Canonical Method

The third fundamental component of a Christian theological method is that it ought to be canonical. This means that

it recognizes the Spirit’s inspiration of all of Christian Scripture and therefore the intertextual interrelatedness of it. This aspect also calls us to recognize the structure of the canon and its influence on interpretation of particular books and passages.

This foundation, like the others, follows on the previous ones. So, as noted in the definition above, recognizing the canonical nature of the scriptures and allowing that to dictate our interpretive practice is a direct implication of the fact that Scripture ultimately has one author, the Holy Spirit. Additionally, as we will see below, the intertextual connections and canonical shape of the Bible helps us to more clearly see how both the human and divine author testify to Christ, which points us again back to the first foundational aspect of method, its Christocentric nature.

First, a canonical method recognizes the intertextual connections between the various parts of the Bible. On the divine author’s side, the Spirit’s omniscience and sovereignty in inspiration allows and produces textual connections throughout Scripture. But we should also affirm that the human authors use an intertextual strategy throughout the Bible, beginning with Moses in the Pentateuch and continuing as each book is written. The authors of the Bible continually and explicitly quote, allude to, and echo previous parts of Scripture. So Moses quotes himself throughout the Pentateuch, Joshua 1 is textually connected to Deuteronomy 34, the Book of the Twelve (Hosea-Malachi) exhibits interlocking textual seams between the different books within it, and so on. The Old Testament grows organically through continually tying itself off to previously written parts of Scripture, and the New Testament continues this strategy by explicitly connecting itself with the entire Old Testament. So then, both from the perspective of the divine and human authors, we ought to search for and expect textual connections between the different parts of Scripture.

One final note here – this actually helps us see more clearly how the Old Testament speaks of Christ. Many times we read a story or a psalm and don’t see exactly how it is explicitly or textually about Christ. Many times, however, explicit textual connections to other parts of the Old Testament clarify how this so. My favorite (and the most controversial) example is the Song of Songs. The idea that this book is not really about Christ and the Church is so commonplace among Christians today that to say otherwise is deemed insane allegory, but I want to suggest that not only is Songs about Jesus, but it is explicitly textually so. I can’t go into all the detail needed to prove this here, but suffice it to say that the author of Songs very clearly quotes, alludes to, and echoes passages about the Davidic covenant, the Temple (specifically 1 Kings 7), eschaotological restoration (specifically Numbers 24), Garden imagery from Genesis 2, and Lady Wisdom language from Proverbs 1-9. Look at that list again – David, Temple, Garden, Restoration, Lady Wisdom. And while I can’t list them here, there are obvious and explicit textual connections to each of these – the author ties off his work textually to these highly charged, and indeed Messianic, OT themes.

Now for those who haven’t stopped reading after I broke the basic rule of evangelical hermeneutics – don’t allegorize Songs! – the second aspect of a canonical method is that it will recognize the importance of the ordering of the material both within individual books and within the canon as a whole. Not only has the Spirit authoritatively and infallibly inspired the biblical material, but it has also guided the Church in her reading of the Bible. Part of the people of God’s reception of Scripture includes ordering the books within the biblical canon. Although not an inspired task, we can nevertheless still say that it is a Spirit-illumined task, in that the Church always ought to be looking for guidance in her interpretation of the text. And make no mistake, ordering the books is an interpretation of the material. Of course, we ought to say here that the ordering of the material within a specific book (so the fact that Matthew 5-7 comes after Matthew 3-4) is inspired. But we can’t say the same about the order of the books within the canon – only that the order reflects a literary reading strategy illumined by the Spirit in the Church’s reception of the biblical material. This post is already very long, so if you are interested in why the order of the books of the Bible matters, see for instance John Sailhamer, Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, Stephen Chapman, Stephen Dempster, etc.

18 thoughts on “Canonical Method

  1. I’ve been somewhat tracking this hermeneutical discussion (and do look forward to reading your hermeneutical book), especially knowing your new creational model.

    Why does allegorical have to be non-evangelical? I understand that was a bit tongue and cheek.

    We live in a post-modern context (i.e., not modernism) but we are still the products of modernism and therefore champion linear thinking, single meaning, historical study, etc. I’ve seen it some-what come out in your posts, but do you anticipate a shift in the coming years in hermeneutical discussions?

    My $.02: With the rise and residual effect of modernism on theological study, Evangelical theology was affected. I’m finding what hermeneutics books tell me to do and what I do naturally when reading the text are two different things (possible straw-man and overgeneralization). However, when I read texts, illumined by Spirit, my mind quickly remembers other texts and wants to see fluidity in the language so that single meaning (historical-grammatical) or historical meaning doesn’t come natural to a regular reader: there is more of an emphasis on theological interpretation (not dismissing history) and spiritual formation.

    I’m finding Origen more and more helpful in this discussion. As Spurgeon has said, “certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others” (Commenting and Commentaries, 1). I’ve finding Origen’s hermeneutical descriptions what we do naturally when we read the text. (1) We don’t come to the text with a literal, single meaning of the text. Instead, we read for a theologizing correlation to other texts in scripture (similar to your canonical reading). (2) When history is discussed, we affirm history. (3) We are part of the community of faith, with the Spirit, and trust theological diversity is not fully categorically wrong as long as it is part of the “Rule of Faith.”

    • Shawn,
      You make some great points here. I am definitely not eschewing allegory – in fact, I fully support using it when done properly (see my post here I also agree that modernity has forced us into a model of interpretation that a) splits meaning and application and b) ignores the multiple referents of a text. The Bible is about Jesus, points us toward the future, and is transformative. That’s at least three aspects of meaning in every text. There’s one meaning, but it can be multifaceted.

      • Thanks Matt for the reply,

        I may not have fully revealed my concerns and question by means of your response.

        (For the sake of brevity and clarity, forgive the terse nature of this thesis/research question): Has modernism created the idea for “single meaning”? I’m also assuming I understand your “one meaning” statement. Do you mean “single meaning” when you say “one meaning?” With the rise of historical criticism, was the fundamentalist response a movement back towards the single meaning interpretation of the text.

        You say, “There’s one meaning, but it can be multifaceted.” I affirm your second clause, but did the Patristics affirm “one meaning?” Did medieval theologians affirm “one meaning?” Did Reformers affirm “one meaning?” This is an historical argument and could therefore be a logical fallacy.

        Let’s use one of your examples. You see a relationship between Christ and the church; whereas, I don’t necessarily see it as possibly explicit as you do, but I do a picture of relationships. Both interpretations are not concerned for history, per se. But are we both wrong because we did not affirm the “one meaning” of the text? Meaning is used to communicate and so I don’t want to strip meaning from natural language either.

        I went to your link: great post. And SancTified Vision is great and has been reshaping my hermeneutical views.

      • Right, by “one meaning” I don’t mean “only one point.” The fourfold method helps us here – there are different “senses” to the text, but they are all part of the one meaning (intent). Additionally, I think it’s important to link all the senses together – bad allegory happens when it’s divorced from the literal/historical/textual sense.

        And yes, modernity has messed us up in so many ways in put interpretive practice. Check out my previous three posts, I think I mention that in each.

      • Matt,

        For those who live in the vicinity of the other side of the country and can’t take your class, I’d love to see a blog post focused solely on applying canonical methodology to Song of Songs. I’ve recently read James Hamilton Jr.’s article in the WTJ as well as Sailhamer’s brief comments on the topic in both his NIV Bible commentary and Introduction to the OT. It seems your take may differ somewhat from them if I am reading you rightly though, so I’d love to see you flesh out your perspective on it and connect the dots between Songs and the texts you mentioned. If that’s a bit too much to ask, is there another resource you could point to in line with what you are getting at?

      • Jonathan, thanks for the comment – unfortunately I don’t know of any resources. My own lectures are based off of lecture notes from Dr. Bob Cole, formerly of SEBTS. I’m waiting for someone to write a book on that sort of reading, but so far I don’t know of any resources in writing that spell out all the intertextual connections that exist in Songs.

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  11. Thanks for the reply Matt. I guess in light of your response I am waiting for that book to be written too (perhaps you are a candidate for such a job?). I still contend that a truncated version would make a great blog post though! Grace and Peace.

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