A red thread that runs through the discussion thus far anticipates a conclusion of my essay which will appear in the series’ final installment. That is, the notion of canon as a closed list of books, however defensible from a historical point of view, explains exactly nothing. What matters is the role texts play in life and discourse.
Defining a text as canonical if it can be appealed to for the purpose of distinguishing truth from falsehood describes an important function, but is also reductive. A collection of canonical writings, or should I say a primal canon, does more than that. A primal canon’s contents occupy the central place in the religious imagination of those who transmit it. It’s the place one goes to be still and know that the Lord is God. It’s where one tastes the goodness of the Lord. The act of turning to a text and construing it as a lamp unto one’s feet is the central religious fact of both Judaism and Christianity. The more often a text is turned to in this sense, the more canonical it is.
Bob MacDonald is on to this in a big way. He describes the content of the religious imagination the Bible engenders with perfect pitch: God's loving kindness is better than life itself. . . . God is good - this is not to be seen as a biblicist statement . . . [it] is the only verse I know . . . [a] very, very small canon.” And on that rock, one might say, one might build a church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Doug Chaplin asks a cardinal question: “What difference, if any, does it make to our understanding of canon, if the books selected to be interpreted together and concordantly, start their life in some form of discordance with one another?” My own answer is that the practice of a hermeneutics of difference best fits the shape of the canon. That is, if texts within the canon are in tension with one another (you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you), the fact is best highlighted, not swept under the table.
Since I also believe, ardently and firmly, in the unity of scripture, even if that unity exists only in God, at a level of abstraction beyond the texts per se, I will strive to discern said unity. I’m not sure that is a religious responsibility – consistency, after all, is the hobgoblin of small minds. But it is a theological responsibility.
(Ed.: did you just say that theologians have small minds? You don’t have to say it out loud.)
If texts within the canon occasionally jostle and spar with one another – and they do! – I don’t see why the fact should be denied – and I won’t!
Stephen Cook emphasizes that his main interest is “in the canonical process that produced the Hebrew Bible itself.” As I noted in a previous update, Brevard Childs and James Sanders among Christian interpreters and Michael Fishbane and Marc Zvi Brettler among Jewish interpreters find the concept of canon to be helpful in understanding the how and why of writings and collections of writings now part of the Tanakh/Old Testament. Biblical texts are like onions, to use Shrek’s famous metaphor. The outer layers of many texts allow the whole to be contemporized in the life of succeeding generations. As it is written, “It is not with our fathers that God sealed this covenant, but with us, the living, we who are here today” (Deut 5:3). In the repetition of these words, it is understood, God still speaks.
The book of Deuteronomy in particular vehiculates a contemporization of the past. Bernard Levinson, whose commentary on Deuteronomy in The Jewish Study Bible deserves a careful read, says it well in his comment on Deut 4:9-14:
The revelation at Sinai/Horeb (Exod 19-20) is recalled in order to instruct the present generation who did not experience it. The paired injunctions not to forget the powerful experience of God’s actions and to educate your children, so that the past becomes “present” also to them, represent a prominent aim of Deuteronomy: to overcome the historical distance of the past and to maintain it as a source of identity (4:23, 25; 6:2, 7, 20-25; 8:11; 9:7; 31:13; 32:18). You saw, and the following you stood (4:10) are highly paradoxical assertions. Neither is literally true: the actual generation of the exodus had died off and been replaced by this new one, one who had experienced none of the events here being recounted (see note to 2:14-15). This paradoxical structure of thought, whereby Moses addresses those who had not witnessed the events as if they had, while insisting that they inculcate the events to posterity, is central to Deuteronomy’s theology of history (5:3-4, 20; 11:7; 29:13-14). This develops further in postbiblical Judaism to the idea that all Jews, past, present, and future, were at Sinai.
Bernard Levinson, “Deuteronomy,” in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Mark Zvi Brettler; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) ad loc [adapted].
It was Childs, I believe, who first spoke of the “canonical shape” of biblical books. It’s a great insight, even if, as I emphasize, it is often possible to identify more than one canonical shape in which a book has been received in communities of faith past and present.
Jim West notes that “contributions to our understanding of the canon made by Luther and more modern systematic theologians cannot, safely, be ignored.” No argument there. In a previous update, I pointed out that superb interpreters of the Bible have been known to huff and puff about a 2 Peter (Didymus the Blind), a James, or a Revelation (Luther). Despite their reservations, Didymus and Luther go on to selectively deploy the contents of the works they criticized in teaching and polemic.
To take Luther to task for this, as do fundamentalists and arch-Catholics, is pretty dumb of them. The best and most able interpreters of the Bible – and Didymus and Luther qualify - are confident enough to challenge and critique individual parts thereof precisely because they are absolutely committed to the truth the Bible expresses globally insofar as they understand it.
But the force of a canon should not be underestimated. As I noted before, not even an interpreter of the stature and brilliance of Luther could overcome it. The following dictum applies to all:
The Bible, taken with all its diverse meanings, demands of its reader the range of vision which can be defined as the Christian vision. [emphasis mine]
Sean McEvenue, “The Old Testament, Scripture or Theology?” Interpretation
25 (1981) 229-242; 242.
As far as Barth and Brunner are concerned, Brunner’s Sixth Counter-Thesis to Barth states that the Scriptures not only become the Word of God, they are the Word of God. I’m with Brunner on this one.
Duane Smith examines the concept of canon/authority from the points of view of epistemology and psychology. He concludes:
As my favorite theologian once said,
Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world - and never will. [Mark Twain, Consistency speech, 1887]
I thank Claude Mariottini for pointing his readers in the direction of this discussion.