Canons within the Canon

by Clive Marsh.

I’ve been leading quite a few sessions with church groups recently about what it means to be ‘biblical’. Given that all Christians are biblical in some sense (you cannot not be and still call yourself Christian) the key question then is in what sense we are biblical. I’ve enjoyed introducing some mischievous exercises within large groups which require people to identify honestly what they do and do not know about the Bible, like or do not like about the Bible, and which books (or bits), in practice, they lean on most in their Christian lives. It’s been good fun. It’s also been very serious stuff indeed. What comes to light is which books, or sometimes almost whole sections, of the biblical canon can in practice fall by the wayside. Not surprisingly, the four canonical Gospels always make a final list, but many other books do not. In reality, in the groups I have worked with, about a third (20+ books) of the 66 books of the Protestant Canon are in most active use. Genesis, Psalms and Isaiah usually make the final cut from the Old Testament, and some of the ‘heavy’ (lengthy) Pauline letters – though not always the same ones. Romans, I Corinthians and Galatians are front-runners, though often only two of those three make the final ‘canon within the canon’ (even if this is likely to do more with the structures of my exercise than the relative merits of those books).

All of this is not extensive, carefully mapped, methodologically thought-through scientific research, of course. But the reflections I am offering are not uninformed by evidence. I am feeding back to the church (mostly British Methodist churches, if you are interested) what is actually happening, and what people are presenting about what they actually do, and use, as everyday Christians, as opposed to what they perhaps think they should be saying, or what they think I might like to hear them say. We may all like to suppose, those of us who are proud Protestants, that our faith is based on the whole Bible, in a way which treats all of the 66 books as of equal merit, or, at least, that we might expect God to speak to us in a loud voice from any corner of any text. But things aren’t quite that simple.

Perhaps, indeed, it never was like this even if it remains true that it is best to keep the 66 books intact as the library of which churches are the guardian (or 73, if we are speaking of the Roman Catholic Church). For only in this way do we also keep in place the ‘texts of terror’ – those which we are embarrassed ever to have seen as authoritative yet which remain part of our history. We have to acknowledge before God the humanity of our history, and the people of Israel’s history before and alongside us, as well as the humanity of our present. We therefore carry materials with us in the canon that at times we are really not sure what to do with, as well as having the ‘Greatest Hits’ – texts which can move and shape people profoundly. Luther famously asked awkward questions of the letter of James (‘letter of straw’) and gained his intense shaft of revelatory light through reading Paul. Even the big names of Christian history made value-judgments, then, about the relative merits of texts within the canon.

But this is all dangerous terrain. We are not going to be able to argue that all biblical books should always be seen to carry equal value. Disturbingly, too, the groups I have worked with sometimes dispense too easily with books of the Torah, as if the ‘history books’ of the Old Testament are not really all that significant for Christian faith. We do need to keep on squabbling creatively and constructively within and across churches about which books in our collective library prove useful at different times for different purposes. We also now know full well that it is not simply about what is in a biblical text that matters. What’s behind a text (who wrote it? do we even know?), what’s in front of it (who’s reading it now, and where, how, and why are they reading it?), where God is (behind, in and in front of texts), and what company we keep as we are reading are all vital factors in helping us grasp a meaning to work with.

Classics, as the scholars remind us, are texts which keep on generating new, fresh, insightful meanings. They are never to be exhausted. The Biblical Canon is a compendium of classics. It is also a classic as a library. The library witnesses, as (Roman Catholic theologian) David Tracy reminded us a generation ago, to a person who is the quintessential Classic.[1] The only real reason for our continuing to read the Bible in such an enthusiastic way is so that we can understand God in Christ better. That reminder also helps us remember that biblical study and squabbling are not ends in themselves.

[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (London: SCM Press 1981), esp. chs. 6 and 7.

13 thoughts on “Canons within the Canon”

  1. Really enjoyed the exercise you led in the Wolverhampton & Shrewsbury District – thank you. I wonder – does Job often make the cut? Whilst not without its difficulties, I would miss it a great deal if I was without it (the Psalms may cover similar territory but not, I think, to the same depth).


    1. Job certainly has made the cut a few times, though I’d actually have expected it to appear more than it does. I guess that’s more because the figure of Job is helpful, though people don’t need to read the book to find him helpful.


  2. Thank you Clive for making me think and reflect more broadly. It brought to mind a PhD seminar on Psalms where the presenter pulled back the focus from individual Psalms, sections and classifications to view the collection as a whole. I’m still running with the after shock of that as I will be with your inspiration and prompt.


    1. I came across a really good exposition of the “cursing psalms” (including the ‘bash babies’ heads’ one) in Ellen Davis’ “Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament” (recommended by Johanna Myers at Wesley House Cambridge). Made me realise how selective I am within each book- a canon within a canon within a canon! Davis suggests that “The psalms model ways of talking to God that are honest, yet not obvious. … They invite full disclosure.” Sometimes it’s OK to curse ……

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Clive for your stimulating article. I wonder if there was any correlation between your “greatest hits” and the Biblical ground covered by the RCL? Is suspect that 80 to 90 per cent of our congregations only hear the Bible read on a Sunday rather than read it personally or attend Bible study groups. So what’s in RCL may well have a bearing on the list. I wonder?


    1. Thanks, Rob – interesting question. I haven’t been logging things with that kind of detail but perhaps I should from here on! Your point about many church-members’ dependence on Sunday readings may well be accurate (another thing to explore further, perhaps). That could raise the question how ‘living’ our collective engagement with the Bible really is. Much to mull on…


  4. Interestingly our fellowship group has been doing a series of “books we haven’t read or we struggle with” so we’ve read Titus, Philemon, 1 Timothy, Nemehiah, Amos, a bit if Job (overview) Jonah- it’s been a real learning experience & I’ve turned up commentary in hand so we’re in it together


  5. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God …” According to the bible then, Jesus is the Word of God. The bible is a witness to the Word. It may be the most important witness but it is not the only witness, as the Methodist Quadrilateral explains. It is important, therefore, that we read the bible through the lens of Jesus. Obvious examples of this are the commands to stone to death people collecting sticks on the Sabbath and women caught in adultery and Jesus’ response to these commands.

    In the Inter-testamental period the Torah was seen by many Jewish leaders as synonymous with Wisdom. It had existed before humanity and it was accorded a semi-divine status. This led to the commandments being expanded into a network of rules and the development of commentaries on how these rules were to be interpreted. Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for being so involved in the intricacies of these rules that they had missed the whole spirit of what the covenant with God was really about. In our day there are Christians who accord to any text from the bible the veneration due to divine utterances. They don’t read individual texts in the context of the time they were written nor do they interpret them in the light of the overall message. They have forgotten that first and foremost faith is about a relationship with God and about our dealings with others in the light of that relationship.

    One of the reasons the bible is so powerful and has so much potential to influence and to transform our lives is that it is a living document, not an historical one. We should not trap ourselves within first century thinking, but allow God to speak to us through the bible in terms that make sense in a 21st century world of quantum uncertainty, with an immensely diverse humanity, set in a universe (parallel universes?) of unfathomable size, and with rapidly advancing technological innovations and scientific discoveries. It is only then that we will see how to apply the divine self-revelation in our lives, and how to relate it to the other ways God still speaks to us today.


  6. I wonder whether a group of Christians from a different background than Methodist groups – not wishing to suggest that they are homogeneous but possibly quite similar – would have selected a different 20? Would Exodus have featured within a group that didn’t feel as comfortable in their surroundings as most Methodist groups do? Would other groups with a greater sense of expectation feature Revelation – which RCL steers well clear of on a Sunday morning? While i have been heard to say that you can’t take the Bible literally as much of it makes no sense in that way – you do have to take all of it seriously and work at finding the meaning for us in our context today – every text has something to say.


  7. Many thanks for this Clive. Is what you do with groups available for us to lead a similar session or will it be part of a future publication? I’ve used one of those more shocking readings not included in the RCL in a service to bring home a point. Although not planned, the reader obviously hadn’t read the text herself before reading it (not good practice generally speaking), but her shock on realising what she was reading actually made it more impactful.


    1. Thanks, Angie. The exercise aren’t copyrighted and are freely available for others to use and adapt! (It really is important we get some creative exercises out there, being actively used.) But could you perhaps hang on for a couple of months in case I try one or two of them with the Methodist Diaconal Order when Barbara and I meet with you in May?! Then you (and others) can pinch them and use them widely.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks, Clive for a (as usual) stimulating read. Two things occur to me.
    How do we help people inhabit the ‘strange new world of the Bible’? I suspect we who are preachers short- change congregations both in the amount of scripture we use in worship (how often do we hear even the limited range of RCL Old Testament readings?) and in the seriousness of our engagement with it. A canon within the canon may be inevitable, but we all need to encounter more than the ‘comfortable words’. You are right about the need to face up to the ‘texts of terror’. I am frequently annoyed by the way our daily Psalm and Bible readings often shy away from the difficult and scary passages. Yet they (as you say) underline the humanity of the scriptural narrative and make it impossible for us to adopt a fundamentalist attitude to the Bible.
    My other point (which won’t surprise you at all) is that whilst the Bible is indeed a cultural classic that can sit alongside other enduring world literature, the Church is the context for recognising these books (rather than any others) as scripture and for for discerning the core narrative to which they bear witness. The paradox is that the Church is at the same time the compiler of scripture, its interpreter and the object of its Judgement.

    Liked by 1 person

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