Brevard Childs’ Canonical Reading of Paul (Part 2)

Brevard Childs’ Canonical Reading of Paul (Part 2) May 12, 2009

By the aid of Mr. Shepherd in PART 1, we were able to get a taste of what Childs is all about.  Now, I (Nijay) would like to dip into his The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus [Eerdmans, 2008] book to explore how he reads the great apostle.

Childs (C.) begins by highlighting the example of the SBL group that focused on Pauline Theology from 1986-1995.  C. observes that it is now widely recognized that ‘a broad consensus among the participants had not emerged’ (2).  Seeing himself as a fly on the wall in this conversation, C. asked himself, why has no one raised the issue of canon?  C. notes that it was agreed upon by the group that their interest would be in the ‘historical Paul’ with little interest in postbiblical developments (which would include canonical matters).  C. raises an important objection at this point:

Even to speak of a “Pauline corpus” is to enter into the arena of how the historical letters were received, treasured, and shaped, which is of course a canonical question.  Can one really search for a Pauline theology when the voices of those are missing who preserved his letters explicitly for an ongoing theological function within the early communities of Christian faith? (3)

In order to bring some coherence and unity to this mess of sorting out Paul, C. offers a solution: ‘No interpretation of a Pauline letter can be adequate that does not interpret the individual specificity of a letter also in its larger context within the Pauline corpus’ (235).

Does this require attention to post-Pauline interpreters?  C. nods affirmingly.  ‘Yes’, he says, ‘BUT – these are not just any hermeneutical guides’, they are the hermeneutical guides.  He commonly refers to them using the language of ‘shaping’ (thus, they could be dubbed ‘the canonical shapers’ -though C. does not use this phrase).

C.’s concern is this: how can we draw from the canon to find the historical Paul and not recognize the influence of how and why these letters are where they are?  The shaping of the Pauline corpus, within the NT canon, is meaningful and ‘by understanding each letter within the larger context of the entire Pauline corpus, and indeed, in relation to other parts of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, fresh constellations of meaning emerged through creative intertextual cross-referencing’ (9).

The Issue of Theological Hermeneutics

C. recognizes that his canonical approach may appear to be anti- or a-historical.  He denies that this must be the case.  Rather, borrowing language from M. Kaehler, he refers to the dialectic and fertile interaction ebtween two streams of interpretation: the first, Historie, involves ‘critical, historical exegesis’; and the second, Geschichte, involves ‘confessional, canonical understanding’ (13).  C. argues that both are necessary, but too much emphasis has been placed on Historie, but the canon itself demands to be read as Geschichte (as well?).

So, what do we do with Historical Criticism?

Can historical criticism offer a clear and precise interpretation of Paul?  How?  Should it be done away with?  In order to explore this hermeneutic issue, C. interacts with the hermeneutical models of Ulrich Luz, Richard Hays, Frances Young, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Wayne Meeks.  He finds points of agreement with the first three and criticizes the latter two.

C. appreciates Luz’s interest in Wirkungsgeschichte which offers ‘an attempt to overcome the distance between the ancient author and its modern interpretation that occurs in the historical critical approach by making more precise the range of inherited assumptions one brings consciously or unconsciously to the text’ (30, Childs).  However, C. appears to be concerned with Luz does not privilege any post-biblical reading (whereas C. obviously would affirm the normative shaping of the canon).

With Hays and Young, C. finds helpful their critique of relying too much on historical criticism.  However, C. shows concern with both for the disregarding of canon in light of a ‘charismatic’ hermeneutic (Hays) or a ‘postmodern’ one (Young).  C. strongly avers: ‘The assigning by the church of a privileged status to the apostolic witness a the primary testimony to the incarnation of Jesus Christ served to draw a line between Scripture and all subsequent church traditions’ (36).

With Johnson and Meeks, C. detects a disregard for the canon as well.  With Johnson, C. finds his separation of ‘exegesis’ (historical ancient-context intepretation) and ‘hermeneutics’ (modern relevance) to be troubling.  C. demonstrates stronger disagreement with Meeks and his sociological model.

‘In Meeks’ sociological construal, all the Christology of the Gospel is omitted– by definition a lifeless doctrine– and the theological dimension is flattened into a sociological function of the community’ (58).

In a sense, C.’s book is written as a direct refutation of Meeks’ hermeneutic.  In the next part we will engage in C.’s reading of Paul according to the canon and the church.


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