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