Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Learning from the Canon

I have only read a couple of chapters of it by way of escape from what it is I'm supposed to be doing, but Walter Brueggemann's book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education is giving me that old-fashioned romantic feeling.

He speaks of three layers of authority in the Old Testament canon. The first is the Torah, the second is the Prophets, and the third is the Writings. Instead of flattening out the OT, Brueggemann argues that each of these three parts of the canon "has a different function in Israel, proceeds with a different epistemology, and makes a different claim in Israel." The Torah represents the community ethos. The Prophets represent the community pathos. The Writings represent the community logos.

I wonder if this kind of thinking can be brought to bear on the New Testament canon, if it hasn't already. The gospels were certainly not written first, but they come first in the canon as the community ethos. They are, for Christians, the new Torah, recapitulating the themes of promise, exodus, and the way of life to be embodied by the people of God. As for Jews the Torah functions as the canon within the canon, so the gospels do for Christians. The book of Acts may also be included here, giving us a New Testament Pentateuch.

Next comes the pathos of Paul the prophet. In Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians especially, we see the failure of the communities to embody the ethos laid out in the Gospels, but also the hope that all is not lost. These texts represent a calling back to the vision of the Gospels. Then we have the logos or wisdom of the general epistles (which would include the likes of Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians) which aim to give some concrete order to what went before. They are authoritative but subordinate to the authority of the new Torah and to the prophetic writings of Paul. There is no place for Revelation in this canon, because that book is crazy.

This is all very sketchy and poorly thought out, but it shows that thinking about the canonical process of the New Testament is not just a lesson in history or apologetics. There is a theological and educational aspect to the NT canon which churches would do well to explore.

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