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.

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.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 6

The Quest for Understanding the Bible on its Own Terms
There is not space herein to begin to explore what Childs famously termed a crisis in Biblical Theology. Childs’ reasons for arguing that such a crisis existed, and the fallout of his claim, are widely documented elsewhere.[1] The ‘crisis’ that Childs responds to is not entirely dissimilar to the problem that Barth challenged post-1915. Both Barth and Childs defend using the Bible as Holy Scripture as part of their respective hermeneutical programmes. In this sense Childs sees himself as following Barth.[2] Whatever else we might make of Barth’s doctrine of Revelation and scripture (see the six earlier posts on Barth), his focus on the sache (subject matter)[3] of the Bible seems eminently sensible.

More recently, Dunn has argued that on the basis of the diversity of the New Testament writings, that a unifying inner canon is necessary.[4] He argues persuasively that there is no need for some arbitrary choice and therefore a plurality of rival legitimate inner canons. Rather the key unifying narrative of the New Testament is ‘Jesus-the-man-now-exalted.’[5] Later he expresses this differently in arguing that the Christ Event is the inner canon[6] and in fact we might change perspective and see Jesus as the canon through the canon[7]. In this sense we have essentially a unity which comes from faith; the thing that galvanises the New Testament together is recognition of a coherence based in the self-revelation of God in Christ. This is precisely the substance of Barth’s theological breakthrough – the Bible has a sache, one and the same Jesus Christ which Dunn argues for, the same Jesus Christ who was the unquestioned pre-critical centre of the Bible. As Barth recognised, it was the Enlightenment that had deluded interpreters to stand on a different rock to view the Bible.

What Dunn and Barth essentially suggest is close to the so-called Rule of Faith. Despite protestations from the Reformers, the necessity of an interpretive lens through which to focus the diversity of Scripture has a long pedigree from Irenaeus onward. [8] The Rule of Faith was often referred to as ‘the rule’, i.e. Greek kanōn.[9] In this sense the Rule of Faith has been recognised as an inner canon for much of church history. It is an inner canon because the Rule of Faith contains nothing which is not to be found in Scripture. In this connection it is notable that ‘the rule’ was not fixed. It might be argued that it is not so much about specific information, though it always has this guise, but rather it’s about a stance of faith. A faith in what Jesus Christ as Son of God accomplished. Though later creeds were to play a similar role to ‘the rule’, the necessity of fixing their wording perhaps unhelpfully casts them as what Abraham calls an epistemic norm.[10] Perhaps their essential stance of faith given their point of departure as credo, i.e. “I believe”, is too easily masked by the detail.

Thus through these diverse voices of Irenaeus, Barth and Dunn, amongst others, we have some justification for seeing the necessity of a stance of faith in the core elements of the Christ Event as a legitimate inner canon. Our next post will develop this further as we examine the inevitability of presuppositions.

[1] See, for example, the succinct summary Childs, Biblical Theology, passim and the wider context in Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.42-49.
[2] However, see Barr, Biblical Theology, pp.408-412 and his criticism of Childs’ interpretation of Barth.
[3] See Burnett, Exegesis, pp.74-78 for the subtle nuance of meaning intended by Barth.
[4] Dunn, New Testament, pp.374-376.
[5] Dunn, New Testament, p.376.
[6] Dunn, Canon, p.562.
[7] Dunn, Canon, p.572.
[8] See Abraham, Canon, pp.151ff.
[9] See, for example, Wright, Creed, p.258.
[10] Abraham, Canon, for example, see p.1.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 5

History, Praxis and Paradigm Shifts
Dunn comments ‘that all Christians have operated with a canon within the canon’.[1] This idea is not controversial today in the light paradigm theory (see below) and it is to be expected that if the Bible is a means of grace it will function within the context of the Church’s diverse needs through the ages. For the individual and for local congregations there is a similar and perhaps more obvious inevitability about having an inner canon in that both are finite contingent entities.[2] It should be noted that in this sense such inner canons have a very limited normative authority outside these contexts.

Paradigm shifts illustrate the argument made from praxis above, but on a macroscale. At the same time the inner canon tends to assume a stronger normative function. The application of the paradigm theory of Kuhn, which was posited to explain the development observed in the physical sciences to subjects like theology is not without controversy. However, Bosch has argued in a compelling way, building on Kung’s epochs of Church History, that the Church has tended to adopt a paradigm of mission, based essentially on a single model supported by an individual text. Each text and the associated paradigm is a subset of larger biblical missiology but encapsulates the needs, or nature, of the time, for example:

  1. The text that exemplifies the missionary paradigm of the Eastern Church is John 3:16 emphasising the centrality of Incarnation, the love of God and the goal of mission as life in Orthodoxy.[3]
  2. The text for the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm is Luke 14:23 which fits the emphasis on there being no salvation outside the Church.[4]
  3. Matthew 28:18-20 has become the key mission text in Protestant churches post William Carey.[5]

In short, for our purposes, we can note that there is a strong case to be made that despite the broad nature of mission presented in the Bible, for a range of complex historically contingent reasons, it has often been the case that a single text has been the inner canon of the Church’s mission. The point might well be made that this identification with a single biblical motif is simply eisegesis in the sense that the context of the Church largely dictates the nature of mission read from scripture.[6] Indeed Bosch’s thesis is that the consequences of both postmodernism and world-wide Christianity are a context in which, perhaps for the first time, the Church might recover a sense of biblical mission that is broad and holistic.[7]

Much of our discussion thus far points to the inevitability of operating with an inner canon. The next post is an appropriate point to assess the desirability of an inner interpretive canon.

[1] Dunn, Canon, p.559.
[2] For example: (i) when I became a Christian (1986) all I held a crude doctrine of justification by faith which was made effective by the penal substitutionary atonement of the Son of God. This provided a lens through which I read the Bible. Whilst I would still hold to this lens, other texts that seem to say something complementary, or even contradictory, now mean something else to me as this inner canon has evolved, (ii) my local church has been, we feel, lead in diverse ways to Deuteronomy 10:18-19 as a necessary exhortation to mission.
[3] See Bosch, Mission, pp.208-209.
[4] Bosch, Mission, p.236.
[5] Bosch, Mission, pp.340-341.
[6] In Bosch’s work it is unclear whether the text is an inner canon or rather reflects a more complex web of historical contingency.
[7] Bosch, Mission, pp.511-519 and passim.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 4

The Historical Critical Method
As has been frequently pointed out the historical critical method, rooted in the intellectual paradigm of the Enlightenment, is based on assumptions which are no more neutral than those it sought to challenge.[1] Its inception marked the shift from a hermeneutic of trust to a hermeneutic of suspicion. For our purpose here it can be argued that the historical critical method, when used as the primary method of exegesis and hermeneutics, sets as a rule, or canon, a variety of judgements. For example, when reading the gospels, it is assumed a priori that the miracles reported there cannot have a basis in reality as miracles do not happen.[2] This is in effect an inner canon as some parts of Scripture are accepted as being ‘a locus of truth’ and others not. This was seen, for example, in Liberal Protestantism’s focus on the ethical teaching of Jesus, perhaps most notably by Baur and Ritschl.

Sometimes the historical critical method operates with an inner canon in a more subtle way. This is the case with, for example, source criticism. Whilst it would be easy to argue that many source critical theories are highly questionable, there is nothing wrong in principle with examining textual evolution and the relationship of the canonical text with some hypothetical precursors. However, some would use the findings of this type of work to argue for recognition of some hypothetical reconstruction as in some ways normative and a ruler against which canonical texts should be measured.

Another way of looking at this is that one of the underlying dynamics of the historical critical method is fundamentally at odds with the idea that the Bible in some way mediates revelation. It is a truism of the critical method that understanding of the meaning of the text is always provisional[3] and built on hypothetical constructions which by their very nature are transient awaiting the next piece of data; data which often comes from sources outside of the Bible itself. To use and extend Barth’s analogy of the interpreter as a prodigal son[4] the historical critical interpreter who is wholly committed to its core rationale is in danger of not only living in rags and squalor but also of remaining unrepentant in seeking an inheritance as if God the father were dead.

The logical end point of the historical critical approach can be seen in the activities of the Jesus Seminar.[5] Here what might be deemed the authentic words of Jesus, and perhaps judged by some to be canonical, are voted on by a group of self-selecting scholars. One of the members of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, has developed this point canonically in suggesting there need to be two new canons, a smaller and a larger one;[6] the smaller canon which is reliable in its historical basis, the larger one being a collection of all extent Christian writing from around the New Testament period. This of course raises two immediate problems which Funk does not entertain, let alone answer:

  1. Such a notion contradicts the general meaning of the term canon, whether it means a selective list or an identification of texts which are in some sense an epistemic norm. Making the larger canon consist of all extant texts is hardly a selective list! As Wright points out using all sources as historical data is good scholarly practice[7] but making them all canonical is at best misleading.
  2. By definition the smaller canon would be highly contested and provisional. How could a changing canon or a range of competing smaller canons proposed by different scholars serve the Church?

Gadamer’s observation that the Enlightenment, in which the historical critical method is rooted, has a “prejudice against prejudice” is apposite here.[8] The Enlightenment’s flawed pretence at objectivity gives, ironically, a different stance of prejudice. By privileging diachronic rather than synchronic relationships,[9] the committed historical critic effectively plays a power game with the text in which the Guild is made king of the text.

The three areas examined thus far indicate that an inner canon is a notion central to large sections of recent, and not such recent, interpretive work. The three areas also exemplify the intimate relationship between inner canons and the presuppositions of the interpreter.

[1] So, for example, Gadamer, Truth, p.277-285, Wright, People, p.15 and Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, p.xxvff.
[2] So Bultmann, Exegesis, pp.290-291.
[3] See Watson, Text, pp.46-53 who explores this point helpfully.
[4] See Barth CD I/1 p.729.
[5] See Wright, Jesus, pp.29-35 for a judicious summary of their activities.
[6] Funk, New Testament, p.555.
[7] Wright, Jesus, p.30.
[8] Gadamer, Truth, pp.270ff.
[9] See Watson, Text, p.34 and passim for the competition between diachronic and synchronic relationships.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 3

Recent Feminist Interpretive Approaches
Those critical of attempts to find a feminist interpretive framework to the Bible often criticise proponents as operating with an inner canon. It is easy to see why, as like all contextual theology, feminist theologies start with a specific concern. Abraham, however, praises feminist interpreters in the sense that that, in his judgement, they have reversed the harmful post-Fathers’ trajectory of shifting Scripture from a means of grace to an epistemic norm. He argues that fundamental to such approaches is the recognition that the canon must be a ‘means of healing and liberation’.[1] However, surely such an approach becomes an epistemic one in the sense that the Biblical canon is inevitably narrowed either by discarding, in some manner, those texts that are ‘dark’ to a feminist agenda or by relativizing them by texts more conducive to such an approach? Either way there is not only an inner canon but it functions epistemically.

Even those who count themselves as feminist interpreters recognise that some such approaches do indeed operate with an inner canon. For example, Schüssler Fiorenza defends herself against such a claim,[2] but accuses the feminist biblical interpreters, Cady, Stanton and Russell, of just such a mistake.[3] We might go further and argue that even this appraisal of Russell, for example, is an optimistic one in that Russell would separate the Bible into script and Scripture.[4] Script here is so historically relativised as to be normative in no sense at all; it becomes essentially a piece of background literature like extra-biblical texts such as the Didache. In this way there is an inner canon, but in the sense that it becomes the canon.[5]

It has been suggested that whilst Schüssler Fiorenza might be judged on this basis as more moderate, her proposals also amount to an inner canon by the canonisation of her historical reconstruction.[6] Ng goes on to argue that all attempts to deal with texts like Galatians 3:28, that challenge the traditional interpretation of male headship are based a priori on an inner canon and are thus not legitimate.[7]

Can the claims of such critics of Schüssler Fiorenza be judged to be fair? Given the topics she is most concerned with, will not any historical reconstruction make explicit, or at least implicit, decisions about gender issues in both society and the early church? Schüssler Fiorenza’s approach is illuminating however in that she is openly critical of those who argue for a neutral stance.[8] Her approach is one of integrity in that her presuppositions are made clear in her work. Indeed her methodology is essentially a critical realist one along the lines suggested by Wright.[9]

[1] Abraham, Canon, p.434.
[2] Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, p.xxi.
[3] See Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, pp.13-15.
[4] Schüssler Fiorenza, Her, pp.15-16.
[5] See, for example, Ng, Origins, p.368.
[6] So Ng, Origins, p.329.
[7] Ng, Origins, p.390.
[8] See Abraham, Canon, p.448.
[9] See Wright, People, pp.32-46.

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.

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

“. . . [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.