I have begun reading Brevard S. Childs’ The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. Of this book Childs himself wrote, “There were few reviews that invariably turned to a defense of the historical critical method that appeared to these reviewers to be threatened, but the substance of my New Testament proposal was seldom addressed.”  There is something exciting about revisiting the argument of a book that the “scholarly consensus” ignored.
Toward the beginning he notes five areas of “theological debate regarding canon” that were taking place when he wrote the work (1984):
(1) Diversity of perspectives within the NT. What do we do with these? How can we discuss a canon that guides the church as Scripture if there seems to be internal tension?
(2) The usefulness and necessity of a “canon within a canon”. If we think Paul gives greater insight into the gospel that James is it OK to consider Paul’s canon within the great canon to be superior? What about within the Pauline corpus? Do the so-called “authentic” epistles gain place over the so-called Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral epistles?
(3) “How much theological authority can be attributed to the canonical decisions of the early church?” Do we see the canon as having any value in the books selected and the order decided?
(4) How does this impact our view of tradition? If tradition had any role in shaping the canon is there any sense in which we can continue to affirm sola scriptura with the Reformers? Childs asks if we need to go back toward sola traditio.
(5) How should canonicity impact exegesis?
These are excellent discussion starters!  I intend on sharing here the general conclusions reached by Childs as I move through the book. At this stage here is how I would tentatively approach answering:
(1) I would let the voices stand while seeking a sort of “harmony” that derives from the tension. I have addressed this in blog post prior to this one (e.g. here and here). My “model” is a choir or orchestra. No, the sounds are not the same but together they make something greater (more truthful) than the sum of their parts.
(2) I need to think on this one further. For instance, would I see Pauline theology as normative with the rest of the canonical witness needing to conform to this center? The Gospels? I don’t know. I think we are have a subconscious “canon within a canon”, but I don’t know if we should intentionally seek one.
(3) I think the early church should be given as much authority as regards canon formation as it has been the doctrine of the Trinity or the various Christological creeds and so forth.
(4) I think there may be a way to preserve sola scriptura (not solo scriptura) using the model of a constitution. A constitution is birthed due the the decisions of a evolving nation. So the tradition of the nation at that point has its hand in the formation of a constitution as well as various amendments. Nevertheless, the constitution, once formed, stands above the nation that made it and can in return reshape her. We may see an analogy in how the church relates to Scripture.
(5) As concerns canonical impact on exegesis let me provide two approaches. First, if someone is seeking to do historical-grammatical exegesis, then no, the canon doesn’t have impact on that task which I am beginning to see as more the historian’s task than the theologians. Second, if someone is trying to do Christian theology, then yes, the canon informs our reading of the text. Intercanonical and intertextual readings take precedent over the historiographical approaches when it comes to doctrine/dogma.
I know this is a random, here-and-there post addressing some preliminary concerns to a canonical reading, but if you have your own thoughts on the situations Childs mentions, or some thoughts on any of my preliminary answers, I welcome your comments!
 Brevard S. Childs, The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus. 1.
 Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. 20-21.
Soon I would like to post an article on sola Scriptura. I sense myself shifting towards advocating the phrase prima Scriptura, which I believe is a little different.
Sola says Scripture is our only authoritative source for our beliefs and practises. Prima says Scripture is our primary authoritative source, but not sole. And I would love to think and read more about the reality of how the canon comes to us via the tradition of the church.
[As a side note: it is not solo (with an “O” at the end) that says only Scripture is authoritative. Look up any definition of sola. It means only Scripture is the authoritative source.]
@Scott: I use solo as a play on words because I think sola Scriptura has been misunderstood. Sola Scriptura does not say that tradition doesn’t have a voice (the Reformers loved Augustine), but it says the only thing that cannot be discarded as a final authority for church life and practice is the canon of Scripture. In context this should mean certain doctrine can change, bishops and popes can be seen a mislead authorities, and so forth and so on. But Scripture is where we always return.
Even those who hold to sola Scriptura use much tradition. The dialog between the canon and tradition is too dynamic to exclude tradition (think of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is a true tradition based on Scriptural principles, but for the most part off limits as a traditional view of God). So I think what you are saying about prima Scriptura is essentially what many mean by sola Scriptura. The vision of sola Scriptura that you are reacting again (a reaction I share) has been teasingly called solo Scriptura meaning it is not that Scripture alone is the final authority but rather the only authority.
I like what you have said. And I do understand that all disagree with solo. But I sense most definitions of sola use the word only with regards to authority. Just like this definition found on Wikipedia – Sola scriptura is the teaching that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all—that is, it is perspicuous and self-interpreting.
If one says Scripture is the final authority, then I think that is solid, as I think it lines up with the idea of what I am trying to communicate with prima. The two words – final and primary – seem best. We start in Scripture and, as you said, we return to [end in] Scripture. But it is not the only authoritative [or inspired] source (though people might freak out with my suggestion that there are other inspired things; but I am the nut that believes prophecy today isn’t somehow different from actual Spirit-inspired prophecy of the biblical days). And I like what you noted about tradition – the organic flow of true tradition, connected to the overall teaching of Scripture, with regards to the Trinity. Sometimes I just want to lean more towards tradition with my RC and EO family. But then I think of a couple of things that have come within ‘tradition’, and I squirm. 🙂
By the way, an interesting thread on this exact topic at Theologica.
@Scott: There are groups that may be considered solo, though even those groups function within a tradition. For example, I came out of Oneness Pentecostalism. They try to go with an approach that seems (to them) to be solo Scriptura, but there is a ton of tradition surrounding their interpretations.
I think Scripture as “final” authority is the basic idea. Where we differ from Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that we don’t give tradition as much say across as broad a spectrum and we don’t give bishops as much authority.
Dang it! I am a bishop-overseer (well, an elder, which is the same thing from a simple NT perspective). Anyways….I would have loved the authority. Maybe I can become a bloggin’ bishop that oversees a community of blogs. 🙂
@Scott: Ha! Not the bishop-overseer as pastor, but the office that evolved in the church later.
I’m a first time reader, and I’m glad I stumbled on your blog with this post. I’m finishing up a dissertation on the shape of the NT canon, and was greatly influenced by Childs. What are your thoughts on the order of the books in the canon providing a reading strategy?
@Matthew: Thanks for commenting! I hope you find our blog good for reading. I am processing Childs’ arguments about book orders. It does seem to me to be something that has shaped the church’s reading consciously or unconsciously for hundreds of years. A great example would be how often we important Johannine definitions into the Synoptics. It seems like having John at the end of the gospel order it designed to give further insight into the Christ whom the Synoptics introduced.
Also, I thought Childs’ arguments about the role of the Book of Acts and the Pastoral Epistles, as they relate to the Pauline corpus, was very convincing.
Where are you doing your dissertation?
@Brian: I’m at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I think Childs definitely has some good things to say about the NT canon order, especially in his posthumous publication, “The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul.” I’ve also been heavily influenced by Stephen Dempster, Rolf Rendtorff, and John Sailhamer’s thoughts on the importance of the order of the books in the canon. I’ve actually found them to be a bit more helpful in that area than Childs.
I’d love to chat more about it; are you working on this topic for your ThM or are you just interested in it tangentially?
@Matt: I have heard of Sailhamer (he used to teach at Western Seminary) but I have not heard of Dempster and Rendtorff. I will look up those two.
I am not focusing on this in my Th.M., though I am doing a work on intertextuality (Genesis theme/motifs in Romans w. emphasis on 8.1-25). As I have been thinking about the nature of Scripture the canonical approach has intrigued me.
Did you do a thesis before your Ph.D.? If so, was it in this line of thought or something else?
I actually didn’t do a thesis first, although I now wish I had. I’ve been enriched in my reading of Scripture in appropriating the canonical approach, and I hope it does that for you as well no matter how you choose to respond to it.
@Matthew: I am excited about reading more on it. We’ll see where it leads!
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