Interpreting Scripture Canonically

The third important way to interpret Scripture is to do so canonically. If historical interpretation focuses on the world behind the text and contextual interpretation focuses on the world in front of it, canonical interpretation focuses on the text itself and how the Scriptures work together as a canon (rule/measure) of the faith. For example, a historical reading of the Gospels would focus on the background that informed the message the author was trying to convey. Similarly, a contextual reading would identify the aspects of Christ’s ministry that the author or interpretive community felt necessary to highlight. A canonical reading however, identifies those differences but is also concerned about how the four Gospels work together to give the reader a complete picture of Jesus Christ and his mission. It works to form a reader’s understanding of God, worship and the witness of the Church.

Canonical interpretation focuses on the religious function of the Biblical canon. As the apostolic writings and letters began to circulate among the early churches, they formed a common body, or set, of beliefs that were held by the community to be orthodox. The Church as an interpretive community generally discarded writings that varied considerably from this common core. At the time of the death of the apostles and the first witnesses, a measure, or rule of the faith (canon), was already compiled and held as a true witness to what the Church believed about God and itself as a worshiping community. These writings were held canonical by the Church for their ability to communicate truth to audiences in different contexts. Robert Walls notes, “The elevation of a scriptural writing to canonical status required an inherent capacity to be reinterpreted over and again in spiritually profitable ways by different interpreters for different situations” (Green, 374). Canonical interpretation then looks at how the whole body of Biblical writings serve to inform the Church as a community of faith.

This canonical aspect is clearly evidenced in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He addresses the letter to that specific church but also to all who might come to read it (1Cor 1:2). The instructional nature of New Testament writings reveals an exegetical process of the Jewish Scriptures that points to the meaning of what the author wanted to say. In turn, the theological reflection that forged the early confessions of the Church was a hermeneutical process of interpreting what God was doing backwardly. For example, in the Letter to the Romans Paul exegetes the OT in an attempt to communicate what it had to say to the church then, and today. He redefines Israel’s grand narrative in the light of Christ by using intertextual interpretation in a way that the letter to the Romans somewhat fits into the canon of the Jewish Scriptures. Through canonical interpretation, the interpreter provides continuity and acknowledges that the New Testament needs the Old and vice-versa.

The process of meaning making through canonical interpretation is dynamic and continuous. As mentioned, the canon itself was compiled for its ability to be interpreted repeatedly by different people at different times. In the context of modern expressive individualism, this approach would be at risk of being a proponent for hermeneutical anarchy through new interpretations and baseless assumptions. Nonetheless, it enhanced the importance of Biblical theology in the scope of other interpretive methods. The richness of the canonical interpretative method lies in the horizontal correlation between the two Testaments that can guide believers in the working out of faith. Today, these correlations are gathered in sets that can be found in a few interpretative traditions among different denominations of Christianity. Resources like the Common Lectionary and various catechisms provide believers and leaders with a way of understanding the textual history of the Bible, all the while making meaning of the Church’s liturgy. Contextual interpretation works of the basis of religious functions. The Spirit of God is active in this process helping the church make sense of Scripture and its existence.

This series of posts have focused on “Three Ways to Read and Interpret Scripture”. Interpretive practices are largely about first learning how to read Scripture in order that the interpreter may read to learn. An advantage of interpretive methods is that none is complete on its own. As with the three approaches referred to in this paper, the interpreter is always encouraged to look at Scripture through new and different angles. Additionally, methods also overlap from on perspective to the other. This exercise forms a complementary cycle that culminates in a fuller meaning of the text. Interpreting Scripture is a formative practice. It causes the reader to move from pre-critical traditional assumptions, past the critical dismissals of modernity and into post-critical applications that ultimately shape the imagination. The practice of Scriptural interpretation is a journey that takes the interpreter from the individual conclusions of the historical interpretation, into the communal application of contextual theologies, ultimately leading to a universal identification by asserting the Church’s canonical interpretation of the Bible. In the end, God is, and must remain the central part of Scriptural interpretation.