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Thursday, 30 April 2020
Canon and Community

Canon and Community is the title of a little book, originally published by Augsberg Fortress in 1984 and reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2000. Written by James A, Sanders, a man rather rudely referred to as "that arch heretic" by a number of my college faculty, as a sequel and conclusion to his earlier (1972) book Torah and Canon, its subject is the art of canonical criticism.

First proposed by Brevard Childs in his landmark book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture and then used as a foundational principle to his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, canonical criticism is the process of looking at and processing the Bible as a canon: a closed and preserved collection of writing. Childs proposed a revolutionary but simple principle: that the Bible exists and should be read and accepted as canonical: a set of inspired and authoritative work, curated and approved by the Jewish and Christian communities. This has two important consequences. The first is that the canon we have is exactly, no more and no less, the canon we are supposed to have - if we believe in divine inspiration, then the canon has been selected and preserved under the authority of the Holy Spirit to contain only and exactly what God intended us to have - nothing is missing and nothing is surplus or redundant. The second consequence is that the only authoritative interpretations of the canon come from the community to whom it belongs and has been entrusted.

Sanders picks up the story by talking about the tension between professional study of the Bible and the dissemination of what had been learned among the believing community and the world at large. "Determination of the meaning of Scripture had always rested within the believing communities: it had been formed there and it belonged there, rather than in the historian's study. The Bible had always been the church's book and the Scripture of the Synagogue, and it looked as though it was falling into foreign hands" (page 2). Whilst some expressed concern that "the biblical story or narrative has become eclipsed by the work of the very scholars who know most about it," others suggest that "biblical criticism has locked the Bible into the past."

The book is presented in four short chapters: Reasons Why, Canonical Progress, Canonical Hermeneutics and Work To Do. In the second chapter, Sanders explains how the canonical process works:

Paul's letters were clearly written, each of them, to very particular situations in the middle third of the first century. But we can be sure we would simply not have inherited them in the manner we have, by tradition in the churches through the centuries instead of discovery by archaeology, had other early churches not found value in them for themselves in different times and contexts. Ecce! Churches in the twentieth century continue to find value in them (page 24).

As Brevard Childs says, moving the focus away from councils to a historical process:

The issue at stake is the nature of the process by which Israel shaped and was shaped by those traditions whose divine authority was experienced, accepted and confessed (page 30, from his Introduction, page 172).

Sanders uses the distinction between between what may be said historically and should be said canonically about Scripture ...

History and canon are not coextensive terms. Something may be canonically true without having been historically true. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, precedes that of Mark canonically but not historically. The Pauline epistles follow the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles canonically, but preceded them historically.

... to criticise scholars who re-order the biblical books into some other assumed historical or doctrinal order rather than that in which the early communities transmitted them. Canonical criticism finds significance in the sequence in which the canon presents the gospels (and other books), so tries to preserve perspectives of interrelationship that the early communities saw from being lost.

Moving on to his vision of the Bible as canon showing an overarching meta-narrative of divine meaning and design, Sanders explains:

The interest was in what God was doing in and through the givens of the situation described and what God might do again. God is presented as Creator, Sustainer, Judge, Redeemer and Re-creator. Insofar as we can discern, the interest was never anthropocentric or primarily sociological or political - not in the way the various accounts are presented canonically. The interest was in what God as Creator and Redeemer could do with the social conditions or the political situation (page 52).

If God can resolve a such and such a situation, then He can resolve other similar situations again today. The canonical perspective allows us to apply history to the present, rather than simply regarding it as ancient moralistic teaching.

Of course, Sanders does not observe the differences between the Jewish canon and the Christian canon, nor display awareness of why they are different and the different perspectives that make them so. Nevertheless, we can learn some interesting ways of thinking and analysing the Scriptures and the way they are ordered, read and sequenced. I recommend this short book.

-- James A. Sanders, Canon and Community - A Guide to Canonical Criticism, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 78 pages.

Posted By Jonathan Allen, 3:08pm Comment Comments: 0