Thursday, 13 November 2008

The canonical approach - a quick response

The following questions, queries, and propositions are fairly typical of those encountering the canonical approach. They arose in the process of a dialogue on my last post, Is the canonical approach uncritical? I always appreciate this kind of intellegent interaction, so I've attached my own comments to each italicized statement.

I'm wondering how canonical criticism accounts for the fact that canonization follows composition

That "canonization" in the formal sense of deciding which books count of authoritative is a late phenomenon is clear to all. The issue as far as B.S. Childs is concerned 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, throughout its history, Israel 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 its tradition in the light of a growing understanding of God. 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 only fragmentarily touched upon in earlier stages. The decision to make a five-book Torah or a 150 Psalm Psalter is part of this ongoing process. It stretches, indeed, to the establishment of the final scope of the Bible as a whole. That there is ambiguity at this level (which canon? Which text?) is not a problem for the canonical approach. This ambiguity belongs to the "canonical process."

It is important to point out that within Childs' conception there is diversity is this history, and this diversity ought to be registered in our exegesis. The juxtaposition of the minor prophets in a twelvefold book, for example, is an example of "canonical shaping" of a different order to the juxtaposition of the three major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). 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 give us, but at the same time 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.

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

In terms of the scenario painted above, this ambiguity belongs to the canonical process itself. 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 to 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 differences between the two communities involving the nature of the function of Scripture and the relation between text and tradition. Though I've not read Childs saying this in so many words, he does think that the Christian approach is more in line with the intentionality of the redaction 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 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. As such, for a Christian it is imperative that the New Testament is related to the Old Testament somehow.

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 within its boundaries 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 certainly 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 ...


John Lyons said...


I have looked at your posts with interest but have not done so consistently. You may have answered my two questions before then and a pointer here would suffice.

Where do you think Childs is at his weakest?

How would you defend him on that point(s)?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great blog post. My academic training has sadly not run near the work of Childs. Over this winter break, I would like to begin reading and acquainting myself with his work. Would you suggest a good entry point text?

Adam Couturier

Phil Sumpter said...


great questions. I'll need a while to think about an answer, so please bear with me and I'll get back to you.


I'm delighted that you want to discover one of the most brilliant Biblical scholars of the last couple centuries (I mean that). I think understanding Childs is hard work, as evidenced by his constant misprepresentation in the secondary literature. He's a global thinker and tries to leave no ground uncovered, so I think it would be good to get a smattering of bits of all his work. That would help you get a grasp of the parts. Here's a suggested list, in order of how to read it(italics=book, "quote"=article; you can get an exhaustive bibliography here:

"Interpretation in Faith," "Prophecy and Fulfilment," "The Canonical Shape of the Prophetic Literature," Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, Introduction to the New Testament as Canon, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, "Does the Old Testament witness to Jesus Chris?", "Biblical Interpretation amidst cultural change", "Retrospective Reading of Old Testament Prophets."

Round this off with his two commentaries, which frame his entire career, with an eye for the continuities between them: Exodus and Isaiah.

And finally, the best explanation and defence of Childs is by Seitz, in the SHS book "Canon and biblical interpretation" called, I think, "The canonical approach and theological interpretation."All this is off the top of my head.

If you haven't much time, stick to his Biblical Theology of the O and N Testaments and his essay "Retrospective Reading of OT Prophets."

If you have trouble finding anything let me know and I'll figure out the proper titles for you.Hope that helps ...

Anonymous said...

I look forward to digging into some of the above mentioned titles. Being that I only have a few weeks in between the Fall and January semester I will probably stick with his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments and the essay that you have recommended, and dig into the other titles at a later date.

I appreciate the suggestions!

Phil Sumpter said...

John Lyons,

just wanted to let you know that I've finally written up a response. Thanks for the question. I'll post it in the text few days and let you know when.

Phil Sumpter said...

Here's the post for those who are interested: