Friday, 23 July 2010

The Biblical canon and Biblical referentiality

It is often claimed that Childs' canonical approach rests on the presupposition that the Biblical Canon is a hermeneutically sealed, self-referential unit (e.g. Barr and Barton). To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how anyone could come to that conclusion on the basis of Childs' actual exegetical work, but even in theory Childs has explicitly rejected this misunderstanding. For Childs, the unity of the canon does not exist within a neat "narrative world" that has no connection to the complexities of extrinsic reality (rather like a fantasy novel which we can believe in while reading it but which has limited connection to extrinsic reality). In fact, precisely the opposite is the case! The unity of the canon consists precisely in its extra-canonical referent. This referent is God, and as such it is as complex a reality as one can image (if "complex" is the right word; it makes God sound like a puzzle to be solved ... ). Given the nature of this extra-textual reality, it is necessary that the full voice of the canon be brought to bear in trying to apprehend and respond to it (or Him) adequately. Here is Childs in his own words (in response to Barr's critique of his Introduction; the key phrase here is "the fullness of extrinsic reality"):

I certainly confirm that Israel's faith was grounded in anterior reality. First in oral tradition and subsequently in written form Israel bore testimony to God's redemptive intervention on its behalf. These events of divine deliverance were not simply recorded, but continually re-interpreted throughout history. Israel actively shaped its traditions while at the same time being formed by the very material being transmitted.

Because of the peculiar nature of Israel's tradition which is reflected in the multi-layered testimony of the canonical text to this sacred history, there is no direct access to the fullness of that extrinsic reality on which the faith was grounded apart from Israel's own testimony. One important purpose of establishing a normative canon was to mark the special relationship of the community to these witnesses.

... The central point to be made is that the nature of Israel's testimony to historical events varies greatly and that extrinsic reality can be represented in innumerable ways ... .” (Childs, “Response,” 53, 56).


HeathThomas said...

Hi Phil,
Heath THomas here. I hope you're well! I like your distinction here. People often misread CHilds in terms of his attention to the development of the text and extra-textual reality. I think a good example of a scholar who may fall into that category is John Sailhamer. When I read his Introduction to OLd Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach, I find his approach fundamentally different from Childs' "canonical" approach. You may want to take a look at this work and then compare Childs.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Heath,

thanks for your thoughts, yes we're doing very well, thanks. Sorry for the late reply, we were in Holland for a while. I can imagine that Sailhammer falls into this category. I only briefly looked as his work when I was in Cheltenham and from what I remember he seems to treat the Bible more self-referentially than Childs. I think its a real pity, as Childs' focus on extra-textual referentiality is very important for developing an adequate theological hermeneutic. I think it was Milbank who criticized Lindbeck for not taking the church's traditional preoccupation with allegory (which presupposes a particular form of referentiality) seriously enough.

Bryan L said...

I'm not sure this is what your post is referring to but it seems Barr criticized Childs for his negativity towards trying to discover the historical referent outside the text while at the same time arguing that we must know the divine realities which the text refers to. He saw Childs as having two theories, a non-referential one for history and a referential one for theological matters, and he would use either depending on the problems that came up. Barr saw this as contradictory. He believed Child's was inconsistent in how he applied these two theories and that he later backed off a little from his opposition to historical referentiality because he recognized the theological problems this could create. Barr then wondered what the point of Child's attack on historical referentiality was, and then wondered, based on Childs views, how we were to know when the canon was witnessing to a historical referent and when it wasn't.

Like I said I don't know if this is what you were talking about but it sounded similar.

What Childs opposed to historical referentiality and if so did he later back off his opposition a bit?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bryan,

thank you for your thoughtful comments, which are directly relevant to my post. I'm not too informed on the development of the arguments between Barr and Childs, so you may be right that Barr made this distinction. I've briefly looked at the article by Barr to which Childs is here referring (i.e. Barr's critique of Childs' Introduction) and I can't see this kind of distinction. He seems to think that Childs believes the Bible tells a theological story and that questions of historical reality are irrelevant. For example, Barr says that looking at the NT's theology of Jesus would question the validity of Childs' approach: "It might
have suggested the importance of extrinsic realities for interpretation:

there is no question that Jesus "canonically" rose from the dead, but it is

the extrinsic resurrection that matters for faith."

This is a valid statement, as well as other points he makes. The problem is that Childs would agree too. It is precisely because Childs is interested in the "fullness" of what the resurrection means (i.e. its nature as extrinsic reality) that he recommends canonical reading. The canonical process consisted in a theological wrestling with the depth dimension of these kinds of realities (I posted something on this here).

Regardless of whether Barr made the point or not, Childs explicitly deals with the issue in his Biblical Theology (Driver claims Barr actually ignored this important book). I dealt with Childs' understanding of the theological significance of history in this series of posts, in case you're interested (I'd appreciate any critical feedback you have). It's all about a "dialectic" between "redeemed" and "unredeemed" time, a dialectic which isn't resolved (incidently, MacDonald in his Metaphysics and the God of Israel said that Childs' thoughts on this issue are some of the most profound to be found on the subject).

So, to answer your final question: no, Childs was not opposed to historical referentiality. If such referentiality is part of the text's "kerygmatic intentionality," then history is important. Childs would simply say that the texts themselves witness to the inbreaking of divine reality into creaturely reality, so that an eschatological tension is created between "redeemed" and "unredeemed" time, a tension which the exegete needs to maintain. For thoughts on this from a New Testament scholar, go here.

Does that make sense?

Phil Sumpter said...
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