Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Canonical Process and the Text as "Witness"

In my posts on Brevard Childs' so-called "canonical approach" I have often used the category of "witness" (see here for a first definition). This category was used by Childs before his development of the canonical idea and remained determinative for him throughout his career (see, e.g., my summary of an article from 1967 here). It is significant to grasp this as his commitment to the concept and value of “canonical process” is derivative of his understanding of these texts as a historical witness for a concrete people to concrete reality in time. The concept of “witness” in its first instance is not tied to the final form of the text, but rather emphasises the particularity of the text in all its dimensions. More primary then “final form” is a commitment to the particular form in which the prophets and apostles bore witness to God. Israel's concern to pass on its witness in a new form so that God's revelation would be accessible to a new generation is everywhere evident in his earlier historical-critical works.

Failure to grasp this point has characterised critique of Childs' position throughout his career, so that in his final pre-mortem book in 2004 he once again had to set the record straight. In response to accusations of a-historicism or an arbitrary privileging of the final form Childs says:

“The truth is that I agree with von Rad's position that no stage in the Old Testament's long history of growth is obsolete, and that something of each phase has been conserved until its final form. The confusion arises from a disagreement on the nature of the exegetical task being undertaken. It is one thing to attempt to understand the Old Testament as the sacred scriptures of the church. It is quite another to understand the study of the Bible in history-of-religions categories. Both tasks are legitimate, but they are different in goal and procedure. The hermeneutical issue at stake does not lie in an alleged contrast between historical process and scripture's final form. To understand the Bible as scripture means to reflect on the witnesses of the text transmitted through the testimony of the prophets and apostles. It involves an understanding of biblical history as the activity of God testified to in scripture. In contrast, a history-of-religions approach attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment, as a scientifically objective analysis according to the rules of critical research prescribed by common human experience. ... [T]he two approaches are different in goals, assumptions and results. Yet the complexity is manifest in that the two are to be neither fused nor separated from each other. There is a subtle interrelationship that must be maintained. ... The confusion respecting the final form of the canonical text arises because of the failure to recognize that two different approaches to exegesis are involved that do not share a common understanding of history. To speak of the privileged state of the canonical form is not to disregard Israel's past history. However, it refuses to fuse the canonical process of the shaping of the witness of the prophets and apostles with an allegedly objective scientific reconstruction that uses a critical filter to eliminate those very features that constitute its witness, namely, the presence of God in the history of Israel and the church” (2004: 321)[*]
[*] Childs attributes such misconstrual first to J. Barr (1983), which was then picked up by J. Barton (1984) and continued by Nicholson (1998) and a host of others. In his review of the canon in recent Biblical Studies Childs praises recent German work for not making the mistake of their Anglo-Saxon colleagues , namely that of posing the hermeneutical problem of the growth of the canon in terms of canonical process or final form interpretation. Instead, the focus has been on the nature of the process and the nature of the final form (2006: 52). Though see his warnings on p. 52!


R.O. Flyer said...

Good post. This is a good quote from Childs too.
I can't emphasize enough the fact that J. Barr and J. Barton are the two greatest challenges Childs ever faced. They are the sharpest of thinkers. Childs constantly thinks they misunderstand his work, but it is important to engage them. If you want I could try and hunt down the bibliography I have from the paper I wrote on the Barr-Childs debate. For Barton's critique see his Reading the Old Testament.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Flyer (or how should I address you?). I'd love to see the bibliography. My e-mail is philsumpter[at]hotmail[dot]com. Thanks. I'd be delighted to dialogue with you on this.

I read Barton's book four years ago, before I knew anything about Childs. From what I remember he claimed it was not much more that the New Criticism, form of literary reading. Am I right? If that's the case, this post would be a corrective!

One prediction Barton made certainly hasn't materialized. He claimed that Childs' approach would never find acceptance on German soil. Germany is in fact the country which has in recent years shown the most interest in the subject. Childs pointed this out in a article in 2006.