Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible: Exploring the History and Hermeneutics of the Canon, by Ched Spellman (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014) 294 pages.

CCHistorically there has been a lamentable lack of attention among Evangelicals on the formation of the canon. This is unfortunate, writes Ched Spellman in the introduction of Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible, because “one’s understanding of the story of how the Scriptures came to be has a direct impact on how God’s revelation is understood and how the Bible is interpreted” (1).

While there has been a proliferation in academic literature concerning issues of canon formation and issues of hermeneutics in recent years, rarely have the two areas been brought together into a sustained interaction. Hence, Spellman’s monograph is unique in offering a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis that is exegetical, historical, and hermeneutical, demonstrating helpful interconnections between the historical and hermeneutical lines of inquiry.

The main argument of Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible is that “contemporary interpreters of the Bible have legitimate grounds for utilizing the concept of canon as a control on the interpretive task” (3).

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Chapter 1 sets the stage by defining the terms of the canon debate and recognizing the role of presuppositions. Spellman explains the primary two nuances to the definition of “canon” derived from κανών and notes that “there is an organic relationship between the two senses of the term and how their use developed and evolved in the believing community…Combining these two senses, the ‘biblical canon’ was and can be understood as an authoritative collection of authoritative writings” (18). He also provides overviews of the narrow and broad understandings of canon as well as the process of canon formation, concluding with five broad areas of fruitful inquiry for reshaping the boundaries of the canon discussion. One of the five areas noted at the end of Chapter 1 is the value of canon-consciousness, which is the subject of Chapter 2.

Here in chapter 2, Spellman examines both internal and external evidence to argue that a form of canon-consciousness (according to a broad understanding of canon) was at work in the biblical writers and the early believing community. Regarding the internal evidence he considers both the composition phase (the way the OT uses the OT, the NT uses the OT, and the NT uses the OT) and the canonization phase (the way biblical documents were grouped together). Concerning the external evidence he notes evidence for the shape of both the Hebrew Bible (Ben Sira) as well as the NT (Muratorian Fragment). Chapters 1 and 2 serve as the foundation on which the rest of the study is built.

After having explored the historical matters of how the canon formed, Chapter 3 shifts to addressing how the canon functions. “The notion of canon-consciousness applies here to the reader of the biblical text. Just as an awareness of canon was a factor for biblical writers, it can also serve an interpretive function for biblical readers” (101, emphases original). This chapter examines the interpretive value of a canon-conscious reading of Scripture, developing the two main levels of contextuality of the canon – mere contextuality and meant contextuality. The main difference is that the former does not deal with the notion of intention, whereas the latter does.

Chapter 4 delves into one specific line of evidence for discerning meant contextuality in the biblical canon – intertextuality. Here Spellman provides a helpful overview of the linguistic and literary roots of intertextuality and notes why it’s suited to the biblical textual task despite potential pitfalls. He argues for a production-oriented approach and then provides brief overviews of intertextual quotations, allusions, and echoes. Finally, Spellman uses the book of Revelation to illustrate the value of studying biblical contextuality and intertextuality by demonstrating that it “is best interpreted in light of its compositional shape, as an integral part of the New Testament canon, and as an integral part of the Christian canon as a whole” (181).

In the final chapter of this study, Spellman explores the insights of literary and semiotic studies into the role of the reader, discussing the theological and hermeneutical characteristics of the implied reader of the biblical text as well as the matter of the real reader becoming the implied reader of the biblical text. The book ends with a concluding chapter including several appendices, one of which surveys the intertextual connections between Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22.

Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible is both accessible enough for the thinking layperson and nonspecialist and robust enough (through copious and detailed footnotes) for the student and scholar of canonical issues. This monograph presents a masterful interdisciplinary study that draws together scholarly insights from canon studies, historical studies, and literary studies to address both the historical issue of how the canon came to be and the hermeneutical question of what this means for readers of the canon.

Spellman not only convincingly argues for the presence of a robust canon-consciousness in the biblical writers and early believing community, but goes a step further than most other works on the formation of the canon by connecting it to hermeneutical issue and contending that there are legitimate grounds for using the concept of canon as a control on the interpretive task. “The hermeneutical payoff of this governing function is that the canon helps guide contemporary readers through the biblical material by limiting and generating textual connections, and also helps identify the intended audience of the Christian Bible as a whole” (217).

Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible is an extremely valuable book for Christians interested in the historical and hermeneutical matters of the Christian canon.

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