Reading the Bible in Canonical Context

My professor of Old Testament in divinity school was Dr. Brevard Childs. I am deeply indebted to him for my approach to reading the Bible.

Childs had an amazing command of the tools for a modern critical reading of the Bible. But he often questioned how valuable those tools were for opening up the Bible as Scripture for the church. How was one to find the word of God in the words of the Bible?

Childs advocated reading the Bible in canonical context. That meant reading the various books of the Bible in the final format that they had when they were accepted by both the Jewish and Christian communities as Scripture, that is accepted in the canon of Scripture.

This is not to deny that the books of the Bible went through a long process of development before they acquired their canonical format. The Torah consists of the editorial assembly of at least four documents—traditionally labeled J, E, D, and P—and probably even more. Behind them all lies a period of oral transmission of stories and laws.

But what the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity canonized was not these earlier versions, but the redacted composition that we call the Torah or Penteteuch. It is this final, redacted format that is authoritative for the life of the faithful.

This means a study of prior sources to the canonical text can be useful if you are writing a history of the religion of Israel or a history of the Old Testament theology, but none of those previous formats were canonized. Only the final text was.

When we approach the Bible as Scripture for the church, we are then concerned primarily with the canonical text of the Bible, not with its earlier sources. And so in my reading of the Bible I am always most focused on the canonical text rather than with the earlier history of the text.

Childs also contended that the canon provided important guidelines for interpreting Scripture. For example, most scholars today accept that the book of Isaiah is composed of the writing of at least two or three prophets, and possibly other sources. Chapters 1-39 are largely the work of a prophet working in Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C. Chapters 40-66 come from one or two prophets working a 150 years or more later.

Yet the canonical text of Isaiah merges them all into one book. That provides a key to how we are to read them all. We get the full message of God not from reading any one of the sources separately, but reading them together in their dialogue with one another. To fully understand God, we must take seriously both the vision of God as judge in the first part of the book and the God of liberation in the second portion.

The canon sometimes brings together contradictory voices. Ezra takes one view on the place of foreign women in the life of Israel. Ruth takes a diametrically opposite viewpoint. Yet both are in the canon. We must therefore listen to both voices respectively, for they are both a part of the word of God to his people.

We are all inclined to pick and choose our favorite passages of the Bible and hold them up as authoritative. We create a canon within the canon. But the canon does not allow us to do that and thereby saves us from distorted theology.

The canon presents us with a diversity of voices. And we must accept that diversity as an inherent part of the life of faith. It is not accidental, I believe, that the early church canonized four gospels and not just one. Each of the four gospels presents a different approach to the life and teaching of Jesus. Only in listening to the four together can we access the richest understanding of the gospel.

An implication of this canonical approach to reading Scripture is that what we take seriously is not the seed but the full-grown tree. Isaiah may have many different sources, but the full-blown canonical text of Isaiah is much more than its sources.

This is an important principle as well for the study of Christian doctrine. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is not taught explicitly in the New Testament. But the seeds of the doctrine are in the New Testament, and in that respect the doctrine is biblical. It will take the church 400 years to see the seed develop into the fully developed tree.

This, too, serves as a caution on the traditional Protestant bias that regards the New Testament church as the pattern for church life today. It is the reason why many Protestants look with disdain on later developments in Catholicism.

But God never intends a seed to remain a seed. Its calling is to grow into a tree. And so later Catholic elements may be the seeds of the New Testament church growing towards their fuller maturity. We need to be very nuanced in our judgments.

The Bible’s in my blood

It feels as if the Bible has always been a part of my life, almost as if a part of my cellular makeup. At least, I can’t remember a time when it has not.  Given that my parents were devout Christians for whom the Bible was central to their lives, I am sure they were reading the Bible to me even as an infant.

My first conscious memory, however, is of the time when Mother bought a children’s Bible and read a story from it every night as she tucked my sisters and me into bed. I have vivid memories of the book’s end sheets. They showed a picture of rays of sunshine streaming through the clouds. I was never quite sure what the imagery was meant to convey—a vision of the first day of creation or of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven.

We were Baptists, and so as an elementary-school student, I was taught to use my Bible in Sunday evening sword drills. This is a popular Southern Baptist practice where children line up at the front of a room. An adult yells out a verse of Scripture, like Amos 7:2. Then every child scrambles in his or her Bible to be the first one to find the verse. In Sunday school class we were required to memorize the names of all the books of the Bible in order—all 66 of them.

One thing I admire about this Baptist training is that it teaches a person to navigate the Bible, even if you misunderstand what you find. You don’t need a table of contents to find a particular book or verse. The training has served me in good stead through the years.

The Bible of my childhood was the King James Version. The unspoken assumption was that this translation was divinely inspired. So I duly read my Bible in 17th century English, even if  it didn’t often make sense. All that changed when I was a teenager, and my Dad brought home a new translation of the New Testament. The New English Bible had just come off press. Its goal was to put the Bible’s message in contemporary speech. When I opened this translation and read a few passages, I felt as if I was encountering a brand new book. The message was no longer archaic. It leaped alive. Old, familiar passages spoke with a vividness I had never before experienced. The sword of the Spirit had a sharp, new cutting edge.

I frankly fell in love with the Bible from that moment. And it is the longest love affair of my life (my wife did not arrive until some 25 years later).

I have been reading and studying the Bible ever since with never flagging interest. There have been times in my life when my Christian faith skated on thin ice. There have been times when I have wanted to throw Christianity overboard. So deep was my anger and confusion. But there was always one thing I could never discard: my fascination with the Bible. I keep reading it, trying to understand its mysteries, and being seduced by it. And now I have a lifetime of discoveries and reflections about this amazing book.

I am creating this blog to provide a way to share some of my experiences, thoughts, reflections, and questions that have emerged from this lifetime of being in conversation with the Bible. I hope that this sharing will be meaningful to others. So, if you are a new reader, I invite you to join me in conversation with and about the Bible. It’s a spring that never runs dry.