Friday, 7 December 2007

The Significance of the Diachronic Dimension for a Canonical Approach to the Bible as Scripture

In his 2001 commentary on Isaiah, Childs defined his understanding of canon not just in terms of scope, but in terms of "the quality of the theological testimony" (3). It is the 'canonical quality' of the traditions-become-text that justifies a focus on the final form, and not an arbitrary commitment to the final form for the sake of it. This understanding of the 'canonical quality' of the text entails assumptions about intentionality and the nature of the relationship between source and later tradents. Without the presence of this 'canonical quality' at the diachronic level, the theological integrity of the final form is eviscerated, along with the validity of the canonical approach. As such, Childs is committed to history. He cannot just sit back and watch the "structure burn" (á la Bultmann). His approach, like his faith, has an investment in the way things actually happened. I made this point most strongly in my post on Politics and the Religious Role of Canon.

In addition to my recent comments on Moses, I would like to illustrate this once more by looking at Childs' understanding of the compositional history of Genesis. In his Introduction to the Old Testament (1979) Childs is at pains to point out that the literary development of Genesis was not simply a matter of juxtaposing independent literary strands which previously had little to do with one another.

“Rather, the development of the book underwent a complex process of growth and change in which different literary traditions mutually influenced each other in a dynamic interaction within the community of faith. Thus it seems increasingly evident from the close parallelism of sequence that the editors of the Priestly writings were aware of the earlier epic traditions and did not develop their composition in complete isolation as often suggested.” (148, italics mine).
After illustrating this interdependence with a few examples, Childs goes on to conclude that "it is this interaction which we have identified as the canonical process occurring as the biblical literature is selected and ordered by its actual use in the community.” (149, italics mine).

The canonical process exists at the level of the development of the text and can, to a degree, be described and analysed with the standard tools of historical criticism. It is the description of this developmental process that is the task of historical criticism, a task which Childs considers to be vital to genuine theological exegesis. Childs' move, however, is to relativize the significance of this task within the context of exegesis for the church. As the church claims to stand within the tradition, so too must the lens of the tradition be taken seriously as the means to fully understanding the ways of God. Description of the process is the means to a more theological end.

In his focus on this broader theological vision, Childs often skips over the diachronic dimension in order to interpret the more mature witness of the final form. This shouldn't, however, lead to the conclusion that the process itself is insignificant. Often, one can catch a glimpse of what might have happened, as Childs would like it to have. When discussing how the redactionally later 'promise motif' gave the patriarchal narratives their current eschatological perspective, Childs wishes to give traditional critical research its due: "There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the promises, particularly of the land, were originally directed to the patriarchs with the prospect of immanent fulfilment" (151). Despite the later theologizing that gave this promise its new twist, Childs still holds to the claim that there actually was a promise to the patriarchs, its later development being genetically connected to that which took place in chronological history.

This is the canonical approach's Achilles' heel, that it stands or falls on whether it accords with the actual nature and development of the text. The interaction between tradents and tradition was of a certain quality, one in which the original traditions exerted a theological force which constrained the direction in which their expansion was to flow.

I'll expand on this in my next major post.


John C. Poirier said...


You write "The interaction between tradents and tradition was of a certain quality, one in which the original traditions exerted a theological force which constrained the direction in which their expansion was to flow", and here, once again, we're met with Childs wanting to have it both ways. He seems to acknowledge that the tradition is justified or authorized in its origin, and yet he wants its subsequent development to be equally authoritative. I just don't see how he can pull that off, and I don't see, logically, how *anyone* can pull that off. From what I've seen, Childs just runs back and forth between posing with the diachronic aspects of Scripture, and posing with the synchronic aspects. He doesn't actually bring them together into one coherent picture.

I just don't see how it can be done without naming some standard or authority other than the apostles as the ground of biblical theology. And that's really what Childs does: he uses the evolutionary aspect of tradition (that is, the *Church*) as the ground. He's more interested in the many different voices within the Church than with the authorial voice of the apostles. And that's simply getting it all backward.

Phil Sumpter said...

He doesn't actually bring them together into one coherent picture.

Honestly John, I deeply appreciate that you keep coming back to me on this. It's incredibly helpful to be kept on my toes, and it gives me comfort to know that my posts don't all disappear into the ether.

All I can say for now is that I think your concerns are legitimate (these thoughts bugged me too) and please keep reading. I'm dealing with this in my current series (keep an eye out for the forthcoming post "The Text as Tradent of Authority").