Here is a brief reflection on the role of the canon in New Testament theology that I wrote recently for a class.

Since the beginning of what could be called the modern (i.e. historical-critical) interpretation of New Testament, most scholars have not paid much attention to the canon itself as an object of historical or theological significance. After all, the historical approach to the Bible prioritizes older documents and interprets newer documents in light of those. This allows for a the theologies represented in early Christian literature (including, but not limited to the New Testament) to fit within a story of development and plurality of Christian doctrine.  The carpenter from Nazareth clearly had a profound impact upon the communities associated with him, but each of these communities seems to have made him their own in certain ways. That the significance of Jesus was being worked out by different (but by no means wholly isolated) communities resulted in a plurality of overlapping and intersecting Christian doctrinal commitments. The role of the historian, then, is to narrate the development from the unity of the person of Jesus to the diversity of Christian perspectives upon Jesus in a way that accounts for both ends of the spectrum.

Since the canon was evolving during the first several centuries of the church, it would seem that, particularly in its ‘final form,’ the canon would not be a significant source of information for the would-be interpreter of the New Testament. Moreover, by granting the canon a priority in the interpretation of the New Testament, the interpreter is likely to be tempted to minimize the plurality of perspectives in the New Testament. This opens the interpreter up to critiques of ‘confessionalism,’ a historical bias in favor of later Christian orthodoxy. Therefore, it stands to reason that the canon is nothing more than an obstacle to the historical task. While it may give us information on third and fourth century Christian communities, it certainly does not have any unique information as canon for an understanding of the first century Christian beginnings. The historians who are skeptical of undo attention to the canon certainly have a compelling case on their side.

However, these historians are open to criticisms on a number of fronts. First, by ignoring or marginalizing the mainstream of Christianity that eventually affirmed the twenty seven documents as canon, these scholars are prone to highlight what in all likelihood were marginal and aberrant Christian beliefs as equally viable as those testified to in the canon (even with much less direct evidence). Second, by limiting the historical project to a narrative of unity progressing to diversity, these writers have precluded from possible a historical reality that at least some early Christians believed. Third, and perhaps most significantly, these historians have a different agenda than the Christian theologian. Whereas these scholars seek to subject the texts of the New Testament to the historical method in order to arrive at the reality (or the nearest possible approximation thereof) behind the text, the Christian theological interpretation of the New Testament seeks to articulate the theology in these documents precisely as Christian theology.

The canon on this alternative account is a witness to the reconciling work of God in Christ. As such, the canon is an object of faith insofar as it is held to be the book of the church—the book through which God speaks to the church and the book through which the church returns praise to God. The church makes the canon. Likewise, the canon makes the church. If theology is to be done as Christian theology (and therefore as ecclesiological theology), then it can only read the Bible as the church’s Bible, and therefore in light of the whole canon. As Detrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Bible is after all nothing other than the book of the church. It is this in its very essence or it is nothing.”1

This is not to say that the historical study of the New Testament has not yielded fruitful and important results. Indeed, it has and it should not be abandoned. However, the historical cataloguing of the beliefs and practices of the New Testament is not a proper theology. It is, as Karl Barth said of commentaries, the first step toward such theology, but not theology as such.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, eds. Martin Rütter, Ilse Tödt, and John W. de Grunchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 22. BACK