A Canon in the Canon?
A while back I was leading a discussion with a group of guys on how to read the Bible, and I tried an exercise. I asked them to be honest and admit how many books were in their canon. Of course, like the good Evangelicals they were, everyone immediately said they have 66 books, equally inspired and God-breathed. So then I asked them the following questions:
- What are the books you tend to read more than others?
- Are there genres within Scripture to which you give priority in terms of your time, devotion and thinking?
- Are there books or genres that you rarely or never read?
- Why is this?
Now let me be clear; I wasn’t inviting them to tear up the passages they disliked – quite the opposite! This was not an exercise in wishing we could do away with sections that don’t fit with our theological or literary preferences. I happen to think that even stating a preference, or referring to some passages as dull or ‘problem passages’ is a dangerous move, since it amounts to telling God He is a hack of an editor and it implicitly devalues portions of His word. We cannot and must not discard or ignore the bits of Scripture we dislike.
And that was the point of the exercise; we are not at liberty to simply create our own canon and yet I would suggest that most of us operate as if we have a functional canon within the canon. As we went round the group, it became apparent that each of us had particular genres or books that we preferred over others. Although we all agreed that all Scripture is God-breathed, some expressed a preference for epistles over narrative; others for the historical sections over the more nebulous and arty poetics texts.
You could take it further: It only takes a brief survey of what passes as theological writing to find many who create canons within canons within canons! So someone who may prefer epistle over narrative, may even prefer one chapter within an epistle over another – 1 Corinthians 13 over 11 for example – and use the former to silence the latter. It’s something of a Pringles approach to hermeneutics: Once you chop, you just can’t stop!
Here was my answer: I really like the gospel narratives – I love the clever, evocative, cryptic parables that shock you out of your comfort zone. I love the miracle stories that reveal both the majesty and humanity of Christ. I really like logic of the Pauline epistles and the way he sums up huge swathes of biblical theology so succinctly. I like the major prophets, and within them, particular chunks of Isaiah are comforting or inspiring go-to-texts, with which I’m very familiar. I guess I’m not naturally drawn to books like Kings, Samuel or Judges. I’m not very history-minded, and so dates and names and kings and conquests don’t really do it for me. When deciding which book to get my teeth into next, I rarely consider one of those… and so on.
Now in a sense there’s nothing wrong with this. We’re all wired differently and of course there are going to be different genres that resonate with each of us particularly. But once we had honestly noted our implicit canonical preferences – cards on the table – we took turns at commenting on each person’s list and considering the following questions:
- If you simply took the books you like as your canon, what would your overriding picture of God be?
- If you ignored the books you struggle with, in what ways would your view of God be skewed or insufficient?
- In what ways does your canon within the canon cause you to elevate particular doctrines over others?
The results were eye-opening. Whilst none of us had previously thought we were at fault for having particular stylistic preferences, it quickly became apparent that those who gave little hearing to certain genres were in danger of side-lining particular attributes of God, or key doctrines.
Ignoring the Wisdom genre ‘because it’s too airy fairy’ leads to a view of God who is more concerned with logic-chopping than beauty, and fails to recognise His involvement in the rhythms of everyday life. Focussing on the Epistles without narrative divorces theology from history. Ignoring the prophets in favour of the gospels means you won’t understand the palette of allusions from which the gospel-writers regularly draw and you’ll fail to recognise the urgent significance of Jesus’ teachings. Side-lining apocalyptic may leave you lacking answers to the pain and suffering that happens on a global scale, because you are unable to see its place within the unfolding plan of God…
One person even commented that by only focussing on the New Testament epistles he feared he was prone to moralism! That surprised me, given the strong emphasis on grace, but his reason was as follows:
“I read the epistles because I like to learn how to live, and so I treat Scripture predominately like a rule book. In not reading the narratives, I miss out on the stories that depict God interacting graciously with His people.”
A great and challenging insight.
So let me ask you again: how many books are in your Bible? If the answer is any less than 66, you may well be missing out on huge chunks of God!