Posted by: chuckbumgardner | April 12, 2011

Canon Within a Canon

I’m presently teaching a class on NT Introduction, and came across the following, which I forwarded to my students.  I post it for your edification as well.





Hello, all,

We spoke briefly about a “canon within a canon” today in class, and I wanted to send you a related excerpt from some reading I was doing tonight.
“There is a tendency–and this postmodern interpreters have done well to point out–for each church community to respond selectively to Scripture.  In critical scholarship, this is referred to as the “canon within the canon,” the part of Scripture that really functions as Scripture for a given scholar or group.  The fact that German scholarship in particular has not been shaken by the criticism of the historicity of the Gospels or the authorship of most Epistles other than Paul’s main letters (his Hauptbriefe, Romans-2 Corinthians) is no surprise in that, as was mentioned above, the center of the Lutheran and Reformed canon has tended to be exactly those main letters of Paul (especially Romans and Galatians).  The real center of authority has been preserved for such scholars even if little of the historical Jesus or the later letters of the New Testament are left. . . .
“We do not believe that one has any real authority if he or she removes material from its context.  To snatch a few paragraphs from this chapter and read them out of the context of the whole would be to distort their meaning. [and, class, that’s exactly what I’m doing!  Hopefully, the meaning is not distorted overmuch.]  To look at Paul in isolation from the teaching of Jesus is to distort his message and thus not to draw from biblical authority at all. [is he overreaching a bit here, do you think? but read on…]  But before we quickly condemn a particular school of thought, it is important to realize that for each community some such canon-within-a-canon is probably functioning. [so is the proper conclusion then that no community is “draw[ing] from biblical authority at all”? but read on…]  The difference is that some are conscious of it and others are not.
“One example of this is found in how a particular tradition uses various biblical genres.  For example, if a tradition’s canon centered on Paul, one might find that Gospel texts were rarely preached, and when they were used in sermons they functioned mainly as illustrations of an underlying Pauline text.  That would mean that the teaching of the Gospels themselves would rarely if ever be heard in that community.  The church might assert that the Gospels were fully authoritative, but the Gospels would not function as authorities in its preaching. . . .
“. . . each tradition has its own group of ‘texts to ignore.’  This is never stated explicitly, for if it were, the texts would not be ignored.  Rather, the focus of the community or the tradition is such that some texts are never read, or if they are read, they appear irrelevant and are passed over quickly.  The texts have their own intrinsic authority, but in that community they have in practice no extrinsic authority.”
Peter H. Davids, “Authority, Hermeneutics, and Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, ed. David Alan Black & David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 14-16.
Now, I don’t think we are denying Scripture its rightful authority if after studying a passage, we determine that it is not directly applicable to us — for instance, if it is spoken to national Israel and does not apply directly to us in the church.  Davids’ point, though, is that it is easy to skip over texts or center our ministry around a certain group of texts/books to the detriment of others.  Even though particular books of Scripture and sections of particular books may be less directly applicable to us, we should recognize that they are still the Word of God and thus profitable to us and to our church (2 Tim 3:16).
“I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”  (Acts 20:27, ESV)


  1. The gospels have always had the place of preeminence in the churches prior to Augustine, and even after that heretic the preeminence of the gospels was put back in place, and then came Luther who again, like Augustine, made Romans the be-all-end-all of the canon, declaring in his preface to Romans: “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.” This attitude is heresy. Not only does Vatican states in Dei Verbum section 18 : “18. It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior,” but it clearly really is COMMON KNOWLEDGE to all REAL Christians, for Luther’s ex-friend, certainly not a Catholic and who lives a long time before Vatican II in the 1960s, declare in his book On the Canon of Scripture that the gospels are more inspired than the Pauline epistles. Put simply: all real Christians give the gospels the preeminence. Only Marcionitish heretics like the ‘evangelicals’ give the preeminence to Romans.

  2. Well, Junly, that was an interesting rant. Let me give a stab at a response. I don’t dispute that there is a sense in which the Gospels have a sort of preeminence, in that they relate the life and ministry and teachings of Christ, which serve as a basis for the rest of the NT.

    All the same, since (in my understanding of things) each book of Holy Scripture is equally inspired of God, there is another sense in which they are all at the same level. Perhaps when speaking of the relative importance of the various books of Scripture, it would be helpful to ask “important for what?” That is, the Gospels (for instance) are going to serve the church in certain ways that the Epistles will not do as well, and vice versa. Looking for the teachings of Jesus? The Gospels rise preeminent. Looking for a detailed explanation of salvation by grace? Romans can’t be beat. If a person believes that God inspired each book of Scripture, then I think by default he or she has to assume a unity of teaching among all the books of Scripture, and that, I think, has implications for seeing one book or one particular group of books as being generally preeminent over all the others.

    That being said, you consider those who give Romans preeminence to be “Marcionitish heretics”. Yet you give the gospels preeminence based on “common knowledge” and Dei Verbum. I think you’d agree that “common knowledge” isn’t always correct; in addition, I (as a Protestant) do not accept papal pronouncements as automatically correct and authoritative. So, our disagreement will seem to have to drill a bit deeper, to the matter of authority.

    I’m not sure who you are referring to when you mention Luther’s ex-friend, but would he have considered Luther a Marcionitish heretic?

    All that aside, you raise an interesting consideration. If one gives preeminence to the Gospels, does that tend to lead to a Roman Catholic outlook on things? If one gives preeminence to Paul, does that lead to a Protestant perspective? Is it perhaps that both the Gospels and the Epistles are equally true and we are merely looking at different emphases?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: