Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The principles of Childs' exegesis

In my forthcoming posts - the subject of my next "mega thread" - I will be presenting examples of Biblical exegesis by Brevard Childs, the inspiration for my last "mega-thread." There will, however, be a logic behind the presentation. That logic is the logic of Childs' 'canonical approach,' (those are 'scare quotes,' by the way) as I worked it out in my last thread (also published as an article here) and refined through further study. What follows in this post is a roughly schematic summary of my understanding of the basic principles Childs operated by. I will then present examples of his exegesis in order to illustrate each of these principles.

I feel I should add a caveat: there is something awkward about having claimed to have understood someone else's approach. In fact, there is still much that is difficult for me and I am aware that even in those areas where I think I understand, I could be seriously mistaken. I always appreciate critical feedback.

A final note: I've scattered hyperlinks to the posts I've made over the last few years throughout the text. My selection is, due to time constraints and the limitations of memory, rather ad hoc and I may no longer fully stand behind the views expressed in the links. Feel free comment where you wish.

Our starting point should be Childs' alethiological stance, namely his theological commitment to the content of the testimony of the prophets and apostles, understood to be vehicles of truth. On the one hand, the historical nature of these witnesses requires a thoroughly historical critical analysis of their testimony in all its human particularity. The adequate tools for such an analysis are unlimited, so the exegete should make use of the best of contemporary scholarship. It is important that every dimension of the testimony be taken seriously. No one stage should be prioritized a priori over the other. If an earlier layer of tradition is more decisive for the thrust of the whole, then it should guide an interpretation of the final from.1 This commitment to human proclamation coupled with a recognition of the multi-layered nature of the text raises a particular challenge concerning the significance of intentionality, particularly in assessing types of intertextuality. It is not the case the one can freely garner texts from across the canon in order to observe the creative outcome of their interplay. Rather, just as there are different types of activity within the history of the text, so one must wrestle with different types of intentionality, or “different degrees of consciousness” as Childs put it.2 The juxtaposition of completed blocks of tradition such as the four Gospels or the two Testaments requires a different level of analysis to the citation of an earlier text by a later one or unintentional allusions due to a shared ideological background. Again, in line with current understandings of communicative acts, it would appear that the form of a text or tradition is integrally related to its function, both within the community and within the literary corpus to which it has been assigned.3 Until a better understanding of human communication is developed, it would appear that these two dimensions of the text must be continue to be kept in view.

On the other hand, it is not the witness himself who should be the focus of our case. He is ultimately only a vehicle to the revelation to which he witnesses. That means that if one wishes to take the intentionality of the prophets and apostles seriously one must move one's gaze from the proclamation itself to its actual substance, its res. We need to move beyond the descriptive task and wrestle with the “content of the witnesses' faith.”4 To stay at the “literal” level of the text would negate its kerygmatic function and lead to the anomaly of an “anthropocentric” interpretation of Holy Scripture. We must thus keep an eye out for talk of the theocentric focus of the text and the nature of the text's substance or content. In particular, it is the effect of the shaping of traditions on the final form that provides access to this reality. Again, the reality is mediated by but distinct from the textual vehicle, so that one can expect talk of the substance to break with the concrete contours of the text under discussion. Rather, it is at the thematic level that one can see how a particular text provides light on a broader reality testified to in the totality of Scripture and in the theological experience of the interpreter. The living nature of this substance who has continued to reveal Himself to his people throughout history requires serious attention to those who have also wrestled with this theological subject matter, responding to His coercion through the text.5 The history of interpretation, or perhaps more theologically adequate the text's Wirkungsgeschichte,6 therefore furnishes us with an invaluable resource for “piercing the text.” Of fundamental significance is the presence of a force. Identifying its movements helps point our gaze in the correct direction.

The move from text to reality takes the interpreter from the the realm of Biblical exegesis (the qualifier “theological” introduces an alien dichotomy) to that of Biblical theology. Though in reality the relationship between text and dogma (reality) is dialectical,7 the task of Biblical theology is a sphere of its own, outside of the domain of a commentary. The Biblical theologian extends the hermeneutical circle to include the relationship between different dimensions of the reality, the interaction of Word and Spirit, and includes a reverse movement from reality back to witness.8 The theological function of a commentary, on the other hand, is to stay close to the sequence of the Biblical text, and wrestle with interpretative questions.9 As far as exegesis is concerned, Biblical theology is an “ancillary discipline that better serves in equipping the exegete for the real task of interpreting the biblical text itself.”10

1Contra many misconceptions of Childs. See his discussion of the book of Judges in his Introduction

2Childs, “Response,” 54. It is for this reason that Childs prefers Thistleton's use of speech-act theory over Wolterstorff's, and Beuken's use of intertextuality over Steins'. See “Speech-act,” “Critique,” and Isaiah.

3Childs' commitment to function—“illocutionary stance” to use speech-act parlance—as a key ingredient to meaning explains his preference for M. Sternberg's literary analysis (for whom narrative is a “functional structure”) over that of J. Barr. See M. Steinberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideology and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; especially his critique of H. Frei, J. Kugel,and R. Alter , pp. 1-57), J. Barr, “The Bible as Literature,” in The Bible and the Modern World (London: SCM, 1972), 53-74, and Childs' comments in Biblical Theology, 20. In his exegesis of Isaiah 10, therefore, Childs can say: “Although accurate historical dating can at times be of exegetical significance, the crucial interpretative task lies in determining the narrative function to which the texts have been assigned, rather than in supplying a reconstructed setting apart from its present literary (canonical) context.” Childs, Isaiah, 94 (emphasis mine).

4Cf. Childs, “Psalm 8 in the Context of the Christian Canon,” Interpretation 23:1 (1969), 20-31.

5In conclusion to his analysis of the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah, Childs proposes that “an investigation of this history of interpretation that focusses its analysis on the assumption that various cultural forces (historical, sociological, philosophical) are the controlling factors at work misconstrues the most central components of the church's theological reflections. ... there are theological parameters preserving the church that are continually being shaped by the Spirit's quickening in the understanding of its scriptures toward a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. ... we can derive new confidence in confessing with the creed: I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Struggle, 322-333.

6Wirkungsgeschichte denotes the opposite direction of influence. The text exerts a “coercion” on faithful interpreters who submit to this “theocentric force.”

7“One comes to exegesis already with certain theological assumptions and the task of good exegesis is to penetrate so deeply into the Biblical text that even these assumption are called into question, are tested and revised by the subject matter itself.” In Childs, “Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?” in Evangelium, Schriftauslegung, Kirche (ed. J. Ådna, S. Hafemann, O. Hofius, and G. Feine; Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1997), 57-64; here, 60.

8Cf. Childs, Biblical Theology, 85-88. He draws here on A. Louth, Mystery.

9Cf. Childs, “The Genre of the Biblical Commentary as Problem and Challenge,” in Tehillah le-Moshe (ed. M. Cogan, B. Eichler, and J. Tigay; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 185-192.

10Childs, Isaiah, xii.


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