Canon and Compromise

Canon and Compromise August 16, 2012

There is something ironic about people pointing to their canon of Scripture and being uncompromising on the basis of it or about things that it says. A canon is almost always a result of compromise, and this is nowhere more true than in the case of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Indeed, the fact that we speak of “the Bible” despite the fact that there are different Bibles used by Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, Protestant Christians, and the Ethiopic Church shows compromise. We don't fight over the name – we accept diversity.

As we look within the canon, we see the evidence of compromise at work in bringing its components together. How can we have patriarchal narratives with heroes doing things that later laws prohibit? Compromise. How can we have texts about God defeating the sea monster when Genesis 1 has demythologized that, so that God simply speaks and the waters split, with no battle? Compromise. How can we have Gospels that don't depict Jesus as pre-existent and one that does? Compromise. Why is the Book of Revelation in Orthodox and Protestant Bibles? Compromise.

And so if anyone points to the canonical texts and cites what one of them says dogmatically, it is perfectly acceptable to offer a slight chuckle in response. They will dogmatically assert the divinity of Jesus or creation with no fighting against sea monsters on the basis of certain texts, but only because they haven't paid attention to what else is there, and what it means when read on its own terms.

Canons of Scripture, which bring together diverse works from diverse authors in a wide range of time periods inevitably – as well as by intention – reflect the diversity within a tradition and not a monolithic unity. And so to treat a canonical text dogmatically is in essence to undermine and/or deny their canonical status, by pretending that what that one text says is what they all say, and thus flattening – indeed, riding roughshod with a steamroller over – the plurality of voices contained in that collection.

Related to this topic, see also Steve Douglas' post on whether Jesus was a “Tanakh-thumper.” If you don't understand what that means, it's because not everyone's “Bible” is the same as yours.

Also relevant is a recent series of posts by Fred Clark. In one of them, he reminds that the Bible is a library, a collection of books, and it is good to remember that, if the various types of literature were separated, they would be not merely on different shelves but on different floors corresponding to different ranges in the Dewey Decimal classification system.

Fred also has two posts about a literalist who rejects and a literalist who accepts the same story, in this case, one about a gorilla that walks into a bar. In the process, he makes the point about genre beautifully as well as satirically.

And then, to top it all off, Fred has a post about Ken Ham, whose approach to the Bible at its best illustrates the flaws I talked about in this post – six literal days, but no literal dome, no literal conflict with a sea monster, no sensitivity to genre or the diversity of the canon. But Fred nicely points out the irony of atheists accepting Ken Ham as an excellent interpreter of the Bible, when he clearly is not either an expert or trustworthy when it comes to any other field that he talks about.

We see all these threads come together in Ham's recent warning about the danger of bathtub Noah's Ark playsets, which might lead children, in their innocence, to rightly grasp the genre of the story, something Ham can't stomach. Ham wants kids to grow up to be like the Baywatch star who recently got herself injured looking for the “real Noah's Ark.”

And so let me conclude this post by emphasizing that a failure to recognize the diversity of genres, authors, viewpoints and teachings in the Bible is not only liable to screw up your theology. It might lead you to get a busted face hiking in Turkey!


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