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.

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4 thoughts on “Reading the Bible in Canonical Context

  1. So if we ask whether Mark had an ending or not, and if so, which one, we say “all of the above?” Or, since Mark-Matt tell us that the first resurrection appearances were in Galilee, but Luke says near Jerusalem, we say “both”? Or if Paul tells us of a spiritual resurrection and Luke one of flesh-and-blood, we simply say “yes?” How tolerant would you be of Muslims saying things like this about their faith?

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    • I am not sure that I see the exact point you wish to make. If you are saying that diversity of thought undermines the credibility of the Bible, then I think you expect a unity of thought that just is not found in the Biblical texts. That does not mean we can conflate them all together into combined narrative. The diversity of thought remains. And that is to be expected in my opinion because the God who reveals himself in the texts of Scriptures does exceed human comprehension. If we had a neat package that answered all our questions, then the God we encounter in the Scriptures would not be the real God. So instead we must live with the diversity of understanding of God. That does not mean all opinions are equally true. Some may be closer to the truth than others. But if we would understand the mystery of God, we must respect the diversity of opinion and seek to learn from others. A clash of perspective is a part of what it means to read Scripture.

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    • Michael: I am glad you gained some insight into Dr. Childs’ thought. He was such a fantastic teacher. I am especially indebted to him for how he taught me how to give close attention and respect to the insights of modern biblical criticism and still regard the Bible as scripture for the church.

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