Posted in Bible

What is your “Canon within the Canon” ?

The Waltons featured a scene where Olivia Walton (the mother) punished Mary Ellen by sending her up to her room, requiring her to memorize a certain number of Bible verses. Imagine the mother’s horror when a few hours later Mary Ellen came down and began reciting verses that were offbeat and downright gory! Maybe making Bible memorization a punishment is not the lesson we want our children to learn.

But that funny scene between mother and daughter underscores a reality for 21st century Christians:

There are parts of the Bible that we hardly ever read.

The “Canon” is the list of writings that Christians accept as inspired by God. Because of our benign neglect, do we end up with a “Canon within the Canon,” a de facto sizing down of the 66 books to a far slimmer volume what we call the Holy Bible?

What do we do with…

Genocide apparently ordered by Yahweh (Book of Joshua)?

God coming in the night to kill Moses even as Moses is en route to Egypt, in obedience to God’s command? (Exodus 4)?

The LORD’s instructions for applying the blood of the sacrifice to Aaron’s and his sons’ right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe (Exodus 29:24)?

The gang rape of a concubine by in Gibeah by some men in the town, and her husband who later dismembered her and sent her twelve body parts to the twelve tribes of Israel (Judges 19)?

These are merely four examples of passages (primarily in the Old Testament) that we avoid while reading or preaching. But let’s face it: There are neglected New Testament passages as well. Pastors, when was the last time that you preached out of the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38, or Revelation 6-18 with its mysterious symbols?

In our more honest moments, we realize that we all have our “Canon within the Canon,” our “life verse,” our “go to” portions of Scripture that bring us comfort in time of need. We may not like Marcion the ancient heretic be so bold as to declare the Old Testament off-limits, or to say that the God of the Jews is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the “actions speak louder than words” category, I wonder if we don’t end up in the same place through what we emphasize and what we ignore.

So how to we get out of this rut? Or, to use another metaphor, how do we change the mowing pattern so that we’re not always cutting the grass the exact same way?

1. Read the Bible through in a year.  This morning, the reading plan lead me to Mark 3:20-35, but also Numbers 3-4. Because I’ve been writing a French devotional each day, and alternating between the OT and NT passages as the basis for composing a short meditation, today I was “stuck” with instructions on what the duties of the various clans were when it came time for the children of Israel to move camp. So what of value does one say about that? Thankfully, John Bright’s book, The Authority of the Old Testament, gave me some help. He encouraged the reader to ask: What does this passage tell me about God? (He used more fancy words than that, but that was his point). So, I took Numbers 3-4 from the perspective of God wanting each of us to have a task in God’s work. It became a leadership lesson in how to deploy people in the Church. I don’t know that Bright’s method works every time, but it’s the best tool I’ve found to help us with those more difficult (or seemingly boring) passages. But back to the reading plan: If we weren’t forced to read some of the more obscure parts of Scripture because it’s on the schedule for the day, would we even read them at all?

2. Use the Lectionary when preparing sermons. By advising this, I admit that I’m telling others to do something that I’ve yet to do myself. My excuse is that my current ministerial role doesn’t take me into the pulpit every week. Still, I’ve read positive testimonies from those currently pastoring that using a tool like the Revised Common Lectionary is a good way to ensure that our people are getting a balanced spiritual diet as they listen to our preaching. As I monitor debates on the Internet, I wonder sometimes whether the New Testament only has four books, i.e. the Gospels. Arguments over morality seem to begin and end with Jesus. It makes me wonder: What about the rest of the New Testament? Does Paul have nothing to add? Peter? James? And of course the Old Testament still has something of enduring value to say, as long as we understand first what it meant to the original listeners before bringing it to the New Testament for what John Bright called a “verdict.” Well has it been said that only a study of the whole Bible makes for whole Christians. If this is true, then must not preaching as well be wide-ranging?

Mrs Walton didn’t want to hear Mary Ellen’s recitation of certain Bible verses. Likewise, our tendency is to unwittingly identify a “Canon within the Canon” by our reading and preaching habits. It won’t be easy, but we can do better. Let’s consider the full counsel of God and not just an abbreviated version.


Photo credit:



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “What is your “Canon within the Canon” ?

  1. Like John Wesley, my Canon within the Canon arises from the passages in Scripture pertaining to love. For instance, first John is central. In fact, I believe John Wesley quoted first John more often than any other book. And his favorite verse was the one that said “we love because God first loved us.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s