Saturday, 20 December 2008

A dialogue on Childs

It's not often that I get an dialogue partner who understands Childs' work as well as Brad of bradandgeo. He recently wrote an interesting critique of certain points in my post Some critiques of Childs (in that place made by another competant reader of Childs, John Lyons of Reception of the Bible). I've taken time to respond, and think the exchange is worth its own post. But do read Brad's entire post in the comments section here!

His comments are in italics, my response below:

it ... seems that his exegesis never quite lives up to what is expected based on his methodological work.

I totally agree with you, and I think he knew that himself. He was a pioneer, cautiously, very cautiously, trying to spy out the promised land from the wilderness, not wanting to forget all the lessons that have been learnt along the way. To that end, I think his exegesis often has the feeling of one pushing forward in a direction, yearning to get there, but not wanting to betray the route that is set out for us. He kind of says this in the intro to his book Struggle:

I have recently finished a technical, modern commentary on the book of Isaiah. The task of treating the entire book of sixty-six chapters was enormous, but in addition, the commentary had necessitated restricting the scope of the exposition. That entailed omitting the history of interpretation and relegating many important hermeneutical problems to the periphery of the exegesis. After the commentary had been completed, I was painfully aware that many of the central theological and hermeneutical questions in which I was most interested had not been adequately addressed” (emaphsis mine).
The scope of Isaiah is one reason why he couldn't go as deep as in Exodus (both commentaries are roughly the same size), but as I said: I think he was incredibly cautious and wanted to restrain himself from “rushing to the referent.” My doctoral thesis is an attempt to do what you are looking for (and which Childs himself has done in a haphazard manner), and make the move from text to referent and back again (on Psalm 24).

[rather than recommend his Isaiah commentary, I think it is better] to see what he does with exodus

Agreed, this is the best model for a commentary and it is the one I will follow.

Concerning the Isaiah commentary, I agree with you that he focusses a lot more on the text than the substance, but I think for various legitimate reasons. One is the reason of caution given above; another belongs to the genre of "commentary." Though I think Childs would ultimately like to get to the allegorical intensity of Luther or Augustine, he wants to do it through intensive exegesis, and it is the role of a commentary to prioritise the literal rather than the spiritual sense. And I would call his redactional analyses “throat clearing” only in the positive sense of the phrase … Close analysis of the text always precedes talk of its substance, at least in a commentary. There are places where his diachronic analysis has direct repercussions on his perception of the substance. See his critique of certain redaction-critical trends in Isaiah studies on p. 462:

First, Third Isaiah remains a prophetic collection, both in form and content, which means there is an encounter with actual historical realities, albeit seen in the light of the divine. This dimension dare not be flattened simply into a type of learned scribal activity dealing exclusively with literary texts. Second, not every occurrence of a parallel can be assigned to an intentional reuse. A critical assessment must be made that reckons with the theological substance at stake beyond merely identifying formal parallelism discovered by the perusal of a concordance.
It's these kinds of nuanced insights and his constant straining to hold everything in correct proportion, always in light of the text's res (which figures more, I think, than in Exodus), which makes his commentary so exciting for me. But it certainly isn't a commentary to end all commentaries. It's a call to persevere on a journey in a certain direction!

This [focus on redactional issues] was frustrating, not least because at that stage in his career you would think we could have taken some of those arguments as read.

My impression is that his balancing act between diachrony (Westermann) and synchrony (Beuken) was quite unique, and so by no means read. Perhaps I've not read enough other commentaries …

i know he says we need to take the compositional history seriously alongside of the canonical shape, but he also states that those issues will only take you so far. so why give them so much space?

I asked myself this. I had the feeling it was more like light shining through the cracks then standing in front of a text turned transparency to the divine (a metaphor he used for Barth's exegesis). But then I think the reasons I gave above account for this, along with his comments in Struggle

what sets this commentary apart from other offerings on isaiah?

I think I've answered this: his straining to keep balance and proportionality in light of the text's subject matter, given its genre as canonical scripture.

if, as you claim, childs's exegesis is consistently misread and not adequately understood, how so?

Not his exegesis. In fact that's the remarkable thing, I'm not sure his exegesis is read that much at all. Otherwise, people wouldn't make the comments they do about him advocating a hermetically sealed, self-referential canon (e.g. Barr). When they do, they usually act bemused and call him schizophrenic because they can't see how theory and practice fit together.

his volume on the history of interpretation i thought was much better, and actually dealt with more of the substantive issues of understanding and reading isaiah than the commentary did.

Well, again, I think it belongs to the genre of such a book that the move to the referent is easier, especially when the bulk of exegesis was ecclesial. See his comments in the intro to Exodus! Ideally things wouldn't be so divided, but that's the way things are.

it seems to me a bit of a double standard to say that childs's work was not a method, was not methodologically programmatic for others, but then for childs (and some of his followers) to be constantly upset at what passes for 'canonical' interpretation.

I'm not sure I get your point here. Why can't people's approach be critiqued too? For example, regardless of the soundness of G. Steins' philosophical theories concerning Bakhtinian intertextuality and their applicability to interpretation, Childs still critiqued his proposal and exegesis for not taking into account the theological nature of Christian-scriptural referentiality (i.e. allegorical and not midrashic). I'm not sure allegory is a method … it's a stance within a community guided by a rule of truth (regula veritatis).

if what he wanted to do was, as you say, 'articulate the hermeneutical implications of a certain stance vis-à-vis the text', it seems to leave the door quite open regarding what the use of those 'hermeneutical implications' might look like.

The door swings on a hinge, but there is still a hinge on which it turns, and so there is room for diversity (Childs appreciated an extraordinarily diverse range of interpreters, ranging from Augustine to von Rad!) as well as critique (again, applied by Childs to a diverse ranger of interpreters).


bradandgeo said...

Phil -

Thanks for this. i appreciate you taking time to answer my comments so thoughtfully.

i especially appreciate someone like yourself being able to bring out the nuance in childs's own work, e.g. his realisation of the limitations of his own exegesis. it's a good reminder for all of us trying to do something of substance that humility can go a long way.

i think you're also on to something by noting that childs' exegesis isn't necessarily misread, but unread! a reminder that i need to dig into more of his actual readings of the text.

one issue i need to give some more thought to is that of method vs. approach. maybe i just don't fully understand these concepts, and so am having a hard time articulating my unease. i may need to come back to this after giving it some more thought.

anyway, thanks for the stimulating conversation, and look forward to more of the same.

Happy Christmas...

John Lyons said...

Sorry Phil,

I just can't get to a full response to you both. But here is a snippet so far.

Interesting to see you and Brad discussing the differences between approach and method. For myself, I think Childs did not intend to found either. Instead he seems to have wanted to change the “description” of the object being studied. He was unhappy with the type of exegesis that he trained on and with many of its assumptions, but the primary problem that he saw with them was that they reflected a situation in which the scriptures had been turned into a certain kind of object of study, a historical object with a too historical referent. That object, to his mind, could never have the proper impact that Scripture was supposed to have on the Church. Nevertheless he did think aspects of that proper impact got through – hence his liking for exegetes that were very little like him. Since the object of study was being so misunderstood, then obviously the tools being used to read it were either unsuitable or being misapplied. So Childs work is not a method – as in one more tool to read that text – or a different approach – to that text. It is an approach to his new text, which could also have been – and perhaps should be - conceived of as a methodological approach to that ‘text’, one capable of being outlined for others.

I'll try to say more in the New Year.

Best wishes for Christmas,


Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Brad,

i may need to come back to this after giving it some more thought.

Please do! I think you have a great grasp of Childs and appreciate your input. Hope you had a blessed Christmas.

Hi John,

thanks for getting back to me. I don't think we disagree on anything ... though that may change in the unpacking of the details :). I agree that he wanted to redescribe the nature of the Bible, though I also find highlighting his continuity with those he continued to admire (von Rad, Noth etc.) very helpful. I'm not sure how this means he was not advocating an approach and not a method (something he explicitly said), though I still need to clarify the difference myself. Hope you had a blessed Christmas.