Posted by: Billy Marsh | January 26, 2010

Canon, Interpretation, and the Epistle to the Hebrews

Last Fall my first Ph. D. research (not reading) seminar was Dr. Lee’s “Theological Interpretation“. After about 4 or 5 weeks of introductory readings within the field, we submitted our prospective research bibliographies and our initial thesis topics/statements. From then on out we were required either to read one book or 7 articles pertaining to our research topic each week. This setup allowed for the course to truly function as a forum for furthering the student’s research and writing skills. It also gave us the room to dig deep into our topics, so when it came time to write my paper, all of the research was done. In my opinion that’s the way to write a paper for a course. I was able to immerse myself into my thesis which is something that I’ve  never really been able to do in the past. In most courses, you are writing a 20 page paper while still reading required books for the class as well as other daily assignments and tests. I’m proud of the end result of my first attempt at a Ph. D. paper, and through it, the Lord increased not only my knowledge of himself through the Word, but also he strengthened my faith and confidence in the scriptures as the Spirit-inspired written Word of God thus giving me a greater appetite to read it for the sake of knowing and loving him more.

My paper is titled “A Canonical Approach to Hebrews” (you can also find it in my “Theology” section along with most of my other papers and resources). What that means is that I tried to discern if there was, and if so, what that role might be, of Hebrews in the New Testament canon. In other words, when we speak of Scripture as canon, is there more to what we are saying than simply a loosely assorted collection of divinely authoritative and Spirit-inspired writings? Is there theological intent to the placement of a book of the Bible in its canonical setting? One of the main issues I continue to wrestle with is that we mainly treat the biblical writings in an individualistic fashion, often isolating works from the rest of Scripture, yet we are always forced to engage Scripture by means of the canon. Because we have received the Bible as the Bible and not as 66 individual booklets, shouldn’t there be more interpretive value to Scripture as canon than the traditional way of defining it as a term for authority and what writings “made the cut” so to speak.

The paper is broken up into three main sections. First, in “A Canonical Approach to the Formation of the NT Canon,” I attempt to provide a theological understanding of canon that flies in the face of the traditional way of reading and interpreting the history of the Bible’s canonization that says one cannot speak of canon until the fourth century when it finally closes at the hands of a council. Likewise, the view I promote argues for a “canon consciousness” at the very inception of the NT writings which bears upon it both the material and the formal influence of the OT canon. Carefully setting up this canonical framework is crucial for understanding what I am doing in the section section. In section one, I draw heavily upon the canon expertise of Brevard Childs, Herman Ridderbos, Stephen Dempster, and Christopher Seitz.

Section two is entitled, “The Migration and Association of Hebrews in the NT Canon“. In this part I analyze the three main positions of Hebrews in the NT canon in order to discern “canonical intentionality” which is another way of saying that Hebrews’ placement in the canonical order has more to do with theological and interpretive decisions than something less significant as its length or dating per se. The three main placements in chronological order are: after Romans, between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy, and after Philemon. I apply Seitz’s thesis of canon association and formation as an achievement to the movement of Hebrews in the NT, particularly in as a part of the Pauline corpus. Seitz’s thesis can be found in his recent publication, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets.

Once I finish my argument for canonical intentionality in the placement of Hebrews, in the third section, “The Canonical Functionality of Hebrews,” I seek to demonstrate two possible ways Hebrews was meant to function in its final canonical location after Philemon. First I suggest that Hebrews works as an interpretive guide for the Pauline collection regarding how one should understand the relationship between the old and new covenants in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here I draw heavily upon the seminal work of Graham Hughes’ Hebrews and Hermeneutics. And second, I posit a potential “contextual” reading of Hebrews as a “canonical coordinate” building off of certain articles of Robert Wall. In this view, Hebrews serves as a bridge between the Gentile Mission (Paul’s writings) and the Jewish Christian Mission (the General Epistles). In Wall’s words, Hebrews as a “canonical coordinate” creates as “canonical conversation” between these two groupings of NT writings.

Finally, as I state in my “Conclusion,” this paper is only the groundwork for a much larger project. It was more or less a means for me to put to the test many of the ideas about Scripture, the canon, and theological interpretation that I’ve been considering and wrestling with now for the past couple of years. I greatly enjoyed the entire process of putting this paper together. I have had many good conversations both in class with my peers and Dr. Lee and with others outside of the seminary about the issues and questions that my paper raises, and it has been a tremendouslyprofitbale learning experience as iron sharpens iron. I would love it if some of you would read the paper when you get a chance and give me some feedback with comments and questions. As always, I’d love to dialogue about it here on my blog with you for the edification of God’s church.

Here are some great books that were fundamental in my research:


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