The Canon Within the Canon

Back in seminary we often heard concerns about the “canon within the canon,” which was really just a way of saying that preachers have a tendency to preach from their favorite parts of scripture rather than from the whole. Good preachers, we were told, are careful to present the entirety of the scriptures to their congregations. This is one reason that some champion the lectionary – it pushes us into parts of scripture that we might neglect if left to our own devices.

I have come to believe that these concerns are greatly overblown. Indeed, I would argue that they lead us in the wrong direction. As a pastor, my job is to mold my people, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, into the image of Jesus Christ. When this becomes the goal of preaching, the canon within the canon becomes an important but secondary concern.

Let’s put this another way. If a new Christian asks me what they should be reading in the Bible, should I send them to the Gospels or Leviticus? I suspect that most of us would affirm that the Gospels are the better reading assignment. This is not because Leviticus is unimportant. As part of the Torah, it most certainly is! Rather, we would point the new Christian to the Gospels because we reflexively know that the Gospels are more central to their formation. After all, if they are to become like Jesus, they probably need to know who Jesus is! I could make a similar argument for sending them to Romans next. How very important it is that they understand God’s grace and its activity in their lives! Of course, we’ll get to Leviticus, but we don’t start there. When it comes to formation, we prioritize certain parts of scripture, which means that we embrace a canon within the canon.

If this is true of personal devotion, why would it not also be true of preaching? We become concerned about a canon within the canon when the Bible becomes an end in itself. But what if the Bible is better understood as a means to another end? As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 puts it: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV) According to this view, scripture is a tool to be employed in the formation of God’s people, and the canon within the canon becomes a secondary concern. Indeed, when seen from this angle, strong arguments can be made for a canon within the canon, because certain parts of scripture are more necessary to the formation of God’s people.

This is not to say that preachers can lazily circle around their favorite parts of scripture. That kind of canon within a canon is unfaithful apathy. It is to say that preachers should feel free, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, to preach for formation rather than completion. When we do so, I suspect that we’ll find ourselves traveling well-worn roads again and again. Rather than feeling guilty for it, why not embrace this reality? After all, the question we will be asked when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ will not be whether we gave all parts of the Bible equal weight. No, it will be about the quality of our congregations. Did we help them know God? Did we form them well? When these questions drive our ministries our preaching takes on a new significance.

Let’s preach for formation and stop apologizing for it.

Published by Mike Smith

A disciple of Jesus who likes to write about stuff.

2 thoughts on “The Canon Within the Canon

  1. I like the point you’re making about preaching for formation. I do, though, have a question. In your paragraph on Leviticus, you make the point that a new Christian wouldn’t just be blindly sent to Leviticus, and I agree. I think a new Christians certainly read Leviticus, with guidance. I agree that the starting point should be the Gospels (and then I’d go with Ephesians). However, are Sunday morning sermons restricted to scriptures new believers would understand? I don’t think you’re saying that, but it is indirectly implied.

    I agree that with the responsibility of faith formation, pastors should not be restricted by the lectionary. I do not agree that the “canon within the canon” is not a problem. I think it very much is a problem, just not one solved by strict adherence to the lectionary. I recommend pastors keep detailed accounts of their preaching. If you track how many times you preach from Matthew or Mark over a 2-3 year period, you can then look and see that, “Oh, my church has heard 25 sermons from Matthw and only a few from Mark, Luke, and John, and only a couple from Paul.” That kind of statistic-keeping seems anal, but it is with a purpose:forming the church under the authority of the full witness of scripture.

    So, I agree with the end you have in mind – formation. But I insist that we have to actively guard against the canon within the canon.

    1. I didn’t mean to indirectly imply that Sunday sermons are only for good new Christians. Sunday sermons can and should address the deeper things of the faith! My intention was to point out that we instinctively function from a canon within the canon when it comes to formation. We automatically prize some sections of scripture over others. Why wouldn’t the same be true in preaching?

      In your own example, it might be argued that you sure seem to spend a lot of time in the gospels regardless of which one you are using. 25 sermons over a two-year period would come out to roughly 1/4 of your preaching! My point is that viewing preaching from the formation angle justifies spending this amount of time talking about Jesus. We who call Jesus lord probably should be spending a disproportionate amount of time with the testimonies about his life.

      At the same time, I hear and agree with your critique. I don’t mean to condone lazy preaching that just circles around my “go-to” passages. The kind of system you describe would indeed be helpful. However, I don’t think you’re saying that you want to make sure that Leviticus gets equal air time to the gospels over a lifetime of preaching. I would view your system as a great approach for ensuring that we approach the canon within the canon responsibly.

      Thanks for the reply!

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