Monday, October 8, 2007

The Postliberalism of Brevard Childs

By Dr Leong Tien Fock

Postliberalism, originated by Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, is one postmodern approach to theology that has captured the attention, even appreciation, of a number of evangelicals. Is postliberalism consistent with evangelicalism? By evangelicalism I mean Christian orthodoxy minus propositionalism, the view held by many evangelicals, notably Carl Henry, that propositions alone are adequate to express theological truth revealed in the Scripture. Given that so much of Scripture is poetry and narrative evangelicalism cannot be faithful to Scripture if it has no room for the imagination to complement propositions to enhance and enrich our perception of theological truth.

Henry H. Knight III in his book A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World presents a summary of Hans Frei’s view that:

the biblical narrative is quite close to history-writing in depicting a common public world. However, in clear distinction from history-writing, biblical narratives introduce supernatural causation and miraculous occurrences. Thus to insist on a rational demonstration that these narratives either are or are not historical is necessarily to misread them; it fails to read them literally, as narratives.

The reason this is so is that, in order to determine their historical accuracy, the narratives are no longer permitted to interpret our world; rather the criteria of Enlightenment modernity are used to evaluate the narratives (pp. 100-101).

One can raise the counter-charge that Frei’s assumption that biblical narratives are “history-like” but not history because they “introduce supernatural causation and miraculous occurrences” is resting on Enlightenment modernity. It is not our purpose to carry on a debate on postliberalism as presented by Frei or George Lindbeck, which has been ably done elsewhere by notable scholars. But the debate generally excludes Bible scholars and biblical theologians. To address this lack I hereby present a paper on Brevard Child’s canonical criticism originally written as a term paper for a graduate course on Old Testament Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School.

Childs is generally regard as a postliberal and his canonical criticism questions Mark Wallace’s argument that “there is a fundamental ambiguity running through postliberalism as to whether the biblical narratives refer to any reality outside the text” (cited in Knight, 105). Since it is this ‘ambiguity’ that decides whether postliberalism and evangelicalism are compatible Child’s cannot be ignored in the debate.

This paper evaluates Childs’ claim that, though the “history-like” narratives of the Old Testament describe a historical-like world that is not historical, the Old Testament is still normative theologically for the Church. The conclusion of the paper is that Childs’ approach amounts to saying that Scripture has no inherent authority; it has authority only because the believing community (the Jews and then the Church) has chosen to grant that authority to it. A campus evangelist recently shared that there are Buddhist students in the Malaysian universities who would say that the Bible is true for Christians because they believe in it and that the Buddhist scriptures are true for Buddhists because they believe in it.

An Exposition and Evaluation of the Underlying Assumption Behind Childs' 'Canonical Criticism' of the Old Testament

One of the most recent issues in Old Testament studies is Canonical Criticism. Brevard Childs has been the most influential advocate of this approach to the Bible. Childs, however, did not and does not like to call his approach 'Canonical Criticism' because "it implies that the canonical approach is considered another historical technique (like) source criticism, form criticism, rhetorical criticism, and similar methods. Rather, the issue at stake (is) a stance from which the Bible can be read as sacred scripture."1 In other words, unlike the other 'criticisms', 'canonical criticism' is not a new procedure for biblical studies but merely a new perspective from which biblical studies is to be approached.

Childs' canonical approach germinated and sprung up from the troubled ground of Biblical Theology. It is a reaction to a reaction. The post-World War II 'Biblical Theology Movement' as he calls it, was a reaction to the Fundamentalist-Liberal controversy of the early 1900s.2 In approaching the Bible, "the Liberals were to be blamed for the loss of theological perspective, so also were the Fundamentalists at fault for their denial of valid Biblical Criticism."3 The Biblical Theology Movement offered an alternative to Biblical studies that was "beyond the liberal-conservative syndrome; ... the possibility of accepting Biblical Criticism without reservation as a valid tool while at the same time recovering a robust, confessionally oriented theology."4

But in its efforts to recover the 'theological dimension of the Bible' without a 'repudiation of the historicocritical method' and hence not returning to the 'precritical era of Biblical Study',5 the Movement was torn apart by "the strain of using orthodox Biblical language for the constructive part of the theology, but at the same time approaching the Bible with all the assumptions of liberalism, (which) proved in the end to cause an impossible tension".6 Childs' approach is a reaction to this 'impossible tension' which became one of the major causes in the breakdown of the Biblical Theology Movement.7

His goal is to recover the theological (and hence authoritative) dimension of the Bible without denying the validity of the 'assumptions of Liberalism' and yet avoid the 'impossible tension'. The 'assumptions of Liberalism' include not only the critical conclusions of source and historical criticism but also those of form and tradition criticism.8 Despite these critical conclusions about the origins and contents of the Scriptures, Childs believes we can still "take the Biblical text seriously in its canonical form"9 (emphasis added). He explains, "the search to discover the original historical contexts for the various parts of the Old and New Testaments is essentially for a number of historicocritical disciplines, such as literary, historical, and comparative religion analysis. However... an interpreter can approach the same material and use only the final stage of the literature as a legitimate context."10 For he asserts that "the relation of the diverse biblical testimonies to each other and to the reality which evoked them is ontological rather than simply historical. It was, therefore, on the ontological level that one could hope to resolve the problem of biblical unity which had become increasingly unmanageable... in the modern period."11 This means it is valid to study the Scriptures theologically in its final form or 'canonical shape'
despite the fact that the Pentateuch is not Mosaic as the Bible itself claims, but a mosaic of myths, legends and perhaps some facts; that not all the oracles in the Book of Isaiah originated from the eighth century prophet; and that the Prophecy of Daniel contains not prophecies but histories told in the future tense.

It is not our concern here to evaluate Childs' claim that the critical methods of liberalism are valid and have "perfected a whole set of new tools for understanding the historical and theological setting of the Bible."12 Neither do we wish to evaluate his claim that "the Canon of the Christian Church is the most appropriate context from which to do Biblical Theology".13 Our concern is the validity of holding both claims at the same time. We recall that he is trying to avoid the 'impossible tension' between a critical view of Scriptures and the theological (and authoritative) use of the same. Does his canonical approach to biblical theology remove the tension?

We will first pinpoint a fundamental assumption underlying his efforts to reconcile the critical conclusions with his canonical theology and then evaluate the validity of this assumption. Although his approach covers both the Old and the New Testaments, we limit our discussion to the Old Testament.

In Childs’ view, "the final canonical literature reflects a long history of development in which the received tradition was selected, transmitted and shaped by hundreds of decisions."14 '' At every stage of the transmission process, "traditions which once arose in a particular milieu and were addressed to various historical situations were shaped in such a way as to serve as a normative expression of God's will to later generations of Israel who had not shared in these original historical events"15 (emphasis added). In these 'shapings” of normative traditions, faithfulness to the original contents and contexts is however not a criterion. "At times there is clear evidence for an intentional blurring of the original historical setting (e.g. Second Isaiah)."16 This freedom to 'blurr' contents and contexts is not limited only to new material to be added to existing normative tradition passed on from the previous editors and redactors, but extended to the latter hitherto authoritative materials as well! This is to 'actualize' past materials in order ''to transmit the tradition in such a way as to prevent its being moored in the past."17 These long series
of shapings and reshapings he calls 'canon’ and the final reshaping that produced the stabilised and standardised Scriptures for all future generations he calls 'canonization'.18

This view of the canonical process is carried over to textual criticism, the goal of which is considered not to recover the 'original text' nor even the closest to it. The oldest and best attested reading may not be the 'correct' reading in the light of reshapings by later editors. Intentional changes in readings by a scribe could be a 'canonical move' to 'actualize' the text. Since the Ma-soretic text (specifically, the ben Asher tradition, since it is the one we received) is considered to be the final form, the goal of textual criticism is to recover the purest Masoretic text. Hence intentional pre-Masoretic scribal changes are 'canonical' and valid but post-Masoretic changes are not.19

The result of such a canonical process is that contents of the Old Testament as found in the present canonical shape do not reflect their original historical form in terms of contexts, purpose, meaning, etc.20 In its original context, the book of Deuteronomy may well be a seventh century document related to the 'reform programme of Josiah (2Kings 22ff.)' and had a role in the centralization of the Israelitic religion.21 But in its present canonical context it is to be treated as “a series of addresses by Moses to the people just before the entry into the promised land of Canaan... to ‘explain the Torah’... to the new generation who was about to cross into the land...”22 In the context of the canon, Deuteronomy also has a 'canonical role' in "providing the hermeneutical key for understanding the law of Moses, that is to say, the Pentateuch, in its role as the sacred scripture of Israel."23 This is true even though the Pentateuch is a mosaic of historically and theologically diverse source materials that have gone through countless editions and redactions. This means the “history-like” narratives of the Old Testament describe a historical-like world that is not historical.

How is the canonical approach to exegesis similar and/or dissimilar to the critical and evangelical approaches? According to Childs, "the usual critical method of biblical exegesis is, first, to seek to restore an original historical setting by stripping away those very elements which constitute the canonical shape. Little wonder that once the biblical text has been securely anchored in the historical past by 'decanonizing' it, the interpreter has difficulty applying it to the modern religious context."24 The evangelical approach also seeks to study the text in its original historical contexts. But unlike the critical approach, it need not ‘decanonize' it. For to the evangelical, the original historical context is also the canonical context. Hence, like the canonical interpreter, he is also studying the text in the context of the canon. But the latter approach does not see the canonical context as equivalent to the historical context. What difference does it make in terms of
exegesis? For the evangelical, the canonical context, being the same as the historical context, can be informed by contemporary historical information. For instance, Deuteronomy in its canonical context records a covenant renewal between God and the new generation of Israelites. But it has been shown that the form of the book is similar to the form of second millennium Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties. This information gives an entirely new dimension in our exegesis and understanding of Deuteronomy. For the canonical approach, Deuteronomy still portrays a covenant renewal mediated through Moses (second millennium). But extra biblical second millennium information is irrelevant since the book is supposed to be composed in the first millennium.

In other words, not all, if not most, of the events mentioned in the Old Testament need to be rooted in verifiable history (Historie). Even actual events recorded in the Bible may not be in the temporal and spatial contexts as reconstructed in the canonical 'history'. This intentional (and at times unintentional) reinterpretation and reshaping of historical content is justifiable because the intention of editors and redactors is not to transmit historically reliable information but 'Israel's theological reflections' that were to be normative for subsequent generations.25 As Sheppard puts it, "the function of historical detail in the canonical context is not always primarily to inform the reader of an ancient state of affairs. Such detail in the canonical context generally is not evidence for an historical reconstruction. For example, the present shape of the Sinai narratives is first concerned about position and order. These narratives define the theological status of the Decalogue and Book of the Covenant vis-a-vis an elect people and their leaders, rather than draw an objective picture of the event at Sinai."26 Hence "history-like detail is used chiefly as dressing or preparation for the proper hearing of a tradition which is itself neither historical narrative nor bound up in an historical incident, but rich with a peculiar contemporaneity for those who in faith yearn to hear the voice of God."27

But how can the 'voice of God' be heard from such 'theological reflections' that are not reliable with respect to the historical details that 'dress' the reflections? Childs explains, "(the canonical approach) reckons with the fact that Israel bore witness to its encounter with God in actual time and space, and yet registered its testimony in a text through a multilayered manner which far
transcends the categories of ordinary historical discourse."28 So the underlying assumption is that normative theological truth can be transmitted through transposing and juxtaposing together different fragments of historically and theologically unrelated materials from different oral and/or written sources (such as J,E,D,P) which by themselves have different contexts, purposes and meanings, etc., to create a new context (such as that seen in the Pentateuch). So Childs claims that the use of the canon as a context for theological studies frees the individual fragments of the Old Testament from the 'imprisonment' of their respective contexts to integrate into a new and unrelated context the whole of which is more than the sum of the parts.29 This is the explanation for the assertion that the unity and continuity of the Old Testament is not historical but ontological i.e., theological.

Certainly editors and redactors had the right to (if they did) transpose and juxtapose such diverse materials into a new context to communicate theological truths. The question is why should a document thus constructed be normative for Israel of old and also for the Church today? It has been noted that the 'theological reflections' thus transmitted do still reflect Israel's actual encounters with God even though the redactors had the freedom to re-interpret existing scriptures and uproot new materials from their original contexts and incorporate them into the former. But in Childs' view this 'freedom' does not represent arbitrariness. For in the transmission of Scriptures there was an inseparable relationship between the text and the community that treasures it as Scripture. The text had a continuous effect in 'shaping' the community just as the community in turn has a continuous effect in shaping the text.30 In other words, each generation of editors and redactors have themselves been affected and 'shaped' by the Scriptures they received. So when they went about shaping and reshaping Scriptures for subsequent generations they would not do so in an arbitrary way.

This view opens the way for an explanation for the authority of Scriptures in the canonical context despite the acceptance of critical conclusions. Childs hypothesizes that Israel's authoritative Scripture initially consisted of laws revealed to Moses by God who also commissioned him to write them down. These authoritative laws became the norm by which new laws were measured and added. This new corpus then became the new norm for further additions. The process is repeated through countless additions (and reshapings). In this way, materials added (and reshaped) after Moses became authoritative. But accepting critical conclusions, Childs is prepared to ascribe much fewer laws to Moses than the Bible itself does. He explains away the difficulty by suggesting that later persons who added the additional non-Mosaic laws that had been attributed to Moses did so in the name of the latter. "Thus laws attributed to Moses were deemed authoritative and conversely authoritative laws were attributed to Moses."31

Through this theologically-controlled manner of transmission the Scripture in its final form is normative for Israel, the original community of faith that was shaped by and in turn shaped the
Old Testament. "The early Church inherited the Jewish Scriptures along with its understanding of canon..."32 By accepting the Old Testament as normative for obedient life, the Church thus identifies herself with Israel as the community of faith.33

Childs' preceding hypothesis does seem to justify his underlying assumption that normative theology can be transmitted through a conflation of theologically and historically diverse materials. The assumption as a whole sounds valid. But we would like to show that it creates hermeneutical tensions with regards to some crucial theological concepts in the Old Testament. These 'theological reflections' are so intricately interwoven with historical details in such a way that unless the latter are real, i.e., the canonical context of the passage corresponds to the historical context, the validity or even the normativeness of the theology concerned is questionable.

Firstly, consider the very issue of the basis or origin of Mosaic authority. Childs has rightly noted that "Moses' role as mediator of the divine law is deeply rooted in the Sinai tradition".34 In other words, in the understanding of Israel, the laws attributed to Moses are authoritative because God revealed them to him at Sinai. "If a law functioned authoritatively for Israel, it must be from Sinai. Conversely, if it is from Sinai, it must be authoritative." 35 But in the canonical shape of the Sinai tradition, in Childs’ own words, "the revelation of Sinai (Ex 19) is integrally connected with the deliverance from Egypt."36 In fact, he adds, "the commandments are prefaced by (a 'self-introductory') formula (Ex 20:2) to make clear that they are understood as the will of Yahweh who has delivered his people from bondage... The formula identifies the authority and right of God to make known his will because he has already graciously acted in Israel's behalf ... the giving of the law presupposes the deliverance from Egypt"37 (emphasis added).

Hence, in the context of the canon, the origin of the law as well as the basis of its normativeness stand on two events, Sinai and the Exodus. If any or both of these events as described did not occur in real history, the 'theological reflections' on the basis of the revelation and authority of the Mosaic Law does not make good sense. Further, the Mosaic authority which Israel recognized in real history must originate in the real history of Israel. If the Pentateuch is a conflation of historically diverse materials and the canonical context does not reflect the historical context, Mosaic authority would appear to originate with the redactor who shaped the account relating to the same. For we have no other evidence relating to the origin of Mosaic authority. And the assumption that God did reveal to Moses authoritative laws is the basis of Childs' crucial hypothesis discussed above. His approach is thus resting on very subjective ground.

Certainly normative 'theological reflections' like the nature of God or the value of the Law can be 'dressed' in 'history-like' details much like in realistic parables. But certain 'theological reflections'
like the origin and basis of normativeness itself cannot be similarly 'dressed'. Either the canonical reflection on Mosaic authority is invalid or the historical dressings are real. Hence approaching the text in the context of the canon without repudiating critical views creates strain in certain 'theological reflections'.

Another such reflection is in the sphere of predictive prophecy in the Old Testament. According to Deuteronomy 18 and Jeremiah 28, true prophets can be identified from false ones when their words come to pass. Childs affirms that "the truth of prophecy is determined by God's confirmation in action."38 But if prediction-fulfillment occurs only in the 'history-like' details in the context of the canon that does not reflect prediction-fulfillment in real time and space what value do such 'vindications' of the authority of the prophets and their prophecies have? In fact it borders upon deception on the part of the redactor.

Strains in predictive prophecy heighten to unbearable tensions in some of the more overt predictions such as those in Isaiah. Childs believes that though Isaiah 40ff "were originally addressed to Hebrew exiles in Babylon by an unnamed exilic prophet during the sixth century,... the present canonical shape of the book of Isaiah has furnished these chapters with a very different setting. Chapters 40ff are now understood as a prophetic word of promise offered to Israel by the eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem."39

To demonstrate the kind of tensions that can emerge from a canonical approach to Isaiah 40ff, we would use Isaiah 46. Here is an oracle in which Yahweh vindicates his Uniqueness over and against the worthlessness of Bel and Nebo by his ability to predict the future. Even a critical scholar like Mckenzie understands the 'prediction' in this oracle as the rise of Cyrus and his conquest of Babylon.40 If the oracle was indeed sixth century in its original context as Childs believes, the 'prediction’ was merely a political commentary and would have had no value for the purpose it was given--vindicate Yahweh's Uniqueness. It would be silly if not stupid of the exilic prophet to use this line of polemic against Babylonian gods, especially when the Jews had already suffered under the Babylonians. It would be incredible if the original hearers took the “prophecy” seriously.

Canonical criticism assumes that such an oracle would be rooted out of its time (where it most likely did not enjoy acceptance) and planted into the eighth century. As far as Childs is concerned, the attempt is not a deliberate deception to make a political commentary sounds like a prediction. His way out of such an implication is to assert that "by placing the message of Second Isaiah within the context of the eighth-century prophet his message of promise becomes a prophetic word not tied to a specific historical referent, but directed to the future."41 With respect to a 'specific historical referent’ like Cyrus he explains that "the original historical particularity--Cyrus has become a theological construct almost indistinguishable from Abraham [believed to be fictitious]."42 By reducing a historical figure to a ‘theological construct' he removes the predictive element in the oracle under discussion. But the truth and hence normativeness of the 'theological reflection' on the Uniqueness of God and the worthlessness of idols stands on prediction. If there be no prediction in real time and space the oracle in the canonical context (eighth century) is as useless as it was in its historical context (sixth century).

It would be unnecessary to point out all the difficulties apparent in a canonical approach to the above oracle. Yet this is only one of several similar oracles. The weakness of Childs' underlying assumption that normative theology can be transmitted by conflating historically unrelated materials is thus most obvious in the area of predictive prophecy. He has said that "to assume that the prophet can be understood only if each oracle is related to a specific historical event or located in its original cultural milieu is to introduce a major hermeneutical confusion into the discipline and to render an understanding of the canonical scriptures impossible.”43 But without making the assumption that Childs here forbids, not only will the preceding prophecy against idols not be understood (as a vindication of God--its stated purpose), the prophet/redactor cannot be understood (why he would use predictive ability as a polemic when there is no prediction in reality). The issue is to evaluate the critical presupposition that predictive prophecy cannot be true in reality.

Approaching the Old Testament in the context of the canon without repudiating critical conclusions is indeed full of tension. And the tension has now been found in connection with crucial theological concepts of the Old Testament, viz., the authority of the Law and the Prophets and the Uniqueness of Yahweh over idols! Childs' canonical approach has really not removed, only reduced, the 'impossible tension’ that plagued the Biblical Theology Movement. Unless the canonical context corresponds to and is rooted in the historical context, no normative theology can be consistently developed for the Old Testament. A critical view of the latter and an authoritative theological use of the same are undoubtedly mutually exclusive. In the final analysis, Childs’ approach amounts to saying that Scripture has no inherent authority. It has authority only because the believing community (the Jews and then the Church) has chosen to grant that authority to it. It is like saying the Scripture is truth simple because the Church believes it is so.

End notes

1 . Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 82. Hereafter, IOTS.
2. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westrainster, 1970), 19. Hereafter, BTC.
3. Childs, BTC, 54.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. Ibid., 54-55.
6. Ibid., 105.
7. Ibid.
8. Childs, IOTS, 74-79.
9. Childs, BTC, 102.
10. Ibid., 98.
11. Gerald Sheppard, "Canon Criticism: The Proposal of Brevard Childs and an Assessment for Evangelical Hermeneutics," Studia Biblica Et Theologica 4, no. 2(1974): 5. Sheppard was a student of Childs and had "the privilege of continuous private discussions" on the subject with him.
12. Childs, BTC
13. Ibid., 99
14. Childs, Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 11. Hereafter, OTTCC.
15. Childs, "The Exegetical Significance of Canon for the Study of the Old Testament," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum XXIX (1977): 67. Hereafter, SVT.
16.Childs, IOTS, 79.
17. Ibid., 78-79.
18. Ibid. 58-59.
19. Ibid. 96-106.
20.This is systematically elaborated in Childs, SVT, 70-77.
21. Childs, IOTS, 205-206.
22. Ibid., 211-212.
23. Ibid., 224.
24. Ibid., 79.
25. Childs, OTTCC, 11.
26. Sheppard, Ibid., 14.
27. Ibid.
28. Childs, OTTCC, l6.
29. Childs, BTC, 99-100,109.
30. Childs, SVT, 78.
31. Childs, IOTS, 152-l55.
32. Childs, "The Old Testament as Scripture of the Church," Concordia Theological Monthly 45(1972): 711.
33. Childs, OTTCC, 15.
34. Childs, IOTS, 62.
35. Childs, OTTCC, 55.
36. Ibid., 53.
37. Childs, The Book of Exodus. A Critical. Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 401-402.
38. Childs, OTTCC, 139.
39. Childs, IOTS, 325.
40. John L. Mckenzie, Second Isaiah. The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 87-88.
41. Childs, IOTS, 326.
42. Childs, "The Canonical Shape of the Prophetic Literature," Interpretation 32(1978): 53.
43. Ibid., 53.

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