Thursday, 29 November 2007

Literary and Canonical Approaches

I'm grateful to have Dave Beldman as a dialogue partner. He has recently posted an essay in which he looks at the possible implications of newer literary approaches to biblical interpretation, especially as these impact historical critical theories concerning the development of texts. He asked me to compare this literary approach with Childs' canonical approach, as I have recently outlined it in my last thread. Though I answered him in the comments (here), I've touched my response up a bit in order to post it here.

Though there are many similarities between a canonical approach which privileges the final form of the biblical text and literary approaches which work with the assumption of unity, Childs explicitly distances himself from such approaches. The difference is in the starting point.

Childs starts from a theological premise, rather than an aesthetic or literary one: the God of creation has elected for himself a concrete people and has chosen to relate to that people in space and time (see here). This historical relationship has brought the text of Scripture into being , a text whose function within God's economy is to point to Him and his ways (see forthcoming thread). Just as our four different gospels are diverse textual witnesses to the one Gospel outside the text, so the whole of scripture testifies in diverse ways to the reality of the one God, the Gospel, or Jesus (or however you wish to define the text's ultimate subject matter). This kerygmatic function of the text means that its reality is not self-contained. Though one can posit a world 'in' the text as a useful hermeneutical tool, it is not the case that the world in the text exhausts the truth of the text. That text is part of a greater whole which points beyond itself to what really matters: 'divine reality', Jesus, or whatever. This is how I understand Vanhoozer's statement about theological interpretation: it is interpretation oriented to the knowledge, not of the text (literary approaches), nor of historical circumstances (historical critical approaches), but of the God who called the text into being in the first place (JTI vol. 1, Intro).

As a result, interpretation which is to do justice to the nature of the text must be theological. A literary approach, which looks at structure and rhetorical devices can only be one step in comprehending what the text is about. We need to be piercing 'through' the text to its ultimate subject matter. This subject matter is outside the text (I'm not sure I would say 'behind' ... ), it is the ultimate subject matter of the text, what the text is really all about, and is not reducible to the level of the text itself.

This has implications for heremeneutics. A realization that the text is a 'witness' and not the reality itself frees the Christian from what Childs calls 'biblicism', the need to reduce the reality of God to the level of the text itself. Because the Bible is not about itself but about God, it is OK if there are contradictions and disjunctions at the surface level, and I mean real contradictions, not just artfully placed ones that actually fulfil some subtle literary purpose. The unity of the Bible is not a literary unity, but rather a theological unity. It lies in the subject matter to which the text points. The one Gospel to which the four gospels point is where the unity should lie, not in attempts to reconcile contradictions amongst the gospel witnesses themselves.

As such, focusing on the text in the literary fashion that Josipovici recommends is just one part of the overall activity of theological exegesis. The literary approach of Josipovici is useful only to the degree that it helps us understand the kerygmatic intentionality of the text of Judges or Job. Using it as a tool to iron our tensions is fine to the degree that it gives an adequate account of the text itself (as I'm sure you will agree). But I think it bears pointing out that a theological approach, at least the one that Childs recommends, requires attention to the kerygmatic/canonical intentionality of the text, and this in turn means attending to the historical dimension. Escaping from the real world into a narrative world is, according to the theological premise of Childs, to contradict the foundational assumptions of a God who dwells with us (not that Josipovici is necessarily doing this, though many narrative theologians such as Frei and Linbeck come close). History and commitment to a certain type of authorial intentionality are necessary parts of exegesis oriented to knowledge of God. That the unity of scripture is outside of it means we are not required to get rid of editorial additions and surface level contradictions.

Childs wryly notes the theological agnosticism present in much narrative theology. It is possible for theologians from both the extreme right and extreme left of the discipline to do narrative theology, coming to similar conclusions, while sharing fundamentally different views about the actual world in which we live.

I wrote a post on the way Childs' understanding of the formation of the text provides the grounds for broadening theological reflection beyond the horizon of the Old Testament here. Here we have something of the marriage of history and theology that theological exegesis needs to maintain.

(For the record, I think Sternberg does a good job of providing a literary approach which takes seriously the historical world 'behind' the text. Childs cites him approvingly.)


John C. Poirier said...


There is much I this post that I agree with (finally!). Your points about the text pointing beyond itself, etc., are right on the money. But there's still this thing about the text being some sort of act of God, rather than a record of Israel's experience of God or the preserve of the apostles' testimony. That's a hurdle that I just can't get over, because it doesn't seem to be authorized by anything within the text itself. Where, in the Bible, is there any indication that “God . . . called the text into being”? And yet, I suspect that this is one of the core generative principles behind the canonical approach.

Will you, in your future posts, address what it is that allows Childs to treat the Bible as somehow authored by God (whether he means that in a strong sense or a weak sense)? Isn’t the notion of God “authoring” the Bible just a piece of leftover precritical nonsense that Childs forgot to clear away?

Andrew Compton said...

To sort of build upon John's comment (while not trying to answer his questions), if one does hold to the text as ultimately being authored by God himself (and I do believe this), what do we do with the contradictions?

It seems like if we see scripture as human testimony ABOUT God (Brueggemann's position, if I understand him correctly), the contradictions don't pose any problem; fallible humans offering different (some of them mistaken) opinions and/or accounts of God's activity on behalf of his people. If, however, scripture is ultimately authored by God himself, I'm still unclear as to what he is DOING with the contradictory materials. At some level, attempts at harmonization seem to be inevitable, although this so often leads into an awkward "flattening out" of the multifaceted Biblical text.

Any thoughts are appreciated . . .

Phil Sumpter said...


I thought you'd like this post. Concerning the text as "some sort of act of God, rather than a record of Israel's experience of God", I'm not sure I see the tension. Why can't Israel's experience involve God speaking through a text?

Concerning God calling texts into being, the human agents within the Bible claim within their own writings that their testimony had been inspired by God. This claim to be delivering a message from God was made in different ways, such as narrative descriptions of a theophany in which divine words were received and transmitted to the people (Exod. 19:1 – 20), introductory formulae such as “the vision that Isaiah saw” (Isa. 1:1) or “thus saith the Lord”. The continuity of God's speaking is best formulated in Heb. 1:1 – 2: “In any and various ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by a Son.”

How these units extend to the final form of scripture is something I'm trying to get my head round, and will be the subject of my next series of posts as I try to figure out what Childs is saying in his essay "Retrospective Reading of the Prophets".


thanks for your contribution. The question of contradictions is important and something that has caused many to lose their faith. I myself have had to take some big gulps as I've tried to swallow where Childs is coming from. But I think he's onto something and I'm excited by his vision, so here here's my attempt to understand this ...

It all depends on our understanding of the nature of truth and the function of scripture. Scripture is not the truth, just as the Gospel according to John is not the Gospel. Rather it testifies to the truth, which is the divine economy of salvation. This salvation intersects with our world and intends to redeem it, but it is not of this world and cannot be exhausted by it. There is a divine dimension to reality which the prophets and apostles touch on, which the totality of scripture witnesses to in broken form, but which cannot be reducible to one pericope or one dogmatic assertion. The challenge for this church is understand the diversity of scripture in relation to the divine ecomony, and it is at this level that we should seek the 'harmonizations'. This is a theological harmonization, concerned with a myseterious trinitarian God, rather than historical harmonization concerned to guarantee a direct corespondance between text and history.

I also intend to post on what the harmonization at the level of the divine economy looks like, based on an essay by Murry Rae called "Texts in Context" (JTI vol. 1). I may well try and look at this in relation to the difficult passage of Isaiah 7, though I'm not sure if I've grasped things that thorougly yet!

Does that help?

By the way, I've tried a number of times to post on your blog but they don't seem to 'arrive'.

dave b said...

Thanks for the response, Phil.

Probably clarifying what my paper was meant to do (and was not meant to do) might clear up some of these issues. I note that modern critical scholarship, with a propensity to origins, often left biblical texts fragmented, i.e., observed tension and ambiguity in the text was often attributed to distinct sources. Basically, I tried in the paper to show (through a reading of Josipovici reading Judges and through my own reading of parts of Job) that there are alternatives explanations.

There’s no question that the canonical approach is distinctly theological, and refreshingly so, but one could quibble about what you call their theological starting point. The practitioners of the historical-critical method have prided themselves in engaging in objective, scientific interpretation—they self-professedly have a “neutral” starting point (of course we could discuss to what extent this was “neutral” and “objective”). From what I understand, the canonical approach more or less imbibes the results of HC scholarship but then reflects theologically on the “final form” (and how it got to the final form becomes an important interpretative tool). Although the canonical approach is distinctly theological, could we not infer from this that that it at least begins with the assumptions of modern critical scholarship? Maybe that’s going a bit far but the relationship between the canonical approach and historical criticism has been a point of controversy which I’m not sure has been adequately resolved.

Now, this is all quite vague and general and will inevitably distort what is going on in the guild. My paper gives examples from two biblical books which helps to make the discussion more concrete. What these two examples offer is alternative explanations for what modern critics have observed (and then explained in their own way). In spite of your concerns, a reading of these books with attention to their literary character (a) does not have to be mutually exclusive to the historicality of the events their portray; (b) does not (or ought not) “iron out” tensions in the text but takes full account of these; (c) provides a very fertile context for theological interpretation. My purpose was not necessarily to tease out the theological implications of this type of reading of Judges and Job but you can probably detect hints of where I would go in that regard.

Andrew Compton said...

Thanks for the response, Phil. Some helpful stuff for my brain to chew on. . .

Dealing with the various human voices in scripture, while still affirming the one divine voice is an incredibly complicated endeavor. While my conservative confession of faith often drives me dangerously close to fundamentalism, I can't bring myself to leave the conversation to go hide in the corner. On the other hand, I approach Biblical/Theological inquiry hugely suspicious of my rationalistic tendency to want to have dominion *over* (and mastery *of*) the text, rather than to be mastered *by* it. I think I'll hunt down that article by Rae. Sounds like it'll also scratch where I itch . . .

I don't know why the comment section of my blog is acting up. For a while I had disabled comments and even though they are back online, I think they still like to be cranky. Some of the past posts may still have comments disabled. I'll double check but thanks for the heads up.

John C. Poirier said...


You're right, of course, in saying that "the human agents within the Bible claim within their own writings that their testimony had been inspired by God". But "inspiration" translates into "verbal revelation" only in the case of prophecy, which of course does not represent the whole of the Bible. When Hebrews says that "God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by a Son", it refers to two distinct dispensations of revelation, *neither* of which is textual. On the terms of this quotation from Hebrews, as well as the "Thus saith the Lord" formula, the Bible is not itself envisioned as an act of God, and the fact that the prophecies that the Bible contains are genuine does not make it so. In short, while Childs keeps pushing everything toward the "final form", the Bible itself locates revelation at the initial form, at the pre-textualized phase. I see nothing within Scripture to warrant associating revelation, inspiration, or God's authoring of something with the final form of the canon. But then, it doesn't seem to me that Childs is getting there through the Bible anyway. He's getting there through his tradition, and he's trying desperately to make that tradition look like it's somehow warranted by the text itself.

Phil Sumpter said...


Sorry about the late reply.

Your are right, the canonical approach is actually pretty historical critical. This was an issue for me at first (it still is, to a degree). However, I've seen that it doesn't just imbibe the results of HC, it has its own proposals to make. The proposals are in the realm of intentionality and the nature of the expansion of traditions into texts into scripture. The interesting thing about CA is that it's focus on the kerygmatic intentionality of the process means that the significance of the details of the process are relativised in light of the contribution they make to understanding the final form, rather than as an end in themselves(see my post here, where Childs points out that it is the nature of the process that is significant, rather than the details themselves). I think the main emphasis is not the 'how' of the development of the text but rather the 'why' and 'what for'.

I'm still trying to get my head round this. Here's an extract from my thesis proposal in which I illustrate how the CA inluences our understanding of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:

"A canonical approach begins with the recognition of the diachronic depth dimension to the text. Nevertheless, the hermeneutical question turns on how this dimension relates synchronically to the text's final form. This entails not only identifying the various redactional layers, but looking at the quality of the relationship between them. The canonical tradents faithfully interpreted earlier traditions and then shaped these traditions in such a way that they would broker that message within a broader historical and theological perspective (Seitz, 1993: 4). The original identity of Immanuel, for example, has frustrated historical critics: is he a son of Isaiah, a son of Ahaz, children in Jerusalem, a future messianic king? Despite the obscurity of this figure, even at the level of the final form read as a unity, later tradents, who themselves submitted to the 'coercion' of these traditions, have embedded clues to guide our interpretation of the figure's 'canonical identity'. This identity includes both a historical and an eschatological referent. Thus within the broader literary context, both within this sub-unit (chs. 7-9) as well as across broader swathes (chs. 7-9 contrasted with 36-39), it would seem that Immanuel is initially identified with Hezekiah, the ideal king who's deeds enable the Lord to demonstrate what 'Immanu-el' (God-is-with-us) means. Yet the mysteriousness of the figure has not been fully eradicated in the final form. Interest in Hezekiah is theological, not nostalgic, in that he is made a type for later kings to follow (a connection made through the addition of ch. 11:1-9). The king has been reinterpreted – but not so severely that the original historical referent is lost. “What kingship shall become in Israel, and for the nations, it becomes with reference to the Immanuel child and the historical rule of Hezekiah” (Seitz 1993: 75)."

Phil Sumpter said...


as you can see from my latest post I've started to answer this question ("God, Moses and Scripture"). You make some good points, and I appreciate being made to think harder on this. Just some more points:

- I've never made a claim for verbal inspiration.

- Prophecy is a broad concept. David was considered a prophet, and so were the Histories considered 'prophetic'.

- Concerning Hebrew, the point is that God speaks through people. As my posts will hopefully show, the final form in authoritative in a derivative sense.

- I've never claimed that the Bible is an 'act of God'. I'm not sure what that would mean.

- I hope you'll come to see that Childs is both faithful to the text itself and the kerygma. One day John, I'm praying for your soul ;)