Well rooted, well winged

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‘I wonder whether this new way of looking at the canon could serve as a model for thinking about how we do church together.’

April 8, 2020 | Feature | Volume 24 Issue 8
John H. Neufeld | Special to Canadian Mennonite
I have the growing conviction that the canon provides us not only roots, but also wings. Not only is it important to be ‘well-rooted’; it is equally important to be ‘well-winged.’ (Photo: © istock.com/ananaline)

For most of us, the biblical canon with its 66 “books” has always been a given, inherited from the past, our parents and churches. We have not concerned ourselves very much with it, even though we may have heard that the Catholic version of the Bible has more “books” in it than the Protestant version. 

Some of us may not have heard that there have been disagreements about the makeup of this collection of writings we consider to be Scripture. Around AD 400, there was disagreement about including the Book of Revelation in the Bible. And in the 16th century, Martin Luther argued against the inclusion of the Book of James; Luther had difficulty with James’s focus on “works,” and he spoke of it as “a right strawy epistle.” 

The Catholic Church has considered the apocryphal books—books not part of the Hebrew Old Testament but included in the Greek translation, including I and II Esdras and I-IV Maccabees—as part of the inspired canon. Nowadays, many study Bibles include these books.

From time to time someone may raise the question, “Is the canon permanently closed?” However, most Protestants accept the 66 books in the Bible as inspired, authoritative and closed—the norm for an orthodox Christian faith. This “closing of the canon” occurred around AD 400. The Old Testament had been officially “closed” at the Council of Jamnia, in AD 90, by the Jewish community; not all scholars agree on this.

For many of us, questions about the biblical canon seem unimportant, even irrelevant: We simply accept the canon as a given, inspired and authoritative. We may pay lip service to the Bible as a whole, but we have to admit that most of us have a smaller “canon within the canon” and we avoid or ignore parts of Scripture! There are parts of the Bible that we really appreciate and then there are parts, even whole books, to which we pay virtually no attention! This practice continues even though we claim to believe what II Timothy 3:16-17 says: “All scripture is inspired by God and useful . . . .”

However, during the past two decades, those of us within Mennonite Church Canada have given a lot of attention to the Bible. Here is part of what I mean: We spent years on the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process and gave careful attention to how we understand Scripture (Paths and Ditches, 2013); the 2012 MC Canada assembly theme was “Dusting off the Bible”; and the late Dick Benner wrote an editorial entitled “What about this Bible of ours?” I wrote a three-part series in 2009, “Do you understand what you are reading?” published in Canadian Mennonite; and, most recently, editor Virginia A. Hostetler wrote an Oct. 28, 2019 editorial in which she quoted the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective: “The Bible is the essential book of the church.”

Hostetler reminded us of our commitment to delight in the study of the Bible and to devote ourselves to it. Benner urged us to give high priority to the task of refurbishing our understanding and application of Scripture, calling for “fresh interpretation, new imagination, new inspiration and new application.”

But as far as I can tell, this wealth of material does not give serious attention to the canon as a whole. Isn’t it time to revisit our understanding of the canon?

Affirmations about the canon

We affirm that this body of literature is inspired and authoritative for all believers, for growth in faith and discipleship. The canon provides roots and resources for our faith. As such, it is basically understood as having “canonized” the content, and the impression is that the content of our faith is settled and fixed. Some even appeal to the expression in Jude verse 3: “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” The canon is the fixed content of both Old and New Testaments. This is the explicitly given foundation for Christian faith and life. 

As I’ve been working with specific passages and thinking about the canon as a whole, I wondered whether there is actually more to the canon than canonical content. This dawned on me while giving a presentation in an adult-education setting in one of our churches on the topic, “Reading the Bible responsibly.”

I have the growing conviction that the canon provides us not only roots, but also wings. Not only is it important to be “well-rooted”; it is equally important to be “well-winged.” Let’s consider the possibility that, in addition to the explicitly given biblical content, the canon offers us more than explicit foundational truth, the roots of our faith. Perhaps the canon implicitly also offers us wings in addition to the roots. There is help available in the canon for necessary interpretation. 

Deepening our understanding of the canon

My interest in going beyond my earlier understanding of the canon was an outgrowth of studying more carefully and comparatively what is written in the Bible. What I noticed about the inspired canon, this ancient anthology of literature, is that it’s not static, but dynamic.

Diversity and development are preserved in the canon for our benefit. At times, I have been surprised by what’s in the inspired texts; at times, I have been disturbed and upset by what I was learning. At times, I realized I was having “second thoughts” about things I thought I was fairly certain about. 

When I go beyond seeing the Bible as having foundational content for my life of faith and discipleship, I learn that in the Bible diversity is somehow authoritative, or canonized. I notice that tensions between texts are not resolved. I see in Scripture that faith and practice develop over time in the light of the coming of Jesus! All of these realities call for interpretation.

Diversity

Here are some examples:

  • There are texts that urge the people of God to be exclusionary, to be separate and to avoid certain people; and then there are texts, like Isaiah 56:3-7, that urge inclusion of those formerly excluded.
  • There are texts that portray God as being violent and genocidal, while others, like Jonah 4, confess God to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

I have found it necessary to wrestle with these details, to try to understand them since the canon models diversity.

Change

Two examples illustrate that the inspired canon also endorses change and development, one from Nehemiah 8 and the other from Acts 10-11:

  • Nehemiah 8 tells of the return of exiles from Babylon to Palestine. On the one hand, the people must have been jubilant—they’re back in the Promised Land; but, on the other hand, they were confused, trying to understand ancient understandings, preserved in Torah, with their recent difficult experiences. 

The people asked their leaders to read Torah to them. What did the leaders do? Ezra and the others responded wisely: “So they read from the book, from the law of God [Torah] with interpretation. They gave the sense so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah  8:8).

Utterly amazing! They added something to the ancient texts—interpretation—so that the people understood their new circumstances and their recent tragic history in the light of the unchanging Torah.

What impresses me about this passage is that it legitimizes adaptation of Torah in the light of changed circumstances and shows that canonized content is not static, but dynamic! The passage shows me that Torah provides wings as well as roots!

  • The other incredible story is about Peter and Cornelius, especially how Peter, who was deeply steeped in Jewish faith and tradition, underwent a radical shift in his beliefs about God and his views of gentiles. 

When the vision of the sheet came to him in a trance, his immediate reaction was: “By no means Lord, I have never eaten anything unclean.” Finally, Peter did what he had declared he would not do. He went to Cornelius’s home and shared the good news. Peter also shared his own new insight with the extended gentile family: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality . . . anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35) .

My understanding of canon has been transformed. Not by adding new books to the biblical canon, but by being overwhelmed by seeing not only that canonical content is inspired and authoritative, but also that diversity, tensions between texts (ambiguity), change and development over time in the light of new circumstances, are also inspired and canonical. 

I feel like the Israelites in Nehemiah 8. They celebrated their new understandings with great rejoicing! With a barbecue.

And more 

I wonder whether this new way of looking at the canon could serve as a model for thinking about how we do church together. I am thinking particularly about the challenge of accepting diversity, as well as recognizing the validity of change and development over time, in response to new circumstances and fresh insights.

Before retirement, John H. Neufeld served as pastor of First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, (1969-84), and as president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University [CMU], 1984-97). In the last two decades, he has made presentations on aging, the Book of Revelation, and reading the Bible responsibly in a variety of settings. This article is adapted from an essay, “Exploring the meaning of canon,” that was presented to the emeritus professors at CMU last fall.

For discussion

1. What are some of your favourite Bible verses? Are there parts of the Bible that you tend to ignore? What are some passages that seem to be over- or under-used in sermons? How do you understand II Timothy 3:16-17? 

2. John H. Neufeld writes that the Old Testament canon was closed around AD 90 and the New Testament around the year AD 400. Why do you think it was important for the church to clearly define the books of the Bible? Do you find it unsettling to think that this decision was made by humans? If you were compiling a list of meaningful sources for the church today, what would you include?

3. Neufeld says the Bible should provide us with wings as well as roots. How does it give us roots? How is this rootedness helpful when we come across conflicts or alternate interpretations?

4. What do you think Neufeld means with his statement that the Bible provides us with wings? How did Nehemiah and Peter bring new understanding to ancient texts? Can you think of examples of new interpretations of biblical passages that can speak to us in a fresh way?

—By Barb Draper 

—Updated May 20, 2020

I have the growing conviction that the canon provides us not only roots, but also wings. Not only is it important to be ‘well-rooted’; it is equally important to be ‘well-winged.’ (Photo: © istock.com/ananaline)

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The article by the former president of CMBC John Neufeld bears some reflection. The imagery of being well rooted and well winged may be an apt metaphor for our attempts to understand the apostolic witness we know as the Canon, afresh. The references from Nehemiah and Acts are instructive. Biblical interpretation in the midst of tumult.

The challenging texts that are referred to may have a straight forward interpretation. When the people of God (Israel) are tempted with syncretism, the command is to be separate. -- an appropriate message for the circumstance. When the people of God are strong in their covenant loyalty, the call is to include others in that covenant loyalty. The issue of inclusion and exclusion are largely resolved not on the basis of ethnicity, but in fealty to covenant. The precedent here would be Ruth. She figures in the lineage of Jesus based on her loyalty to Naomi, rather than her ethnic identity as a Moabitess.

The Peter and Cornelius episode in Acts is also a watershed. A powerful member of the Roman management of occupation is ushered into the community of Jesus, and the Luke-Acts story is largely one of explaining how Christian faith came from Judea to Rome. But is that watershed event the only paradigmatic shift? The witness of Stephen before the Sanhedrin occupies far more of the Acts narrative, and the baptism of Cornelius is also accompanied by the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

We find precedents for this radical inclusion of 'other ethnos' in the story of Naaman the leper. What we do not find are precedents for the inclusion of gender - sexual variants, as has been the goal of MC Canada leadership in the BFC process. This 'diversity' has not included homosexually active persons in 2000 years of Biblical interpretation, and the time frame is even longer if one sees Canonical hermeneutics aligned in a Judeo-Christian ethical legacy.

In fact, a much more cogent case might be made for an argument that inclusion of these sexual activities represented the norms in societies/cultures/religions that Israel was called by the prophets not to emulate: and when it did it was a sign of pagan syncretism, and subject to review and judgement as disloyalty to the Covenant.

In light of these concerns, the Neufeld thesis of 'roots and wings' falls well short of an Anabaptist hermeneutic that might serve our congregations. That task is yet before us.

In his article to CM of April 08/20 entitled “Well rooted, well winged” John H. Neufeld raises a variety of questions regarding the biblical canon, its history, and how his approach to interpretation and understanding is changing. He suggests that perhaps a “new way of looking at the canon could serve as a model for thinking about how we do church together.”

Mr. Neufeld opens his address with an assertion that most of us accept that the biblical canon “has always been a given, inherited from the past, our parents, and churches.” Understandably, this is quite concerning because it points out that the basis of the faith and belief of Christianity, the basis of our theological understanding, remains a product of an indoctrination of givens inherited from our past, parents, and churches. As children we have been indoctrinated through Sunday school, church, home, and society at large, to accept the theological understandings of previous generations as givens, with perhaps a tweak here and there to account for some personal insight.

Mr. Neufeld identifies some of the historical actions that were taken for the canon to arrive in its present “fixed” format. He identifies a difference in Catholic and Protestant versions of the books of the canon. He indicates that over time, the powers that be were in disagreement as to which books should be included, such as the Apocryphal books, or the books of James and Revelations. Arguments for and against took place over time with the biblical canon permanently closed at about AD 90 for the Old Testament, and at approximately AD 400 for the New Testament. It seems that there is a discrepancy here between what is generally accepted as sacred literature ordained by God, and the secular nature of the historians, politicians, clergy, religious, academics, and other powers of the day that had a role in deciding which books to include. The written texts are apparently sacred, it is just that the decision makers were decidedly human with accompanying bias. This understanding is helpful in that it gives one pause to reflect on the long-held understanding as to whether the canon necessarily needs to be “fixed” or not.

To add to this perturbation, Mr. Neufeld indicates that many of us have our own “selective” understanding of the most important bits of the canon, and that Mennonite Church Canada has wrestled with trying to clarify its thinking in recent years as to its understanding and relationship to the Bible. He questions whether it is not time to “revisit our understanding of the canon,” and although we accept it as fixed, we could perhaps look at it through expanded concepts of diversity and change.

It may very well be time to reflect on our sacred literature, however I believe that further exploration of its historical origins is needed to provide deeper understanding of just what it is that we claim to believe in, rather than accepting the “givens” provided by our forebears.

I am not a biblical/religious historian and have only rudimentary understanding of the history of Yahweh, the people of Israel/Judah, and subsequently Christianity. I suspect that Mr. Neufeld could do a much more thorough and accurate representation of the historical aspects of this Christian/God business and our relationship withal.

To my understanding, religious scholarship places the origins of Yahweh within the Bronze Age people of Canaan/Levant/Middle Eastern regions, and within the context of the Canaanite pantheon of Gods. Over time, in the minds/beliefs of the people of these regions, our god Yahweh eventually won out over other gods such as El, Ashera, and Ba’al. For me, this places a different emphasis on a 21’st century relationship with a god with origins in the Bronze Age, a god that has subsequently evolved over millennia in relationship with peoples, geography, and history. When viewed over such a distance of time, place, and space, it requires an enormous suspension of disbelief to assume that the canon of sacred literature should remain regarded as “fixed” and limited, and that we could and should relegate our God to being “fixed” and static.

There seems to be no little incongruity between Mr. Neufeld’s historical expose of the establishment of the biblical canon, and his subsequent assertion that it remain “fixed” but with new ways of interpreting the content. On the one hand, historically we have a canon that has been assembled through what can only be seen as a seriously flawed human process, yet we are supposed to hold fast to the idea that this is a sacred fixed literature at this point that has the capacity to spiritually guide us “about how we do church together?” This seems problematic to me to say the least.

I believe that we should perceive the biblical canon as yet another piece of religious literature collected over time, which provides some insight as to what it means for us to be human. “Doing church” might necessarily require and call for some guidebook/rulebook for being church, however being church has in our history, often resulted in affording yet another flawed religious institution, or academia, or political entity, with undue power over the masses and what it means to be human.

Thank-you Mr. Neufeld for providing opportunity for reflection on serious issues arising out of the relationship between mere mortals and a God. As you indicate, for the most part our theological understandings have been “givens.” We have been indoctrinated by family, church, and state from our youth to old age, to retain certain understandings, without pause to reflect on how these understanding are arrived at. It is well time and not too late that our leadership begins to courageously examine the merits of a theology/faith rooted in ways of understanding that are fixed, static, and traditional. These may well be ways of “doing church together,” however they seem incompatible with spiritual growth and what it means to be more fully human.

I note that John Neufeld neglects to mention my three part series in The Canadian Mennonite in 2014 focused on exactly this question. The issue I raised then was that cognitive affirmations of the canon are useless without the application of the whole of the Bible in life itself. I then suggested how that might be done effectively and provided an example.

The issue then, and I suspect now, was that by affirming cognitive understandings rather than experiential encounters as was happening in the BFC process (the immediate stimulus to my series) was to lead the church into the useless kinds of debates between liberals and conservatives that turned ultimately into power plays. This was precisely what I saw had happened over the decades leading first to the ejecting of liberal voices and, with the rising of the BFC process, the ejecting of conservative voices. It was not that either was silenced, but that by cognitive understanding focused approaches both worked effectively to exclude each other from legitimacy in the debates over ethics. Under dispensational hermeneutics Liberals could not stand up on the floor. Under critical hermeneutics, Conservatives could not stand up on the floor. Both sides correctly shared the conviction that hermenutics was key to power.

My argument is that such approaches neglect the way the Bible really functions in our lives to shape the metaphors, language, and conceptual range with which we live in the world around us. The consequence needs to be a "big table" conversation about experiences within the full range of scripture and life. There is amazingly complex action and interaction going on there. It all needs to be heard.

Since that is ultimately the way we really do it, I can only wish we would turn our thinking to how to make that big table more a present aspect in our personal and church life.

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