Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Did Childs achieve what he was aiming for?

This was a criticism made of Childs in the comment thread of a recent post by Halden on The not-so dangerous theology of Walter Brueggemann. Here's my response:

I’m not sure Childs thought that he was cut out to do what he was calling for either! Theological exegesis is a project very much in progress, rather than a praxis based on firmly established principles. At the end of his Isaiah commentary, Childs expressed frustration about his commentary. It didn’t get him to where he wanted, so he went on to write his fascinating Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Even at the end of that work he closed with pointers and suggestions about where we should go next. His entire career is marked by a ceaseless drive to keep pushing the boundaries.

However, Childs' broader theory still shines through in his practice of exegesis and I still find plenty in Childs’ work which signals ways forward, especially in his Isaiah commentary. In fact, recently, someone commented on my blog that he was disappointed with the Isaiah commentary because it still focussed so heavily on historical critical issues, rarely ever getting to the substance. My response is here (where I also have the quote on his frustrations with his Isaiah commentary). I agreed with him, to a degree. Childs’ problem is that in his desire for thoroughness and his respect for the literal sense of the text, he pushes only very slowly and carefully through the text to its reality. One often feels like he’s still standing on the boarder of the promised land, yearning to dive into the “mystery of Christ” yet wanting to give the path there its full due. As such, his exegesis still has the function of a Wegweiser, a signpost for us, the later “generation of the faithful,” to follow. His canonical approach is a challenge to keep going and to continue the “struggle” (a favourite word of his).

That’s what I wish to do in my doctorate. Having spent the last year and a half reading Childs, I’m now attempting a theological exegesis of Psalm 24, one that goes beyond anything Childs himself actually did, though an exegesis which, I’d like to think, he himself was pushing towards.


R.O. Flyer said...

Childs was trained in historical criticism and I think ultimately he was committed to staying within the fold of modern biblical scholarship.

However, his later Isaiah book seems to point in a new direction and I think it is a helpful one theologically. His extended consideration of the interpretative theological history of the text, which deals with pre-critical sources especially, is a positive step forward.

I think it is positive because it in some ways escapes the charge that Childs wanted to reify the text for the sake of a (problematic?) view of the inspiration of the canonical witness. Not only is this a good theological move, but it is also a way to resist the protestant temptation to read the text outside the context of the tradition.

Perhaps I do not say this enough, but I think Childs had an exceptional mind. Indeed, there was always a certain tension for him between taking seriously the work of historical criticism yet maintaining interest in theological matters.

In some ways Childs is representative of many biblical scholars in this era. I mean Childs didn't begin to study biblical studies out of a disinterested historical interest in the subject. No! Childs went into biblical studies because he was interested in theology! And he thought this should be legitimate. One should be able to be a biblical scholar with theological concerns, and one shouldn't have to hide or be embarrassed about having such concerns.

I'll tell you that I don't always agree with the way he took this, but I know precisely where he is coming from. And I know that he has done much to pave the way for scholars like you to begin to take biblical studies and theology seriously.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Flyer,

thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that his primary allegience was to Biblical scholarship. He remained an Alttestamentler to the end and felt that the dogmatic work should be done by the systematic theologians. He's had a major impact on me both intellectually and spiritually and I hope that his influence will increase both academy and church.

Concerning you comments on his Isaiah commentary: what he does there was not actually new for him. It is not different in kind to what he had already done at the beginning of his career in his Exodus commentary. In fact, there is strong continuity throughout his career in taking the Wirkungsgeschichte of the text seriously. I'm often exasperated by charges that Childs wants to reify the text, beacause he never said anything even closely resembly such a thing. He constantly emphasised the function of the text within the community. I often wonder where his critics ever got the idea from. Daniel Driver has finished his doctorate on the subject and he concludes that most people don't actually bother to read Childs, preffering instead the massive mispresentation of his work in Barton and Barr and staying there (I can confirm this after one year of dialoguing on this blog). They were way off the mark, as Childs often said in response. In fact, he was so sick of the way the canonical approach had been turned into some kind of modern structuralist interpretation that he started avoiding the term at the end of the career. I often wonder if the publication of his Introduction was just a matter of bad timing, coming out at a time when new literary approaches which treated the text as hermeneutically sealed were in vogue. As Driver said in his article here, Barr hardly even bothered to read Childs' work after IOTS. A good place to understand what Childs was trying to do in his IOTS is to read his response to reviewers in JSOT (available as pdf on ATLAS). It's one thing for his critics to critique him, its another for them to continue to do so by ignoring his response to the criticism and his later publications.

I appreciate your feedback, so please feel free to critique my posts where ever you feel necessary.

R.O. Flyer said...

Well, we obviously differ significantly on all of this. I've read quite a bit of Childs' work, and I've always found both Barton and Barr to be good interpreters of him. I know you think they totally misunderstand him. Childs seemed to think everyone misunderstood his project!

I really don't think the charge that Barr hardly ever read Childs really stands up. Barr engaged Childs more thoroughly than any one else that I can recall and he did so until the bitter end in numerous articles and books.

Anonymous said...

Barr was so far off in understanding Childs. Just because he wrote numerous articles and books doesn't mean that he truly engaged Childs. One could say he was even obsessed in disputing Childs' work.