In a previous entry I discussed the inspiration of the Bible in response to the Together for the Gospel statement, Article I. Since I disagreed almost entirely with that article, and Article II also deals with the Bible, it is no surprise that I find much to disagree with in this second statement as well.
Article II says:
We affirm that the authority and sufficiency of Scripture extends to the entire Bible, and therefore that the Bible is our final authority for all doctrine and practice.
We deny that any portion of the Bible is to be used in an effort to deny the truthfulness or trustworthiness of any other portion. We further deny any effort to identify a canon within the canon or, for example, to set the words of Jesus against the writings of Paul.
I agree that the authority and sufficiency (whatever that means) of scripture extends to all of scripture, but for reasons I have previously stated, I do not agree that the Bible is our sole source of doctrine. The key to this article, however, comes in the denials, which show that it is intended to respond to the idea of a “personal canon” or a “canon within a canon.” Now I think the notion of a “personal canon” is logically questionable. A “canon” is a set of writings held by a community to be authoritative in some formal sense, such as church law. Thus a “personal canon” can be held to be oxymoronic. But there is a very practical point that is intended by the term; individuals build their spiritual life with different emphases on different portions of the scripture.
As an example, other than the gospels, which I regard as central, I spend more time on the average reading the Pentateuch from the Old Testament and the general epistles, especially Hebrews from the New Testament. My wife tends to read more of the Psalms, some prophets, and her New testament reading other than the gospels generally comes from Paul’s less theological letters such as 1 & 2 Corinthians. But neither of us would deny that what the other is reading is inspired. This is a sort of “practical” canon within a canon.
But I agree with the statement here to the extent that someone who defines a separate canon while denying the inspiration of other writings separates himself to some extent from the community. When the “canon within a canon” becomes more than a practical choice for my own spiritual walk and I start denigrating the authority of other scriptures for other people, then there is a cause for concern.
But setting the words of Jesus against the words of Paul is another matter. First, there is the simple point that God chose to give the scriptures through different writers at different times and in different places. There is evidence of these differences in the writings. I believe a greater danger is the homogenizing of these differences that God put into scripture. It is not honoring scripture, or the God of scripture, to pretend that it is not constructed the way it is.
But more importantly, this phrase is a code-word for those who build a theology out of Paul’s writings and use it as a basis to ignore the words of Jesus. Jesus talks about holiness of life and obeying the law; Paul speaks against the law. It is essential to their theology to keep people from setting the words of Jesus against their interpretation of Paul. It is common in discussion or in theological writings for them to use the words of Jesus and Paul equally because both, they say, are inspired.
But to truly honor scripture, one must note that Paul’s words were written to a different audience than were those of Jesus. If one takes the differences seriously, then one will have to deal with what Jesus says brings salvation, and what Paul says brings salvation. One will need to deal with issues of behavior and holiness. When you homogenize scripture, on the grounds that it all comes from God, you immediately lose these nuances, and will form a theology that may be more systematic, but is less faithful to the experience of God reflected in scripture.
In addition, those who form theology from Paul in this way tend to form their theology largely from the more theological books of Romans and Galatians, and particularly from the parts where Paul expresses his theological foundation. But salvation is also discussed in 1 Corinthians, with much less theology and much more practical application, and in both Romans and Galatians, when Paul gets down to application, he sounds much more like Jesus. One possibility that must be examined here is that modern readers have misunderstood Paul’s basic theology and its application, and may need to check their application against Paul’s.
For example, the conclusion of some that one can be saved without the fruit of faith is clearly challenged starting with Galatians 5. Theologians have found many ways to work around this, but all of these ignore some aspect of the text. (I apologize for making broad statements with little support, but I’m trying to work through this in a reasonable amount of time. I have discussed a good deal of this material in my essay A Fruitful Faith.)
Thus while I have some agreement on the point of a canon within a canon, I must reject what I believe is the real thrust of this statement. One cannot simply combine texts from Jesus, Paul, and other writers on the basis that all come from God. One must understand the overall view of each one and then see how they mesh. One must not limit what Jesus can say based on what he must be saying because of some theological principle gleaned from Paul.
Let me also repeat one last time: If you are a Christian who believes the incarnation, you must logically believe that Jesus is more important than any other person, whether a writer of scripture or not. Jesus is central.