Monday, 12 January 2009

Brueggemann on Childs

Inhabitatio Dei recently asked the question, "who is the greatest biblical theologian of the twentieth century?" The comment thread is long, but two Old Testament names that frequently occur are Childs and Brueggemann (though only Childs can qualify as a biblical theologian, Brueggemann having only focussed on the OT). Ben Myer's comment is particularly worth reprinting:

my impression is that the really great biblical theologians have been OT scholars rather than NT scholars. I can’t think of any NT parallels to the works of von Rad, Brueggemann, Eichrodt, Childs, and most recently Rendtorff’s Canonical Hebrew Bible ... Alongside this stuff, most of the NT theologies seem pretty bland and inconsequential.

Despite my appreciation of Breuggemann's work, the Childs in me can't help but respond critically. I've done so a number of times, here, here and here, all in colleagial dialogue with Stephen. I'd like to take this opportunity to respond once again to some remarkable comments made by Brueggemann about Childs in a recent essay, “The ABC's of Old Testament Theology in the US,” ZAW 114, 412-432. The following is his comments in italics with my response beneath:

His presenting problem has been preoccupation with history and awareness that historical critical methods subject the text to references outside the text that are essentially misleading and distractive for the claim of the text itself. (425)


His counter to such a historical practice has been an insistence that in ecclesial reading (which is his singular interest), the reference point is not external history but the internal claims of the canon, taken as a whole as normative text. (426).

Childs has indeed criticized a historicizing emphasis in biblical studies which considers that the only reality worth understanding is that of the development of ancient Israelite religion, rather than the theological reality witnessed to by the text. But this does not cause Childs to set up an antithesis between “history”and the enclosed world of the text. For Childs, the primary reality is theological—God in relationship with his people—to which the diversity of Israel's traditions, institutions, prophets and priests have witnessed in varying ways. One part of this history is the “inscripturation” of the traditions and their subsequent shaping for the purpose of guiding later generations of this people in their relationship with this God. The church, as the continuation of this people, is required to seek God through this witness. The textual witness is the means of revelation and thus the object of study, but that does not exclude using historical critical tools to understand it. They are only relativised to illuminate the final form. Historical referentiality can be distracting, but not “essentially” so.

As for his “singular interest” in “ecclesial reading,” this is only true in the sense that he believes the text and the community for which it was written cannot be separated—which I think is fair enough. Given Brueggemann's broader critique of Childs, however, it is clear that this statement carries the connotation that Childs' reading is only interested in dogmatics and not the text. This critique, however, is based upon weak understanding of Childs' concept of the text as witness to a reality that encompasses it, i.e. its role within the economy of God, a far more theologically sophisticated understanding than Brueggemann's “text as linguistic testimony.”

Childs is also far more subtle on the issue of intertextuality (“the internal claims of the canon”). Issues of historical context and authorial intention play a consistent albeit complex role in Childs' exegesis, much to the frustration of those who wish to adopt his approach for a post-modern agenda. Key here is Childs' rejection of midrash, which views the text as able to generate its own reality, rather than point to another one (Brueggemann takes the midrashic approach, without commenting on this dimension of Childs' approach).

It is clear that Childs intends to nullify the entire modern period of interpretation and the historical critical project as a failed attempt, insisting rather that one should read as the church read before the Cartesian program of autonomy. (426)

Again, this is a caricature. Not only has Childs consistently referred to the legitimate challenge of historical criticism, taking on board many of the classical conclusions, his entire canonical approach is an attempt to unite historical research with theology, not to replace one with the other. As Levinson has pointed out (in “Is Brueggemann really a Pluralist?”), the whole idea of “canonical process” is predicated on the existence of a diachronic dimension within the text. Given Childs' repeated claim that we cannot retreat to the pre-critical era, I find this statement quite remarkable.

It strikes me that he treats texts very much “in sum,” without any consideration of the internal dynamic of any text, as though one only reads for conclusions. That is, Childs is not inclined to any of the newer “narrative” methods that go “inside” texts, but reads for theological outcomes. (427)

That Childs is indeed interested in the inner dynamic of the text can be seen in his other works (e.g. “On reading the Elijah narratives”). However, given that the issue under discussion is “biblical theology” and not exegesis or a “close reading” per se, it makes sense that, at least at some point, one moves beyond the individual texts to issues of normativity. The complex question is how, and Childs defends that by pointing out that close, narrative readings are only one part of a larger whole, one which involves the recognition of different contexts and different levels of meaning. Perhaps Brueggemann is blinded here by his own assumption that “the text as testimony” requires not much more than a “rhetorical interpretation” of the text, as if that guarantees the revelation of the God that undergirds it. If one is interested in reading the Bible for its subject matter and not just its verbal sense, it would help to stand back and look at the big picture. Update: Thiselton's warning should be taken to heart here: “any suggestion to the effect that a 'canonical' approach is harmonizing or ahistorical rests upon a mistaken mythology generated by critics who have never properly engaged with it” (in “Canon, Community and Theological Construction: Introduction,” 9).

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