Thursday, 8 November 2007

Brueggemann's Critique of Childs

Yesterday I posted a review article by Brueggemann on Childs' Isaiah: A Commentary (you can download the pdf file there). Today I wish to review Brueggemann's evaluation of Childs' theological approach.

Before we can evaluate Brueggemann's response, it is important to understand Brueggemann's own agenda. Like Childs, Brueggemann is interested in a 'theological reading' of the Bible. In order to develop his own proposal, Brueggemann takes human consciousness as his starting point (see my post here, where I defend this). He's basic organizing principle is an observation concerning human subjectivity: we are not always 'present' to ourselves, rather we we are inextricably entwined in our social and cultural contexts. Our view points are always subjective construals of an external reality, made by the force of our imaginative capabilities. Objective knowledge is an impossibility, rather all we have are competing interpretations negotiable by nothing other than the norms bequeathed us by our respective traditions.

From this starting point, Brueggemann wants to propose a reading that is 'theological' in that it is 'pastoral'. In other words, for a Bible to be relevant to a epistemologically limited church, it needs to reflect that church. The Bible too must be broken, partial and conflicting. The Bible functions as the place where we come to be deconstructed, shown the impossibility of the finality of our truth claims, as regardless of what we say they will be subverted by an alternative, competing voices.

Childs makes a different proposal. He suggests that the Bible is not as contradictory as Brueggemann claims. Rather, when one reads it according to its kerygmatic ('canonical') intentionality, one can discern particular theological moves at work within the text, organising and sifting the material in order to make broader theological claims. He believes that the Bible is designed to function as a guide for faith and conduct, shaped in such a way that its final literary form is able to function as an authoritative norm. This is a claim about the nature of the text itself, which he backs up with theological arguments concerning scripture and the ways of God in the world.

One can see that Childs' proposal is antithetical to Brueggemann's, in that he is making claims for theological normativity. The Bible "coerces" our interpretations of it (or it "urges itself upon us", to use the language of my post here), it is authoritative and as such we must bow before it. Elsewhere, Childs makes clear that he is not operating with a naive concept of 'objectivity', as if his claims simply 'fall out of this sky' without any intermediating work on the part of the interpreter (note Brueggemann's crude caricature of Childs' approach on p. 25, comparing him to Aaron). Childs explicitly characterises the nature of theological engagement as one of "struggle", in which each generation must commit itself to the task of being faithful within the theological boundaries that have been set for it. His is just one proposal, at this point in time, a self-confessedly partial attempt to comprehend the nature of God, his scripture and his church.

Brueggemann's response to Childs' concrete proposals concerning text, church and God is to simply assert that all humans are subjective and therefore Childs' proposals can't be binding on the church (I will leave aside his only concrete criticism of the canonical approach concerning the tension of the diachronic and synchronic [23-25] for later, if people are interested). Throughout the review, you can see the following logic being played out again and again:

1) Truth claims are only normative if they can be objectively demonstrated.
2) Childs is human, therefore nothing he says is objective.
3) Therefore, the canonical approach is at best only one helpful idea among others.

Thus we see that, despite his appreciation of what Childs has contributed, Brueggemann constantly draws attention to the fact that Childs is a subjective human like anyone else. Childs is operating with an interpretive agenda, his canonical approach is a mighty act of interpretive imagination, his perspective has been legitimated only by the power of his argument (i.e. not by the coercion of the text), he is culturally situated, his main virtues are 'passion, resilience and steadfastness' rather then an ability to figure out the material at hand.

These observations are fine as they go. I'm sure Childs would agree with them (despite Brueggemann's claims to the contrary). The problem, as I see it, is that Childs' very subjectivity, i.e. his humanity, is the reason why Brueggemann rejects his canonical proposal as a genuine proposal for the church, one which could even become normative. Brueggemann seems to be working with the assumption that something can only be normative if one can objectively demonstrate that something is "given" in the text. Since this is epistemologically impossible, Childs' project is doomed to failure from the start (to quote: "Yet Childs ... proceeds as though his interpretive finesse were simply a "given" in the text itself", p. 25).

But surely this is to mix up two categories? It's one thing to say all truth is subjective (Childs agrees, thus obviating Brueggemann's need to keep pointing this out), it's another thing to say that a particular suggestion about that reality is not binding by virtue of this subjectivity. What makes a theological heremeneutic normative is not whether it can be objectively demonstrated, but rather how well it gels with the text as authoritative and Christian tradition (the kerygma). The best way to evaluate Childs' proposal is not to set up the impossible requirement of objective certainty but rather to engage in the content of his argument and come to a decision based on it. This is something I haven't seen Brueggemann do. Instead, he repeats that Childs is subjective and as such his proposals cannot be taken as prescriptive for theological interpretation.

In order to back up his claims concerning Childs' subjectivity, he goes on to make a series of hideous caricatures. He claims, for example, that Childs simply believes that meaning 'falls out of the text' without the need for interpretation. Childs' apparently naive belief that his interpretations do in fact correspond to reality leads to the accusation that he believes his interpretations have 'canonical status', that he somehow sees himself as a 'canonical commentator'. Brueggemann goes on to present Childs as someone who believes that his interpretation is "beyond criticism, as though it were an unquestioned given in the text itself". The fact that Childs thinks he may be right is enough for Brueggemann to claim that Childs believes he can't be questioned. Childs' attempt to see the text for what it is, and to make the audacious claim that maybe it really is so, is enough for Brueggemann to accuse him of thinking he is pure, innocent and detached. Finally, Childs' attempt to understand Isaiah 66.23-24 as making an ontological distinction is dismissed on the basis that it is simply a "rhetorical venture", with no attempt on Brueggemann's to explain why it might not be more.

A final example of Brueggemann's rejection of Childs' claims by virtue of the fact that Childs is a mere human is his rejection of Childs' talk of "coercion". Why is Childs wrong to talk of the text coercing his interpretation? Because other scholars disagree with him. But what kind of standard is that to judge the acceptability of a proposal for theological exegesis? It seems as if Brueggemann believes that meaning really must just 'fall out' of the text before it can be accepted as authoritative, an impossible standard to meet which thus protects his own position that there can be no norms.

I made the claim recently that Brueggemann's starting point is anthropocentric, in that his epistemological theories provide a "critical norm" against which to measure any truth claims made from the side of theology. In his zeal to protect his theory that nothing is normative, nothing is final, that the Bible really is a irreducible collection of contradicting texts, he has set up a modernist standard of truth by which to measure all competing claims. Anyone who claims to have figured out an element of the text is doomed from the outset to fail by this standard. Brueggemann has reified postmodernism into an ontological statement about reality, something postmodernism was never designed to do (see my post: Postmodernists Believe in Objective Reality too!)

8 comments:

Stephen (aka Q) said...

For a Bible to be relevant to a epistemologically limited church, it needs to reflect that church. [According to Brueggemann,] the Bible too must be broken, partial and conflicting.

I see: the Bible is coherent, but Brueggemann deliberately breaks it into conflicting pieces for the purposes of ministering to a postmodern generation.

Except that Childs himself acknowledges the findings of critical scholarship. In fact, those findings are crucial to his enterprise. Childs deliberately isolates the comments made by a redactor: e.g., Isaiah 66:24 as "a decisive clue for reading". Childs, too, works with a "broken" text, in which the voice of the redactor is isolated, opposed to, and elevated above other voices in the text.

You don't seem to acknowledge that point, and I don't know why. It is perfectly clear from the passages I quoted in my two posts on Childs.

Neither Childs nor Brueggemann creates a broken text: the text has simply been exposed as broken. That's the reality to which both scholars are trying to respond, each in his own way. (Again, this is a point I have made before.) I think your critique of Brueggemann misrepresents him (because you say that Brueggemann demands brokenness where there is none) and, indeed, it is inconsistent with Childs's position.

It's one thing to say all truth is subjective (Childs agrees, thus obviating Brueggemann's need to keep pointing this out) …. What makes a theological heremeneutic normative is not whether it can be objectively demonstrated, but rather how well it gels with the text as authoritative and Christian tradition (the kerygma).

Look: I laud what Childs is trying to do, just as Brueggemann does. We should perhaps point out that four-fifths of Brueggemann's article is an admiring summary of Childs's book! Let's quote Brueggemann here:

"The linkage of historical and canonical is complicated, and Childs has not been able to resolve it. But what he has done is to legitimate and make clear the 'canonical' side of this dialectic that has been absent from most 'historical' studies."

That's pretty fine praise, if you ask me!

Still, a question confronts us: is the canonical approach an adequate response to the text as we now understand it, in light of critical scholarship? Allow me to quote Brueggemann again:

"This commentator, like every commentator, is deeply set in a myriad of experiential forces that cannot be screened out simply by a resolve to do the 'canonical,' even as the ancient powers of canonization were not innocent and detached."

The last third of that sentence is crucial. The editing of the biblical text and the selection of a canon were not innocent processes. The redactors and canonizers had axes to grind, like everyone else. I have pressed you on this point before, with the specific example of the role of women in the church.

I think an evangelical would argue that despite certain statements in Paul ("there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"), the canonical shape of the text subordinates women to men. The word that lingers in people's minds is, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man"; or "women must remain silent in church" or "man is the head of woman, just as Christ is the head of the Church, his body".

We have to decide, then, whether the editors of scripture — and Paul himself, for that matter — operated from innocent, self-disinterested motives.

The primary objection to the canonical approach lies here, it seems to me. The canonical approach assumes that what is canonical is innocent. Brueggemann (and I) would firmly insist that it is no such thing.

Indeed, there is no one, canonical position taken by all biblical authors. James does not sing from the same hymnbook as Paul. Nor is the Deuteronomic History fair when it faults the northern kingdom for daring to worship outside of Jerusalem: Jerusalem was not identified as the sole place of worship until rather late in Israel's history!

These are just two or three examples with which I happen to be familiar, but of course such examples could be replicated many, many times.

How then can one speak of "the canonical approach", as if "canonical" refers to a single, coherent voice? It doesn't solve the problem that it sets out to solve: it is just a retreat into a normative position, over against the conflicting voices of the biblical authors. As such it is indeed an "imaginative construal", and it is ultimately inconsistent with the reality of the text that we have.

All of Brueggemann's critiques arise from that analysis. You can claim that he is making hideous caricatures of Childs, but I disagree. I think he is identifying a fundamental flaw in Childs's canonical approach. Childs may declare that the canonical approach is not innocent; nonetheless, it assumes innocence (and coherence) where none exists.

A final example of Brueggemann's rejection of Childs' claims by virtue of the fact that Childs is a mere human is his rejection of Childs' talk of "coercion". Why is Childs wrong to talk of the text coercing his interpretation?

It's impossible for me to evaluate this point without looking at Childs's book for specific instances. But you're distorting the nature of the criticism.

If Childs says only that the text "coerces" him into certain conclusions, I guess that's OK. (Although Brueggemann would still object to the violence implied by the term "coerce".)

According to Brueggemann, Childs claims that the text is "coercive" on everybody: i.e., that we must all agree that this is what the text says — that the text permits no other interpretation. I would have to see specific instances to know whether that criticism is fair.

Peter Nathan said...

Great work Phil.
Have you looked at William Abraham: "Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to the Feminism," OUP 1998?
I for one would be interested in some of synchronic/diachronic issues you were suggesting addressing

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Phil:
Did you notice that there's an article in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, by Walter Bruegggemann, on "The Psalms As Canon"?

Andrew Compton said...

"In his zeal to protect his theory that nothing is normative, nothing is final, that the Bible really is a irreducible collection of contradicting texts, he has set up a modernist standard of truth by which to measure all competing claims."

I love the comment, Phil. This reminds me of Myron Penner's introduction to the book "Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views" in which he notes the difficulty of classifying postmodernity. Is it really an actual break with modernity? It seems instead that postmodernity is really an extreme version of modernity itself. It is modernity come of age. If modernity told us to turn inwards, viewing the autonomous self as normative, postmodernity seems to have turned inwards even further with even more vigor. Not that postmodernity is incorrect in its critiques of modernity, it just doesn't seem to have answered adequately.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Stephen for your comments, here and below. You've raised a lot of issues and I won't be able to go into them all here. No doubt you'll feel that this response is inadequate and has missed your points. If so, please feel free to point that out and I'll try and go into them in more detail. Or you could bring them up when I get round to posting on what Childs actually thinks.

This comment includes a response to your remarks on my previous post.

When talking of Childs, I'm primarily concerned with theological method: if one were to read the text as a Christian, how would one go about that. This does not predetermine the meaning of the text beforehand. One way of seeing it would be to take the position of 'progressive revelation', a position you yourself adopt. As you say: “we see that Israel's faith is developing along a certain trajectory, which presumably reflects lessons they are actually learning from God.” That is pretty much what Childs and I think. Childs works out what he sees as the implications of this process. This process has left a material mark on the text itself, such that we can see this insight unfolding. Older traditions were seen in new ways, their implications were being worked out and comprehended within broader contexts, the process was consciously 'theological'. As such, given the temporal, developmental nature of this process, it would make sense that later redactors, who belong to this process, would have better insight into what God is doing. The traditions and texts they edited were done according to this theological intentionality. This editing process was not “innocent” (no one claims or believes that), it was “ideological”. But it was ideological in the good sense of straining to hear God's word as it is being worked out in the history of his people. You and I stand at this point in time, at a point temporally later than what was taking place within the text. As members of the one people of God, travelling with him on the journey, it makes sense that we should submit to the fullest version of God's word: the final form of the text which is an intentional theological project. The final canonical shape does not hide its diachronic dimension, but by virtue of the theological intentionality used to shape it, a theological judgement has been rendered concerning the meaning of the earlier traditions. This judgement was far from “innocent”, it was “ideological”, but ideology is not intrinsically bad. It can be good. Childs' claim is that if the Bible is authoritative (a word Brueggemann understandably avoids), something to which we should submit despite our personal mores, we have no choice but to bow to the voice of the final form. This voice is not coherent in the sense that there are no contradictions. Coherency exists, not at the level of the text, but at the level of the theological reality to which it points. This is an important point which Childs' critics consistently fail to grasp. It is the combined voice of conflicting traditions that point in different and difficult ways to the one God. Brueggemann doesn't avoid this tension by projection contradiction into the Godhead himself. He maintains it and 'struggles' with it (a favourite word of his). The methodological point is that the final form must, by virtue of the nature of the text as in intentional theological project, and by virtue of the function of scripture in the church as authoritative norm, and by virtue of the eschatological nature of history where we stand 'here' and not 'there', somewhere behind the text in a now lost ancient Israel.

Brueggemann rejects this 'must' on the basis that we are all subjective, so who can prove it 'objectively' anyway? He makes a theological judgement on the basis of a secular philosophical theory. It's a category error and simply doesn't follow. Childs nowhere claims objectivity to ground his position. He simply presents arguments about the nature of the text and Christian faith, arguments which Brueggemann consistently avoids. The only response Brueggemann has recourse to is to blindly insist that Childs is indeed trying to base his arguments on a naïve claim to objectivity. It order to back up this misunderstanding of what Childs is actually trying to do, he goes on to caricature Childs as a “canonical commentator.” This is just a weak way to have an argument.

In the light of Childs' methodological proposals concerning what how we should read the Bible (which Brueggemann hasn't addressed theologically), I make some concrete responses to your proposals from below:

If there are indeed 'justice' and 'cultic' strands in the OT (something don't believe in, but that's another story), the hermeneutical question is how to they relate to each other. Is it the case that they are simply left to stand, or have there been moves to fit them into a broader hermeneutical framework? This 'later' (?) judgements are as much theological data as the existence of the strands in the first place and need to be taken into account (by the way, I would consider Jesus' crucifixion a deeply cultic act, one which cost him more then his pre-crucifixion prophetic activity. If the two strands are not united elsewhere, then at least in him. But here I go beyond mere methodological considerations).

You say: With many liberals, I tend to take my stand with the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels

That may or may not be an adequate representation of the true substance of Christian faith. Methodologically, if you have a desire to stay within the bounds of 'Christianity', the foundational beliefs of that faith need to be taken into account when making your decsision (Brueggemann appears to understand this when he warns Childs of the dangers of 'Manicheansim'). Childs argues that the substance of Christian faith is not a strand to be isolated within the Bible, but a reality outside of the Bible and encompassing it. As such, the entire Bible witnesses to this reality, including the Old Testment, and not certain strands which we deem to be 'better' or perhaps more 'authentic' (or whatever the criteria one uses).

the Bible is coherent, but Brueggemann deliberately breaks it into conflicting pieces for the purposes of ministering to a postmodern generation. ... Except that Childs himself acknowledges the findings of critical scholarship

The unity which Childs sees is not at the level of the text but in the reality outside of it, to which the text points. Therefore, the disjunction both scholars identify is irrelevant. There is unity despite the diversity, whether we see it or not. The methodological question is how do we deal with that. For Childs, the redactional decisions are the main guidelines, or lens, by which to read the text, thus enabling us to see what the reality truly is. The question for Childs is: why have the editors allowed these two conflicting accounts to stand? What does that communicate? Brueggemann's response is: there are two different accounts. Let's leave it at that and let them argue with each other.

Childs deliberately isolates the comments made by a redactor: e.g., Isaiah 66:24 as "a decisive clue for reading". Childs, too, works with a "broken" text, in which the voice of the redactor is isolated, opposed to, and elevated above other voices in the text.

Childs is not randomly choosing one verse over another, according to whim. He wouldn't be able to get away with that in an academic context. There are basic hermeneutical rules to be followed when reading a text. The position of a statement within its overall framework is significant to its meaning. That's just a general hermeneutical insight. Conclusions to essays, for example, come at the end, not in the middle. Childs simply notes that this difficult verse is the closing verse of the book and tries to give that fact its interpretive due. Seems quite reasonable to me. Brueggemann doesn't dispute this with a better proposal (there isn't one), he just doesn't like Childs' conclusion that this text is making an ontological statement. Even that he doesn't justify. He just doesn't like it. He doesn't point out the contradiction, and I'd have have to read Childs closely to see how he works at it, but that doesn't undermine Childs' suggestion. There is a legitimate distinction between ecclesial praxis, which perhaps reads the verse in the conext of the wholse canon, and exegesis, which reads the verse only in the context of the book.

the text has simply been exposed as broken. That's the reality to which both scholars are trying to respond, each in his own way.

This is where we see Brueggemann contradicting himself. Childs isn't simply responding to a common reality they both recognise. He's making claims about the nature of the text itself: there is such a thing as theological redaction and it is significant. The texts are not just left in a mess. But as soon as he does that, Brueggemann calls him naïve for believing that he's actually able to see the text for what it is, rather than just his own imaginative construal. But the same applies to Brueggemann, surely. Isn't his (over)emphasis on constriction his own imaginative construal? As such, your statement seems to be participating in the same kind of naivity of which Brueggemann accuses Childs.

. We should perhaps point out that four-fifths of Brueggemann's article is an admiring summary of Childs's book!

I recognise this. My purpose was to point out what is wrong with Brueggemann's rejection of Childs' method as a serious proposal for theological interpretation.

The editing of the biblical text and the selection of a canon were not innocent processes. The redactors and canonizers had axes to grind

I hope you can see now that no one is claiming that the process was innocent (apart for Brueggemann), and that if it was innocent, such a process would undermine the theological nature that Childs ascribes to it. According to the canonical approach, it can't be innocent: it's theological. As such, your theory that they have an axe to grind needs to be backed up by evidence, not simply asserted (and I don't see how this fits with your belief in progressive revelation). There is more than one way to understand 'ideology'.

Concerning your statement on women. I have time for just two short responses: if the canonical shape requires, so be it. Who am I to impose my moral values over the word of God? We mustn't forget that the Bible is an authority. Second, the examples you gave were not 'canonical'. Paul's opinion is not canonical. Canonical refers to a higher level of discourse, it refers to a reading of Paul's letters in conjunction with James' and Revelation and the OT, despite their contradictions, but with an attempt to see how they relate to the one reality, our vision constrained by the shape of the total canon, not isolated verses or even books within it.

P.S. Could you give me the reference for the Brueggemann article so I can download it? Thanks.

Peter Nathan,

thanks for the reference,that book looks like it'll be important for me. It's a difficult and fascinating issue, I hope to be able to address it more clearly at some point.

Andrew,

thanks for your thoughts (and the book reference). I think I agree. I'm by no means an expert, but to me at least it seems clear that postmodernism is the exhaustion of modernism. It's the conclusion of the modernist project.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

This is a pretty good post, but I would quibble at least with your line: "It's one thing to say all truth is subjective (...), it's another thing to say that a particular suggestion about that reality is not binding by virtue of this subjectivity." It's a whole lot more helpful (and correct!) to say that "all *knowledge of the* truth is subjective". Truth is *not* subjective--*knowledge* of it is. To fail to differentiate the two is to commit what I call the "epistemiology / alethiology double switch". In fact, this false epistemizing of the ontic commodity called "truth" lies at the heart of the whole postmodernist misunderstanding of reality/truth.

Phil Sumpter said...

Stephen,

I just posted a chunk of my comments to you. I corrected some mistakes. I meant to say that Childs doesn't project the brokeness onto God.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

thanks for your thoughts. That's what held me back from citing all of James K.A.Smith's views in my post below.