Romans 13: 1-2, 7: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. [. . .] Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Colossians 1:16-18: For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

Revelation 18:1-5: After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries." Then I heard another voice from heaven say: "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.

Origin of "Canon"

The Greek word kanon means "rod" or "reed". It was appropriated by the Western tradition to signify the rule of law because it suggests a measurement or standard by which to judge what is acceptable and/or authoritative. Typically, it was used to speak of church authority, so that if something was canonical, it represented an expression of ecclesiastical law. The term was also used to refer to those specific books considered part of the Bible, so canonical interpretation meant to consider something within the larger setting of scripture as a whole. The "canon" was a closed set of works, ones considered binding for doctrine and life.

The Canonical Debate

The term "canon" by the late nineteenth century began to be applied to secular authority, as well as secular collections of texts. One could speak of "the canon of Plato's works," for instance. Currently, in the field of literature, "the canonical debate" refers to which literary texts are considered "great" or important. This is a source of continued debate for a number of reasons:

  1. There is no single agreed upon standard for what makes a work of literature great. Different communities, scholars, and cultures have differing ideas and considerations.
  2. Of course, this doesn't imply that there are no standards; rather, there are several competing ones.
  3. Canons are a matter of authority. After all, someone has to decide what works will be printed and studied. Often, this authority is institutional in nature: universities, English departments, and individual professors continually make decisions about what will be assigned to students, required for majors, and placed in the college catalog.
  4. Canons, because they make choices about what is valued and studied, by their very nature also exclude what is not considered as valuable or worthwhile. This works itself out in differing ways. The professor who decides that a class should study Cervantes rather than the Sex Pistols is making a decision about values, but then so is the teacher who decides between Dante and Chaucer due to time considerations.
  5. This is especially problematic when the decisions about what is valuable lead to the exclusion of the works of whole portions of society.

For instance, only a generation ago, works by people of color and women were not often included in the standard, received canon of "great works". Currently, they make up a substantial portion, in large part because people were willing to challenge the received wisdom about what should be studied.

Classic vs. Canon

Many times the terms "classic" and "canon" are used interchangeably. Classics are simply what make up the canon. Others insist that the two represent differing approaches to the problem. A "canonical" approach is about setting limits on what can and will be considered acceptable, while a "classical" approach is about recognizing what has continued to be received as valuable. In this line of reasoning, the "Great Books" are not a closed canon, where only these one hundred works and no others may be read. Instead, they are a collection of works that have been influential in a culture in part because so many have found an encounter with them enriching. The number of possible classics is unlimited. They can and do encompass all the cultures of humanity -- Asian, African, Islamic, European, Native American, and so forth. 

Nonetheless, there are still problems with this because different cultures and epochs and communities differ in what makes something valuable, beautiful, worthwhile, or well-made. Communities may come to shared standards, but those standards do differ from place to place. Louise Cowan has suggested the following seven reasons for why a text is considered a classic:

Louise Cowan's Suggestions for the Text Being Considered Classic

  1. "The classics not only exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect but create whole universes of imagination and thought.
  2. They portray life as complex and many-sided, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues.
  3. They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.
  4. They invite and survive frequent rereadings.
  5. They adapt themselves to various times and places and provide a sense of the shared life of humanity.
  6. They are considered classics by a sufficiently large number of people, establishing themselves with common readers as well as qualified authorities.

And, finally, their appeal endures over wide reaches of time". (21-22)

Ideally, the first five reasons result in the last two. But once one considers that "fine artistry" and a "transforming effect" can take on different shapes in different periods, one realizes that the problem of the canon has not gone away.

Decisions Still have to be Made

The classics have to survive history, so to speak. They have to continue to make an impact as generations pass and as standards change. And each community has to continue to decide what is valuable, and therefore, what will be taught and praised. Because of this, it would be a mistake to compare the problem of a literary canon too closely to the Christian understanding of the Biblical canon. Christians certainly differed in the first few centuries over which books should be considered divine revelation, and Catholics and Protestants continue to disagree about the Apocrypha, but the number of these works does not change. Literary canons, on the other hand do change and adapt, even if that change is generally slow. Some works drop out; others enter; not all stay the course. Some become valuable for differing reasons. Shakespeare continues to be a standard, but his contemporary John Webster, outside Renaissance courses, rarely is, while Aemilia Layner, a seventeenth-century poet, long ignored, is now anthologized.

Christian thinking on the subject of authority is applicable here. Christians do not believe that all authority is arbitrary. Indeed, Christians believe that some can be legitimate. In some sense, all authority is from God and is finally under God's supreme rule and influence. Yet Christians also recognize that some systems of power, like the political symbol of the Whore of Babylon, are corrupt and must be abandoned. As a people we are to "come out" from such destruction. The problem then becomes how do we abide by and yet critique authority in the world?

Not all of it (at least in a human sense) is mandated from above. Some, rather than being transcendent, is immanent; it comes "from below". If the classical model of canon formation is correct, then some authority is more by consensus and typical practice. This is why Christians should be part of the canonical process of formation. Just because classic works are part of a commonly judged standard, and just because that canon is open to change, there is no guarantee that such change promises only good things or that our interests and values will be reflected there. Christians believe that Christ is the destined and rightfully head of all humanity; he has a special authority to speak to the minds and emotions of people. We should be about promoting artistically well done works that speak to the Christian worldview.

A Classic's Authority 

Equally, we should deepen our sense of how a "classic" has authority over us -- not in some non-negotiable sense, but in the sense that it reflects a history of reception and value that may be generations old. A classic's power is not that of master-slave, where we simply agree to believe, accept, and not question what we are taught and told to do. Rather, its power derives from an extensive conversation of questions and discussions which we join; we are citizens, so to speak, with others.

And I am reminded as a teacher that I should be wary of how I use my limited authority; hopefully it is principled rather than arbitrary and open to critique rather than closed.

Central Insight

Christians should be part of the process of forming literary canons, and they should recognize and understand the limited authority that classic works have on them.

Suggestions for Application

These insights are perhaps best practiced at the research (and institutional) level. Consider arguing for why an overlooked work should be studied more often, or try showing how the debate over a particular work expands our understanding.

Cowan, Louise and Os Guinness. Invitation to the Classics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.