The Cannon within the Canon

If you read much in the literature about biblical interpretation, canon, and biblical authority, eventually you will come across the phrase, “canon within the canon.”  The phrase refers to the idea that either (1) people will consciously and formally declare that one part of the biblical canon is dominant or takes precedence over other parts of the canon, or (2) people will, often unconsciously, gravitate toward one section of the biblical canon, and this section of the canon will take on a certain dominance or precedence over other parts of the canon.  So, for example, scholars will refer to how the Pentateuch or Torah serves as the canon within the canon for a large swathe of Judaism, or how the gospels serve as a canon within the canon for many Christians and particular denominations.  Many would argue that the New Testament serves this function for most Christians.  Others would argue that for Reformed theology, the Pauline letters serve as a canon within the canon.

Now it is one thing if people gravitate toward particular sections of the Bible.  We all, certainly, have our favorite passages of Scripture, our favorite books of the Bible.  Many Christians, either rightly or wrongly, have their favorite verses, which they even refer to as their life verses.  And it is only natural that we would use our favorite verses, chapters, books, or groups of books as a kind of lens through which we read the rest of Scripture.

But it is another thing entirely when we formally declare that some parts of the Bible are more important than other parts, and that the more important parts of the Bible can actually negate the teaching in what we consider to be the less important parts.  A few examples of this are as follows.

(1) The gospels are canon, and the rest of Scripture holds a lesser authority, or no authority at all.

(2) The red letters of Jesus are authoritative, and anything in the rest of Bible which does not line up with the red letters can be safely ignored.

(3) The New Testament is all that counts.  The Old Testament has no authority over Christians whatsoever.

(4) Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate revelation.  He came for the purpose of disabusing us of the notion that the Old Testament accurately describes what God is like.

(5) Jesus Christ is the word of God, not the Bible.

(6) “God is like Jesus.  God has always been like Jesus.  There never has been a time when God was not like Jesus.  If you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus.  You don’t need to go anywhere else in the Bible to find out what God is like.”

(7) “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  This verse, because it comes in the Sermon on the Mount, becomes the “canon within the canon within the canon”!  Anything else the Bible says about judging or discerning is of no real importance, even if it comes in the red letters!  [On a bit of a side note, I would point out that, interestingly, people who quote this verse, apparently intending to be making a citation from Matt 7:1, all of a sudden turn into King James Bible quoters, and yet, just as interestingly, as well as ironically, end up misquoting the King James!)

When you come across statements like the ones above, I have a special name for that phenomenon.  I call it “the cannon within the canon.”  That is, one part of the biblical canon is used to shoot down or blow away other parts of the canon.  It is one thing to have a favorite verse, passage, book, or section in the Bible.  It is another thing entirely to hold that your favorite section negates, nullifies, or shoots down other parts of the canon.

Why do people do this?  Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), Princeton Seminary’s first Professor of Biblical Theology, and often referred to as the “Father of Reformed Biblical Theology,” provides a very interesting and astutely-reasoned answer to this question.  I quote here from one his sermons, entitled, “Hungering and Thirsting After Righteousness.”  The sermon appears in a collection of his sermons entitled, Grace and Glory.  Just before the portion I am citing, Vos has spent some time describing the historical setting for the Sermon on the Mount, and now he explains why the details of this setting are so important.

To note these details of description is not of merely historical interest, but also of practical religious importance, because it may warn us at the outset against a view all too commonly prevailing concerning the purpose of this “Sermon on the Mount.”  The sermon is often represented as a succinct summary of Jesus’ message.  It passes for an epitome of Christianity, the test stone of what is essential to our religion.  All that is not here, we are told, can without detriment be neglected.  Every later type of Christian life and teaching is to be judged, not by the standard of Scripture as a whole, nor even by the authority of the words of Christ as a whole, but by the content of this one discourse.  This deplorable error is due to more than one cause.  The beauty and glory of truth concentrated here may easily beget a feeling that all else in the New Testament is in comparison of minor value.

A second motive coming into play is that many people in the matter of religious belief wholly abandon themselves to their ungoverned tastes and feelings.  They scorn every hard and fast rule of faith and practice.  Even submission to the indiscriminate teaching of Jesus they find distasteful.  At the same time, unwilling to appear entirely emancipated from all historical bonds of faith, they fall back upon some choice portion of the gospel, preferably the Sermon on the Mount, and cling to it as to the last remaining shreds of the garment of creed, barely sufficient to cover the nakedness of their subjectivity.  It is thus that the Sermon on the Mount has become the creed of the creedless.

But by far the most influential force driving people to such a view comes from the flattery it supplies to the natural man.  It flatters him by taking for granted that he needs no more than the presentation of this high ideal, and that Jesus does him the honor of thinking him capable of realizing it by his own natural goodness.  And, last of all, it is not so much what people find in  the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves upon not finding there that renders them thus enamored of its excellence.  It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of sin, of man’s utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross—it is because of all this that they evince such eagerness to adopt as their exclusive creed a portion of the gospel from which in their opinion these offensive things are absent.

Vos’s insights are, indeed, insightful.  Did you catch that sentence in the first paragraph where Vos says, “Every later type of Christian life and teaching is to be judged, not by the standard of Scripture as a whole, nor even by the authority of the words of Christ as a whole, but by the content of this one discourse”?  In other words, those who would profess to be red-letter Christians are actually quite selective about which red letters they really like.  In fact, the Sermon on the Mount itself provides a very interesting example of this phenomenon.  One likes the red letters in Matt 7:1, but not the red letters in Matt 5:17-20.  One likes the red letters of Matt 5:43-45, but not the red letters of Matt 7:13-14 or Matt 7:15-20.

And by the way, when Jesus, in Matt 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” and then, just five verses later, in Matt 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs,” I wonder how we are to determine exactly who qualifies as a dog or a pig.  It sounds to me like it calls for an act of . . . judging!

Having a “canon within the canon” is not a very good thing to have, though perhaps at times it is understandably unavoidable.  However, having a “cannon within the canon” is not merely a bad thing; it is entirely inexcusable.

Jerry Shepherd
December 1, 2015

3 thoughts on “The Cannon within the Canon

  1. Thank you, that phrase cannon within the canon is a really useful twist. Thinking it through as you do is also a useful corrective to our (which as you note is almost all of “us”) tendency to erect canons within the canon.

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