Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The Final Form of the Text

This post represents the last section from Childs extremely important essay, "Retrospective Reading of Old Testament Prophets" (1996). Once again, I've copied it out verbatim, as I don't have the time to summarize it and think it's so concise it would be a shame to lose anything anyway. For the rest of the posts in this thread, see here and then here.

As for those who have left questions on this series, I will get back as soon as poss. We drive back from Berlin tomorrow!


"In the past the use of the term "final form" has evoked much controversy. Does the biblical text ever have a final form? Does it not vary within different textual traditions? Certainly such questions are fully legitimate within a discussion of textual transmission, variants, and stabilization. However, in reference to the hermeneutical issue of final form, the above questions are peripheral to the subject. Nor is the real issue at stake a debate between a diachronic or synchronic handling of the OT.

Rather, the basic hermeneutical issue of the so-called final form turns on determining the nature of this set of writings. To suggest that the Bible is literature, even religious literature, while in a sense correct, does not address its uniqueness. These writings reflect the experience of a historic people which developed over a long period of collection, transmission, and growth. However, at some point in this history - roughly in the Hellenistic period - the scope of the received books was limited and a process of stabilization of the tradition set in supported by critically authorized texts. even more crucial, these diverse writings were designed as Scripture and given a special function within a community. The Hebrew Bible became the story of Israel under Torah to which the prophetic writings were joined. In addition, the Psalms were tied to David and Wisdom to Solomon. In a word, a larger structure was imposed on this material which formed the distinct parts into a loosely ordered whole.

The hermeneutical implications of this development for interpretation suggest that this larger narrative structure is constitutive for the prophetic corpus and should be respected. Regardless of the ability of critical research to unearth earlier stages lying beneath the present form of the text, interpretation of this entity received by Israel as Scripture must ultimately focus its final attention on the received from. Of course, these writings can always be read as an ancient Near Eastern fragment, but it is not the Bible that is being interpreted. Similarly, the interpretation of the Old Testament is seriously impaired if critical literary analysis assigns to reconstructed redactional layers the decisive semantic role in construing the text's meaning.

The concluding point to make is that the concept of final form is closely connected with the issue of readership. An important corollary to the designation of a written corpus as Scripture is that these writings function as Scripture for someone. They have been ordered toward a present and future audience who receives its identity in some way from Israel's past story which is lost if a new story is reconstructed apart from the received narrative form. Thus to suggest that the major force involve in shaping Israel's prophetic history derives from readings retrojected as literary constructs runs in the face of the final form of Scripture which is eschatologically oriented toward the goal of instructing every future generation of Israel in the reality of God who continues to act on its behalf."

B.S. Childs, 1996 ZAW 108 pp. 376, 7.

5 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

I think a brief response to these four paragraphs from Childs is in order, if only to show the ways in which Childs, it seems to me, continually fails to grasp the main problems with his approach.

My only problem with the first paragraph is with the last sentence: Childs asserts that "the real issue at stake" is not "a debate between a diachronic or synchronic handling of the OT." It seems to me that the "diachronic or synchronic" is precisely the issue, and that that is what gets people so annoyed at Childs's approach. If that's not what it's all about, Childs needs to explain why.

The second paragraph sets out what seems to be a classic argument of Childs: the final form must be the focus of our interpretative efforts, because (!) it is the final form that the community has rendered for us. Childs states that argument over and over (and over and over) again, throughout his body of work. But it seems to me an unfinished argument. So *what* if the community left us with the final form? How does that obvious fact translate into the idea that the final form must be the focus of our hermeneutic? What is the piece of the puzzle that Childs is holding back? Is he assuming that the community is inspired, according to an almost fundamentalist understanding of inspiration, so that its activity of forming a canon should be held exempt from the sorts of destructive reformulations that hinder all other cultural-literary traditions? Is it that Childs thinks that reading the Bible as Scripture means reading it primarily as the record of what an inscripturating community thought (rather than as a guide to what that community's religion *should* be)? What is the missing piece that makes it all work for Childs?

In the third paragraph, Childs begins by saying that the canonical development "must be respected", but his only reason for saying this is simply that the development happened. Is that really an argument? And Childs's remark that reading the Bible any other way is to read it "as an ancient Near Eastern fragment" rather than as "the Bible" is ridiculous. He has not yet established that a canonical reading is *the* way to read the Bible on the terms dictated either by the Bible itself or by the religion that gave rise to it, so I find his reasoning here highly artificial.

In his last paragraph, Childs brings in the issue of readership. He writes that the biblical writings "function as Scripture for someone". But there are many ways in which a writing may "function as Scripture", and not just the Reformation idea of a "Scripture principle" (which Childs assumes to be the only way). The word "Scripture" denotes a writing that is authoritative (above all other writings) for a given religion. To narrow that term artificially to the Reformation idea is not at all warranted, and is, in the present context, a rhetorical abuse. Historical critics who accept the Bible as authoritative, and who think that it is precisely that authoritativeness that makes their historical-critical work so urgent, are indeed reading the Bible as "Scripture" just as much as Childs is. There is no direct line from the scriptural status of Scripture to a canonical approach, unless one first artificially narrows the meaning of the word "Scripture".

Phil Sumpter said...

I will get back to you on this John, things are a bit busy at the moment. Thanks for the comments.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

sorry that it's taken me so long to get back. Can you subscribe to these posts, so that you get notified when I respond?

It seems to me that the "diachronic or synchronic" is precisely the issue, and that that is what gets people so annoyed at Childs's approach. If that's not what it's all about, Childs needs to explain why.

This is exactly what he does in the following paragraph, beginning with the sentence “Rather, the basic hermeneutical issue of the so-called final form turns on determining the nature of this set of writings.” An interpretation of a text needs to take into account what kind of text one is dealing, with. It's simply a matter of genre, reading according to the intentionality of the text. Childs' account of a developmental growth, done in terms of response to prior levels within the context of a broader theological understanding, resulting in the mature final form that could be argued to have brought to birth that which was started long ago would be a compelling reading to read the final form of the text, both theologically and even simply as an attempt to understand the literature on its own terms. I don't see how you can reject the logic of this statement, whether you believe that it faithfully describes the text or not.

The second paragraph sets out what seems to be a classic argument of Childs: the final form must be the focus of our interpretative efforts, because (!) it is the final form that the community has rendered for us.

I hope my short paragraph above has made this clear that this is simply not the case. If not, tell me and I'll try to clarify the situation. In short, the final form is to be priviliged because it is the culmination of a process of maturation (to use one metaphor; whatever the metaphor, the point is that that which was begun has 'pushed forward' to the full expression of what was intended in the first place. The final form is this full expression). Nowhere does Childs say we should read the final form by virtue of an ecclesial caveat. In fact the whole point of this article, present in every post I have made, is that the later redactional expansion were not impositions onto innocent prior tradition according to the whims of later communities. It was a response and witness to the fulfilment of those prior words. It is the nature of the relationship between the layers that is significant, and not the authority of a later community. That is the reason, that is why the final form should be privileged. If you can't see this in the text, tell me and I'll point it out. Childs is particularly clear on this in his Biblical Theology in Crisis:

“The church has rightly insisted that no ecclesiastical body can ever 'make a book canonical'. Rather, the concept of canon was an attempt to acknowledge the divine authority of its writings and collections.” (1970: 105)

What is the piece of the puzzle that Childs is holding back?

Do you see this now? If not, please do tell me what is not clear and I'll try to make it clearer. Doing so helps me better understand what Childs is on about.

Is he assuming that the community is inspired, ... so that its activity of forming a canon should be held exempt from the sorts of destructive reformulations that hinder all other cultural-literary traditions

Neither Childs nor the Bible explain the mechanics of inspiration. Childs certainly believes that the responses of disciples to the prophetic word, which then found their way into the Bible, are 'inspired'. As for the Bible's exemption from “ destructive reformulations that hinder all other cultural-literary traditions”, the whole point of this article is to argue that the expansion of the Bible was a faithful response to what went before. If you think that this later expansion was in fact destructive, then an exegetical response to Childs' arguments is in order. How one would prove whether these later formulations (not re-formulations) are 'destructive' or not is a moot point, given the ideological presuppositions required to answer that question.

Is it that Childs thinks that reading the Bible as Scripture means reading it primarily as the record of what an inscripturating community thought

Is it that Childs thinks that reading the Bible as Scripture means reading it primarily as the record of what an inscripturating community thought (rather than as a guide to what that community's religion *should* be)

A glance at almost any of Childs' work will reveal that the concept of the normativity of the Bible for Christian faith and practice is not only prevalent, but indeed a generating principle for the entire canonical approach. In addition to this, I don't get how your polarization of community's thoughts with prescriptive text cancel each other out. A prevalent motif in Childs' work is the idea of one generation passing on its sacred traditions to the next, in such a form that they can function authoritatively for the younger generation. The hermeneutical constraints introduced by the literary shaping provided a means for the older traditions to be actualized anew, though with a theological context that was the fulfilment of what went before. In one sense, any document is a representation of what its authors think. But its the content of their thought that is significant, not the fact that they thought it. What's the alternative, a text falling out of heaven?

In the third paragraph, Childs begins by saying that the canonical development "must be respected", but his only reason for saying this is simply that the development happened.

In the light of the above, can you see now why Childs doesn't just insist on respecting the canonical development by virtue of its existence. Its the nature of the development which is at stake and which justifies this move. All the historical critics who Childs reviewed in the article (an in my posts) believe in the existence of a development. The whole reason Childs wrote the essay is to refute their assumptions concerning the nature of this development and to present his alternative. To miss this is to miss the whole point of the article.

He has not yet established that a canonical reading is *the* way to read the Bible on the terms dictated either by the Bible itself or by the religion that gave rise to it

Well, I think he quite clearly did. This is the subject matter of the entire article, so I'm not sure how you could miss it (or how else would you summarize the content of the article?). I've also just summarized his arguments above.

To narrow that term artificially to the Reformation idea is not at all warranted

Childs certainly doesn't claim this. But even if there are similarities between Childs' proposal and the Reformation's, that doesn't automatically make either of them wrong, does it? What Childs does instead to is give reasoned arguments based on evidence. If these arguments mirror the Reformation, then good for the Reformation. Given Childs' extensive research into the history of interpretation (a hall mark of the canonical approach), I think we should give his knowledge of ecclesial hermeneutics, Reformation or not, some credit.

There is no direct line from the scriptural status of Scripture to a canonical approach

Sure, that's why Childs provides the detailed arguments for his approach in this article.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Thanks for your detailed response.

I would take issue with Childs's logic on most of these points, of course, but let me just bring up the last point in my above remarks. When I tie Childs's view to the Reformation Scripture principle, my point is that he seems, by his rhetoric (and by the very title of his book *Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture*), that if you don't read the Bible in a way similar to the way he reads it, then you aren't reading it as "Scripture". This view (which I think is ridiculous) is reflected in Childs's remarks in the article you've discussing. If Childs's narrowed definition of "Scripture" is allowed to stand, then it means that many important theological figures, from Irenaeus, to Justin Martyr, to Origen, to Erasmus, to John Wesley, etc., did not read the Bible as "Scripture".

Phil Sumpter said...

I just wrote a response, but my compute crashed and I lost everything, so here is a shorter version.

I would take issue with Childs's logic on most of these points, of course

Well, I'm always happy to discuss Childs' concrete proposals.

As for Childs' use of the term 'Scripture', this in no way makes him Protestant. See, for examples, John Hobbins' post on this issue here: http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2007/09/on-the-centrali.html. In his post he emphasises the Eastern Orthodox dimension, but the term and concept is central to all biblical religions and not just to the Reformation. How this principle is and has been understood is diverse, but that does not mean that the issue can't be discussed and proposals made. Childs conceives of the church's relation to its God and its Scripture as a 'struggle', in which we are constantly wrestling with the implications of our faith. His proposal is just the latest in an ongoing and ancient debate concerning how the Bible should function within the church. He recognises that it is not the last word, but also recognises the importance of the issue, and so makes a suggestion that he thinks best 'fits'. That he claims that the canonical context of the final form should be the normative arena for interpretation is not in itself arrogant or wrong. Christianity has to do with authority and normativity (something you yourself hint at above). There is something that should be believed and things that should be done. What they are is another question, but trying to figure them out can't be discounted.

Given that Childs sees this issue as part of an unresolved, ongoing struggle common to all denominations, it is clear that he is able to accept other attempts as genuinely Christian. He is a great fan of von Rad and Jerome, for example. You really should at least have a glance at his last book, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, which is a hermeneutical analysis of the history of interpretation, trying to identify core elements of a Christian hermeneutic. Childs is able to find elements of significant continuity between Origen and von Rad, for example! At least this book should be testimony to the fact that Childs isn't simply projecting the 16th C. onto the past (if his other writings weren't enough).

So, to reiterate, Childs does accept Wesley etc. as reading 'Scripture'.