Monday, 4 October 2010

The significance of B.S. Childs?

Much of this blog has been dedicated to extolling the praises of a man whose work has deeply influenced me, both spiritually and intellectually: Brevard Childs. I rarely come across statements that express something of the depth of my appreciation, though perhaps Seitz's comments come close. Recently, however, I read a eulogy that tops anything I have said on this blog. In fact, the praises are so high I'm left wondering whether I can fully agree with them. Perhaps my lack a full breadth of knowledge of the field disqualifies me from being able to make an informed judgement, but based on my experience to date I do think I can identify with McGlasson's sentiments. The following is taken from the preface to his Invitation to Dogmatic Theology:
The third decisive influence [on my approach] is the biblical work of Brevard S. Childs. I attended Yale Divinty School primarily in order to learn directly from Childs, and my eager expectation was met by an even greater reality. It is now clear that the work of Childs on canon amounts to nothing less than a brilliant new vision of scripture without parallel in the history of the church, though deeply rooted in the church's tradition of reading scripture. Every theologian worthy of the name has turned directly to scripture as the one source for the knowledge of God. Where else does the church learn to know Jesus Christ? However, never before has the church been closer to the shape and subject matter of scripture than in Childs's work on canon. The confession of canon was the first and foundational creedal affirmation of the ancient church; yet not until Childs's work have the full implications of that confession been so crystal clear and inviting for reflection. Once again, a new era has begun. Theology can never again go back behind Childs when it wrestles with scripture, nor can it count as genuine Christian theology unless it sees with precision the full force of the vision he articulates. The future of dogmatic theology lies with realizing the connection of the discipline with the Bible, and that connection depends upon a firm theological grasp of the issue of canon. The confession of canon is an ontological necessity for dogmatic inquiry and the proper beginning of all valid theological reflection (14-15).
So, how do people feel about that?


Bob MacDonald said...

Its a great question, Phil. The Canon occupies me with the questions that it raises - about history before it was closed, about the process of decision - the canonical intent say of David's life, of the psalms, of the Song or Qohelet or Revelation etc. It is to me sufficient and I think the 19th c phrase interpret Scripture by Scripture is a good thought - it forces you to consider the conflicting claims of various situations - but the synchronic needs the diachronic as a corrective to all sorts of enthusiasms. Thanks to you I have read a couple of Childs' books this week - we are not always in agreement but I do like the method of canonical criticism. Some years ago, John Hobbins instigated a discussion of the canon on these blogs. I wonder if it is still around.

John Lyons said...

I am afraid it is exactly the kind of arrogance that will probably leads to Childs's work slipping into something approaching a reformed sectarian sideshow someway down the line (if it hasn't already). Sadly, it is also an attitude shared among too many of those who currently work in this area. Such a shame really...

Colin Toffelmire said...

Though I quite like Childs and appreciate both much of what he was trying to do and much that his intellectual inheritors (like Seitz) are trying to do, this paragraph is just silly. It is hard to overstate how overstated it is. I think that both scholarship and the Church would be better served by a more sober and critical approach to theological work. I also suspect that Childs himself would be a little red in the face upon hearing such a comment. I should hope he would be, at least.

David Reimer said...

It's completely "OTT", isn't it! And I don't mean "Old Testament Theology, do I! Rather, it's over the top!

In the Spring I'll be leading a three-week unit on Childs in one of our postgrad courses. That's my choice, and I do it because I think Childs made a "landmark contribution" (to echo Walter Moberly's phrase) and the story of biblical interpretation in the 20th C. can't be told properly apart from him.

Key phrase there, however, is "20th C."! McGlasson's hyperbole does Childs no favours. To my mind, it has something of the dynamic of one of Jesus' parables about it.

Phil Sumpter said...

In relation to all responses apart from Bob’s (I within you Bob; John’s thread is on the left hand side of his blog still, I believe), which seem to say the same thing, I have 1) a clarificatory question; 2) a disagreement with terminology, and 3) a “warning”:

1) For clarification: You all think the content of the post is simply wrong, but I’m not sure what the basis for your disagreement is: are you rejecting these kinds of statements as a matter of principle or do you just thing they don’t apply to the particular case of Childs? Could these statements in theory be made about someone else (regardless of whether you can think of some one), or ought they never be made?
2) This statement has been classified as “silly” and “arrogant” (cf. also the parable). Whatever this post is, I don’t think it can be either of those two things. “Silly” just means unintelligent, but is it unintelligent to claim that a particular scholar has provided a description of an object that brings us closer to its true nature than anyone before hand? Is there such a thing as progress in Biblical study? And “arrogant” doesn’t make sense, because arrogance is about what people think of themselves. McGlasson is talking about someone else. The question is whether what he says does just to what Childs has achieved.
3) Finally: the “warning”: It’s not always clear which Childs one is talking about. Are we reacting so negatively because we haven’t understood Childs the way McGlasson understood him. We ought to be aware that the content of Childs’ approach has been vastly distorted over the years (no exaggeration). A recent publication by D. Driver calls the “Childs of the secondary literature a Frankenstein.” A. Thiselton recently wrote that the problem with most critiques of Childs is that they are founded on ignorance of what he said. I thoroughly second this and am making my own attempt to present the coherence of his thought. I’m pretty blown away by it (though, of course, that may say more about my own superficiality).

John Lyons said...

Quickly, Phil, I am afraid.

1) I'd reject them as a matter of principle. The history of exegesis and the fact--let's assume it is a fact--that God has managed to do reasonably well at communicating with the Church pre-Childs (and certainly done no better post-Childs!) means that I think such claims are just plain silly (I think the term suits admirably) and more than a little arrogant (since McGlasson presumably wishes us to follow his lead).

Oops, I seem to have strayed into (2) here.

3) Will it really do to keep saying it is Childs' interpreters who are the ones at fault? I know of few scholars who need such constant defence and so many attempts to explain him to the rest of the Christian world. I think there are many pluses about what Childs did. I ought to, having spent years reading him. But alas I am, as you know, one of the many Dr Frankensteins who have twisted the canonical approach and made it obscure (such a defence covers over a multitude of sins, of course).

I asked you months ago about strengths and weaknesses. This kind of rhetoric, this "oh,if only you understood..." is a major weakness. I do understand Childs, and where he was coming from. And I am rather weary of the rhetoric that I don't. Believe that if you will. I no longer care, I am afraid.

The constant expression of a belief that you are doing something for the whole church are also a weakness. You just aren't. And I am afraid that much of the church no longer cares about your proposals because it finds the lack of an irenic discourse rather tedious. I ought to try to interact with Driver's book. But frankly the tone he uses I find rather distasteful, and it does not encourage me to try to discuss what he is trying to achieve.

What I find most interesting about all this, Phil, is that I am not interested enough in Childs myself--as either Christian or scholar--to devote my time and energy to this. By all means, blame me and my lack of understanding for that (as I am sure you will), but just remember down the line that you will not always be able to blame your audience for their lack of enthusiasm. Some day you really will have to seriously ask yourself if it really is the case that God's communication was only fully available post-Childs. I somehow can't see Calvin or Barth buying that. I don't, and I am afraid Phil that the vast majority of Christians and scholars you are going to meet don't either.

Oh, well. So much for quickly!

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John,

first, thanks for taking the time to respond. Second, you are doing me an injustice by assuming dialogues we’ve never had and ascribing statements to me I’ve never made. I have never said to anyone, “Oh, if only you understood … !” I find that statement upsetting because, as a matter of fact, I expend quite a lot of energy attempting to explain my own point to those who want to hear it in the hopes that I will encourage a dialogue. I take a certain pride in that, as it costs energy and patience. I paid you the same favour and to prove this you can go back and read my actual response to your question about “weaknesses” here (, which was detailed enough to turn into an independent post, for which, in the comments, you thanked me. I have never criticised you, in fact in this post ( I paid you a complement. I have always found your comments to be helpful and have openly expressed that fact. Reading my response to you in the latter post, I actually say to you that I don’t agree with what you said. I’m frankly surprised at the tone of your response here and can only imagine that you are mixing me up with someone else. Perhaps my citation of Driver, who does critique you a bit, caused that. I apologize for the miscommunication.

You also accuse me of “constantly claiming I am doing something for the whole church.” Again, this sounds fairly malicious to me and it does not correspond to any reality I am aware of. Could you please tell me where I have ever said that on my blog? At best I express that the kind of thing Childs proposes provides the way forward, something hardly unique to either me or any “Reformed clique.” But is it unusual for scholars to identify what they consider to be a paradigm shift and then say that that is the way forward?

I do hope this clarifies things and that you take what you say back.

I have issues with your interpretation of McGlasson’s comments, but I’ll leave that for now.

Phil Sumpter said...

Correction: "reading the latter I post I told you that I don’t disagree with what you said"

John Lyons said...


I wrote that response late at night, which is probably never wise.

That said, I am rather surprised that you seem so surprised at the response that you have got (and not just from me, of course). What were you hoping your quotation of McGlasson in your original blog post would achieve? How did you think your citation of Driver and Thiselton (and Frankenstein!) in your response would be received (especially by me since you have read Driver for yourself)? If you choose to ally yourself with such people, then I think you are being a tad unreasonable at being upset when you are then tarred with same brush as them.

You are right, you have always been a gracious dialogue partner, and I do owe you an apology for being so forward in a public forum. But I do suggest that you think about what it means to go for a canonical approach and even begin to hint at it being the answer to all the Church's ills. You seem to consider this caution overstated, but then you also seem to think what Childs did in suggesting a new approach to scripture is a quite commonplace occurence. It wasn't and isn't, and that is one reason Childs's proposal was so contentious.

To be honest, I suspect that the Paul book may be the last straw for Childs' attempts to create a new approach to these texts. We will see. Many will still like his work, but frankly few are doing more with him that they would do with a literary aproach anyway. It is always good to remember that the fifties was a very different place to today and that the hold that historical criticism has over us now is a very different one to then. Childs' context is long gone, and with it has gone much of the value of what he did.

So I am sorry for the tone, Phil, and for tarring you with the "Driver brush". But I do not want to take any of the stuff about the approach and its reception back.
Perhaps it is for you to decide what tone you want to adopt in future when you talk about it. I would keep well away from McGlasson, Thiselton, and Driver. If you do choose to cosy up to them though, then at least you can now see what that will mean to certain others in the discipline.



Phil Sumpter said...

John: What were you hoping your quotation of McGlasson in your original blog post would achieve?

Phil: A dialogue as to the pros and cons of his provocative statement. Thus far, my contribution consists in the question as to whether this kind of thing ought to be rule out in general or only in relation to Childs in particular. You response to me was that we should rule it out in principle, and your reason for that is that it is ridiculous to think that God didn’t communicate before Childs. My response to you: McGlasson is not claiming that God’s will was not heard before Childs, he is claiming that our grasp of the nature of the text and the way it mediates its content has never been better. Can Augustine or Luther compete on that level? My further response is to draw attention to the concept of “paradigm shift.” If knowledge developes in that matter, then I feel it may be legitimate for McGlasson to talk with such a tone after all.

John: How did you think your citation of Driver and Thiselton (and Frankenstein!) in your response would be received (especially by me since you have read Driver for yourself)?

Phil: 1st), I apologize for the insensitivity of citing Driver’s quote in a dialogue with you. 2nd), the response that I desired was something along the lines of: “Good point, the particular way I understand Childs is as follows … and therefore McGlasson is wrong;” or “how is that the case, then?” or “Driver, Thiselton, and yourself are wrong because …” etc. 3rd) I like the admittedly provocative and drastic Frankenstein metaphor because it expresses the extent of the misrepresentation. Perhaps I also want the shock value, because that misrepresentation is found in certain very influential quarters. I have enough experience of talking to people claiming to know Childs when all they’ve done is read Barr and Barton. I can tell after the first sentence. How do you rate Barton’s representation of Childs’ work? What metaphor does it justice? [I should add that in my limited experience Barton is a very nice man; I just think he’s very wrong when it comes to Childs].

Phil Sumpter said...

John: you are being a tad unreasonable at being upset when you are then tarred with same brush as them

Phil: I didn’t notice that you were “tarring me with the same brush.” That was not my issue. My issue was with your assertions about things you claim I have said on this blog. I accept your apology, thank you.

John: But I do suggest that you think about what it means to go for a canonical approach and even begin to hint at it being the answer to all the Church's ills.

Phil: The existence of this blog is testimony to the fact that I “think about what it means.” Unless I am not allowed in principle to think that Childs offers something profound that has been missed by many, I don’t understand how you ground that statement. I make claims on this blog because I expect (hope) that responses to those claims will be based on the content of what I say. Whether I’m right or not or somewhere in between ought to arise from the ensuing conversation. Please read my statement of approach on the top right hand corner of my blog. I should add that I have nowhere insinuated that Childs’ approach answers “all the Church’s ills.” That requires more than hermeneutics.

John: you seem to think what Childs did in suggesting a new approach to scripture is a quite commonplace occurrence

Phil: No, the exact opposite: because I think what he attempts is fairly unique, I think that statements such as those by McGlasson may not be so over the top after all. As you say, there is good reason that Childs is contentious.

John: … few are doing more with him that they would do with a literary aproach anyway. … the hold that historical criticism has over us now is a very different one

Phil: As far as my understanding goes, this statement nicely illustrates the crux in grasping the significance of Childs, i.e. the relation between the synchronic and the diachronic. I am not aware that this issue has been resolved (let me know if it has …). I think that it is precisely here, in relation to this pivotal issue, that Childs uniquely provides a way forward (regardless of contemporary synchronic fashions).

I will bear the warning about my tone in mind (thank you). Academic dialogue is an art to be mastered, and this blog as helped and challenged me in that. As for “cosying” up to Driver, I’m not sure what that means. For my part, I think his analysis is very timely (I’m afraid I can’t remember what he concretely said about you in his book; his main critique was aimed at Barton and Barr) and I am delighted that it’s made its way into print. Finally, I should add that based on what I’ve read on him, I’m pretty sure he would have issues with McGlasson as well. Driver and I are not carbon prints of each other.