In liturgical theology is has long been acknowledged that what we believe is determined by how we worship. As Prosper of Aquitaine put it lex orandi, lex credendi (order of worship goes before order of belief (creed)). So it should not surprise us that canon follows use. By canon I am not just referring to scripture, but of course the canon of scripture is a part of the canon of the majority of Christian communities. I am using canon in a broader sense to delimit those documents (scriptures, traditions, creeds, etc.) that are considered by the community as worthy of being read and pondered. In the Vineyard we have the Bible but we also have a canon of worship music, a statement of faith, values and priorities. We also have a number of books that are important to our movement (Quest for the Radical Middle leaps to mind here). This body or corpus of material is in a very real sense canon for our movement.
Now to clarify I am not trying at all to argue that these constitute divinely inspired writings. That is not the sense of canon I am picking up here. Canon can include (and in this case does include) material of various levels of inspiration. What I am keen to discuss in this post is how do items make it into the canon?
We might think that the Bible is a gimme. Of course if we consider the Bible God’s Word and the authority in our denomination then it is pretty much guaranteed a place in our canon. But I think we jump a step to make such an assumption. Why do we consider the Bible with such esteem? I would say that the Bible isn’t a priori but the experience of our founders with the Bible is a priori to inclusion in the canon of our community. It is because our founders, like so many other Christians before, found the scriptures to be a faithful and trustworthy foundation for faith, for this reason it was adopted into the canon. Canon follows use.
Canon, in the large sense that I am intending, is very specific to each particular gathering of people. It can be incredibly granular. For instance one group might really find Graham Cooke’s Developing Your Prophetic Gifting so helpful that they encourage everyone to read it. Another group might find Tony Campolo the thinker they think everyone should read and engage with. This doesn’t say either of these authors has a more inspired or inspiring read – but it does say something about the group. It says that someone within that group, at least one person, found that work so helpful that it was entered into the canon. I could easily do a similar comparison with worship songs; we have one group who love the song Dwell and another who are deeply moved by Sweetly Broken. They might use each others favourite songs, but it is when the song becomes a part of influencing the theological bias of the group that we can say it has entered the canon.
The key is that canon follows use. When, in 359, the semi-Arians added ‘descended’ into the creed it is because this resonated deeply with the communities they pastored. It resonated enough that it needed to become normative. The canon is what is normative for a community, what is expected will help everyone to understand and live as faithful Christians. The community always adopts that which it finds most trustworthy and beneficial. Canon is never accidental.
There are some real implications here.
First we can learn a lot about a community by looking at that community’s canon. What is key to their faith lives? What is animating them theologically? What makes them tick? As a pastor it can be incredibly helpful to work with the consensus of the group. How I pastor a group that includes Graham Cooke in their canon is quite different than how I pastor the group that does not.
The second implication is that we can begin to see how a community develops theologically. Sometimes we want to believe that this process is mystical in nature. That God has led that community to a hard and fast canon. But the reality is that we pick and choose among the many options available to us. This does not deny that God’s Spirit is involved in this process. But it recognizes that canon is something we can adjust and tweak as we go along. It is something that can and should grow with a community. It becomes a living part of the community.