My Doktorvater (Jonathan Pennington) has a stimulating chapter in his new book about The Gospels being the canon within the canon.
He knows it is controversial, but posits that we all function with an operative canon within the canon.
Trevin Wax in a recent interview asked JP to describe it briefly.
Trevin Wax: You believe the Gospels are the “archway” the canon of Scripture. Explain what you mean by this and why, if we have a ‘canon within a canon,’ the Gospels should be the choice.
Jonathan Pennington: This aspect of the book – concentrated mostly in the last chapter – is certainly the most provocative part in my mind. I expect some pushback, and I look forward to the dialogue.
My point with the “canon within the canon” language is that we in fact all do have certain verses, biblical books, and concepts that are operative, formative, and weightiest in our theological constructions. I simply want to suggest that, based on the early church’s practice and for several other theological and canonical reasons, the fourfold Gospel book should serve in this lodestar role.
I develop the metaphor of a keystone in an archway to suggest that the Gospels present themselves and are placed in the canon in such a way that they hold together both the OT’s witness and that of the other apostolic writings. On the one hand they are the fulfillment of all the OT spoke of, while on the other they are the fountainhead of all the epistolary literature. In this way they serve the key role in all of Holy Scripture. In the final chapter of the book I offer a few possible implications of this.
The more I have sat on this issue, increasingly I realized Paul has functionally been my canon within the canon. And this is where most of evangelicalism probably rests.
Although some push against the idea of a canon within a canon, I think Pennington is right to note that practically most employ one.
In other words the soundbites don’t mesh with the lecture notes.
So where do we go from here?
First, we have to decide if it is good idea to have a canon within a canon? Or as Fred Sanders questions, is it wrong?
Settling for a canon with the canon is a terrible thing. As fallible and sinful interpreters, we lapse into this error all too often, but when we do so, we should at least know we are erring, and not pretend we are doing well. To play favorites with Bible books (in this sense) is to have a blind spot, not to have a privileged lens on the truth.
D.A. Carson is also wary of having a canon within the canon and lists the following dangers/problems with the idea.
First, an ecclesiastical tradition may unwittingly overemphasize certain biblical truths at the expense of others, subordinating or even explaining away passages that do not easily ‘fit’ the slightly distorted structure that results. Second, an ecclesiastical tradition may self-consciously adopt a certain structure by which to integrate all the books of the canon, and earnestly believe that the structure is not only sanctioned by Scripture but mandated by it; and as a result, some passages and themes may automatically be classified and explained in a particular fashion such that other believers find the tradition in question sub-biblical or too narrow or artificial. Third, many others reject parts of the canon as unworthy, historically inaccurate, mutually contradictory or the like, and adopt only certain parts of the Scripture. The parts they accept constitute their ‘canon within the canon’.
Although I think these are good warnings, there is always a slippery slope on the other side of The White City. Caution should be used, but as Luther said, we don’t stop enjoying the stars simply because people in the past have worshiped them.
Pennington reminds us that the early church developed the regula fidei not because they wanted to neglect certain parts of Scripture but because “any heretic can use the same canon and came up with a heterodox reading by not letting key canonical ideas and texts shape and constrain others.”
Initially it seems we should look at the Scriptures and see if there is any indication that the Jews/Jesus operated this way.
Second, we have to decide if we can function without a canon within a canon practically. It is natural to have some basic presuppositions, starting points, and handles which we use to launch into other studies.
We certainly don’t want to mute other parts of Scripture to fit our “canon,” but let each text speak with its own voice.
However coming to the text tabula rasa is naïve.
Third, (if we will naturally have a canon within the canon) we need to decide where the “canon within the canon” needs to reside. Is it around Paul’s epistles, justification by faith, the Gospels, the covenants?
Fourth, we need some criteria to evaluate where the canon within the canon should reside. Is it by the criteria Pennington suggests? (Church History, Canonical Argument etc…)
Or are there other ways of measuring where the canon within the canon should lie?