Friday, 28 August 2009

Review of G. Michael O’Neal. Interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture: An Application of the Canonical Approach of Brevard S. Childs

This is a review of a book that I just have to read, posted by Heath Thomas to a private blog of which I am a member (with his kind permission, of course!). I will have to read it, not only because it is about Brevard Childs - the subject matter of 50% of my doctorate - but also because it attempts to do exactly what I am attempting to do. Reading Heath's review calms me somewhat, as it seems that he has noted weakness that I think are axiomatic. For example, unless one grasps that Childs' approach is not a method one will not have understood Childs. I also think that one cannot grasp Childs without 1) having read his entire corpus (or at least most of it, the most important book being his massively underread Biblical Theology) and 2) without reading Karl Barth. So, without further ado ...

In this post I would like to review a recent monograph dedicated to Childs' canonical approach and Habakkuk.

Brevard Childs stands as a major figure in Old Testament scholarship in the past fifty years, and his influence is felt in a series of recent publications that honour him. Though perhaps not fully understood by those who disagree with or embrace his work, Childs nonetheless evokes strong response, leading some to renounce his general approach (Barr and Barton) and others to adopt it, though with qualifications (Seitz). However one views Childs’ contribution to the academy (or to the church), it is one that should not be ignored. In recognition of his importance as an interpreter of Scripture, the balanced monograph of Interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture is a welcome contribution to the field.

In this revised doctoral dissertation (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) O’Neal aims to expound upon the initial ‘sketches’ of Brevard Childs’ canonical approach and apply them particularly to a biblical book (Habakkuk). As such, Habakkuk becomes a case-study in canonical interpretation. O’Neal explains Childs’ theological approach to the Old Testament as Scripture, compares Childs’ approach to Habakkuk in Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (IOS) against the approach of his larger Exodus commentary, and then assesses Habakkuk in light of a close text-critical translation. He then tests Childs’ views on the failure of historical-critical scholarship to read Habakkuk sufficiently (theologically) by surveying this field of scholarship, and then presses further toward a canonical/theological interpretation of Habakkuk both within its own horizons and then within the horizon within the book of the twelve (Minor Prophets). O’Neal rounds out the volume by exploring the theological and hermeneutical implications of Childs’ approach, where his canonical orientation is felicitous and infelicitous, and possible avenues for future research.

For those interested in Childs or canonical theology, they will find in O’Neal a sure footed guide that clearly elucidates central tenets of the canonical approach especially laid out in IOS. It is fruitful to see some of the outlines sketched in IOS brought into more robust colour and shape. His analysis of the text of Habakkuk is careful and well documented and will serve as a useful tool in future research whilst his style is amenable and lively. Especially useful are his lucid text critical comments and interaction with the MT. Likewise, O’Neal advances theological thinking in regard to the horizons of both Habakkuk the book and its place and function within the Book of the Twelve, arguing that Habakkuk serves in its canonical context to reorient the reader to adopt God's perspective on human history - suffering may be endured because God is at work redemptively in history.

Nonetheless, some deficiencies detract from the volume. O’Neal does not engage with recent work in the field of canon and biblical interpretation. To be fair, the focus of the volume – to explore Habakkuk as a kind of case-study on Childs’ canonical approach – necessarily draws attention to the discussion on Habakkuk in IOS. Still, greater attention to Childs’ thinking across the spectrum of his publications up to the present would serve to provide depth and nuance to the understanding of his ‘canonical approach’ and how it impinges upon interpreting Habakkuk as Scripture. This may stem from a latent misappropriation of Childs’ programme as a method rather than a general orientation to the Scripture, which comprises another drawback. O’Neal uses ‘method’ interchangeably with ‘approach’ throughout the monograph. Finally, greater attention on the range of Childs’ contributions may have served to sharpen his general understanding of Childs’ own thinking. An area that would have been particularly strengthened, perhaps, lay in his discussion on the canonical shape of Habakkuk the book as well as the book within the Twelve. How do Childs’ conceptions of (the controversial) ‘canonical intentionality’ or elsewhere ‘canon consciousness’ relate to these? Barton has engaged Childs on this very point and offered other alternatives. A focus upon current research in the field would have added to his analysis, particularly those who disagree with Childs, beyond the criticisms of Barr, such as Brueggemann and Barton.

These caveats noted, O’Neal skilfully addresses the difficult book of Habakkuk in light of Childs’ canonical approach. His analysis no doubt will be consulted in future Habakkuk research.


1) The Spring 2008 volume of Princeton Theological Review centred upon ‘theological exegesis’ and its essays ‘give tribute in this issue to one of the 20th century’s most respected and groundbreaking theological exegetes, Brevard Childs. He is for many a model of faithful Christian scholarship and exegesis, and his recent passing in June 2007 provides us with an opportunity to reflect on and commend his important work’. Peter Kline, ‘Prolegomena,’ PTR 38(2008): 5. Note as well the influential volume that arose out of a consultation discussion the implications of Childs’ approach: C. Bartholomew, S. Hahn, R. Parry, C. Seitz, and A. Wolters (eds.) Canon and Biblical Interpretation (SHS 7; Milton Keynes: Paternoster / Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). Childs contributed an essay to the volume.

2) D.T. Olsen, ‘Seeking the “Inexpressible Texture of Thy Word”: A Practical Guide to Brevard Childs’ Canonical Approach to Theological Exegesis,’ PTR 38(2008): 53-5. And note Childs’ reticence to identify his orientation to the Scriptures as a ‘method’ in Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 382.

3) Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979), 79, 187.

4) Childs, Introduction, 62, 65; Biblical Theology, 70.

5) J. Barton, ‘Unity and Diversity in the Biblical Canon,’ in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons (BZNW 118; ed. J. Barton and M. Wolter; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003), 11-26

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