Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 1

Introduction
“. . . [H]e that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” exclaims Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in what is arguably the author hinting at his antipathy towards the Enlightenment and consequent technological progress.[1] This saying has a peculiar resonance with the dangers inherent in some Modern approaches to the Bible discussed in this evaluation of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon. The direction of argument, in evaluating the necessity and usefulness of this notion, has been chosen to highlight the diversity of issues that this topic impinges on. Throughout, it will be seen that the notion has a particular bearing on the question of presuppositions in interpretive practice. Towards the end of these posts it will be argued that whilst the notion under discussion is useful in raising all sorts of questions it is not a helpful term in itself. Instead, these posts will argue for the need for clarity regarding the nature, use and value of presuppositions in biblical interpretation.

A Plurality of Meaning
In this section much of the argument is dependent on Goldingay’s distinction between a canon-within-the-canon’s (i) form and identity and (ii) nature and function.[2] Goldingay points out that the notion of kanon im kanon goes back to at least 1863.[3] He considers the idea of what he terms an inner canon[4] and lists some ten examples which are illustrative, rather than exhaustive, of the form and identity of the notion.[5]

It is worth noting that both the term inner canon and a canon-within-the-canon are used in ways that potentially obscure the different inner canons’ relationship with the Bible. Some inner canons, like specific books of the Bible, are usefully described as a canon-within-the-canon. Some inner canons are perhaps more usefully termed a canon-before-the-canon in the sense that something is assumed with a critical method as chronologically prior to the canonical material. An example of this is the search for the ipsissima vox of Jesus.[6] Some theological principles, such as justification, might be argued to be a canon-over-the-canon. It has been claimed that the work of Christ means that Jesus Christ is himself a canon–through-the-canon.[7]

For the moment our point is not to defend the usefulness of these variations on the notion, but rather to note the need for clarity in distinguishing carefully the variety of possible meaning. For reasons of brevity and presentation in much of the rest of these posts the term inner canon will be used.

In addition to variation in the form and identity of the inner canon, Goldingay identifies five different senses of the nature and function of an inner canon. In order of decreasing normative authority these are:[8]

  1. The real locus of truth (norm of absolute truth).
  2. The locus of deepest insight (norm of relative value).
  3. Those aspects of the canon that are still directly binding.
  4. Of organisational value for ordering theology.
  5. A part of the canon that has special importance and value to a specific community at a specific time.

Although some overlap exists between these five senses they help to illuminate the diverse ways with which the notion of an inner canon is used by different scholars.[9] They also point to the important dynamic of there being a significant variation in the strength of the normative role of the inner canon.

Three specific topics have been chosen to illustrate the possible variety of (i) the form and identity and (ii) the nature and function, of an inner canon. These three topics will be considered in the next two posts.

[1] Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954, p.272.
[2] Goldingay’s Old Testament and Models for Interpretation are the only English works known to the author that discuss at any length this helpful distinction.
[3] Goldingay, Old Testament, p.122.
[4] He uses the term inner canon as synonymous with the concept of a-canon-within-the-canon.
[5] Goldingay, Models for Interpretation, p.105. See also Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.122-125.
[6] See, for example, Jeremias, Theology, pp.29-37.
[7] Dunn, Canon, p.572.
[8] Goldingay, Old Testament, pp.125-127.
[9] Frequently the term is used with a bewildering variety of meanings with apparently little recognition that others use the term in quite different ways.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

One thought

  1. I suspect that:
    4. Of organisational value for ordering theology.
    should be up at No 1 because traditional systematic theologies have so much power in forming canon-before-the-canon through which all other scriptures are interpreted.
    Which puts us in a chicken and egg situation of why those passages are chosen to build a systematic theology in the first place. Perhaps this gives us a zeroth reason,
    0. Their historical polemic value.
    ie their value in the historical debate the theological arguments were thought up to oppose: Augustine v Pelagius, Luther & Calvin v Rome.

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