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Canon & Ministry: How Scripture Connects with Christ and Church

“Yes,” you might say to my rambling argument about the critical importance of Scriptural shape for every ministry, “but isn’t Jesus more important than the Bible to Christian ministry?” Yes, but that is the point.

What makes canon so significant to the pastoral vocation is its role, as Luther fondly stated, as the cradle of the Christ. To allow Miroslav Volf to elaborate, “At the center of Christian theology and Christian life in general is Jesus Christ, God’s self-utterance to humanity, to use a phrase current a generation ago. The Bible is the primary and critical link to all subsequent generations to Jesus Christ. For Christians, Jesus is the content of the Bible, and just for that reason the Bible is the site of God’s self-revelation.”1 God is made known in Jesus, and Jesus is made known in canon. The minister-theologian is the instrument of “making known,” the mysterious incarnation of Canon in the community.

Making Christ Known to His Church

Neither millennia of history, centuries of philosophical movements, nor decades of contemporary research have in any way diminished the function of Canon as the purveyor of Christ’s person to the church and thereby the world. This conclusion can be heard from a variety of Christian perspectives.

Perhaps it is Paul who first elaborates on his role in the great dissemination of God’s glory through Christ, through the message preached, and through the church that hears it: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8-10).

It is no surprise then that James Dunn, a modern Pauline scholar, comes to the same sort of conclusion: “the canon of the New Testament still has a continuing function in that the New Testament in all its diversity still bears consistent testimony to the unifying center. Its unity canonizes Jesus-the-man-now-exalted as the canon within the canon.”2 The church must continue to focus on her text because the text continues to focus on the church’s Christ. He is both the target and the method of Biblical revelation. Rowan Williams states, “Jesus, living, dying, raised from the dead, breathing his Spirit on his Church – it is in his light that you read the rest of the Bible.”3

The Christ gives the church its identity, and the canon mediates the reception of that identity. It is, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, “the church’s working bibliography”: “Whatever else is read and studied in private, these writings are used by the assembly as such for debating and defining its identity.”4 The minister is the conduit by which Christ, first mediated by canon, is again mediated to the community.

All of Canon Is Canon

That being said, it should not be assumed that the minister’s role is to determine what parts of canon best represent the Christ. That’s not canon-based ministry. That is agenda-driven manipulation.

Because canon by definition is all of Canon – no part being omitted by prior obligation – all of Canon participates in giving to the church its identity and to the minister his pastoral vocation. Johnson warns, “Christians should learn to read the canon of the New Testament, not in the search for an essential core or purified canon within the canon, not within the frame of a single abstract principle, but in a living conversation with all the writings in their diversity and divergence.”5

Dunn concurs, writing, “If ‘canon’ is to remain meaningful it must be the whole New Testament canon, each must avoid confusing their own tradition’s interpretation of the New Testament with the New Testament itself, of confusing their own canon within the canon with the canon proper.”6

While Christ is the center of Canon, all of Canon speaks to that center. No part of Canon may be dismissed as not pertaining to its center. If a passage does not seem to revolve around Christ, then either the Christ or the passage in question has not been theologically understood.

What of the Hebrew Scriptures?

It is of interest that both Dunn and Johnson make their sweeping statements about canon with the limited application to that which comprises the New Testament. This may not have been an intentional restriction, but it represents an all too common conclusion. Barth would state, “Theology becomes evangelical theology only when the God of the Gospel encounters it in the mirror and echo of the prophetic and apostolic word.”7 Surely the Law and the Prophets cannot be omitted from this prophetic word, as their call for justice speaks of and by Christ as much as any New Testament text.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Hebrew canon categorized its history as prophecy. It realized early on the ethical and moral dimension of storytelling. As Williams states, “The Bible is not intended to be a mere chronicle of past events, but a living communication from God, telling us now what we need to know for our salvation.”8 To hear a story is to be morally responsible for it. Hebrew canon is part of that story that conveys the Christ and, therefore, must not be excluded from informing and shaping pastoral theology.

Eugene Peterson brings the pastoral function of the Hebrew Scriptures to the forefront in his writings. He especially emphasizes the often overlooked writings that specifically shaped Jewish communities. “The scrolls were the applied wisdom of the pastoral office to a people who had come together to pay attention to their life together with God. Song of Songs was read at Passover, Ruth at Pentecost, Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab, Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles, and Esther at Purim.”9 These texts have been shaping community identities around God for centuries. In contrast, he observes that modern texts pale in comparison: “When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth. … The present-day healing and helping disciplines … are designed by a people without roots in an age without purpose for a people without God.”10 The Hebrew Scriptures are not a sidelight to ministry, but are part of the indispensable canon that has from ancient eras shaped lives around God.

Furthermore, the function of Old Testament canon in Israel helps to inform the role of canon in the Christian community. The canon served to identify the God of the Exodus and thereby give to Israel the identity and calling described at Sinai. Likewise, Ferguson observes, the New Testament serves to identify the God of the Resurrection proclaimed at Pentecost: “The preaching of the gospel provides the connection between the once for all action of God at the cross and the continuing human appropriation of salvation. … The victory accomplished in the Christ-event must be communicated.”11  As the Exodus is the center of Old Testament theology, so the Christ-event is the center of New Testament theology. Each Canon individually and the combined Canon collectively works around these hubs. Neither story may be dismissed if Christ is to be preached.

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