Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Two Ways of Having a "Canon Within a Canon"

My Tuesday morning Bible Study (where I'm about to go hang out in a little bit, actually) uses a commentary series as a foundation for our discussion and curriculum (as opposed to the Wednesday night Bible Study, where I pretty much concoct something myself).  The commentaries themselves aren't bad.  Now, they do tend to skew more conservative in theology than I'd prefer, and they make some assumptions about historicity that I'd just as soon wish they didn't, but by and large, the commentaries do their job of providing some context and offering a springboard for dialogue.

Except when they don't.

We're working through the Gospel of John in the Tuesday class, and it's really quite good.  John is probably the Gospel I have the deepest knowledge base on (thanks to one of the best classes I ever took in seminary), and I have had a lot of fun and joy in sharing some of that perspective here.

But for the sake of intellectual diversity (and also because I can sometimes be a deranged crank of a minister when I've had too much or too little coffee), I have to admit I've been questioning the commentaries we use, because they skip entire chapters of the Gospel of John (5 and 7), and gloss over chunks of some other chapters.

Now, for all I know, things like that were editorial changes for space or expediency (after all, this a commentary designed to be read in one quarter of the year, that is, in only 13 weeks...and John is 21 chapters long), but nevertheless, it is the most recent demonstration of that little annoying, omnipresent thing that I keep encountering in my ministry, and that I have written about here:

We all have a canon within a canon.

Typically, I've seen that canon within a canon in two ways: one is that we simply like some books of the Bible more than others.  I definitely fall into that camp.  I tend to gravitate towards the Gospels (seems like an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised how rarely some pastors preach from them), and I tend to prefer the letters of John and James over the letters of Paul.  I tend to love the Old Testament story books (Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc), but I scratch my head at a lot of the Old Testament law books (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, parts of Exodus).  And as for the prophets...well, that's a Biblical knuckleball if ever there was one.

The other way I see the "canon within a canon" mentality is the way of these sorts of commentaries: emphasizing certain parts of a book or passage over other parts of that same book or passage.  It's things like skipping over passages of books you're commenting on.  It's things like proof texting--taking one verse out of context to make it mean something artificially.

And if I'm honest, it's the second kind I'm realizing that I'm having a harder time understanding in my ministry, because it frustrates me much more.  I'm not sure why.  But it somehow feels hypocritical, like our way of saying, "Yep, this book is the inerrant word of God.  But these parts are all more inerrant than the rest of it."  I see pastors who claim to "offer the whole counsel of God" do anything but that. They offer the counsel of God that they agree with.

And that gets under my skin, perhaps because I tend to be more frequently guilty of that first kind of a "canon within a canon" mentality, and this is my own hypocrisy showing through.

But it's a weakness which my vocation must address, if we are to reclaim the moral authority that has slowly been slipping away from us as my generation comes to see us more and more as Jesus saw the Pharisees: hypocrites who strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel.

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Why or why not?

Off to Bible Study!

Yours in Christ,

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