The Good and the Bad of Brevard Childs’s Canonical Criticism

chilsdIn his book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Child’s explains his approach to canonical criticism, a term he does not like (82), but one that generally describes his approach to interpreting Scripture in its final form. Among critical scholars, i.e., those who employed historical-critical methods of interpretation, Childs championed a new (and better) approach to the Bible.

Instead of looking for the sources behind the text (e.g., Julius Wellhausen) or certain forms in the text (e.g., Herman Gunkel), or traditions running through the text (e.g., Gerhard Von Rad), Childs advocated an approach to the Bible which studied the final form of the text. In the academy, this approach turned the corner towards studying the unity of the Bible and not just its diversity. His work spurred on others to read the Bible canonically, and his labors helped turn the corner towards what is known today as TIS, the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Therefore, its worth considering what he said on the subject of reading the Bible in its canonical form. From his chapter on “Canonical Criticism,” here are a few insightful quotations, listed under five summary statements.

(Spoiler Alert: At the end, I’ll outline a few reasons why Childs approach may not be helpful as some think.)

1. The Bible should be read as sacred scripture and not just another work of literature.

A general hermeneutic is inadequate to deal with the particular medium through which this experience has been registered. The study of the canonical shape of the literature is an attempt to do justice to the nature of Israel’s unique history. To take the canon seriously is to stress the special quality of the Old Testament’s humanity which is reflected in the form of Israel’s Sacred scripture. (71)

2. The goal of interpretation is found in the text and not brought to the text by our theological presuppositions. (But hopefully our theological presuppositions, over time will be informed by Scripture).

The major task of a canonical analysis of the Hebrew Bible is a descriptive one. It seeks to understand the peculiar shape and special function of these texts which comprise the Hebrew canon. Such an analysis does not assume a particular stance or faith commitment on the part of the reader because the subject of the investigation is the literature of Israel’s faith, not that of the reader. (72)

3. The goal of interpretation is understanding what the text says, not what we can find behind the text. This is the key point where Childs critiques and challenges the previous century of higher-criticism.

Canonical analysis focuses its attention on the final form of the text itself. It seeks neither to use the text merely as a source for other information obtained by means of an oblique reading, nor to reconstruct a history of religious development. Rather, it treats the literature in its own integrity. Its concern is not to establish a history of Hebrew literature in general, but to study the features of this peculiar set of religious texts in relation to their usage within the historical community of ancient Israel. To take the canonical shape of these texts seriously is to seek to do justice to a literature which Israel transmitted as a record of God’s revelation to his people along with Israel’s response. (73)

4. A canonical approach to the Bible requires rigorous attention to every word of Scripture.

To understand the canonical shape requires the highest degree of exegetical skill in an intensive wrestling with the text. It is to be expected that interpreters will sometimes disagree on the nature of the canonical shaping, but the disagreement will enhance the enterprise if the various interpreters share a common understanding of the nature of the exegetical task. (73)

5. Childs’ canonical criticism retains vestiges of historical-criticism, which includes dis-ease about the supernatural and tradition as the final authority.

The concern with canon plays both a negative and a positive role in delineating the scope of exegesis. On the one hand, its negative role consists in relativizing the claims to priority of the historical critical method. It strongly resists the assumption that every biblical text has first to be filtered through a set historical critical mesh before one can even start the task of interpretation. On the other hand, its positive role seeks to challenge the interpreter to look closely at the biblical text in its received form and then critically to discern its function for a community of faith. Attention to the canon establishes certain parameters within which the tradition was placed. The canonical shaping serves not so much to establish a given meaning to a particular passage as to chart the boundaries within which the exegetical task is to be carried out. (83)

Notice, when speaking of canonical criticism, Childs does not seek to eliminate the tools of historical criticism, he only seeks to “relativize” it. Likewise, he sees his approach to Scripture not as a tool for determining divine meaning, i.e., the meaning of the original author. Rather, he states that a canonical approach sets “certain parameters within which the tradition was placed.” In these statements, we can see how his approach should differ from a robust, Reformed reading of Scripture.

Assessing Childs: Much Good, But Not All

Compared to other critical scholars, Brevard Childs is a breath of fresh air. He takes the unity of Scripture seriously and makes many important observations on the Bible. That said, his canonical approach the Bible does not shed the tools of higher criticism. For example, in his commentary on Jonah in the same book (pp. 417–27), he defines the story as “parable-like” and spends much of his time explaining the source history of the book. In this way, he sidesteps the question of historicity and spends his time attending to critical issues of genre. To be sure, genre matters, but not when it is used as a tool for evading the historicity of a biblical story. Ultimately, Childs explains the book through the process of multiple sources being redacted into one final form, and only gives a literary and theological reading that ignores the factuality of the events.

In the end, his canonical approach is fundamentally different from that of a Geerhardus Vos or Graeme Goldsworthy, conservative biblical scholars who, respectively, preceded and followed Childs. Because of their theologically-conservative views on Scripture, these scholars do not suffer from the strain of historical-criticism. In other words, for all the help Childs gave to the study of Scripture, he cannot eclipse the output of the Reformed tradition. His amalgamation of approaches makes his biblical theology better than that of Rudolph Bultmann, but substandard compared to those like Vos and Goldsworthy who have continued to read Scripture as God’s inspired Word.

This is the same weakness, maybe “meh-ness,” found in the TIS movement. The theological interpretation of Scripture has greatly served the academy which has for centuries rejected the unity of the Bible. But it has only made limited improvements on the traditions that have for centuries read the Bible as God’s inspired and authority Word.

In truth, Childs view of the Bible is deficient. He believes Scripture is the church’s book and can be, when it seems fitting, emended or discounted in order to fit with the modern standards of higher criticism. Therefore, in reading Childs approach to canonical criticism, we can find much to commend and much to be thankful for, but ultimately his approach is critically lacking.

I am thankful for Childs observations on Scripture and the way his scholarship has prompted others to pursue a canonical approach to the Bible. But the doctrine of Scripture matters deatrly, and on that note Childs doctrine and method of interpretation are lacking—a fact that should be considered when studying and sourcing him.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds