Canonical Interpretation–Reading the Parts in Light of the Whole

Posted: October 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

Walking into a movie late is something that really irritates me. I love to get to a film early, grab snacks, get a good seat, and watch the previews. It is part of why I love going to the movies. From the previews to the closing credits, I feel more deeply when I get the whole movie-going experience. I feel so strongly about this that if I walk into a theater and the previews are over, and the movie is just starting, I feel that I have missed something significant and would rather forfeit my ticket and come back another day.

Feeling this way means that if I am going to be significantly late for a movie then I would probably not pay the money to get inside in the first place. I’d save the $15 and come back again some other time. I am guessing that I am not alone here. There are probably few people who want to miss the first twenty minutes of a movie and then jump in. It doesn’t feel right and you miss important stuff. Character development, story background, etc., are all important as you follow the story-line of the film. Missing the earliest parts only makes it harder to follow the show. And if you are not following the show, if the story isn’t making sense at certain points, then it makes it difficult to enjoy. This is true whether you are sitting in a movie theater, on your couch watching a television show, or by the fire reading a book. Jumping into a story mid way through usually does not work out very well.

Reading the Bible is similar. Although I wouldn’t tell someone they have to start in Genesis and read straight through Revelation, without ever getting out-of-order (though that is certainly helpful), I would say that knowing the overarching storyline of the Bible is essential to understanding the various sections. If you start reading in Leviticus and see a picture of bloody sacrifices and have no knowledge of human sin that has offended a holy God, then it is difficult to make sense of the story. Having knowledge of the meta-narrative helps one read the mini-narratives more correctly. To put this succinctly we could say that we interpret the parts in light of the whole. Thus, this is what I mean in this post by Canonical Interpretation: making sure that you are not reading (and interpreting) the middle of the story without reference to the rest of the story.

A basic hermeneutical principle is to interpret the Bible contextually. That is, when you come to a verse you deal with that verse in its historical and grammatical context. You let the surrounding verses, paragraphs, and chapters, along with its historical setting, help guide the interpretation of an individual verse. Canonical interpretation adds to this by saying that any verse not only has a historical and grammatical context, but also a canonical context. Simply put, each verse, paragraph, chapter, and book of the Bible lands within the larger canon of Scripture. Asking where in the canon, or where in the storyline of the Scripture, a passage falls helps us to read the Bible rightly and more fully.

J.I. Packer helps us understand Canonical Interpretation in the following paragraph.

“Since all sixty-six books come ultimately from the mind of our self-revealing God, they should be read not just as separate items (though obviously one must start by doing that), but also as parts of a whole. They must be appreciated not only in their particular individuality of genre and style, but also as a coherent, internally connected organism of teaching. This, after all (and here I throw down the gauntlet to some of my academic peers), is what examination shows them to be. It is fashionable these days for Scripture scholars to look for substantive differences of conviction between biblical writers, but this is in my view an inquiry as shallow and stultifying as it is unfruitful. Much more significant is the truly amazing unity of viewpoint, doctrine, and vision that this heterogeneous library of occasional writings, put together by more than forty writers over more than a millennium, displays. The old way of stating the principle that the internal coherence of Scripture should be a heuristic maxim for interpreters was to require that the analogy of Scripture be observed. This is the requirement which the twentieth Anglican Article enforces when it says that the church may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” The modern way of expressing the point is to require that interpretation be canonical, each passage being interpreted kerygmatically and normatively as part of the whole body of God’s revealed instruction. Accepting this requirement, I infer from it the way in which theology should seek to be systematic: not by trying to go behind or beyond what the texts affirm (the common caricature of systematic theology), but by making clear the links between items in the whole compendium of biblical thought.” (J. I. Packer, “In Quest of Canonical Interpretation,” an online article accessed on August 7, 2007, at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=7.)

Packer is right. It is truly significant and amazing to see the “unity of viewpoint, doctrine, and vision” in the Bible. There is a story that runs through the pages of Scripture that holds it all together. Theologians have tried for centuries to identify the center of this story and no doubt many more will attempt to do the same. What is clear, however, is that there is a unity to the Bible. When you read the parts in light of the whole there are connections that are clearer and passages that seem to stand alone are found to fit in nicely to the grand sweep of the biblical record.

For instance, read Matthew 4:1-4 and Deuteronomy 8:1-10. Did you notice all the similarities in the those stories between the people of Israel, their wilderness experience, and Jesus (the true Israel!) and his “wilderness” experience? Did you see all those connections (of course you don’t if you didn’t go back and read…slowly)? They are amazing. Israel is wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they are hungry, being tested, receiving the Lord’s discipline as a ‘son’, etc. And Jesus? Well, he is in the wilderness for forty days, is tempted with food (hunger and testing), is the Son of God, etc. And what is even more significant, as Israel failed to be true to their God, the true Israel (Jesus) will not fail. Indeed, he never fails. Jesus succeeds where Adam, and the later people of Israel, all failed. Jesus perfectly obeys the Father, then goes to the cross as a sinless man to pay the debt of Adam and Israel’s and yours and my failures!

That last paragraph rolled out of an exultant heart! So many things to see. So many things to savor. And it is there for us all to find if we just dig. Read your Bible as one meta-story. Labor to see how each text fits into the larger canonical text. And let a whole world of biblical connections set you on fire.

There have been a few pastors/scholars who have helped me do this. First, Russell Moore preaches Jesus from every text in the Old Testament and was my first introduction to this type of canonical approach to interpreting the Bible. Second, Jason DeRouchie is my OT professor and I am currently his teaching assistant. His teaching from the OT is a model of what I am calling canonical interpretation. Third, and lastly, is Jim Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton’s book God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment  has been a big help. I am still wrestling with what he calls the center of biblical theology, but his work has spurred me on. If you can get your hands on resources from these men, do it. They will be huge helps in reading the Bible and doing canonical interpretation.

May God enrich your study of the Bible as you read it as one grand story in which you have a small, but significant part.

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