Essay / Theology

Canon Within the Canon

No Christian should ever have a least favorite book of the Bible. All Scripture is God-breathed, and the whole Bible in all its parts is good for teaching, training, and equipping us. But it is perfectly permissible, and even desirable, to have a favorite book of the Bible. It could be the book that first reached us with the good news of salvation, or one through which God spoke to us in a difficult time. It might be the one book or passage that all the rest of Scripture seems to lead up to. As long as we resist the temptation to “play favorites” by letting the particular message of one book silence the distinctive message of another book, and as long as we recognize that the whole canon of Scripture belongs together, a good reader of the Bible can have a biblical book that is a spiritual home base.

I once heard a theologian muse that Lutherans tend to treat Galatians as the key book for interpreting the Bible. Galatians is stark, forceful, incisive, penetrating, confrontational. That list of adjectives sounds like a description of Luther’s personality. Luther expressed his fondness for the book by saying, “It is my wife.” The Reformed, on the other hand, tend to gravitate to Ephesians, a book which presupposes the truth of Galatians (“by grace you are saved through faith”) but sets it within a panoramic view of redemption traced back into God’s eternal purposes, all rolling out of Paul’s mind in very long sentences.

This Galatians-Ephesians contrast, of course, is relative. Protestants in general tend to agree in giving pride of place to Romans as the New Testament book that serves as the doctrinal capstone of the whole Bible, asking and answering all the right questions. Protestant systematic theology actually arose out of the habit of writing increasingly systematic Romans commentaries. “Every continental Reformer worth his salt wrote a commentary on Romans; it was almost a proficiency badge to show that he was a genuine Reformer.” (T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 31. Parker based another book on this observation: Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, 1532-1542. In this decade alone, there were commentaries by Calvin, Melanchthon, Cajetan, Bullinger, Sadeleto, Bucer, and four others.) Pentecostals read the whole Bible, but they tend to regard the book of Acts as the definitive and normative portrait of what the rest of the Bible must mean for our time.

Preferences like this can be a playful back-and-forth among believers of different types. For example, try assigning the four gospels to the four core personality types or temperaments, and then see if you can find yourself in the gospel that supposedly corresponds to your type. The same kind of insights and possibilities can arise from seeing how whole churches and traditions align with the distinctive message and tone of the various books of Scripture. This works as long as everybody involved earnestly seeks to embrace the whole canon.

Favorite-book alignments can also, however, be markers of sectarianism: imagine a fellowship that agreed to regard Ecclesiastes as the key to the Bible, or a tradition that majored on the books of Zechariah and Revelation. There is always a danger of operating with a “canon within the canon” that privileges one or two books of the Bible over the rest. Any time a Christian promotes one book or author over the others, and forms the habit of always seeking answers in that section of the Bible while neglecting and losing familiarity with other sections, disaster awaits. The real Bible is replaced by an eclectic mini-Bible. The real canon is subordinated to a personal canon. Instead of hearing the word of God, we begin to hear our own voices echoing back from our self-selected favorite verses.

Settling for a canon with the canon is a terrible thing. As fallible and sinful interpreters, we lapse into this error all too often, but when we do so, we should at least know we are erring, and not pretend we are doing well. To play favorites with Bible books (in this sense) is to have a blind spot, not to have a privileged lens on the truth.

D. A. Carson has repeatedly warned about the dangers of a canon within the canon. One of his best discussions of it is in “A Sketch of the Factors Determining Current Hermeneutical Debate in Cross-Cultural Contexts,” in Biblical Interpretation and the Church: Text and Context , ed. D. A. Carson (Exter: The Paternoster Press, 1984): 11-29.

So we should be cautious in singling out any particular biblical book as a guide, or in describing it as the summit of biblical revelation. Above all, we had better be specific about how that book excels others, and we had better be right. We cannot call one biblical book better than another, but we can say what it is better at. Matthew is not better than Mark, but it is better at linking Jesus to the Old Testament. Ephesians, to look at the Reformed favorite mentioned earlier, is not better than Galatians, but it is better at sketching the big picture and relating salvation to God’s glory. Galatians is not better than Ephesians, but it is better at refuting legalism. The traditional Protestant attachment to the theological categories of Romans is fully justified if Romans is in fact the most systematic presentation of doctrine in the New Testament. To recognize what these books are uniquely accomplishing is not to use them to silence other books, but to respond to each by using each appropriately, setting it free to do its own work within the whole, perfect canon of Scripture.

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