Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 7

The Inevitability of Presuppositions
From the outset of these posts, it has been noted that the terms canon-within-the-canon and inner canon carry a large variety of meanings. Because of the high probability of misunderstanding in the short hand use of these terms it is suggested that neither is a very useful term. Rather more helpfully, all the multiplicity of issues can be sensibly subsumed into the bigger question of presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Whilst the idea of presuppositions is an even bigger issue than that of an inner canon, it is suggested that this plurality of meaning is more generally recognised by those who use this term.

There is an additional reason for being cautious about the concept of an inner canon. Some use the term in a much more serious sense than others, to the point where the canon is itself being questioned. If the term inner canon has a continued function it should perhaps be reserved for those who wish to organise a theological framework by giving knowing priority to a book, text or principle. Even this usage might well be questioned simply on semantic grounds as the very notion of an inner canon questions the very essence of what is meant by the canon.[1] More useful, because it is both semantically coherent and illustrative of a real interpretative choice, is the term a stepped canon which Barr uses in the light of the role of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament.[2]

In an earlier post, we argued that historical criticism can give rise to the operation of an inner canon. At a more fundamental level however modern criticism itself becomes a canon against which the Bible itself is measured.[3] This brings us to Bultmann’s question: Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible? Vanhoozer points out that the wide contemporary consensus, which follows Bultmann’s negative answer, is about the only point of current agreement in modern hermeneutics.[4] Of course such an insight was hardly novel, for example, Barth cites Ritschl as formulating such a view.[5]

The Positive use of PresuppositionsPresuppositions tend to lead to an identification of a particular form or identity of text which meets the requirements of the set agenda. So, for example:

  1. The use of Romans and justification by faith to counter a church context in which grace had been cheapened by a works righteousness which justified indulgences.
  2. The adoption by some Feminist interpreters of an inner canon of texts like Ruth or Galatians 3:28.
  3. The selection of texts in which Jesus’ ethical teaching is prevalent as an inner canon in the heyday of the Enlightenment’s impact on the academy.

It is suggested that honesty and awareness of presuppositions does not exclude the use of what might be termed an inner canon but rather makes this an open decision. Additionally, it makes possible a more thoughtful decision as to the nature and function of an inner canon. For, if inner canons are inevitable then their value, or otherwise, needs to account for both their form/identity and function.

In what sense can we hope to be informed, let alone transformed by a text, if it is such a subjective process? In the last twenty years or so a methodology known as critical realism has emerged which, it is suggested, provides a sensible way forward. Critical realism represents a middle ground between what might be termed naïve or positivistic readings on the one hand and sceptical and suspicious readings on the other.

Critical realism is honest about the fact that the interpreter has presuppositions and that these are an inevitable part of the starting point of any interpretive process. The idea is that the interpretive process does enable challenges to be made to presuppositions by the interpretive processes’ engagement with the text. Such a dynamic allows, for not only the information dynamic of the interpretive process, but a transformative role as well. This fits well with the testimony of Church History to the Bible’s transforming as well as informing role within the Church.  Such a dynamic prevents an unhelpful focus on the Bible’s epistemic value at the expense of its gift as a means of grace.  The next post will complete our look at this topic.

[1] Barr, Holy Scripture, pp.72-73 makes just this point.
[2] Barr, Holy Scripture, p.72.
[3] So Brueggemann, Old Testament, p.17 who sees Barth’s “epistemological manoeuvre” as arising from this concern.
[4] Vanhoozer, Doctrine, p.157.
[5] Barth, CD I.2 p.727.

Author: PsalterMark

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

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