Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 2

The Relationship between Romans and the Epistle of James
The relationship between interpretations of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the letter of James took on a new note during the Reformation. Luther’s new-found emphasis on the centrality of justification by faith led him to question the value of James in no uncertain terms. He famously labelled it as ‘the epistle of straw’, seeing Paul’s Romans as the real locus of truth. Our concern here is not to settle a discussion which, in some quarters, still lives on. Rather it needs to be recognised that in this debate there are some who would recognise the normative value of one part of Scripture (Romans in this case) to the point where another part of Scripture is challenged, resulting in either its marginalisation (in the extreme the decanonization of a text) or interpretation through the normative text.

The nature of Romans as an inner canon varies. Dunn argues that in general, Protestantism has used the Pauline corpus as an inner canon whereas Lutheran theologians have in a sense gone further and used a doctrine of justification by faith as an inner canon.[1] Though there might be grounds to challenge the former as an over generalisation, some Lutheran theologians themselves actively recognise that they use justification by faith as an inner canon.[2] Whilst this use of an inner canon is a honestly open one, can this really be a sensible approach? As Wall notes, if the letter of James is read through the prior framework of a reading of Romans then some of the meaning and nuance of James will simply be lost.[3]

Elsewhere Luther justifies a broader, but essentially similar argument, in an exhortation to use an inner canon, that has become essentially a maxim in the Protestant church, namely the notion that clear texts can be used to interpret what Luther terms ‘dark passages’.[4] Whilst this so-called analogia scripturae might seem commendably logical, it has been frequently noted that there is not always unanimity amongst interpreters regarding which texts might be clear and which dark.[5]

The clarity of justification by faith’s understanding of salvation over James’ ‘dark’ flawed attempts at ethical exhortation has been criticised by those involved in the so-called New Perspective on Paul who see Luther’s exegesis as reactionary to his context.[6] That there might be other approaches of engaging both James and Romans is hinted at in a playful way by Koyama,[7] who presents, in an imaginative dialogue, just how well James is received in Thailand. For James provides a welcome connection between Christianity and those influenced by Thai Buddhism. This is not to suggest that this reversal of the hermeneutical flow, from that which has dominated so much of Western theology, is better, but rather that an inner canon of the Pauline corpus or justification by faith is one possibility. Just as Luther’s contemporaries needed James’ exhortation to a living faith demonstrated in works alongside Paul’s soteriology, so too James’ audience, portrayed by Koyama, need to move on to hear Paul’s theology in order to temper James’ perspective on faith.

[1] Dunn, Canon, p.560.
[2] See, for example, Dunn, Canon, p.560 who cites specific examples.
[3] Wall, Scripture, p.540.
[4] See Abraham, Canon, p.129.
[5] See, for example, Vanhoozer, Text, p.171.
[6] See, for example, Sanders, Paul, passim and Wright, Paul, pp.3-20.
[7] Koyama, Water Buffalo, pp.118-124.

Author: PsalterMark

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

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