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.

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 Johannine Split

If you were to walk into a bookstore or library with a section on the New Testament, and if you were to look for the books that discussed Luke, chances are you’d find a large number of volumes combining Luke and Acts under whatever topic. So “A Commentary on Luke-Acts,” “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” “The Spirit in Luke-Acts,” and so on. This is true also of NT Introductions, which often discuss Luke and Acts together. On one level this makes sense; Luke is the author of both books, the introduction to Acts calls it the second part of a two part work, and there are a myriad of linguistic, narrative, and theological points of continuity.

But on another level, the canonical one, it makes little sense. The fact is that John almost always comes at the end of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (see Metzger, The Canon of the NT, 296), and there are only three cases of Luke coming at the end, each of which are late (6th, 14th cents.) and regionally isolated.

Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts? While I would not go so far as to say we should start having “John-Acts” monographs, we ought to consider seriously the fact that Luke almost never comes immediately before Acts in any of our available lists, codices, or MSS. The arrangement of material matters in interpretation, even on a canonical level, and John splitting Luke and Acts ought to give NT readers pause in how the interpret the NT exegetically, narratively, and theologically.

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.