Response Magizine Online Logo : Seattle Pacific University

Response Spring 2007

From the President



Books, Film, & Music



My Response

Letters to the Editor

From the Editor

Response onScreen



Response Home

Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features
"Multifaceted" continued

Robert Wall
Robert Wall: "There is no other sacred text necessary."

The Bible as Canon

By Robert Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies

One of the most important metaphors that Christians use when speaking of their Bible is “canon.” In antiquity, kanon referred to a thick blade of grass that grew along marshes and was harvested for use in measuring cloth or lumber accurately and consistently. Over time, “canon” was used by believers in reference to those things that measured their faith accurately and consistently from congregation to congregation, from age to age — a canon of accepted beliefs, of councilor decisions, of religious practices, of spiritual leaders. The teachers of the ancient church naturally used “canon” when speaking about the Bible as a “thick blade” of sacred texts that measured the fidelity of a congregation’s theological understanding.

Today, canon is used to affirm the authority of the Bible’s final literary or “canonical” form: the complement of Old Testament and New Testament books as presently received, which, when carefully interpreted and faithfully used, articulates God’s “living and active word … able to judge the thoughts and intentions” of God’s people (Hebrews 4:12).

This conception of the Bible’s authority is aptly illustrated by the history of its formation. Understood historically, Israel’s Scripture (Tanakh) came into the church with Jesus (Matthew 5: 17–18). The Greek translation of the Tanakh, called the Septuagint, was the Bible for most early Christians and eventually became the church’s Old Testament. It is quoted as Scripture throughout the New Testament. The Hebrew Tanakh, which is the text behind most modern translations of the Old Testament, came to the church from Judaism centuries later.

The story of the New Testament’s formation within the ancient church is plotted over several centuries and does not conclude until the fifth century. Writings were selected and gathered into collections of similar literary genre or use, and then finally fitted together to form a coherent whole recognized by the church as “canonical.”

Scholars continue to debate why certain books were admitted into the biblical canon while other books — even those generally acknowledged by the church’s teachers as “scripture” — were left out. The principal criterion of selection, appraised by the whole church, is the evident usefulness of a sacred text for the “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16b) of Christians. Not every text, even those written by the Lord’s apostles, met this criterion; only those whose content and spiritual effect agreed with Jesus, the incarnate Word, were considered canonical.

Understood theologically, Christians believe the canonical process unfolded under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, who continues to guide the community’s formation on behalf of its departed but risen Lord. The church merely recognizes those texts the living Jesus selected as “canonical” to mediate his instruction of the way, truth, and life of God to his current disciples (John 14:5–6). This core belief about the Bible underwrites its authority among Christians who turn to its instruction eager to hear God’s word from Jesus, the incarnate Word, by the inspiration of the Spirit.

The church does not regard its biblical canon to be a loose collection of writings from which a believer may pick and choose to study one sacred text in isolation from the others. The Old Testament and New Testament form a self-contained and singular whole. The ancient rubrics, “old” and “new,” while problematic, imply Scripture’s integral wholeness. There is no other sacred text necessary beyond this canon list, which includes “old” and “new” witnesses to God’s gospel.

Moreover, the different collections of individual writings, which were fitted together in a specific order during the canonical process, should be read sequentially as the most effective articulation of the biblical word. If we believe that every biblical text is selected by the living Jesus and inspired by God’s Spirit for our theological understanding, their literary and theological diversity is reason for celebration, not disputation. Not only is it impossible to reduce or absolutize the importance of any one part within the whole canon, but the faithful reader is also obliged to relate the Bible’s diverse witnesses together in a way that facilitates mutually informing and self-correcting conversations between them. Only then can the church’s understanding of God be fully illumined.

Since the Bible was made complete over time in recognition that spiritual benefit comes from the actual use of sacred books, we conclude that a canon becomes the Canon only by persistent practice. Only when Scripture is faithfully used by a congregation of saints — time and time again — will these precious texts become by inspiration of God’s Spirit a “ruler” that measures, a “list” that fixes, and an “authority” that upholds the community’s understanding of the gospel’s truth.

Back to Story | Back | Next Page 4 of 5

Back to the top
Back to Features Home

Department Highlights

from the president
Embracing the Christian Story
SPU President Philip Eaton asks what would happen if the Bible were at the center of the learning enterprise.

Destination: Asia
SPU President Philip Eaton joined a historic delegation of U.S. university presidents that visited Asia.

Coffee as Change Agent?
Pura Vida employees, including several SPU alumni, engage the culture using a social-venture business model.

books, film, & music
Dark Alphabet
Jennifer Maier, poet and SPU associate professor of English, receives a literary award for her first book.

National Tournament Returns
For the first time in 10 years, SPU hosts the USA Gymnastics Women's Collegiate Championship.

my response
Undone by the Word
Response writer Kathy Henning shares her journey to know the Bible better.

Response art
Pink Emperors
Class of 1973 alumna Jill Ingram introduces Response readers to “Pink Emperors.”