Canon within the Canon?: Thoughts on Reading the Bible Better

We all have certain portions of Scripture we focus on more than others. We know that, right? I’m not being presumptious in saying we’re aware of the fact we do this? I hope not. I hope we all recognize that we do it. We all create a “canon within the canon” a section or sections which we elevate as the climax or pivot or cornerstone of the Bible.

For a certain reformed leaning crowd Romans 3-8 and Galatians 2-3 is it. That’s the summation of the gospel. For anabaptists, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is where it’s at. For some dispensationalist folks Rev. 14ff, Matt. 24-25 and Dan. 12 take centre stage. Luther called Galatians his Katy Von Bora (the book he was “betrothed” to).

Recently (this past spring), I contemplated my own canon. I have this theory that a pastor’s commentary and biblical theology collection reveals their canon within the canon. I browsed over my shelves, and wondered what does this collection of books I own say about where I put my emphasis? I’m still a newbie in pastoral ministry, so my collection is relatively small comparatively. It’s getting there, but needs some more work.

But as I scanned over it, I noticed that my collection still reflects my schooling- which courses I took and studied in formal ways. And what I preach and teach on has a lot to do with what I’ve studied more intensely. For instance, I spent a lot time studying 1 & 2 Samuel, so I have tons of book relating to Davidic stuff, and several commentaries on these books. I also seem to lean heavily on Matthew, Luke and John. My preaching has somewhat more frequently landed in the gospels, and my collection of books reflects this (I have 5 commentaries on John and 5 on Matthew but until recently, I had only 1 on Galatians, and 3 on 1 & 2 Corinthians combined). I went through the sermon folder on my desktop, and confirmed that this is absolutely the case. Here’s some stats on how many sermons I’ve been preaching from different portions of Scripture since coming here to Centre Street:

Penteteuch: 0

Old Testament history books (Josh.-Neh.): 0 (although it should be noted I have been leading a bible study through the books of Samuel for over a year now).

Wisdom (Job-Song of Songs): 2

“Major” Prophets (Isa.-Dan.): 3

“Minor” Prophets (Hos.-Mal.): 4

Matthew: 10

Mark: 3

Luke: 5

John: 7

Acts: 3

Romans: 5

1 & 2 Corinthians: 4

Galatians: 1

Ephesians: 3

Philippians (excluding the current series): 2

Colossians: 1

1 Thessalonians-Titus: 1

Hebrews: 1

James: 1

1 & 2 Peter, Jude: 1

1-3 John: 1

Revelation: 4

I found this rather revealing. Clearly the Gospels (hate using the plural term Gospels but that’s another issue for another day) have occupied the greater amount of focus in my preaching and study. Beginning last spring, I decided to bulk up my Pauline stuff, and over the past several months, I’ve purchased several solid commentaries on the Pauline corpus (I’m planning some posts on commentaries for the near future) and a few Pauline theologies from different perspectives (Kirk, Dunn, Matera, Wright, Sprinkle and Sanders) to try and balance out my ratio. I don’t dislike Paul, I just hadn’t really studied his writings in a formal and structured way to the same extent I had done for the Gospels and some Old Testament narrative portions. I only took one course in all my years of schooling on Paul ( a very good overview of Paul course at McMaster Divinity College, taught by Andrew Pitts).

This fall, I’ve also been preaching through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s been a very valuable exercise. This is the first time I’ve preached through a book start to finish. One advantage of doing this is reading Paul’s letters as letters. Often we isolate sections and chop up Paul’s letters into neat and tidy portions and miss the way Paul builds an argument. And the more I read the more I realize that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and the traditional Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul both have strengths and really significant problems. But the same can be said of many readings of the Gospels and of the New Testament in general. A while back I heavily criticized Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel for a plethora of problems, the biggest being a far too narrow reading the Scriptures. He focused so much attention on Romans 8-11, and very little on the Gospels. Why? Because he has an assumption that the penal substitution = the centre of the gospel. His chapter on Christ is essentially a reflection on the cross. There is no mention of the incarnation, teaching, miracles, and even the resurrection.

This self-examination process I try to do regularly has revealed my own bias, and has shown the importance of rounding out my focus. My study of Paul over the summer and into the fall has been very informative. However, I am still inclined to view Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in a special way. The earlier copyists labelled these books the “Gospel According to           “. I admit that I tend to lean a little more towards Wright and McKnight on this issue (but not on all issues I should note) by saying that in the proclamation of Jesus, his person, his ministry, his teaching, his suffering, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s work of bringing New Creation lies the gospel. However, Paul is an important component. Dunn, for all the issues which I have with his book Jesus, Paul and the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2011; I’m just about done, and hoping to have a review up next week) he does articulate how without the Pauline corpus, it would be hard to view Christianity as something other than a Jewish Messianic faith and not an ethnically inclusive, global faith, available to all.

For most of Protestant history, we’ve read Paul as articulating the way to God, and the Gospels as the back story. Where the New Perspective is very helpful is reorienting our focusing towards Paul as one who worked out and articulated the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I think reading all of the New Testament together in this way helps us to see gospel better. Instead of starting with the Roman road and calling that the gospel, what if we start with look at Jesus? And when we see how God is revealed in Jesus, suddenly Paul takes on a new value and one who says “this is what it means” and “this is what is available because of Jesus”.

So what’s the point of all this jibber-jabber here? Ok, here it is; what if instead of reading chapters and isolated verses, we actually sat and read a biblical book start to finish and then ask what it means? What if we read all of Romans and then decided what the message of Romans is? Suddenly we might realize that justification by grace through faith, a clearly biblical doctrine, is less of a thesis and more of a supporting argument for unity in the gospel. What if we read Mark in one sitting? Would we read it and say “that is good news”? What if we read the whole of the New Testament as a unit instead scanning for stuff that I want to read? What if Lutheran pastors preached as much from James as they do from Galatians? What if Reformed pastors took a year off from preaching from Paul? What if we viewed 3 John and Jude as equal to 1 Corinthians and actually treated them that way? What if I gave Hebrews the same attention I give Matthew? And what if we included the Old Testament in all this? Duh, right? Can we read the Bible that way? And can we talk about the bible that way?

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