Literature: The Canon

The Old Testament Canon: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings

In an Old Testament context, the word “canon” is often used to refer to list of books that make up the Old Testament Scriptures. In Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, we say that “the canon of the Old Testament is not an arbitrary list of books thrown together or decided upon in a haphazard manner. Rather, biblical writers were constantly informed and constrained by God’s Word during the process of constructing the full body of the Old Testament” (154). Take Deuteronomy 16:18–20, for example. This important passage outlines laws and regulations for rulers. This criterion is then used in Joshua–Kings as a way of evaluating rulers based on that standard. The canon is more than just a list of books that happens to be grouped together; these books have been put together by divine intent.

Since the books of the Old Testament are compiled intentionally, it follows that we should also read the Bible canonically. This kind of reading can be done by giving special attention to theological themes that appear throughout the canon. This chapter covers the themes of law, exodus, and covenant. Again, these themes are not independent of one another; all three come together at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:3–6).

We should begin our discussion of biblical law by defining our terms. The word “law” should not be seen as a rule given by a distant lawgiver, but rather as a more personal kind of instruction. Many have attempted to classify the various Old Testament laws; the most famous of these classifications is the tripartite classification of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws. But there is a better way forward: “Rather than reading Old Testament laws in order to decide to which category they belong or which of these laws are absolute and universally binding standards … the careful interpreter should see them as part of the broad narrative in which they are found” (164). By interpreting the law through this lens, we can understand that the law was originally given to and designed for Israel and has now been superseded by the new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31–34Ezek 37:24–28Gal 2:15–16). Yet the Old Testament still contains principles and lessons that Christians can apply to their specific lives in an enriching and encouraging way.

The exodus marks a significant turning point in the life of God’s people. It is one of the most remembered and repeated events in Old Testament history: “God’s faithful believers often remembered the Lord’s provision in the exodus in their praises (e.g., Pss. 66:3–6114135:8–9)” (170). The exodus was also recorded as a warning of coming judgment on those who do not remember God’s deliverance and goodness (e.g., Jer 2:5–97:21–2911:14–17).

God’s redemption through the exodus is similar to our final theme: covenant. There are two main types of covenants: one is known as the suzerain treaty in which a superior party (the suzerain) makes a formal agreement with a lesser party (the vassal). There are many biblical covenants that resemble a suzerain treaty including the entire book of Deuteronomy. These treaties contain many conditional requirements.

The second type of covenant is called a royal grant. This kind of covenant contains unconditional promises given by a beneficent king. God’s promises to Noah (Gen 9:1–17) and David (2 Sam 7:8–16) closely resemble the royal grant type. All in all, there are five main biblical covenants: the Noahic, Abraham, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants. While there are other covenant structures and forms, these five covenants provide significant structure to the narrative of the Old Testament.

The New Testament Canon: The Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse

How did Jesus interpret the Old Testament? Jesus interpreted “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). “Here,” then, “is the heart of the theology of the Old Testament—the message about the Christ—and here is the heart of New Testament theology: the fulfillment of the Old Testament message about Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God” (210).

Where does Jesus fit into the New Testament canon? Jesus did not physically write any of the books of the New Testament. All we have is books about Jesus. Yet we can be sure that there is no division between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith—the testimony of the Gospel writers is a true and reliable source for the historical Jesus. The four Gospel accounts provide the foundation for the book of Acts by showing how Jesus’ commission to his disciples then empowered them to bring the gospel to the nations. The book of Acts then provides the framework for the New Testament letters: “Peter, Paul, John, and James, all authors of New Testament epistles, are all featured in the book of Acts, which thus provides the life-setting (or perhaps better, ministry-setting) of the latter New Testament writings” (214).

An Interview on Biblical Interpretation

In conjunction with our new course on biblical interpretation at The Gospel Coalition, I was interviewed by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance. In Part 3, we discuss the importance of literature and specifically the canon. You can listen below:

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