Matthew Emerson on the Biblical Canon, Hermeneutics, and Auburn Football

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Matthew Emerson of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss developing interests in scholarship (2:40), the importance of the biblical canon’s order and shape (9:55), theological method and allegory (18:00), how Jesus influences and clarifies OT exegesis (31:35), Trinitarian theology and method (33:35), renewing Baptist theology (44:33), the legitimacy of Auburn’s football championships (49:40), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Old Testament Echoes of Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is like the story of Joseph in prison in the book of Genesis: what Jesus’s brothers and the Gentile authorities meant for evil, God meant for good.

Holy Saturday is like the crossing of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus: Jesus goes before his people through the waters of death, leading them out of bondage and into new life.

Holy Saturday is like the scapegoat in the book of Leviticus: having made atonement for sin at the cross, Jesus also goes outside the camp and into the darkness of Sheol for us and before us.

Holy Saturday is like the the wilderness wanderings in Numbers: like the Spirit led Israel through the trackless wilderness, so Jesus leads us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Holy Saturday is like Deuteronomy: as Israel looked backward at the Exodus and forward to the Conquest, so the descent reminds us of what Jesus has already done to defeat God’s enemies at the cross and looks forward to his final victory in the resurrection.

Holy Saturday is like the Conquest in the book of Joshua: Jesus drives out the giants in the land of the dead, Death and Hades, so that they can no longer tempt and test God’s people.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Judges: Jesus breaks the teeth of our oppressors so that his people have rest, not for 40 or 80 years, but for eternity.

Holy Saturday is like the story of the Ark in the temple of Dagon in Samuel: having been taken by the enemy into the stronghold of the enemy, Jesus destroys the strongman and liberates his people from oppression.

Holy Saturday is like Elijah on Mt. Carmel in Kings: Jesus goes to the throne of the enemy and, through seemingly foolish means, shows that Death has no power; only YHWH-in-the-flesh does.

Holy Saturday is the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Holy Saturday begins the reversal of the judgment of decreation in Jeremiah 4:23: Jesus enters into the chaotic waters of the void of death and thereby changes it, breaking open its gates and bringing light and life to those who waited for him.

Holy Saturday is like the wheels of fire in Ezekiel: Jesus goes before and with his people into the exile of death, thus reminding them that he and they will return one day to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish in the middle of the Book of the Twelve: Israel and the nations are saved through the death, burial, and resurrection of a Hebrew prophet.

Holy Saturday is like the movement from Psalm 22 to Psalm 23: the wise king who has suffered on behalf of his people has lost his life (“nephesh”) and now walks in the valley of the shadow of death, but soon the God of the living will restore his soul (“nephesh”).

Holy Saturday is like God’s speech in Job 41:1-2: Jesus has drawn out the Leviathan, Death, with the fishhook of his humanity, pressing down his tongue with the cord of his perfectly righteous life, putting a rope in his nose with his atoning death, piercing his jaw with his divinity.

Holy Saturday is like the Wise Royal Son in Proverbs: he enters Lady Folly’s house but does not eat her meal. He follows her steps to Sheol but only to bring his people out with him.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Ruth: Jesus, the kinsman redeemer, enters into the famine and darkness of the exile of death and rescues his bride from it, restoring her to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like the marriage procession in the Song of Solomon: Jesus comes out of the wilderness of death like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense (3:6), to marry his Bride, the Church.

Holy Saturday is like Ecclesiastes: life is fleeting and death is certain, even for the Son of God…but in dying he has defeated and destroyed Death forever, so fear the LORD and keep his commandments.

Holy Saturday is like Lamentations: the saints who have cried in the valley of the shadow of death, “How long, O Lord?” now see their Redeemer and hope in his impending resurrection, a sign of their own.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Esther: Jesus is not seen or mentioned in the midst of what seem like entirely hopeless circumstances, but he’s still at work for our good.

Holy Saturday is like Daniel in the lion’s den: sealed in the place of darkness and in the presence of all God’s enemies, Jesus is nevertheless in the presence of YHWH and claims victory over those who would seek to destroy him.

Holy Saturday is like the migrations in Ezra-Nehemiah: before God’s people enter their promised rest, Jesus has to lead them from bondage to freedom by crossing through the waters of death in the New Exodus.

Holy Saturday is like the end of Chronicles: Christ’s decree, “It is finished,” has been made, but we wait for the reality of the rebuilt Temple and the restored king in his impending resurrection from the dead.

“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” -Rev. 1:18

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psychoanalyzing Biblical Authors

At an ETS meeting a few years ago, I asked a presenter (and friend) whether he thought John the Seer intentionally wrote Revelation to an ideal reader or to what extent John meant to communicate certain things. I asked that question because it’s a common question I receive when discussing my own research on John’s theology. He gave a helpful answer, but the summary (rightly) was, “I’m not sure.” That’s often my answer, as well, but I was hoping he would give me some kind of uncharted insight that I could cite later. Alas.

Relatedly, I was recently lecturing at a university on the development of Trinitarian language from the NT to Nicaea and a student asked me afterward, “Do you think the OT writers would have had a pre-existing concept of the Trinity?” Though I answered the question the best I could, my initial comment was, “We need to be careful not to try to psychoanalyze biblical authors.” This is a good general rule for both my question at ETS and the student’s question of me.

That said, we can suggest or hypothesize about particular authors’ intentions or thought processes because we have the final form of their texts in front of us. Along with the text itself, what we know of the historical or cultural conditions in which it was written can help us make relatively informed conclusions about the author’s underlying intentions or influences — so long as we use those tools with care and caution.

For example, in my dissertation, I’ve made the following statement about John’s incipient Trinitarianism:

John’s apocalypse contains a view of the Trinity—that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in substance and yet distinct in personhood—that is incipient; that is, John’s explanation of the relationship between the persons was developing rather than fully or systematically established. This developing understanding of the persons means that John’s Trinitarianism is not tidy or terminologically precise; therefore, the explicitness of his descriptions will vary from passage to passage. Like other NT writers working from early Christian kerygma—particularly the Christological interpretation of the OT, patterns of devotion, and religious experience—he uses language and concepts familiar to himself and his audience to describe the apparent multiplicity of persons within the identity of Israel’s one God. . . .

While at some level we cannot interrogate John’s mental apparatus in order to understand all of his intentions and presuppositions, we have the final form of Revelation’s text through which we can ascertain judgments about his theological project. For example, John clearly constructs Revelation as a cohesive and unified letter with an epilogue and prologue and, as we will see, his method for applying concepts and allusions varies but is not haphazard. . . .

Regardless of whether it’s John or another biblical author, we should be careful not to psychoanalyze him, most obviously because he is not here to defend himself against our false conclusions. However, we should not allow this caution to scare us from saying anything definitive about the purpose, method, or theological project of an author. Indeed, Christian scholars acknowledge that each text is written by a human author, of course, but also by a Divine Author who is working behind the scenes in ways the human author cannot see. In turn, we as modern readers have the Holy Spirit and a biblical canon that offer us the ability to pay attention to patterns within both individual books and the overarching biblical storyline that may not be obvious on an historical-critical Petri dish.

I suspect that many biblical scholars are so paralyzed by my first question above that they cannot appreciate this tension.


Darian Lockett on Types of Biblical Theology and College Basketball

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Darian Lockett of the Talbot School of Theology. We discuss his denominational pilgrimage (1:45), baptizing kids (14:00), the theology of the catholic epistles (22:30), types of biblical theology (33:40), cheating(?) in college basketball (54:15), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

Canonical Hermeneutics and Systemic Injustices

I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.

What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.

My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.

The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.

When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.

The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Christ and the New Creation Kindle Edition

Book CoverI just received word from Wipf and Stock that my book is now available in Kindle format. I neglected to change my Greek fonts when it was published in print, which is why there’s been a delay with the electronic format. Thankfully I had some time to comb through it last week and get the correct fonts in the manuscript. For those of you who enjoy reading on the digital screen rather than the printed page, you can order the Kindle edition here.

Greg Goswell and NT Canonical Shape

Greg Goswell, lecturer in biblical studies at Presbyterian Theological College, has published another article in JETS on the shape of the biblical canon. His previous three articles have discussed the LXX, MT, and NT orders, while this newest essay asks how the shape of the OT might have influenced the shape of the NT.

I agree with Goswell’s conclusion – it isn’t possible to decide if the NT is consciously shaped through consideration of either OT order. Asking the question, though, helps to draw out certain themes, exegetical points, and narrative threads that we might overlook otherwise. One of the most helpful aspects of the essay, in my opinion, is the introduction, where Goswell explains the role of considering canonical order in interpretation.

Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to consider what status is to be given to the phenomenon of book order. The sequential ordering of the biblical books is part of the paratext of Scripture. The term ‘paratext’ refers to elements that are adjoined to the text but are not part of the text per se. . . . The (differing) order of the biblical books is a paratextual phenomenon that cannot be put on the same level as the text itself. It is a post-authorial imposition on the text of Scripture, albeit an unavoidable one when texts of different origin are collected together in a canonical corpus. Where a biblical book is placed relative to other books inevitably influences a reader’s view of the book, on the supposition that juxtaposed books are related in some way and therefore illuminate each other. A prescribed order of books is a de facto interpretation of the text (emphasis mine).

Yes, exactly.

As a side note, many might simply stop at, “yes, exactly,” and assume that everyone agrees here. But, based on first hand experience in graduate work, conference participation, and conversations with colleagues, I’d still venture to guess that many NT scholars, and perhaps OT scholars as well, don’t agree that canonical order influences interpretation.

The Order of the Books of the New Testament

Chances are you haven’t given much thought to why the New Testament books are arranged as they are in your Bible. We haven’t been trained, nor have we trained our congregations, to think that way when we read the scriptures. If we consider context, it is typically the immediate, and if we consider the canonical context it is usually in reference to quotations and allusions to other individual books. I can’t think of a time prior to seminary when I thought, “What difference does it make to my reading of Romans that it comes between Acts and 1 Corinthians?” But this is an important question, and one that I am convinced we need to ask for at least three reasons.

First, Old Testament scholarship has recognized for years that the differing orders of the Hebrew Bible provide the reader with differing interpretive emphases. Notably among evangelical scholars, both John Sailhamer and Stephen Dempster have made this point. Dempster’s popular Dominion and Dynasty[1] is a prime example of biblical theology done with an eye to the order of the canonical material, and Sailhamer has been at pains for almost two decades to show how the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible affects interpretation. For instance, in his Introduction to Old Testament Theology,[2] Sailhamer argues that Proverbs and Ruth are juxtaposed in the Hebrew Bible partially because of the intertextual connection between Prov. 31:10, 31 and Ruth 3:11 in the Hebrew text, as well as the thematic continuity of the virtuous woman. New Testament scholarship is increasingly asking the question, could this be the case in the second testament as well as the first? Of course, it is true that the OT was written over a much longer period of time than the NT, and thus there was a longer period of time to reflect on the order and to even produce those intertextual links in later books. This does not mean that it is a legitimate question for NT scholarship, though. At this point, work in this area in NT studies is minimal, and what is out there typically comes from more moderate or liberal circles rather than from within evangelicalism. Jonathan Pennington is a happy exception here, as he argues that the Gospels are placed at the head of the NT canon to serve as an archway to the entire Bible.[3] In my opinion, evangelicals have an even better reason to follow OT scholarship’s trend, because of the latter two answers to the initial question of why we should care about the order of the books of the NT.

The second of these three reasons for seeing the importance of the canonical order comes from church history. The history of interpretation demonstrates that patristic and medieval theologians thought this issue was key to interpretive practice. Irenaeus famously argued for the legitimacy and primacy of the fourfold Gospel corpus, and also rooted his hermeneutic in the economy, or structure, of biblical revelation. A central concern for Irenaeus here is that the canonical order promotes a reading that emphasizes a Christological narrative. Late in the medieval period, G. R. Evans notes that Peter Lombard, Matthew Poole, and Thomas Aquinas asked why Romans comes first in the Pauline corpus.[4] These are but four examples, but the structure of revelation was important for interpreters throughout the pre-modern period. This changed with the Enlightenment and modernity’s piecemeal reading of the Bible, where the goal was no longer to have a unified interpretive approach but instead to chop the Bible up into “historically located” bits.

An additional way that church history helps us here is that the church’s interpretive approach is actually implicitly seen through changes in the canonical order of material. For instance, there is a strong manuscript tradition in the early church of placing the General Epistles after Acts and before the Pauline Epistles, and of placing Hebrews within the Pauline corpus after the Corinthian letters.[5] But it also appears that this order was changed to (or perhaps even paralleled by) the order we see today very early in church history.[6] This difference in order provides us an opportunity to ask what varying reading strategies are presented by each order. In other words, what interpretive difference does it make if James-Jude comes after Acts instead of Romans-Hebrews? Finally, in regards to church history, this shift in order not only shows us an interpretive history of our brothers and sisters in Christ but also, therefore, gives us a history of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination within the body of Christ. While the history of interpretation is not inspired or infallible, it does provide us with a history of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers’ interpretive practices. Because the ordering of canonical material is a part of that interpretive practice, we ought to pay attention to it.

Third and finally, evangelical hermeneutics is grounded in theological methods and practices that promote paying attention to the order of material. First, general hermeneutics recognizes the importance of context and the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters within a book. In any work of literature, how the author arranges the material is important. In the Harry Potter novels, for instance, if J. K. Rowling had placed Severus Snape’s memories at the beginning of book 6 instead of the end of book 7, that would have had a major impact on how readers understood the events between Snape and Dumbledore at the end of book 6. Or think of the recent discussion about how to read The Chronicles of Narnia – as Trevin Wax has pointed out, reading order affects interpretation. This is no less true in Scripture, and should be no less true for our understanding of why the order of the canonical books matters. The Spirit did not inspire the canonical order, but it is still a literary arrangement, and thus affects how readers interpret the material. Second, evangelical readers do acknowledge that the Spirit inspired every word of Scripture, and many times the Spirit inspires the biblical authors to connect their book with previous books of the Bible. Scholars refer this to as intertextuality or inner biblical allusion, and it is important for the canonical order. Many times these textual connections weave together not only individual books but whole sections of Scripture.[7] Finally, Scripture is ordered narratively, highlighting the plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.[8] Reading individual books within this grand narrative assists the reader in understanding that individual book’s material.

So what difference does this make in our reading of the New Testament? Some would argue that the NT is arranged primarily on chronology or length of the book, but neither of these play a prominent role in every part of the canon. If the NT canon were ordered by chronology, at least some of Paul’s letters ought to come before the Gospels. Mark, assumed to be the earliest Gospel by many, is not first, nor is the Gospel corpus ordered by length. The General Epistles are not ordered by chronological priority or length either. Length does seem to be somewhat of a factor in the Pauline letters, but it is not dominating, as the movement of Hebrews to the end attests (Hebrews was originally included with the Pauline letters after 2 Corinthians in codices). Further, Matthew, with its strong link to the OT, comes at the beginning, and Revelation comes at the end. While this may seem obvious, it at least helps us to see that there is intentionality in the order at the beginning and the end.

To give one example of why this matters in your interpretive practice, think of the fact that the Gospel of John comes between what we typically refer to as the two-book unit of Luke-Acts.[9] If Luke and Acts are intended to be a literary unit, why would the early church arrange the canon in a way that splits them? Another way to ask this question, without getting into the psyche of the early church, is to ask what emphases arise through reading Luke, John, and Acts in this order. My own answer to this question begins with the fact that John explicitly emphasizes Jesus as the new Adam and also the one who restores creation in his Gospel through the prologue, the restorational seven signs (and especially the raising of Lazarus), the replacement motif in which he restores and even re-creates Judaism’s symbols, and ultimately his Passion that starts in a Garden, moves to a cry of “it is finished” on the cross, and culminates with the new Adam in a Garden with a woman.[10] After rising from the dead as the new Adam, Jesus then goes into the Upper Room and “breathes life” into his disciples, an allusion to Gen. 2:7 and the creation of Adam.[11] In Gen 2:15, after Adam receives the breath of life, he is given the cultural mandate to cultivate and keep the Garden, and he has already and will once again receive the command to “be fruitful and multiply” with his wife Eve. John has left his readers with an anticipatory note in John 20:22: the new creation has been given life, but the cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” has yet to be fulfilled. This is where the book of Acts steps into the scene.

As John’s narrative ends, the reader should naturally expect for there to be a cultural mandate that sounds like something similar to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth and subdue (i.e. cultivate and keep) it” (Gen 1:28; 2:15). This is exactly what we find in Acts 1:8. Jesus commands his disciples to go into, “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth” in this verse, one that clearly harkens back to Gen 1:28 and God’s command for Adam and Eve to fill all the earth. The disciples are to do this through “the power of the Spirit” given to them by Jesus’ breath, just as Adam was to do it by the power of God’s breath in Genesis 2. Perhaps most importantly, the commission to Adam to, “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Gen 2:15) is echoed at important points in the Acts narrative. Acts 1:8 could be classified as a theological fulfillment of that command to Adam. Throughout the rest of the book, when the church expands, Luke says that “the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7; cf. 12:24; 19:20). Thus when Luke in his narrative tells of the Gospel being promulgated in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth”, he explicitly ties it to the command of God to Adam in the Garden to be fruitful and multiply.[12] This informs the reader that part of the canonical function of Acts, coming after the ending of John with its explicit ties to the creation story and presentation of Jesus as the New Adam who breathes life into his disciples, is to show how the church, the bride of Christ, the New Eve, is to obey the command that the first Adam and Eve failed to follow. They are to fill all the earth with worshippers of Yahweh, not through physical population but by spiritual awakening through the power of the Gospel.

Thus the order of John à Acts highlights this emphasis on new creation, both Jesus’ accomplishment of it in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and the church’s participation in it as Christ’s agents sent throughout the earth by the power of his life giving Spirit. Here are a few other ways we see the significance of the order in the NT canon:

  • Matthew’s Gospel begins with “son of David, son of Abraham,” which may provide a strong link back to the genealogies of the last and first books of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles and Genesis.
  • Romans following Acts highlights the ethnic Jew-Gentile issue which trails the growth of the church throughout Acts and that was a fundamental concern in the gospel proclamation and explanation of the early church.
  • Romans-Colossians emphasize the past work of Christ, namely his death and resurrection, and its transformation of the Christian life into one of new creation.
  • 1 Thessalonians-Jude emphasize the future coming of Christ and use it as motivation for Christians to live righteously until he returns, both in their individual lives and in the life of the church (the Pastorals).
  • Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter, spanning the end of the Pauline letters (Hebrews is included with Paul’s letters in the manuscripts) and the beginning of the General Epistles, highlight the sojourning, exilic nature of the Christian life and urge believers to press on towards the heavenly city to come.
  • Revelation comes at the end!
  • Beyond the obvious for Revelation, there seems to be an inclusio for the whole Bible here, as Genesis 1–2 tell of protology, the creation of God’s image-bearing people who rule in God’s place, in which he dwells with them, followed by the entrance of sin through the serpent. Revelation 20 tells of the defeat of the serpent, followed by the eternal dwelling of God with his restored people in his restored place.


[1] Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).

[2] John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005).

[3] Jonathan Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 229–58.

[4] G. R. Evans, The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Earlier Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 44 n. 66 and The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Road to the Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 2 n. 1.

[5] See, for instance, David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] For these shifts, see, D. C. Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 225–347, esp. 283, 285.

[7] See John Sailhamer’s discussion of OT “seams” in Introduction to Old Testament Theology, 101.

[8] See, for example, Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 62–65.

[9] Much of what follows was presented at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Society in San Francisco, CA in my paper, “Christ and the New Creation: The Shape of the Fourfold Gospel Corpus and Acts.” That paper and this post are based off my book, Christ and the New Creation: A Canonical Approach to the Theology of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

[10] For these new creational motifs in John, see Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), chs. 7, 8, and 10.

[11] Ibid., 721.

[12] See G. K. Beale, The Temple and The Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 266.