One of the difficult things in teaching children to read is to get them to start thinking about what they are reading rather than just parroting the letters on the page. Hence, we measure children in terms of their reading comprehension. However, "reading comprehension" in school often takes the form of just regurgitating what the author has said. This is good. It is reading comprehension, but it isn't critical reading, which is a level of reading comprehension where the child has gone from being a tape recorder to becoming a live human being.
In light of this, I don't think that most people ever reach the level of critical reading, much less reading comprehension when it comes to books about the Bible. I hear a lot of things that are proposed by particular scholars echoed in the lay reader, but it is being recited as though he or she was the scholar's parrot rather than a person.
What got me thinking about this was a book I began to read yesterday at Peter's speech therapy class. Allison and I decided that it would be better for me to bring him because it would help her have a more even flow during the school day with the kids, so I have about an hour to kill while I wait, and it allows me to get some more reading done. The book I chose to read this time is Lee M. McDonald's The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (revised and expanded edition). What struck me on every page so far is that McDonald makes a lot of bold statements concerning dating the New Testament and what the Bible says of itself in terms of being Scripture. In fact, he makes a lot of wrong statements concerning these facts, which makes me believe that McDonald merely has a particular belief about the Scripture that causes him to select his data to the exclusion of other data.
For instance, one of the more dogmatic statements he makes is that Second Peter was written around 160 CE, which although falling in the range of where most scholars would put it, isn't obvious at all. This is part of an argument that he is making that the New Testament writings are not yet identified as Scripture until a much later time than the first couple centuries. He does allude to Irenaeus's reference of the fourfold Gospels in the second century, but seems to leave out references such as those in the Pastorals, which he dates later than Paul, which place a citation of Luke alongside a citation of Deuteronomy in First Timothy 5:18 and calls both of them "Scripture." Even if we were to grant McDonald that the more liberal view of the authorship and dating of the Pastorals was correct, this is surely evidence that within the second century, Luke was considered to be Scripture. And if, as most scholars will agree, Luke-Acts are works that go together, as they are written by the same author, then the Book of Acts must have also been seen as Scripture by that time. So here we have Irenaeus and the Pastorals affirming that the Gospels and Acts were identified by the early church as Scripture. But that's not all. Second Peter, even if we gave it the late date of AD 160, affirms that the Pauline corpus is also identified as Scripture by the time of the second century..
Now, to be fair to McDonald, he does say that when the New Testament documents came to be viewed on par with the Old Testament Scripture is difficult to determine; but this is largely undermined by his argument that implies that it was not until a later date. Well, which is it? Is it difficult to determine or can it be dogmatically argued that it was not viewed this way in the first century?
My point in all of this is simply this. When another scholar reads this work, there are going to be numerous objections that pop into his head. He'll likely refute, qualify, or affirm what is being said with other knowledge that is left out. But what does the lay reader do with this? What can he do? Is he not left to merely taking everything said as a fact? How can he argue with it? He can choose not to believe it, but this book is a very scholarly book. It's big. It has numerous footnotes. The author is a scholar. He obviously has more interaction with the material than the average layman does. So the tendency is simply to take what is said as fact. The employment of critical reading skills at this point is impossible.
So what would I suggest for the layman? I would suggest not reading these kinds of books until you have read the arguments of scholars that will give you more of a solid orthodox foundation of these issues first. I would read books like Carson and Moo's Introduction to the New Testament first. But aside from this, try to communicate to laymen that they're not going to be able to assess what is said by their own knowledge, and this is where they just need to trust that God has preserved His witness on the earth through the Scripture. In other words, the layman, as does the Christian scholar, needs to first have faith in God's ability and desire to communicate primarily and sufficiently through His canon, and as such, has brought His church to the right place in determining what was and was not Scripture. In other words, as in all things, faith first, then reason, since the reasons cannot be evaluated critically by the layman, and the scholar always starts his reasoning from a faith position (no matter what those presuppositions/ultimate beliefs might be).
So as I read McDonald's statement below, I meet it with faith and then reason:
What makes it difficult to believe that the Gospels were viewed as scripture from the first is the liberty that the evangelists took in changing their sources. Matthew and Luke evidently felt free to adapt, change, and smooth out the Gospel of Mark as well as a "Q" source (p. 10).
I find this statement remarkable. For one, Matthew and Luke aren't "changing" Mark. They have different theological purposes in their presentation of the material. That's like saying that "West Side Story" attempts to change "Romeo and Juliet" when its attempt is not to change but to emphasize or reemphasize something about the story. In other words, it doesn't seek to edit "Romeo and Juliet," but rather to use material and the basic storyline from it in order to communicate both the original message and a specific nuance to that message that he original story did not contain. As such, all three: Matthew, Mark, and Luke stand in Scripture to this day because they each contribute something uniquely theological to the larger picture that they all capture in their main storyline. Hence, Mark is its own distinct work. It is a rougher draft of Luke and Matthew.
For another, what does this have to do with one viewing the text as Scripture? I can only conclude that McDonald's view of Scripture is a bit off. The view of certain books as sacred Scripture did not prevent people from presenting those stories and the elements of the Scripture in different forms for different purposes. Is he unaware that the Chronicler likely saw Samuel-Kings as sacred Scripture, and that is the reason why he uses it in his presentation? Is he unaware that Genesis and Exodus is viewed as sacred Scripture by the second century BC, and yet, that is the very reason it is reimagined in Jubilees and First Enoch? He refers to Tatian's Diatesseron again as an example that the Gospels must have not been viewed as sacred Scripture, since Tatian wouldn't have tried to have harmonized them if they were, but that is completely the other way around. The very reason Tatian tries to harmonize these texts and not the bazillion others is because they are recognized as sacred Scripture, and as such, he seeks to harmonize them. How many harmonies of the Gospels have been created since by people who viewed the four Gospels as sacred Scripture? This argument isn't merely weak, it's the complete polar opposite of the truth.
Yet, would a layman be able to note this? No. So what is he left with? He is left with believing or disbelieving based upon his faith and desire for the Scriptures either to have authority in themselves or to be undermined as documents that were merely given authority later on. He is either in rebellion against God and wants the Scripture to be diminished as Scripture, or he, in submission toward God, wants to see His Scriptures held high as that which is obviously Scripture and given witness to God's people by the Holy Spirit. The point that McDonald is attempting to argue here, of course, is that early Christianity is not a religion of the book but a religion of the Spirit. This is a false dichotomy, of course, and a conclusion based upon a predetermined belief, not on the data we actually have (cf. his statement that we do not see the Scriptures as the prominent authority in the Book of Acts with the continual appeal to Scripture as authoritative in the sermons given, as well as the statements made in Acts 17:2, 11; 18:24, 28 and its intimate connection to the message of God the apostles are proclaiming).
I have no doubt that McDonald would take issue with what I'm saying, but my point is simply this: When you read books like this as a layman, or books put out by Bart Ehrman, or books put out by Friedman, or Finkelstein, etc., you need to realize that you don't have the knowledge base in the field that critical reading requires. You can either begin to get it, or you can choose to believe in favor of, or contrary to, what is being said. But don't take these things as solid facts. They're not solid facts. In fact, often scholars make all sorts of assertions that are not necessarily supported by the data. My point here is just to be careful what you read and how you read it.
And if you'll notice, a lot of what I've said above is simply by virtue of knowing the Scripture well enough to object when it is misused. A lot of our theology is false because it is not qualified with other knowledge gained from other texts of Scripture. Hence, it may be backed up by verse X, but needs a qualification supplied by verse Y, without which verse X goes unqualified and is misunderstood. This leads to a false view. Hence, every Christian, scholar or not, should strive to know the Scripture well enough to read someone's theology critically.
In the end, however, the Christian life is about trust, and in trusting, you may lose out, but what I am really saying here is that it's all that you have anyway. Hence, make your heart right with God if you want Him to lead you into the everlasting way, and trust Him that He will do so if you seek Him with all of your heart. Your critical thinking skills may fail you, but if you are drawing near to Him, God never will.