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Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 8

The Necessity of Diversity within the Canon
Perhaps the strongest argument against the legitimacy of some inner canons used in a strong normative sense is that this does violence to a key aspect of the Bible. Though it is a truism of much modern biblical scholarship that dogmatic theology has no place in setting its agenda, some who challenge this creatively see a necessary diversity within the Bible, for example:

  1. Brueggemann argues that some parts of the Old Testament, particularly elements of the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, provide a countertestimony to the core testimony found within the bulk of the Old Testament narrative.[1] This is a constructive analysis of otherwise contradictory voices in the Old Testament.
  2. Wall urges a mutual criticism of texts rather than a bland mediated position between competing voices.[2]
  3. Watson identifies what he terms ‘conflict of interpretation’ in Paul and this is fruitful.[3]

Such approaches recognise implicitly the danger of capitulating to an inner canon and are a recognition of the text on its own terms. This prevents illegitimate skewing of texts or the marginalisation of uncomfortable texts contra Luther’s analogia scripturae.

Our exploration of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon has highlighted that the notion is not a singular one, but rather a family of notions. The diversity of both form and function implied by different scholars makes the term ultimately unfruitful. The value in the idea of an inner canon is how it points to a yet more fundamental issue, that of the presuppositions of the interpreter. Despite the long standing recognition of the role of presuppositions many controversial issues need to be considered and special attention paid to presuppositions. In such debates the use of the term inner canon is all too often just an unhelpfully veiled denial of another’s presuppositions.

Throughout this essay the author’s presupposition of the necessity of faith in interpretation will have been obvious. Such a stance is, I would suggest, a vital one and yet prone to misuse. For, as an ‘unthinking’ presupposition it can simply lead to a Biblicism which does violence to the Bible. Abraham judges that the Church has, for fifteen centuries, been in a downward spiral in seeing the Bible as epistemic norm rather than as a means of grace.[4] He arguably goes too far in counteracting a correctly diagnosed problem, but his message is a useful reminder that the canon is not just about acting as a rule. When we are open to the canon as both rule and means of grace then we are open to the diversity of its message. We need to have a hermeneutic of trust in recognising the canon as Holy Scripture and a hermeneutic of suspicion to all theologies that systematise its voice, especially those that employ an inner canon that is dictated by our own agendas.

Dunn’s identification of Jesus Christ as a canon-through-the canon seems to offer a fruitful theological insight.[5] The gracious gift of Christ from the Father implies a necessarily implicit trust in Scripture. At the same time there remains a suspicion that we cannot master the self-revelation of God himself. Might it not be the case that a presupposition of faith be the way to ensure that the Bible is not left broken by the interpretative process?

[1] See Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.317-332.
[2] Wall, Scripture, p.539.
[3] Watson, Paul, pp.24-29.
[4] Abraham, Canon, p.1.
[5] Dunn, Canon, p.572.

Full Bibliography
Abraham, William J., Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Barr, James, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Barr, James, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament perspective, London: SCM press, 1999.
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator: G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975 [original 1932].
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970 [original 1939].
Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.
Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Bultmann, Rudolph, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, pp.289-315 in Existence and Faith: Shorter writings of Rudolph Bultmann, translator: S. M. Ogden, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960.
Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
Childs, Brevard S., Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, London: SCM Press, 1979.

Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as Canon: An introduction, London: SCM Press, 1984.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological reflection on the Christian Bible, London: SCM Press, 1992.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology: A proposal, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Dunn, James D. G., Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An inquiry into the character of earliest Christianity, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1990.
Dunn, James D. G., ‘Has the Canon a Continuing Function’, pp.558-579 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Funk, Robert W., ‘The Once and Future New Testament’, pp.541-557 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004.
Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Jeremias, Joachim, New Testament Theology, London: SCM Press, 1971.
Koyama, Kosuke, Water Buffalo Theology, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999 [original 1974].
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [first edition 1962].
Metzger, Bruce M., The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Ng, Esther Yue L., Reconstructing Christian Origins? The Feminist Theology of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: An evaluation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.
Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A comparison of patterns of religion, London: SCM Press, 1977.
Schüssler Fiorenzia, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her: Feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1996 [original first edition 1984].
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wall, Robert W., ‘The Significance of a Canonical Perspective of the Church’s Scripture’, pp.528-540 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Watson, Francis, Text, Church and World: Biblical interpretation in theological perspective, London: T&T Clark, 1994.
Watson, Francis, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Wright, D. F., ‘Creed, Confessional Forms’, pp.255-260 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (editors), Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK, 1992.
Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God, London: SPCK, 1996.
Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh perspectives, London: SPCK, 2005.

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About Me

This blog’s central aim is to explore all aspects of how the Psalter (the biblical psalms) functions as Scripture today.

To this end it will also include book reviews on the Book of Psalms and related topics.

Some posts will reflect more broadly on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

If you like what you see here and want to arrange for me to give a lecture, run a teaching event or a short retreat based around The Psalms then contact me so we can discuss how this might work.

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