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.