Thursday, June 7, 2007

Canon - some personal thoughts

John Hobbins uses the online resources he speaks of in this essay on canon. Chris Heard recently made a stab at defining words for naming the 'traditional' canon of Old and New - whether one might agree or not. Both Chris Heard and Doug Chaplin of Droitwich Spa (C of E) have commented on John's first post.

What follows are some of my personal thoughts. First - as to a name for the traditional Christian canon: I like 'old'. Old is not a negative word. The old wine is good - and it is well known today in the praises in Synagogue on Shabbat. Secondly, these are not arbitrary titles. The New is defined in the Old (Jeremiah 31) and self-named in the New (Hebrews 8:13) implying an Old. So Old and New are not inventions of the medieval or the post modern world. But perhaps two is too small a number for managing complexity: so one could speak of the Law, the Prophets, the Writings and the New Testament. But where do those history and story books fit? - ah the former and the latter prophets of course. And what is a prophet, anyway? And then there is the division by historical sweep and there are the odd-ball prophets like Jonah (in the Writings) and the pseudipigraphal Daniel. And what do we do about the order of presentation: Jewish ending with my least favorite books, Chronicles, or Greek, ending with Malachi, and begging for more? And one has to be careful not to oversimplify Law - it is such a host of items, all of provocative interest. Just what parts of the Law are obsolete (Hebrews 8:7) ? Or allegorical (Acts 10-11)? Or which we have died to (Romans 7)? Or which are gnats and camels (Matthew 23:24)? Two maybe is not such a bad start after all.

I must admit I like the canon I think I have. And I am not sure I could define it. I have my favorites - Psalms, Leviticus, bits of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, the Song, Jonah, large chunks of Isaiah, bits of Jeremiah, and in the NT - Romans, John, Hebrews. I am grateful that the forest is large and for a late starter, too large, but I am also grateful that it has a border. I am grateful that the trees are varied. In the time of Jesus and the 70 years following, people were happy to cite from Greek or Hebrew versions even if they had the parallels 'wrong' and the texts 'out of context'. Their 'versions' were significantly different from the differing versions of today. Differing translations today think they are 'versions' in English of the same 'original' texts. In Jesus' day, there were differing Hebrew versions of the same books - a longer Jeremiah, a Samaritan version, a Hebrew version underlying the Septuagint that is different from the 'received' text. In other words, if there was an 'original' text, it was already somewhat varied 2000 years ago. (Or we must redefine what we thought we meant by 'original'.)

I have of course met people who consider that because the 'Scriptures' (by this they mean the Protestant 66 books with the OT ending at Malachi) are 'God-breathed', therefore that there must have been an original perfect version (round about the 6th century CE or so - whenever Revelation 'made it' in). Why should 'God-breathed' mean anything of the sort? When God breathes the word into us, recrafting us, drawing us into his chamber, re-imaging us in his image, re-forming our holy stubborn power using a revealed pattern of gift, invitation, trouble, and hope, tribulation, tribunal, and transfiguration, we do not ask for any other holiness than the one that is reflected in our covenant dialogue. The germ of the dialogue is in the canon. The recorded dialogue and the testimony of the Chosen was and remains sufficient. I may disagree heartily with other hermenutics - even some canonical ones, especially if I can label them rigid, authoritarian, or cerebral in their demands, but these may be perfectly good starting points. After all, one needs something to be redeemed from. And then there's the work ahead...

I expect the germ is in other places too - in the works of the ancient Chinese, for instance. But I have one life and limited time and the calling is to this canon as exemplar, and my canon within the canon - walking by each tree as I am able, not another.

And I like the border, or to switch metaphors, the feel of the boat. The various apocrypha are not ballast, but the waves through which the boat passes. They help see the boat in its context, but they are not the boat. I don't know how I know this, but it has something to do with sufficiency and necessity. I don't find much new with Thomas, for example. It looks to me like copies of bits and pieces of what I already had. It does not appear to have the profound ballasted structure of the other pieces of the boat. The various other gospels and legends are cute and have some cute settings (Tchaikovsky - The Crown of Thorns) but they don't fill gaps. The New Testament is lacking in official Targums and canonized commentaries. I am not in favour of the open canon. And I am not in favour of systematic written understandings like confessions and definitional interpretations. There are too many crazy theories around, mid ocean shoals. And one person's confession or cult is another's prison. For freedom Christ has set you free, be stubborn then and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. There are some mists at sea - these are the various culturally biased translations - supporting slavery, or aparthied, or colonialism, or the subjugation of this and that, as if the authorities knew the rightness of the Law in advance. Stuff of life - we can all abuse power. Does a canon help or hinder?

Help - !

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