Stone-Campbell Movement and other free church traditions who are skeptical of creedal formulations should also consider reading D.H. Williams’ written volumes Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999) and Evangelicals and Tradition (Baker Academic, 2005), as well as his edited volume The Free Church and The Early Church (Eerdmans, 2002).


Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, and blogs at Battle Against the Bewitchment of Intelligence.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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