Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Personal “Canon Within the Canon”

I think it was the German Lutheran New Testament scholar (Neutestamentler) Ernst Kaesemann who coined the term “canon within the canon.”  For him, it was a normative concept referring to biblical books which not only functioned with more authority in the Church, but SHOULD have more authority than other biblical books.  Being Lutheran, I think Kaesemann’s “canon within the canon” centered around Romans and Galatians, Mark, Luke, and John (Matthew would have been seen as “too Jewish”) and definitely relegated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to lower status.  I am not sure what functioned as his canon within the canon in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

Many have objected to Kaesemann’s phrase:  not just those inerrantists for whom every word of scripture is on the same level of authority (“flat Bible” types), but those for whom the early Church’s canonical choices are seen as guided by the Holy Spirit.  But no matter how we view “canon within the canon” as a normative concept, I think it undeniable that it is an apt term for the way different parts of Scripture function for different individuals and groups.  I think it safe to say that NO ONE, not even those who have repeatedly read the Bible from cover to cover (I come from a tradition where it is common to do this annually), are even equally familiar with all parts of Scripture.  If you are from a Christian family, go to your parents’ family Bible and see the places where it falls open naturally.  It doesn’t take long to figure out which parts of  Scripture are a pastor’s favorite. (One advantage of lectionary preaching is that it helps to prevent preachers from falling into the habit of “preaching their hobby horses.”  Lectio continua, the practice of preaching through biblical books from beginning to end, also works against this.  When I still had regular responsibility for preaching the Word, I would use the Common Lectionary–without telling my small Baptist congregation that this is what I was doing!–from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, and then preach lectio continua through 2-3 books during “ordinary time,” i.e., Trinity Sunday until Advent again.)

My friend and former teacher, David Kling, has an excellent book, The Bible in History:  How the Texts Have Shaped the Times , which shows how particular texts have shaped different denominations and traditions in the Church through the centuries.  I reviewed that wonderful book here.  One of the many strengths of Richard B. Hays’ excellent work on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, is the section where he examines the actual use of Scripture by several theologians and Christian ethicists, including from which texts they actually quote.  A similar section, using different scholars, is found in Jeffrey Siker’s Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth Century Portraits.

So, we see that each of us has a functioning canon that is smaller than the Church’s canon–whether one uses the Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant canons.   It is, no doubt, helpful to try to expand one’s functioning canon. But we should be honest about which books are the “hermeneutical center” for our personal take on faith and discipleship.

Here is mine.  Because of the Anabaptist shape of my faith, I begin with the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  I really dislike Billy Graham’s advice to new Christians to start with the Gospel of John.  The Fourth Gospel is very deep and subtle theology cloaked in deceptively simple Greek which translates into deceptively simple English. Although I disagree with those who think that John has a docetic Christology (this is where we get the very word “incarnation!”), or is anti-semitic, I think that Christians who have not first learned to the reading skills and vision of the Synoptics are not ready for John–and can misread it in very dangerous ways.

Then comes the book of James, the Acts of the Apostles, and, from Paul’s letters: Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians.  I confess to not much liking the Pastoral Epistles, even though I believe conservatives interpret them wrong.  I like the journey shape to life and faith encouraged by Hebrews, but I am uncomfortable with the Philo/Hellenistic form of Judaism in its background and imagery.

No one first exposed to the Book of Revelation by horrid dispensationalist TV preachers, as I was, will ever be fully comfortable with it.  I have learned to see Revelation very differently, as a handbook of nonviolence for a persecuted church (see here and here), but it will never be my favorite.  I must confess that I almost entirely neglect 2 Thessalonians, and the “catholic” epistles ( I and II Peter, I, II, and III John, Jude).

From the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament, I confess to a special lifelong love affair with the prophets.  As best we can tell from the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus himself especially loved the prophets, especially Isaiah, my favorite.  I also deeply love Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Joel.  Daniel is listed with the prophetic books in Christian canons, but with the Writings in the Jewish canon which I think is better since it is not prophetic, but apocalyptic literature.  I must confess to largely neglecting Daniel.

From the Torah or Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), I love Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, although I struggle with the triumphalist war theology that at least one voice in Deuteronomy pushes.  Like most Christians, I neglect Leviticus and Numbers, except for the Jubilee theme of Leviticus 25.

From the “historical books” or “former prophets,” I like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings., and Nehemiah.  I am learning to see things of value in Joshua and Judges, but they are so very bloody that they are a trial to read.  I have to struggle to keep from being put to sleep by the boring way that 1 & 2 Chronicles are narrated.  From “the Writings,” I love Ruth, Esther, Job, the Psalms, Song of Songs, and Lamentations.  I really dislike the class bias of much of the Proverbs and the depressing tone of Ecclesiastes and hate the purity/taboo rigidity promoted by Ezra (though this is also in Nehemiah).

That’s my rag-tag “canon within the canon.” It is larger than it once was and I am seeking to enlarge it, though I will never lose the Synoptic Gospels and the Prophets as my hermeneutical center. 

What’s yours and why?

June 7, 2009 - Posted by | authority, Bible, Biblical exegesis


  1. I love the gospel of John, mainly for the theological profundity packed within each detail. Within each verse, there are just ocean depths of meaning. John seems to be writing a new Genesis, for the new creation has begun in Jesus. Consider everything that John means whenever he says something seemingly simple, like “at night.” Wow, there’s a whole sermon or PhD dissertation packed into that. Consider everything John means when he mentions a garden – it just staggers the mind. Numerous other examples could be multiplied. Layer upon layer upon layer of meaning. I know that the synoptics are closer to the historical Jesus most of the time, and we simply cannot live without the synoptics, but I just can’t help but fall in love with the gospel of John each time I read it- I’m lost in wonder, love, and praise.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | June 8, 2009

  2. The heirs of Wesley always love the Johannine writings. I just think it is dangerous to START Christians there.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2009

  3. I agree, although there are potential dangers with any book in the Bible when it is read in the wrong way. Matthew, for example, when separated from the rest of the NT, could be a source of works-righteousness.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | June 8, 2009

  4. Right, Matthew has been misread as pushing works righteousness, as supercessionist, and promoting Petrine primacy–all of which I think are misreadings. I suppose I react to the Johannine misreadings so much because they pervade American evangelicalism so thoroughly.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2009

  5. I agree with you on the supercessionist part, Michael. But there are passages in Matthew that seem to me to promote works righteousness. For example, the man who buries his talent in the ground goes to hell. In the context of his discussion about lust in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says it’s better to go through life without a hand or eye than to be thrown into hell. Those who don’t forgive go to hell, until they pay the last penny. Then the good works in Matthew 25 are discussed in the context of who will go to everlasting life, and who will go to hell. I agree that Matthew has stuff about God’s love and forgiveness. It even says that Jesus gave his life to be a ransom for us. But it’s hard to feel secure about my eternal security when I read Matthew, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (since, as far as Matthew 25 goes, I do some of those things sometimes).

    Another issue I have with the synoptics is their imminent eschatology–Jesus said his rule would come soon, and it did not. But there are other ways to interpret “the kingdom of God is at hand,” I guess. The “already and not yet” view is one of them. Personally, I wonder where the kingdom of God is right now. Is it your view that Jesus came to inspire us with a vision of the kingdom, and we try to put it into place? What do you do with imminent eschatology in the Gospels?

    Comment by James Pate | June 9, 2009

  6. Getting this deep in the weeds of interpreting Matthew is beyond the scope of this post, James. I think you need to learn about Hebrew hyperbole which Jesus uses profusely in his parables and teaching sections in Matthew.

    I’ll try to work on recommending a few books on the Rule of God and on interpreting Matthew.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 9, 2009

  7. Hyperbole may be relevant to the part about cutting off one’s hands and plucking out one’s eye. I’m not suggesting that this should be taken literally. But I don’t think Matthew’s discussion about Gehenna and who goes there is hyperbole. Those discussions also exist in rabbinic Judaism, and they seem to be face-value conversations about who gets into the World to Come, and who doesn’t.

    I’m interested in taking a look at the books you recommend on the Rule of God and Matthew. Thank you. 🙂

    Comment by James Pate | June 9, 2009

  8. James, try Andrew Perriman’s “The Coming of the Son of Man”. I don’t think I could still call myself a Christian if it weren’t for Perriman’s lucid analysis.
    (N. T. Wright has offered similar thoughts, though not as persuasively worked out, in my opinion–see his “Jesus and the Victory of God”.)

    Comment by Daniel | June 11, 2009

  9. Thanks Daniel. I read Wright’s book, but it was several years ago. I’ll take a lot at Perriman’s.

    Comment by James Pate | June 13, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: