“Collaboration on Canon” by Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis (Part 1 of 3)

Robert W. Wall is Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. David R. Nienhuis is associate professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University. Together, they have written the new book Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection.

When we approached them to write to write a guest post for EerdWord, they responded with an unusual proposal: they would each write separately about the individual paths that brought them into this project, then comment together on the collaborative partnership that took them through it.

How could we resist?! 

First up is Rob Wall, whose story follows. 

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Robert W. Wall
Robert W. Wall

Co-authored publications like this one often come at the end of long intellectual journeys, made up of one discovery at a time by one collaborator at a time. The journey that brought Dave and me to the research question we address in our book, Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John & Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection, began almost twenty years ago during my preparations to write a commentary on the Letter of James, The Community of the Wise (1997). My reading of James was colored by my dissatisfaction with Protestantism’s hand wringing over the troubled relationship between Paul and James. Most attempts at the time to explain this biblical pairing were historical critical reconstructions that fixed them and their first-century differences at arm’s length from their contemporary readers.

I decided to engage their distinctive witnesses as a dialogue. Framed and freighted by the theological idea of a biblical “canon” in which the two stand shoulder-to-shoulder, I set out to read James with Paul rather than against him. My goal was to hear each witness to God’s gospel in its own voice and in a way that complemented the differences between them — as a mutually-enriching dialogue rather than an adversarial or disinterested one. In particular, aware of an over-determined appropriation of the Pauline witness to support a gutless sola fideism, I tried to produce a reading of James that corrected this Paulinism, in the conviction that this is a key role James performs within the New Testament canon.

Having presented this way of thinking about the relationship between the letters of Paul and the letters of James, I began to think about the relationship of Acts and the two collections of letters within their canonical context. The result of this “think” is layered into my commentary on Acts (NIB, 2002). In particular, this research convinced me of the theological and rhetorical importance of the “canonical” portraits of Paul and James presented in Acts for framing the church’s reading of their letters. That is, Acts introduces the faithful reader to the implied authors of New Testament letters and to the pattern of life and mission these letters seek to cultivate in the church.

Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture
Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture

My next “aha!” discovery during this journey took place whilst I was preparing a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (THCNT, 2012). Naturally aware of the troubled status of these letters within the academy, I began to work with a different question: why did the church add these three letters to the Pauline canon? After all, we receive Scripture from and with the church. In tracking down an answer to this question, I became increasingly aware of the phenomenon of collection building in canonization and its importance for cuing the roles of collections within Scripture. That is, the New Testament canon took its final shape as whole collections were gathered together, and not as books were added piecemeal one at a time.

My study of the canonization of the Pauline corpus observed that the three Pastoral Epistles were added to complete the Pauline canon within the emerging New Testament by the end of the second century. But why? It is my conclusion that these letters were included to give instructions to the custodians of Paul’s apostolic witness, now received as Scripture, and to provide both an extraordinary biography of Paul and neat theological formulae that sum up his gospel. These materials, along with the biography of a canonical Paul in Acts, provide guideposts for the church’s use of Paul’s letters in forming the wisdom necessary for salvation and the moral maturity to engage in God’s good works (cf. 2 Tim 3:15-17).

During this part of my journey, I began to think again about James and the canonical collection of so-called “Catholic Epistles” it fronts. The challenge of grasping the “aesthetic excellence” of this sevenfold set of letters is quite different than with Pauline corpus. How can we begin to think of such admittedly dissimilar writings as a discrete collection? It was my early response to this question about collection building (“The Unifying Theology of the Catholic Epistles as a Collection,” presented at the 2004 meeting of the SNTS) that poured the foundation for the present book.

In a sense, each  step in my journey to this point had been taken backwards from the final shape of Scripture, as I attempted to understand better why the church received the text it has. What I felt was still needed for me to comprehend the present shape of the Catholic Epistles collection was a careful examination of the historical phenomenon during which this collection took its final shape — the steps leading forward.

As good fortune would have it, my close friend and colleague, Dave Nienhuis, had just finished a brilliant PhD thesis (now published as Not By Paul Alone [Baylor, 2007]) in which he had begun to map the formation of the Catholic Epistles collection in early Christianity. Happily he accepted my invitation to join forces, and the partnership that produced this book began!

Click to order Reading the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude as Scripture: The Shaping and Shape of a Canonical Collection by Robert W. Wall and David R. Nienhuis, and be sure to check back tomorrow for part two of this series.