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Canon & Ministry: How Scripture Shapes Theology and Its Spokesmen

An act may not be truly ministry merely because the doer of the act wishes it to be so. While Christian ministry is not less than imaginative, it is not merely imagined. It is rooted and grounded in the reality created by the texts that give life to all kingdom work. To quote Eugene Peterson once more in this series, “Pastoral work properly originates, as does all Christian ministry, in the Biblical sources.”1 Without Canon, ministry is a hollow label, a broadened phylactery. The task becomes a business function like manager or chief executive officer. With Canon, the minister is called, shaped, and commissioned to his task.

Pastoral vocation begins with the Biblical text and a high regard for that text. The calling requires and is the outworking of “a hermeneutic of respect rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion.”2 The text is given a privileged place in heart and mind from the outset, unlike its role in the Academy. Classical liberal theology and biblical criticism demoted the canon from sacred page to historical artifact, a data point to be criticized and sorted, cataloged and binned. While the minister has much to learn from the Academy and the various tools of biblical criticism, ultimately his relationship to the text is not the same as that of the professor. The Canon is a holy relic rather than a mundane artifact, a living oracle rather than a cataloged text.

The minister as the theologian of the local community is bound to the same reverence that every theologian must have if his work is to be of service to the kingdom. To express this thought, I will borrow from the words of two influential theologians: Karl Barth and Miroslav Volf.

Karl Barth explains this point in considerable detail. He grants theology no special access to God or the Christ, except in as much as it passes through canon: “[Theology’s] relationship to God’s Word cannot be compared to the position of the biblical witnesses because it can know the Word of God only at second hand, only in the mirror and echo of the biblical witness.”3 In choosing the metaphors of “mirror and echo,” Barth hints at the thesis of this series of articles, that theology generally and, therefore, pastoral theology specifically, exists as a mediator, a conveyor of another light or sound but not its source.

Having a role secondary to Canon and derived from it, theology cannot define itself or even set its own guidelines. For Barth, theology cannot be above or even equal to the biblical witness, but instead

theology has … its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures. While it is aware of all their human and conditioned character, it still knows and considers that the writings with which it deals are holy writings. These writing are selected and separated; they deserve and demand respect and attention of an extraordinary order, since they have a direct relationship to God’s work and word. … The biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.4

No avenue of theological endeavor, especially that of ministers, is free from correction from the text that gives it birth and virtue.

Volf would agree with this identification of theology as an echo of Canon: “In my judgment, Scripture is an indispensable and critical source of theological reflection because it is the primary site of God’s self-revelation.”5 Speaking himself as a systematic theologian, he writes, “for systematic theology to abandon the Bible is for it to cut off the branch on which it is sitting. All Christian theology that concerns the present – call it ‘systematic,’ dogmatic,’ ‘constructive,’ or something else – must ultimately draw from the deep well of Scripture.”6 He calls the Bible “the document that lies at the heart of the life of Christian communities, the texts on which these communities depend for existence, identity, and vitality.”7 Without the Bible, Volf will go on to state, “The result will be a culturally and socially barren theology that hovers above concrete communities of faith – or maybe falls to the ground beside them – unable to shape either these communities or the wider culture.”

What is seen in these thoughts is the dependence of Church on Canon and the function of the theologian (and, therefore, the minister) to live out the vocation created by – not independent of – this dependence.

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