Thursday, 6 November 2008

Is the canonical approach uncritical?

If one were to approach the canonical approach exclusively through the secondary literature, then the answer would be "yes" (unless one read Seitz, Thiselton, McConville, etc.). If one were to read Childs himself (and I'm referring here to a specifically "Childsian" canonical approach), then the answer would so obviously be "no" that one would wonder how the secondary literature came to its position in the first place.

Sounds a bit overconfident? Then read Childs! Or at least have a look at some of the examples of canonical exegesis I have posted over the last year (in particular no.# 3 on the Pentateuch and this thread on the prophets). As far as I can see, the major source for the claim that Childs' is uncritical is the theoretical foundation he provides for his approach (invariably misunderstood). If you take a look at his actual exegesis, it is clear that he is anything but uncritical (see also my posts: The significance of the diachronic dimension and source criticism and the final form).

A blog post recently summarised this position. I respond to each sentence below, printed in italics as a proposition:

Canonical exegesis imposes unity on the text and searches for a theological point.

I'm not sure how the second part of the statement is related to the first. Is the imposition of unity a result of the theological interest of the interpreter? If so, how? Although it can certainly happen that the Bible gets reduced to a single scheme, this is a danger we all face, whether theological or not. We all have a broader theory of reality within which we try and comprehend the text. I don't see how a non-theological approach would be more accurate. Especially given that the texts themselves are intrinsically theological. They claim to be inspired by God, a response to God, to witness to God. I'm not sure how factoring him out of the equation guarantees objectivity in a way in which confessing him doesn't.

Canonical exegesis imposes unity ...

Canonical exegesis in the sense in which Childs understands it claims that the unity of the text lies in its theological referent. That means that there can be diversity, but that it is at some point resolved at a “higher level” outside of the text. The diversity is a result of the kerygmatic nature of the text, i.e. its genre is human proclamation of the divine, with all the historical and cultural particularity that that entails. It doesn't follow that their common subject matter, the God of Israel, also consists in conflicting identities. Admittedly this is a theological assertion, but the question of whether the theological (and not literary) unity claimed for the Bible is an imposition or not should be adjudicated on the basis of concrete proposals, and not used to reject the approach per se. To honest, I'm not sure how a confessing Christian or Jew could read the Bible with any other assumption.

Added to this is an important element of the redactional history of the Bible: it consists in a Sachkritik (critique according to content). According to Childs, ancient traditions were critically judged according to a standard of truth which the editors claimed represented the true theological content of those traditions. Isaiah's oracles concerning Assyria, for example, were sifted and ordered and collected with other oracles concerning Babylon according to a theological account of time. The two empires became types of one reality: sinful human hubris. Here, then, you have both particularity and unity. Again, in the inner-canonical reception history of the Exodus traditions, only certain elements were highlighted. The vicious domination of the Egyptians is not thematized, but the graciousness of God is. Here, too, we have a diversity of possibilities being brought under the aegis of a single theological trajectory.

... searches for a theological point

Given that the Bible is theological, I'm not sure why this is a criticism. Is one doing the book of Kings more justice by looking for archaeological evidence or by assessing its description of God?

It's not critical biblical scholarship because it requires the presupposition that Old and New Testaments are equally divine revelation and the words themselves point to some coherent higher reality.

I'm afraid I don't get this. Does that mean that to be a critical scholar one must be either an atheist or a non-Jew/Christian? How can a Christian be asked to stop believing that the Bible witnesses to God it order to be more critical? Isn't that to reify methodological atheism? Some of the greatest OT scholars believed that “ Old and New Testaments are equally divine revelation and the words themselves point to some coherent higher reality”: von Rad, Noth, Eichrodt, Zimmerli, W.H.Schmidt, Wolff, Childs, Seitz, Kaufmann, etc. Are they not critical?

This is subordinating both texts to a theological agenda.

Again, one cannot simply assume that the texts do not point to a single divine reality, as if this is self-evident. The idea that God has nothing to do with the Bible is relatively new, a result of recent secularist developments in the late 20th century. The names given above would reject this from the outset, and they are some of the fathers of Old Testament criticism.

Now if one is approaching the text from a Christian theological perspective, then there's nothing really wrong with that.

If everything you've said up to this point is true, then to continue asserting it in the name of “Christian theology” would make the enterprise a sham. Theology based on an imposed, external, theological agenda is not true theology. It is fideism and not worthy of belief and obedience.

Jesus gave them a new way of understanding their Scripture, and the NT is primarily a witness to their transformed way of understanding the revelation of the OT.

I'm in full agreement here. And so is Childs. It's part of his argument for a dialectical reading of the two testaments, rather than subordinating the Old Testament to its reception in the New. That is a fundamental presupposition of the canonical approach. It takes the two-testamental nature of Scripture seriously. The New is simply juxtaposed with the Old, so that means we too must look at both in their own integrity rather than subordinate one to the other (as I wrote in my post, Two testaments and four gospels).

10 comments:

psalterium said...

One need only read Childs commentary on Exodus to see that he was critical!

Josh McManaway said...

I think you've hit on some great points I've been thinking through lately.

One question I've had is - how is taking a text and isolating it from the canon somehow more critical? Why can't we try to understand inherently theological texts in theological ways, within the body of literature in which the text is engaged?
Thanks for discussing this.

Phil Sumpter said...

Richard,

you're right. Exodus is particularly speculative, which comes as a shock to many. Nevertheless, although Childs loses his faith somewhat in our ability to reconstruct such a background, even in his last commentary on Isaiah (2001) he often prefers form critical insights to the more synchronic ones of literary criticism (e.g. Westermann over Muilenburg or Watts). His is particularly indebted to the redaction criticism of Beuken.

Josh,

great questions. I agree entirely. Thanks for your thoughts.

Douglas Mangum said...

In response to Josh's comment, I'm wondering how canonical criticism accounts for the fact that canonization follows composition, often by centuries, and that canonization differs according to which religious community we're talking about. Reading the text "within the body of literature in which the text is engaged" depends on who's doing the reading. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have slightly different canons. A Jewish canon isn't going to include the New Testament or deuterocanonical books in its conception of the canonical whole, so to speak. Of course, I've seen Phil quote Childs as saying biblical theology is a "Christian" enterprise, so the different Jewish canon is a moot point. However, what about Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox differences? How does that change things?

I think you're using "critical" in a way differently than I do (It's my post that Phil's interacting with - in interests of full disclosure). Any exegesis that is beholden to a particular theological perspective seems to me less critical. Any ideological criticism (feminist, Marxist, liberation, etc.) is similarly less critical. To me, critical means having the ability to lay aside your presuppositions, assumptions, and theological or philosophical commitments in order to see all the options of what the text could mean. It also helps you see how others with ideological or theological commitments reach their interpretations. A canonical approach where you're reading in light of the full message of the canon (whichever one you choose) allows you to both include interpretations you wouldn't reach otherwise and exclude interpretations that don't fit the overall message.

I guess it comes down to the purpose behind exegesis. If your purpose is drawing theology out of the text for a community of believers, then you all probably share a commitment to the unified witness of the text to the divine reality. If you're trying to understand the text in its historical context and figure out what the message was to the earliest readers/hearers, then a canonical approach isn't going to help. Childs would probably say that biblical criticism doesn't go far enough because it usually stops there.

I'm wondering why we can't just agree that there are different levels of exegesis that bring different methodological and philosphical rules to their readings of the same texts. If going all the way to full blown biblical theology is the only "right" way to do this exegesis thing, then a lot of us have missed the boat.

Douglas Mangum said...

As a follow up, I wanted to say that I haven't had a chance to think over and respond to the other issues Phil raised with my original post which he's posted here. I think some of them would go away in a second draft. The first draft style of blogging doesn't always result in the clearest exposition of one's thoughts. For example, I will admit that my definition of "critical" could be too narrow. I re-read some of Mary Callaway's chapter on Canonical Criticism in Too Each Its Own Meaning and think I understand where Phil's coming from a bit better. However, some of the questions and issues I have with a canonical approach are still there.

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear Douglas,
 
Don't worry about how you phrased your post. That's what blogging is for - in my opinion! It's a place to express new ideas in order to have them refined through dialogue. That's the reason I post, anyway. And thank you for your well-thought out reply. I think you have a lot of important points. I can understand your reserves concerning the canonical approach as the issues you raise are legitimate and, unfortunately, are not often dealt with adequately enough by those who also claim to have a "canonical approach." What I love about Childs is his comprehensiveness: he takes every dimension into account. I'll have a shot at responding to your concerns.
 
I'm wondering how canonical criticism accounts for the fact that canonization follows composition

That this is true is clear. The issue turns on the nature of the relationship between the different stages of the development of the Bible. Childs claims that the final fixing of the canon was not an act external to the development of the text or outside the history of revelation. Rather, through out Israel's history it has related to its God in terms of a body of sacred tradition, the function of which was to guide this people in faith and practice. The function of sacred tradition was always dialectical: Israel did its “theology” in light of its tradition and it understood it tradition in the light of a growing understanding of God and his ways. There was thus a kind of “progressive revelation” which was constantly registered in the developmental history of the text so that later editorial layers(e.g. the Pentateuch) or collections (the Psalms) witnessed more fully and adequately to the reality of God and his ways. The decision to make a five book Torah is part of this, or a 150 Psalm Psalter.

Within this history there is diversity. The juxtaposition of the minor prophets was of a different order to the juxtaposition of the three major ones. The juxtaposition of the Gospels is similar yet different to the juxtaposition of the two Testaments (on which see my post Two Testaments, four Gospels. Thus, we need the subtlety that the historical critical methods gains us. But we also need to read the parts in light of this broader movement, i.e. as part of the final form of Scripture. Childs' cypher for this process is “canonical” (because the tradition function as a κανων; cf. my post: Redaction and the rule of faith). Thus, on his terms, the formal “canonization” you are talking about is part of a process that indeed involves composition, and is not a hermeneutically insignificant afterthought.

Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have slightly different canons.

In terms of the scenario painted above, this fact is not too significant. It matters, because it can affect theology, but it does not undermine the canonical approach per se because a canon is essentially a communal reality anyway. Catholics give theological arguments for their position and Protestants likewise. The solution is the weigh the arguments and contine what Childs calls “the search for the Christian Bible.” I've covered this in a thread called Scripture's two testaments). Although the outer boundaries are not too sharp, this doesn't detract too much from what we share.

A Jewish canon isn't going to include the New Testament or deuterocanonical books in its conception of the canonical whole

Therefore a Jewish canonical approach will read the Tanakh differently to a Christian reading the Old Testament. As with Christian canon, there are theological issues involving the nature of the function of Scripture and the relation between text and tradition involved here. Though I've not read Childs saying this in so many words, he does think that the Christian approach more in line with the original intentionality of the OT (cf. his distinction between “allegory” and “midrash”). The important point is that, in Childs' view, the NT is not an external appendix added to something to which is actually totally foreign to it. The same divine reality that called the OT into life also evoked the NT. This is a confessional stance, but seeing that it involves propositions about reality I don't see how a Christian can consistently bracket it out.

Any exegesis that is beholden to a particular theological perspective seems to me less critical.

Most contemporary philosophy will tell you that being beholden to an ideology (whether theological or not) is unavoidable. See my post on the “reality” of the Bible. Of course, being self-critical is, as you say, important, but one can be self-critical from within a position of faith. Humility, repentance, patience and hope are the preconditions for genuine self-criticism, and these are very theological terms replete with networks of “ideological” assumptions. In other words, theology/ideology can help us become more self-critical. If you have the right ideology, that is ...


A canonical approach where you're reading in light of the full message of the canon (whichever one you choose) allows you to both include interpretations you wouldn't reach otherwise and exclude interpretations that don't fit the overall message.

I'm afraid I don't get this. Why does allowing the formal structure of the canon to operate as an interpretative boundary allow you to “exclude interpretations that don't fit the overall message”? It is the function of the canon to achieve just the opposite: what is in must be taken into account, because that is the “rule” (canon) we live by. It is historical criticism which tends to leave out bits that don't fit a particular theory of history by assigning it to either a “gloss,” or a more “primitive” stage of evolution.

If you're trying to understand the text in its historical context and figure out what the message was to the earliest readers/hearers, then a canonical approach isn't going to help. Childs would probably say that biblical criticism doesn't go far enough because it usually stops there.

Your right about Childs, and I guess you may be right about the relevance of canonical hermeneutics as regards the task of reconstructing a putative Israelite religion. Though I'm not sure ... I remember N.T. Wright's methodology, in which he points out that later developments can be a pointer for what was implicit all along ... And I still have the lingering doubt about our ability to understand an ancient religion from our present context. The advantage of the canonical approach is that is offers us the opportunity to hear the one God who speaks throughout the ages. Is that not relevant for the “archaeological” task of digging back to one particular stage in that history?


I'm wondering why we can't just agree that there are different levels of exegesis that bring different methodological and philosophical rules to their readings of the same texts.

I'm well up for that! Yet, I wonder if some are more appropriate to the material than others ... ? I think it's healthy to at least leave this question open.

Phil Sumpter said...

Douglas, another thought in regard to my comment about later layers of tradition being useful for helping us identifying what was orginally going on at the beginning of these developments. I mentioned N.T. Wright, but Sweeney in his Isaiah commentary has made a similar statement:

"Althoughthe words and actions of the original prophets initiated the composition of the prophetic literature, the writings of the later editor and tradents completed it. Obviously, they saw something of value in the words as an address to them and their own situations. Only by investigating the process by which such later tradents understood, reformulated, and reapplied the earlier words of the prophets can the form critic identify the impetus for the preservation, growth, and continued vitality of the prophetic tradition. In order to understand fully the meaning and significance of the prophetic literature in relation to the communities that produced it, the form critic must account for the prophetic book in its entirety. This means that the form critic must consider both the “original” prophetic speech forms and the later material that defines the present form, insofar as they can be identified. The setting of a text form therefore includes both its Sitz im Leben (”setting in life”) and its Sitz im Literatur (”setting in literature”; Richter, Exegese, 148)

Thanks to Richard for the quote.

Douglas Mangum said...

Phil,

Sweeney's work is interesting and I agree with him in principle, but it seems like you're trying to claim canonical criticism as a subset of form criticism. Form criticism tries to separate the layers, but I understand canonical criticism as more interested in reading the whole. I guess Sweeney's comment could be taken as logically leading to reading the whole, but it's awfully hard to get that out of his commentary because he dissects the text so much - sometimes changing "genre" every half verse.

So should we take canonical criticism as a logical extension of the "traditional" methods like source and form criticism?

psalterium said...

Douglas, I would heartily commend to you The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century edited by by Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi. It contains some great essays, especially Kim's "Form Criticism in Dialogue with Other Criticisms".

The canonical shape of every book has its own Sitz im Leben/Literatur and so there is an initmate relationship between form criticism and canonical criticism. A superb attemp is Ehud Ben Zvi's FOTL commentary on Hosea. I am told his one on Micah is also excellent but I am yet to read that.

Phil Sumpter said...

Richard,

that sounds like a fascinating book. I will have to get hold of it.

Douglas,

I do indeed think that, as you say, "canonical criticism [is] a subset of form criticism." I'm not sure if many have cottoned onto to this, but as far as I am concerned it is vital to an understanding of Childs that form criticism, with its focuss on proclamation, be seen as his intellectual predecessor (see my post on a theological justification for form criticism. However, as you also say, a canonical approach attempts to go beyond the atomizing inherent in the form critical method. I seeks to do two things: 1) appreciate the text's genre ("form") as a kerygmatic witness; and 2) think about the true nature of the object of this witness (the text's "ultimate subject matter"). If it is the case that the texts witness to a divine Word, a creative reality (Isa 55:11) which "overtakes generations" in new and profound ways (Zech 1:6), then it makes sense that the final form is both the telos of the text's tradition history and the site of the fullest form of divine revelation. This is the ground for an appreciation of the power and integrity of the final form, and not an attempt to bracket out historical criticism with theories of textual unity.

I know this is a packed statement needing more argument to justify it, but it's start at least. Feel free to tell me there's something wrong!