The Divine Qualities of the Canon

In an otherwise excellent scholarly study of the biblical “canon” (Canon Revisited, Crossway, 2012—highly recommended!) Michael J. Kruger makes the following observations in his 4th chapter having the above title. The first is attributed to Barth: “The [canonical] texts are authoritative not in virtue of any property they may have. Instead, what sets them apart is that the Spirit uses them, despite their ordinariness, to speak to the church” (pp. 125-6, added italics). Then, on the basis of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Kruger discerns “three categories of divine qualities: (1) the beauty and excellency of Scripture, (2) the efficacy and power of Scripture, and (3) the unity and harmony of Scripture” (126-7). He goes on to comment: “It should be noted that the Confession’s understanding of the ‘majesty of style’ is not a reference to rhetorical or literary qualities that would apply to modern man. The beauty of Scripture, then, is a spiritual beauty, not just an aesthetic one” (127-8, added italics).

While not wishing to deny the primacy of the “spiritual” dimension of Scripture, I wonder why there needs to be a separation here. Can it not be both—and, rather than either—or with regard to the Bible’s compositional qualities, that is, BOTH spiritual AND literary? A great many passages and pericopes of the Scriptures—not only the Psalms (e.g., 45) and 1 Cor. 13—manifest much passion, impact, and appeal along with the focal theological, paraenetic, or ethical content that they convey (for some examples, see Translating the Literature of Scripture, SIL International, 2004). The literary form of the text, in both its Macro– as well as micro-levels and especially when uttered aloud, is anything but “ordinary”! These varied forms thus serve to highlight, underscore, embellish, or otherwise enhance the text’s intended meaning. Thus, with reference to the three attributive categories noted above, literary artistry pertains to the excellent beauty of Scripture, rhetoric to its efficacious power, and a well-shaped structure to its harmonious unity. Passages such as 1 Cor. 2:4-5 cannot be used to argue against this understanding of the Scripture’s manifold literary qualities, for Paul here is speaking primarily about the inner motives and attitudes of the Scripture proclaimer’s heart, not the resultant external compositional style of his writing or speech (cf. Acts 17:21-31)—claiming that unless the former is right with God, the latter is pure pagan vanity.

As Stephen B. Chapman observes in “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible” (Craig Bartholomew,, eds., Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Zondervan, 2006): “If inspiration extends throughout the entire process of canon formation, then revelation extends to the literary aspects of the canon as well. In other words, the literary dimension of the canon is itself part of what God has revealed. . . . The canon’s arrangement, form, structure, and literary features are therefore part and parcel of its witness or kerygma… the literary features of the text are inspired, too, and not just the concepts” (pp. 193-4, added italics). The more one reads of Scripture—of its diverse books and genres—and the more deeply, with eyes (and ears!) attentive to a particular text’s forms as well as its content, the more fully one will become convinced of this fact. Such a sensitive literary procedure will, in fact, reveal many new hermeneutical insights and generate an even deeper appreciation for familiar passages, all the while reinforcing other well-known truths in turn.

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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