Canon within the Canon?

October 26, 2012 — 11 Comments

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?



Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

11 responses to Canon within the Canon?

  1. Patrick,

    Interesting book. Will try to track down a copy.

    One observation: Accepting a canon within the canon is something far different than “looking at the stars even though others looked at the stars and worshipped them.” Accepting a canon within a canon radically redefines the very nature of the canonical scriptures. This would entail a butterfly effect that would no doubt have massive interpretational fallout. I am very uncomfortable with the Gospels being elevated as the hermeneutical key for the Pauline corpus and other epistolary literature. I really need to read this book!

    Thanks for posting this and I look forward to the conversations that will arise.

    • In addition, to flip the question on you, is it okay to interpret the Gospels with the Pauline corpus as the hermeneutical key?

      • No, that is not appropriate either. I believe those who do such are probably not concerned with the nature of scripture as canon to begin with.

        This idea of redefining our two part canon in light of its current 21st century function is interesting but scary.

      • Patrick, why is it not ok to interpret the Gospels through the lens of the Epistles? Or did every hermeneutics book I’ve ever read lie to me in saying that prescriptive writing trumps descriptive? In the interview, Pennington claims that narrative is the most comprehensive discourse of truth, but I would argue back that narrative can also be the most subjective based on the perspective of the reader.

      • There is a certain extent that we read both backwards and forwards and this is okay. However I don’t think prescriptive writing trumps descriptive. They are different genres and one is not superior.

  2. Joshua

    Fair enough. Maybe that analogy was not helpful. In context I meant it to be more of a comment about the slippery slope argument and not so much in relation to this specific issue.

  3. I’ve read the book and I like Jonathan’s idea, though it is so daring I probably would never have thought of it. But it made so much sense to me upon my first reading because I knew then that a canon-within-the-canon is unavoidable. There are reasons why, for instance, the most written about book in the Bible is Romans and it is not Obadiah. And I think those reasons are legitimate. If we can’t avoid it, we might as well nail down some reasons for consciously holding some books as yes, more important, than other books.

  4. Patrick,
    I generally agree with Pennington’s views that the Gospels provide the hermeneutical footing for ensuing NT material (yet, there are places where we would agree that the reverse is true). However, this does not entail the use of “canon within canon” terminology. Historically, as far as I am aware, “canon within canon” discussions pertain to the lists of the NT and their formation, rather than being relevant to instances of hermeneutical priorities (e.g., apostolic standards, eyewitness standards; all for the formation of the NT). I am open to correction on this point. The discussion in RGW chapter 12 more appropriately concerns a hermeneutical standard rather than the standard of authoritative books. “Canon within canon” terminology is unhelpful since it equivocates the term canon (i.e. list: NTC) with the term canon (i.e. prioritizing hermeneutical principle: PHP). The phrase thus commits the fallacy of definitional equivocation and unintentionally misleads readers to consider an entirely different argument. As long as this difference in terminology is made clear, I have no disagreements with Pennington’s approach. I have profited greatly from his classes and continue to do so; his book is also an excellent resource. As a caveat, I believe that Pennington does hold to such a distinction through our classroom interactions. The distinction is just not as clear in the book…
    On this note, there are many “canons” (i.e. PHP) that exist outside the NT canon (list) and are appropriately used for interpreting our collection of books (i.e. NTC). Identifying verbal agreement, and selecting their grammatical subjects, is a syntactic and linguistic practice (“canon”) that we must import into NT interpretation. So is the “canon” of reading from the left to the right. It is not learned through biblical exposure, but assumed as a necessary external category for interpretation. In the name of consistency, would we call these practices “canons outside the canon” in the same way Pennington uses his terminology in RGW? Really, all we would be doing here is further equivocating on the term “canon.”


    • Matt

      I think I agree with you that the term is somewhat confusing whether you are right about the historical use or not.

      The question still remains of the principle of prioritizing the gospels (or providing the hermeneutical footing) which you seem to agree with, and what to call this exactly.

    • “Historically, as far as I am aware, ‘canon within canon’ discussions pertain to the lists of the NT and their formation, rather than being relevant to instances of hermeneutical priorities (e.g., apostolic standards, eyewitness standards; all for the formation of the NT). I am open to correction on this point.”

      “Canon-within-the-canon” discussions in contemporary context have less to due with canonical studies proper (i.e. Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited), and more to do with the relative interpretational authority granted to certain sections of Scripture within its overall hierarchy of authority. For a critical evaluation, see Carson’s article (

      In my opinion, Pennington’s position is rhetorically forceful, but not hermeneutically controversial. If we read the NT as authoritatively interpreting the OT (fulfilling ceremonial law practices, etc.) then we have a ‘canon within a canon’ in Pennington’s sense of the term. While the term has primarily (maybe exclusively?) been used derogatorily, he has adopted it as a way of attempting to make interpreters aware of our own fundamental pre-interpretational commitments (see John Frame’s DKG Ch. 5, esp. pp. 137-9). Heiko Obermann has done similar work regarding the relation of “tradition” and Scripture (see his Dawn of the Reformation, Ch. 12).

      It’s those who think they have no traditions (or no canons-within-a-canon) who are the most dangerously unaware of themselves…

      Finally, Pennington’s thesis that the Gospels should then be our conscious choice for a canon-within-a-canon (as opposed to the all-too-common unconscious Paulinism) is an excellent idea, and comports quite nicely with Paul’s own assertions regarding the proto-regula fidei (Gal 1:6-9)…

  5. Hey brothers, a dumb Aussie with thoughts here.

    I’m not sure that the ‘canon within a canon’ language is at all helpful. Nor am I convinced that developing one is unavoidable for an individual.

    Of course we will build hermeneutical and biblical theological frameworks to aid us in interpreting Scripture. But surely we do this as an exercise in systematising the hermeneutic we observe in Scripture rather than the imprecise language of “book x interprets book y”. It is then this distilled set of principles, not a single paradigm from one book, that we apply in our reading of texts and of course review in the light of those texts.

    The language seems not to accurately describe the nature of the issue, IMHO.

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