Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Canon within a Canon?

A canon-within-a-canon is the idea that there are a group of verses, sections or books that determine how you interpret or understand the rest of the Bible. Fred Sanders observes everyone has favorite sections of the Bible but rightly warns against using that idea to make decisions about which parts of the Bible are divinely inspired. While Carson's warnings, reported here, about the idea of a canon-within-a-canon should be heard, there isn't much around the traps about how to practically construct your own canon-within-a-canon and interact with others. It seems like something everyone does, but isn't talked about much.

Figuring out whose canon-within-a-canon is right when there's a conflict probably comes down to Sola Scriptura and the role of (small t) tradition. Tradition asks if your canon-within-a-canon connects with a thread of historical thinking that can be traced back through church history? Perhaps to keep the authority Scripture central we should also ask how flexible our canon-within-a-canons are, would they change in the light of other biblical evidence? Maybe there is also an existential dimension as well, does your canon-within-a-canon ring true to you in your circumstances?

Thoughts, comments or questions?

[How I remember the difference: a cannon has a a barrel of two n's.]


Arthur said...

I'm fascinated by the way in which the Bible contains its own internal, built-in canons -- sections which are not "more inspired" or even necessarily more authoritative, but which are given more weight and treated as more determinative. The Pentateuch and the Gospels are the most obvious examples. When the Psalms are collated into 5 books, it's not in order to compete with the Pentateuch, but to affirm the primacy of the Pentateuch and position the Psalms as a complement to it. And perhaps "primacy" is the key word -- it's about what comes first in the canonical ordering.

So yes, we need to acknowledge the canons-within-canon that we develop, and these may even be an important part of our particular church tradition. I mean, they're not necessarily something to try and do away with. But maybe the question is how well they stack up against the Bible's own sub-canons -- because that is what should be shaping us.

Luke Isham said...

Great observation Arthur, not just the merits and shape of our own sub-canons but charting the Bible's sub-canons, the most obvious of which are the Pentateuch and the Gospels.

I wonder if the most quoted parts of the Old Testament should have a theological sub-canon function? And as you raised we need a way of talking about "primacy" that doesn't imply a lack of inspiration or authority of the parts of the Bible that aren't in the sub-canon.