Peckham, John. The Biblical Canon, Sola Scriptura, and the Theological Method. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.
This was not the book I expected. I expected a book that practiced canonical theology. But in fact, John Peckham has written a theoretical work on the biblical canon and systematic theology. This is not to say that I did not benefit from Peckham’s work.
The topics of biblical canon, authority (Sola Scriptura), and theological method are near to my heart. They are also central to the Christian task of theology and to the foundational question of How then should I live? By Scripture alone or by some other standard?
And this might be the most interesting part of Peckham’s book. He argues for a canonical Sola Scriptura, which affirms that Scripture is the infallible rule of faith. He summarizes, “In brief, a canonical approach is one that views the biblical canon as the uniquely authoritative, sufficient source of theological doctrine, adopts the biblical canon as the rule of faith, and denies the positing of any normative extracanonical interpretive authority” (p. 73).
Community or Canon?
Recent and ancient proposals argue that the locus of authority (or authoritative interpretation) lies in the community. The argument goes like this: if Scripture alone is the authority, then there will be chaos. A thousand people will read the Bible and produce a thousand interpretations. How do you control this chaos? Some answer that you need a magisterium to adjudicate a right interpretation of Scripture (so, the Roman Catholic Church).
Peckham disagrees, drawing on the Protestant tradition of Sola Scriptura. He argues that using an extracanonical rule (magisterium, or some other rule) doesn’t resolve the problem of diverse views. For example, he cites the recent debate on the Trinity on whether or not the Son eternally subordinates to the Father or not. And he concludes that appealing to creedal formulations doesn’t create uniformity of interpretation either.
So, he proposes that the canon of Scripture should be the rule of faith. He doesn’t mean that Scripture will produce uniformity of interpretations. Probably nothing can do that. But Scripture, he argues, provides the rule to compare interpretations with.
However, I am not so sure that the trinitarian creedal traditions are as confusing to understand as Peckham’s argument requires. Certainly, Wayne Grudem cites the tradition as agreeing with his view of eternal functional subordination. But Grudem seems to be plainly incorrect (e.g., he cites eternal generation as verifying eternal subordination, but no ancient Christian would confess that position). It seems to me that Nicene orthodoxy can be a rule for trinitarian theology. (I am not advocating this position, but I am noting that his argument doesn’t succeed here). As a consequence, I don’t think his argument for Sola Scriptura entirely succeeds.
Simply put, creedal rules can create more uniformity than Sola Scriptura does. Despite this, the real question is, Should creeds be a rule? If they are faithful expressions of Scripture, then perhaps they are simply an extension of the principle of Sola Scriptura?
Where Does Canonical Sola Scriptura Lead?
Canonical Sola Scriptura doesn’t disregard tradition, but it holds tradition to the standard of Scripture. One area where this leads Peckham is in conceiving of God as impassible, or without emotion. Christians have confessed this for centuries. Oddly, he notes that merely “some” argue for impassibility (p. 233). An odd statement to be sure, since it has been the majority interpretation of the church for centuries.
It also illustrates a problem with Peckham’s approach. Every book has limits, but it seems like Peckham needs to integrate early Christian writers into his research more frequently. Had he done so, I suspect he would have had encountered a stronger argument for impassibility that would have added value to his argument.
In any case, Peckham rejects the doctrine. He writes, “I do think there is sufficient reason to label God as impassible” (p. 243). Far from collapsing God’s emotion with our emotion, however, Peckham asserts that divine emotions and human emotions are different.
He uses the language of theopathic rather anthropopathic to underscore this difference (p. 244). By the term theopoathic, Peckham wants to convey that God has emotion but that his emotion differs from ours (p. 244). It appears that the concept of theopathism would work this way. Imagine that someone named Thomas feels sadness. His sadness would be theopathic, meaning that he feels sadness in a way that is both similar to but not identical with God. The language of theopathism thus preserves the uniqueness of God and yet shows how humans created in his image share something of his emotional life.
In this way, Peckham reverses the traditional descriptor (anthropopathic) and argues that we experience emotions theopathically. We don’t talk about God antropopathically, as if to say that he condescends to our level so that we can understand him. Rather, we are the ones who experience emotion in a theopathic way.
In any case, using the canon as a rule, Peckham modifies a traditional belief about God. He does so because of his conviction of canonical sola scriptura.
I am not quite sure who this book is for. Certainly, it is for academics. Certainly, it is for those seeking a careful argument for Sola Scriptura. Certainly, it will benefit theologians who want to carefully articulate their conviction to Scripture. But I doubt it will directly benefit the busy pastor in ministry, and I doubt it’s appropriate for an undergraduate student.
Peckham’s book is a scholarly work with ample references to other scholarship. Many times, his footnotes take more space on the page than does the regular text! So, readers will need to embrace this style of writing, even if it sometimes makes the work feel like a pastiche citations.
Do I recommend it? Yes, but only for certain readers who have interest in philosophical hermeneutics and want an updated argument for canonical sola scriptura and theological method. If this is you, it will serve you well.
Eerdmans provided me the book free of charge to review, although I was under no obligation to give a positive review.
John Peckham responded to my review on Facebook (Feb 12, 2018). With permission, I have copied his comments here:
Thanks very much for your review of my book and for alerting me to it. Just to be clear, my argument does not hinge upon what the proper understanding of the Nicene creed is or on whether one thinks it is clear enough to function as a rule (at least on those points that it addresses). My argument, in this regard, is only that some Christians have both claimed to be faithful to the Nicene Creed and yet held different views on points like the subordination of the Son. As such, as a matter of fact, the Creed itself is not sufficient to guarantee hermeneutical uniformity. This is not a criticism of the Creed, but rather a demonstration of how the high standard (perhaps impossibly high) that people apply to Scripture in this regard is not met elsewhere. So, one could agree with you that Grudem’s reading is incorrect while still being able to take my argument on board as deflating the criticism of Scripture as insufficient because it cannot guarantee hermeneutical diversity.
Also, on page 233, I am referring to the contemporary discussion regarding impassibility and thus say: “Some claim that God cannot be affected by anything external to himself, thus biblical language suggesting passibility must not be descriptive of God.” This is not the same as saying some claim that God is impassible because a number of impassibilists claim that the patristic doctrine of impassibility should not be understood to mean that “God cannot be affected by anything external to himself” but should be understood in a qualified sense, with recognition that there was more diversity in the patristic tradition than is sometimes thought (of course, this is also disputed among historical theologians). In this regard, see Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Pastristic Thought (Oxford UP, 2006).
Hope that clarifies things a bit. Thanks again for your review!