Brevard Childs’ Canonical Reading of Paul (Part 1; Guest Post)

Brevard Childs’ Canonical Reading of Paul (Part 1; Guest Post) April 24, 2009

[Nijay: I have recently finished reading Brevard Childs The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus (Eerdmans, 2008). In the near future I would like to offer my own thoughts, praises, and criticisms for what Childs was trying to accomplish. I recognize that when it comes to theological intepretation in general and the work of Childs in particular I am a bit out of my element.

As a sort of preparation, both for myself and also for readers like me, I have asked a friend to give a brief introduction to Childs’ thought and his influence in theological hermeneutics. Below you will find wise words from Charlie Shepherd, PhD student here at Durham studying under Walter Moberly. He is much more qualified to speak about Childs and his reflections will help me (and some of you) to better understand what Childs is trying to do with Paul.]


As a brief preamble, Brevard Childs has himself become the object of extensive engagement in academic circles. Unfortunately, this calls for the obligatory, academic disclaimer of ‘this is not, per se, my area of expertise’. Especially in the field of canonical-criticism, it is only recently that the dust of controversy following Childs’s many publications is beginning to settle, as his work is now being appropriated along the lines of literary, theological, and hermeneutical grounds (e.g. Mark Brett, Chris Seitz, and Walter Moberly, relatively respectively). This year PhDs will be published, which attempt to set Childs in contexts both wide and specific, and a good number of articles will cite the Old Testament scholar in assent, dissent, or most likely somewhere in between. Though I will not belong to either of these groups, I have had to come to grips with at least a cursory understanding of the man and his method, so I hope I will have something, albeit briefly, to say.

Regarding Childs’s own historical situation he was, by any estimate, a master of handling the Old Testament with the tools that historical-critical study afforded (source, form, and redaction criticism being but three examples). Three of his early monographs – his PhD Thesis on ‘Myth’ in Genesis 1-11 (1953), his Memory and Tradition in Israel (1962), and his textual-critical work in Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (1967) – show a command of the field that would extend through the ensuing five decades of his writing career. Yet from the very first, Childs exhibited an uneasiness regarding the way in which historical-critical tools, and especially the method they buttressed, had come to hold sway as the normative framework within which to read and interpret the Old Testament (and the New Testament as well, though this aspect of his work did not receive the critical ricochet he had hoped for).

In this criticism of historical-critical tools as normative for biblical interpretation, Childs sought to dub such methods as inadequate, insufficient, and potentially theologically reductionistic. But they key lay in the word ‘normative’; for Childs sought not to oppose such methods, but rather to subsume them into a larger, broader framework of interpretation; to have them lend a certain ‘depth dimension’ to biblical theology, though without falling ‘victim to the persistent pitfalls of critical scholarship since the Enlightenment’ (1992:216-17).

Situated as these tools were within critical methodology, Childs’s canonical approach acknowledged two fundamental bases on which Christian interpreters must stand (if they are to keep that epithet). The first basis is the ability of the canonical text to make theological statements itself, by virtue not only of its content, but also of its shape. Reading simply with historical, linguistic, socio-political, or literary interests will inevitably fail to catch the theological significance communicated through the shape and presentation of the present/final form of the text (it will fall victim to the pitfalls of post-Enlightenment critical scholarship…). Inasmuch as Christian interpreters laid stress on the theological witness of the content of revelation, Childs stressed that the form, or shape, of this revelation was of equal importance for the theological task.

This risk is most dangerously run when purely historical inquiry, though perhaps seeking to map theological contour and depth, opts for a re-organization of the biblical material. For the sake of brevity, one such example from Childs may suffice. In opting to place the Prophetic corpus prior to the Law (both historically and theologically), Wellhausen’s famous 1878 Prolegomena missed something of the canonical shape of the Pentateuch itself. Childs writes:

The first five books of the Pentateuch constitute Israel’s Torah. Genesis witnesses to God’s salvific purpose for his entire creation. Exodus recounts the redemption of Israel from Egyptian captivity and the gracious giving of the Law to order the life of the redeemed people. Then Israel was disobedient and forced to wander in the wilderness until a new generation arose. The central question of Deuteronomy concerned the validity of the Torah for this new generation that had not experienced the giving of the Law at Sinai. The book of Deuteronomy, composed as the speech of Moses just before his death, offered an authoritative interpretation of the Torah for every successive generation of Israel: ‘The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our fathers (only) did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here, alive, this day’ (5:2–3). The book of Deuteronomy was then placed canonically at the end of the Pentateuch as a guide on how the preceding Law was to be heard for all later generations. Thus, when Wellhausen altered the canonical order of the OT by placing the prophets before the Torah, he seriously distorted its theological witness. (Childs, ‘Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation’, 382).

Wellhausen, to what might become the dismay of many, was not operating inimically to Christian Faith. He sought to highlight the main theological thrust of the Old (and New) Testaments – to illuminate what he saw as Scripture’s Sache. But he did not afford the canonical shape of Scripture to speak on its own terms, which were ‘the product of theological reflection on the sacred writings’ (Childs 2005:383). With this theological reflection superintending the redacting/canonizing processes, we are left with a text in which ‘the divine promise is not a coefficient of the past, but a witness recorded for future generations…’, thus ‘a canonical approach is radically theocentric in orientation rather than anthropocentric’ (1990:363).

The second basis on which Childs’s method stands is the extension, for the Church, of the canonical form forward to the New Testament. Such a situating would be seen to ‘extend’ the witness of the Old Testament, rather than to cloud or contradict it (Childs 1997:61). A fellow contender for canonical reading, Chris Seitz, has made the same case, in reference to handling the prophets:

If this canonical dimension can find proper restatement, the promise follows for better understanding of what it means for the Old Testament to function as Christian Scripture, hermeneutically and theologically. The prophets do not simply promise Christ from afar. Christ is the means by which a dynamic intrinsically at work in their own providential activity is shown to be what it is, according to a specific purpose given to them in their own day, as the canon has figured that in. (2007:44)

Much work has recently been done on the precise grounding or justification of this kind of extension, and how canonical criticism either validates or invalidates certain models of ‘extension’ (Mark Brett has recently given this considerable attention).

The ecclesial setting for canonical reading – seeing Jesus Christ to be the res to which the canon witnesses – is ‘not’, as a recent reviewer has put it, ‘a matter for embarrassment but rather is an act of fides quaerens intellectum’ (See Lincicum’s review of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth in JTI 2/2 (2008), 287); as such, this holds import for interpretative methodology. The decision to listen to the canonical shape of Scripture has a particularly theological rationale behind it, inescapable for the Christian interpreter, and realized ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ.

Hopefully this is not too shocking. The point has been analogously set forth by Wolterstorff, in his language of the ‘authorization’ of texts (see his Divine Discourse, 41ff., as well as his 2004 essay, ‘The Unity Behind the Canon’). Francis Watson writes that the ‘criteria by which scriptural communicative actions are assessed derive from God’s definitive communicative action in the incarnation of the Word’ (Text and Truth, 123). And Seitz, again, argues that ‘even with its extraordinary doctrine of election, the Old Testament presents itself from the very beginning from the perspective of God, whose final resolution Christians see in a Jesus who came and will come again’ (2004:8).

Seitz, Wolterstorff, and Watson (among others of their stripe) should be read as those who have struggled to see what implication Childs’s methodology holds for theological readings of the Old Testament, New Testament, and a larger united Christian canon (the significance of Barth in this regard cannot go without note – in the little reading of Barth that I’ve done, his prefaces to the second and third editions of his Romans commentary still witness powerfully and persuasively to an explicitly Christocentric modus hermeneutici).

But not getting too far astray, the first basis above – that the canonical text has the capacity to make theological statements on its own terms – is perhaps the conviction that drove the agenda in Childs’s posthumously published The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus. Whether this is a fair transfer of method is a question to be addressed by New Testament experts (e.g. do the vastly different levels of historical accessibility between Old and New Testament texts allow for such an informing role of canonical shape, or allow for such a transfer of method?).

More could certainly be said. The broader issue of the sociology of knowledge, for example – i.e. whether it is fundamentally schizophrenic to be a Christian biblical interpreter, and yet seek to ‘bracket out’ concerns of faith when interpreting the text – is something I have left to the side. Further, there is always the necessary caveat that Childs’s concerns should probably not be relegated to the Old Testament alone, as Watson has raised very similar frustrations in relation to New Testament scholarship’s proclivity toward historical reconstruction and theological reductionsism (Text, Church, World, 257). But I think it will do a good measure of justice to Childs if the general rationale for a canonical approach can be seen, and what this may forecast for explicitly Christocentric handlings of the biblical text in light of its canonical shape.

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