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 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, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Finally, Scripture is ordered narratively, highlighting the plotline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
 Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
 John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005).
 Jonathan Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 229–58.
 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.
 See, for instance, David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
 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.
 See John Sailhamer’s discussion of OT “seams” in Introduction to Old Testament Theology, 101.
 See, for example, Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 62–65.
 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.
 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.