Biblical Theology and Canon

Biblical Theology and Canon December 3, 2012

In the late 80s and early 90s perhaps no Old Testament scholar had built around him a way of Bible reading more than Brevard Childs at Yale. Childs resisted two approaches to Bible and theology — the historical-critical method that all but ignored theology and the “biblical theology” approach because it was too historical-critical in approach. He proposed what is often called a “canonical approach.” Childs knew his Bible well, and not just his Old Testament — so much so that he wrote an The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, which I read as a young professor and then reviewed in TSF Bulletin. I sent my review to Childs, and he wrote back a long response which TSF Bulletin also published. I often greeted Childs at the SBL meetings and was saddened to hear, years later, that he was not physically well … a full study of Childs has been published by Daniel Driver, Brevard Childs, Biblical Theologian.

Today our concern is how Edward Klink and Darian Lockett, in their Understanding Biblical Theology, sketch a fourth type of biblical theology: Biblical Theology as Canonical Approach. The big issue here is to call attention to biblical theology as something involving decisions by the church on what constitutes its Bible. Bible is not just a document; it is a church’s book, a canon (as list and as norm for its theology).

But the big point is this one: the place for determining meaning is not the original setting or the original author but the text in its final form in the context of the canon. The task then for biblical theology is to affirm importance of canon.

What do you think of the “canonical approach” to biblical theology? What happens to our study of the Bible if we recognize canon as an important theological approach?

It looks more specifically like this:

1. The goal is not to find the original event, etc but to examine/explain the final “construal” of the event in the Scripture. The problems with the “find the original event/text/history” approach: history determines truth not the text; hypothesis makes all conclusions speculative; the Bible as the church’s text is denied; history trumps theology. Childs himself embraced the hist-crit method but it was swallowed into his canonical approach.
2. OT and NT are interwoven in this approach because they are unified. The Hebrew Bible becomes the Christian Old Testament, and Jesus Christ becomes the substance — though this does not mean the OT is swamped by NT theology. The OT is the initial hearing that is heard more fully in Christ.
3. The Bible as canon means the Bible is the church’s theology.
4. The substance and scope of the Bible is Jesus Christ. [This cuts a bit into BT2, the history of redemption approach, which makes redemption the substance of the Bible.]

5. I add this one: the canonical approach also asks what a given text — say John — now means in light of its inclusion in the canon, and might even ask what its ordered location (fourth Gospel, just before Acts) in the Bible means for how to read that text. My point here is that the canonical approach shapes each text in light of its placement in canon. As with BT2’s salvation history influence and BT3’s worldview-story influence, so this approach sees the decisive influence from canon. One might say BT2 and BT3 are “canons” within the canon influences — they ask what is driving the canon while the canonical approach asks that from a wider angle.

His approach has three “steps”:

1. Begin with the ancient text and its “plain” sense.
2. Dialogue between ancient text and canon.
3. Dialogue between subject matter and ancient text.

Christopher Seitz, a disciple of Childs, sees three areas: literary/exegetical (the final form is a commentary on the preceding forms of the text), catholic/ecclesial (the questions the church has posed to the Bible matter), and theological.

There are problems here, some of them overblown a bit, but many have pointed to lack of clarity on the meaning of “canon” — though I think this distracts from the genuine contribution of Childs and, at the same time, the challenge of making this approach work. A significant question for me is “Whose canon? Which canon? Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish?” And “Which text?” This one is interesting because Childs embraces the entire textual manuscript tradition of the church … variants, too!

"My conclusions are backed up by psychological evidence as you will learn if you watch ..."

Can Egalitarians and Complementarians Find Unity?
"Can 2 walk together unless they agree? (Amos 3) hum...I think not. If both camps ..."

Can Egalitarians and Complementarians Find Unity?
"The explanation concerning the composition of Isaiah is excellent. Evangelical Christians are trained to equate ..."

Who Was the Intended Audience? (RJS)
"Is this column taken from a single chapter in Bartlett's book? I have a copy ..."

Can Egalitarians and Complementarians Find Unity?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rick

    If, as you Scot contend, that the canon is built around (or in relationship to) “gospel”, then this approach makes sense.

  • Jesse Reese

    Interesting. I’ve heard Childs’ name for a long time, but after reading this I find myself highly intrigued. Of what you’ve described so far, this is easily the approach that best fits my way of approaching Scripture.

    I’m not sure I see the challenge of “whose canon?” as highly problematic, though. As the Anglican formularies so eloquently state, there is universal agreement on the Protestant Old and New Testaments, and the relative prominence of the other texts in different communions is simply part of the nature of “canon:” that is, it is the result of the fact that the canon is formed by the ecclesiastical conversation attempting to discern, preserve, and more deeply understand the Rule of Faith that shapes the canon. So of course there won’t be an ironclad way of determining what is “canon,” it is a conversation within and between communions that have their own traditions. The tendency to see this as problematic is, so far as I can see, the result of a rather mechanistic view of biblical inspiration necessitated by radical Protestantism.

  • Joe Canner

    Scot, in #5 you discuss the importance of the order of the books in the canon. How would apply this to Paul’s epistles, which are in order by recipient (groups/individuals) and by length, an algorithm that totally obscures any chronological/historical significance they may have originally had. Not to mention that some of them (Galatians, for example) were written before Acts and refer to events mentioned in Acts but in first person rather than third person.

  • Norman


    Could you clarify this section a bit? … “A significant question for me is “Whose canon? Which canon? Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish?” And “Which text?” This one is interesting because Childs embraces the entire textual manuscript tradition of the church … variants, too!”

    What do you mean by “Childs embraces the entire textual manuscript tradition of the church … variants, too!” Are you inferring that he might embrace 2T literature that may have been considered scripture in the early church? 1 Enoch, Jubilees etc.?

  • John I.

    A canonical approach should also inform textual criticism and the unattainable goal of recovering the words of an NT book as “written by” Paul or another author (including as written by any helpers).

  • Isaac

    I have always found this idea intriguing, but I’ve never been able to answer all the questions it raises about itself.
    Why did the Church canonize these texts and not others? Why canonize this particular collection ancient texts at all, and not other texts of equal antiquity, or systematic expositions of 2nd and 3rd century theology? Childs may be able to give answers to these questions, but the answers still strike me as ad hoc.
    The practice of analyzing changes in a text between composition and acceptance can produce results in some cases, but in most cases it seems to assume sheer incompetence on the part of ancient editors and redactors and miraculous insight on the part of the modern critic.
    A much greater problem is the fatally flawed notion that a text can ever even have a “plain sense” that can be compared or contrasted with either it’s historical context or later interpretation. Every attempt I’ve seen to extract a “plain” or “grammatical” sense from a text succeeds only in replacing elements of the authorial context with elements from the reader’s context.

    I can see plenty of positive benefits to the canonical approach, but I don’t see any that actually require taking it as far as Childs does. A biblical theological approach can seek to understand and interpret texts at the canonical level even while we look for the meaning of these texts at a deeper level which respects authorial thrust and historical contexts.

  • This approach is very strong for preaching, because you are preaching in the context of the church. In the churches I have preached in, the academic issues of the validity of the canon are secondary to the fact that the church itself sitting in front of you accepts this as the canon. So rather than the historicity of the text undermining the congregation’s certainty of their own ability to determine what the actual text means, the canonicity of the text confirms the congregation’s sense that they have what they need in the text.

  • Tim Atwater

    Thanks for this post, which has got me thinking, and for all the thoughtful comments here.

    I’ve got Child’s Exodus commentary (westminster) which i should go deeper into.

    As to canonical order — reading in J Neusnser’s Judaism and the Interpretation of Scripture that classic midrash says the order matters not at all… (yet there is probably a yang saying in the midrash which says the opposite, somewhere?)
    The different ordering of books (leaving aside even the different inclusivities of) in the Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bibles is another interesting thing to ponder.

    How does the reading of The Book sound differently, depending in part on the order in which we read it? (also a subtext for all lectionary reading cycles…)

    Blesssings on this journey.

  • Jason Smith


    What do you think of Klink’s/Lockett’s placement of Childs in the BT4 position? Any critique? Where would to situate him?