Friday, 11 January 2008

What Does Childs Mean by 'Canonical Context'?

That's the question I'm struggling to get my head around at the moment. In his Biblical Theology in Crisis (parts of which you can read here) Childs makes clear that 'canonical context' is not simply an issue of the boundaries of the Bible:

"The fundamental theological issue at stake is not the extent of the canon, which has remained in some flux within Christianity, but the claim for a normative body of tradition contained in a set of books." (1970: 99)
Here, 'the Bible' is not so much a particular text as a theological principle that can be associated with any number of ecclesially recognised canons, united by their function as Scripture within the communities where they 'belong'. An element of this principle is that this "set of books" functions as Scripture only within the context of the community that treasures them (i.e. they are normative for someone). Thus, Childs can say,

"Scripture does not exist as a book of truth in itself, yet there is no church tradition independent of the biblical text."
The function of the Bible within the community is determinative for our understanding of its theological nature. For example,

"[t]he mistake of employing ... a concept of inerrancy, ... , was in its defining of the medium [of revelation, i.e. the Bible] apart from its canonical context." (103)
Here, confusingly for me, Childs refers to the community itself as the Bible's 'canonical context'. The 'Bible'-as-canon has its being in the community which treasures it. The church as 'canonical context' is made explicitly in the following:

"The claim for the inspiration of Scripture is the claim for the uniqueness of the canonical context of the church through which the Holy Spirit works." (ibid.)
I'm struggling to understand what it means to speak of the church as a 'canonical context', and how this relates to an understanding of the biblical text as a 'canonical context'. The issue seems to be central to Childs' entire approach and pops up in other guises throughout his writings. His use of the term 'rule-of-faith', for example, sometimes refers to the Gospel as summarised in church tradition and sometimes refers to the structure of the text itself.

In sum, how do canon as text and canon as community relate to each other? Or, to put it another way, how do the Gospel as context for theological interpretation and the text as context for interpretation relate to each other? How are they, so it seems as far as Childs is concerned, two sides of the same coin?

One possible answer:
the faith of the community exists in a dialectial relation with its traditions. The shape given to these traditions, eventuating in the various canonical forms, is one particular expression of the faith of the community, in this case a literary one, and as such represents one part of the community's overall witness to the Truth (expressed in other forms, such as liturgy, creed, and certain types of action in the world). As such, 'canonical context' is primarily a theological category and not a literary one. Reading Psalm 1 in its canonical context means reading it within the context of the Psalter, Old Testament, Bible and contemporary practice etc., not because that's the way it best makes sense but because the total sum of these contexts represents arena elected by God in which to make himself known. Given the central role of text and community in Childs theology of revelation, these two realities can only be seen as two sides of the same coin: the place where God makes himself known.

I hope these ponderings aren't too abstruse ...

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