Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brevard Childs: champion of orthodoxy

This is a continuation of my previous post:  the second part of my response to Brevard Childs's critique of Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.1

I began the previous post by saying that the article isn't very flattering to Childs. In this post, it will become clear why I see it that way.

The little texts and the Great Tradition:

First, allow me to juxtapose two of Childs's statements. The point is to demonstrate that Childs's criticism of Brueggemann is unjustified.

criticism; pp. 230-31 summary; p. 228
The biblical editors retained the radical scepticism of the book of Ecclesiastes largely in an unredactored [uncensored] form. But they added in an epilogue a rule for properly interpreting the book, namely, it is to be heard within the framework of Torah (Eccles. 12:13f.). When Brueggemann assigns an independent role to such traditions as counter- testimony, he is running in the very face of Israel's canonical witness. [Brueggemann's approach] would seek to do justice to the radical unsettlement evoked by the new postmodern epistemological situation with its insistence on pluralism. … Accordingly, interpretation is defined by Brueggemann as an ongoing process of negotiating among the full range of conflictional testimonies which avoids any absolute claims — whether historical or ontological — beyond the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself.

The criticism of Brueggemann's method, on the left, has already been explored in the previous post. However, I now call your attention to the statement highlighted in yellow. As long as the book of Ecclesiastes is "heard within the framework of Torah", the biblical editors were content to allow the community of faith to study it.

Now consider Childs's summary of Brueggemann's method, on the right. The claims of the various testimonies are to be adjudicated by "the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself."

The biblical editors insisted that we must hear Ecclesiastes within the framework of Torah; Brueggemann is committed to precisely the same thing. Childs's objection appears to be unjustified.

Brueggemann falls into error, according to Childs, when he assigns an independent role to Ecclesiastes (and other such countertestimonial texts). But Brueggemann emphatically denies the charge:
Of course nothing could be further from the truth. I have consistently said that the different testimonies are endlessly in tension with and corrected by other testimony. None is freestanding, none is isolated, none is cut off. (p. 235)

The slight variation between [Professor Childs's] approach and mine I believe to be a more benign variation than his rhetoric suggests. What is at issue is the endlessly tricky relation between 'The Great Tradition' and the 'little texts.' … It is my concern that in future generations, the Church will be able to attend to the 'little texts,' even as it commits to the Great Tradition. (p. 237)
I think that's sage advice:  attend to the "little texts"; commit to the Great Tradition.

Childs, champion of orthodoxy:

Childs, on the other hand, approves of the subordination of some of the voices found within the biblical text. I am not putting words into his mouth. I quoted his statement to that effect in the previous post:  "the biblical editors subordinated [certain] voices", including the radical scepticism of Ecclesiastes (p. 230).

Childs approves of this work of subordination. Brueggemann errs because "he feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment" (p. 230).

Indeed — and here's the point I have been building up to — Childs attempts to marginalize Brueggemann's voice. Childs makes himself the champion of orthodoxy:  he argues that Brueggemann's method tilts carelessly toward heresy.
It may be that one is philosophically justified in characterising Brueggemann's approach as postmodern. However, from a theological perspective the closest analogy is found in the Early Church's struggle with Gnosticism. …

One does not have to look far to discover the striking analogies between Brueggemann's postmodernism and ancient Gnosticism. Both operate within an overarching philosophical system in which [Brueggemann's] 'imaginative construal' closely parallels Gnostic 'speculation' as a means for correcting the received biblical tradition. Both approaches work with a sharply defined dualism between a God of creation who is known and predictable, and one who is hidden, unknown, and capricious.
By characterizing Brueggemann's method as analogous to Gnosticism, Childs sets out to consign Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament to a place outside the pale of orthodox Christian teaching.

I submit that Childs's canonical approach has a natural tendency in that direction. If you accept that the biblical editors deliberately subordinated unsettling voices like that of Ecclesiastes, and you regard that subordinating activity as legitimate, inevitably you will be tempted to subordinate unsettling voices like Brueggemann's to your vision of orthodoxy.

The lived reality of the believing Church:

Childs speaks of "an established range of truthful witness". Brueggemann would not disagree with that way of expressing things.

But for Brueggemann, the radical scepticism of Ecclesiastes (and other countertestimonial texts) are within what is, by Childs's admission, a range of truthful witness. Here Brueggemann appeals to the lived reality of the believing Church:
What I have done is to give 'other voices' a serious hearing, for there is no doubt that in Scripture there are voices of witness in profound tension with each other. The issue turns on which witnesses are truthful, but it has been the lived reality of the Church that different witnesses in Scripture have been heard as truthful on different occasions. …

The silence and absence of God is indeed a lived reality that must be fully taken into account. I have not wanted to let any 'large' ecclesial claims censor the lived reality of the believing Church.

(pp. 235-36)
Update:  I wasn't quite satisfied with the ending of this post last night, but I couldn't think what to add. Here's the point I didn't quite get to.

One of the great insights which emerges from Brueggemann's approach is that "postmodern" experiences are not at all new or unprecedented. The silence and absence of God; anomie; alienation; fragmentation; meaninglessness; doubt and confusion — all these postmodern themes were known to the ancient Israelites and reported honestly in scripture.

Brueggemann's approach is explicitly pastoral. He recognizes the immense potential of the "little texts" of scripture to address the distinctive needs of a postmodern people. Hence his determined effort to reclaim these voices in the service of the Church.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 53, no. 2, 2000, pp. 228-233, with a reply by Brueggemann at pp. 234-238.

15 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

I mentioned this in relation to your previous post before I saw the latest one. My ongoing reflection on the topic led me to wonder whether, as Christians who are committed to welcoming marginalized people, we can then engage in the marginalization of the voices of people embodied in Scriptural texts, and still call it Christian exegesis or hermeneutics.

Phil Sumpter said...

I've just responded below to what Childs means by subordination and how this concepte works. I've also raised the question of the legitimacy of subordination within Christian practice (i.e. it's necessary). I hope to respond to this post as soon as I can, but I think I need to get on with my own first. Just to point out, you need to see the entire of Childs critique of Brueggemann's proposal, i.e. that Brueggeman doesn't go beyond the court of appeal, which the text actually invites us to do. Choosing to stay with nothing but debate is not to follow what the text is asking of us.

Phil Sumpter said...

By the way, how do you do highlights like that an insert tables into your posts? That's awesome. Do you just copy and past from Word? It doesn't seem to work for me when I use Open Office (you can delete this comment if it's inappropriate!)

Phil Sumpter said...

I hope you don't mind me flooding you comments here! I'm reading through the article now in preparation for my own post, and I think there are some points that should be clarified, in order to back up my comments from yesterday:

- the critical rendering of judgement, such that other views are subordinated, includes Ps. 14's judgement that atheists are 'fools'. Do you disagree? To reject any form of subordination means that you have to accept everything. That would be absurd, surely, and so the Bible makes its own judgements. When Childs talks of editors subordinating voices, this can't be automatically taken as something wrong.

- An example of the fact that Childs can live with tension is his recognition that Ecclesiastes "retained the radical sceptisim" of the book. The editorial addition, which wants to constrain our interpretation, does iron out or ignore this tension. In fact, it creates it by its mere presence. Whereas Brueggemann leaves it at that (i.e. he doesn't go beyond the court room), Childs recongises that the book wants us to relate these two texts somehow, moving towards a resolution. Whether we get there is another question. As Childs says, Brueggmann's unwillingness to relate the two to each other, such that we can learn something concrete beyond seeing the argument, goes against the texts shape itself.

- Though they both belive in an established range of witness, Brueggemann ignores the shape of this witness (e.g. Qohelet as one book assigned to one authorial voice). As Seitz says: "canonicity has implications not just for which texts should be read, but for how they should be read" (1998: 99). This is why Childs calls Brueggemann's dialectic 'contrived'. It's not the way the material is presented to us.

- Perhaps Childs rejection of Brueggemann, which you call 'subordination', is like the Old Testament prophets, who quite explicitly rejected false prophets. Or are Moses and Jeremaiah just examples of arrogant patriarchalism, cruely subordinating the voices of Hannaniah and the sons of Korah?

- Concernig Childs' accusation of Gnosticism, this may be going to far. But as I have argued elsewhere, Brueggemann's critical reconstruction of Qoheleth (i.e. multiple voices rather than one) functions to 'correct the received biblical tradition', shaping it according to his own understanding of how it should be and ignoring the clues provided for how to read it (p. 232).

- In addition to this, does Brueggemann's harsh rejection of Childs in his own book also count as subordination? I don't see the difference. Brueggemann also works with norms to make his judgements.

- Brueggemann also needs to come to terms with the concept of the 'rule of faith'. This summa of belief was held to reflect the substance of the OT, which was Christ. A non Jew doesn't have to right to claim the OT as scripture for himself, unless he can see Christ in the scripture. Brueggemann rejects this possiblity from the outset as 'oppressive, hegemonic, and reductionistic'. For Brueggemann, there is no 'substance', just the endless debate, constantly deffering judgement about what the reality of the OT might acutally be.

- As I read through Brueggemann's response to Childs, I feel he misses Childs' point. But I'll deal with that later.

Once again, I appreciate your work here. I'm really happy to have found someone who cares about these issues and who is willing to investigate them the way you do!

dave b said...

I say a plague on both your houses :-).

I’d like to offer my two cents regarding the discussion of Ecclesiastes. The problem here, in my opinion, is how Eccl 3:19 has been ripped out of the context of the book. A close reading of Eccl reveals that Qohelet is not in fact the author of Ecclesiasts, even though his voice dominates the book. Ecclesiastes is a sort of autobiography of this individual Qohelet which is told by a narrator. By and large the narrator remains far behind the scenes but he pops up in 1:2 and 7:27, and Fox and Longman among others argue that the voice in 1:2 and 7:27 is same voice in the epilogue. Ecclesiastes is the story of Qohelet’s search for meaning in a world in which his experience of things (which is hebel) does not match what he, as one brought up in the Israelite tradition, has been taught and knows to be true. It’s important to note how excruciating this disconnect can be and in the case of Qohelet it brings him to the brink of insanity. Moreover, in his quest, this disconnect causes him to forward some very unorthodox, borderline blasphemous, utterances. However, by the end of his quest, although life is still filled with enigma, he finds peace in “remembering the creator of [his] youth” (12:1ff) which is a profound statement of faith on his part. This posture of faith and trust also allow him to confess, as opposed to his despair in 3:19-22, that at death “the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
It think it is reasonable to suggest that in the epilogue the narrator affirms the nature of Qohelet’s quest while not necessarily approving of everything he says, but he especially affirms the place of faith that Qohelet is brought at the end (12:1-7). All this being said, is seems one must be sensitive to the narrative flow before quoting the words of Qohelet as normative. The same sort of dynamic takes place in Job—how are we to regard and use the words of Job’s friends in light of 42:7-8.
It’s true that this reading assumes the literary integrity of the book, a move which modern scholarship almost unanimously rejects (without compelling evidence in my view). Childs and Brueggemann both agree with the “scholarly consensus” on this point though while Childs sees the epilogue as the hermeneutical key for the book in its “final form” Brueggemann (if I read this post correctly) thinks the addition of the epilogue silences the original more subversive voice of Qohelet. I wonder how much of this discussion between C. and B. would be obsolete (at least in the case of Eccl.) if they were somewhat more critical in their appropriation of the "discoveries" of historical criticism.

NB: I wrote this in response to the last post before I read this but I think it is fitting to put it here.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for this Dave, I find it helpful. Despite my status as a plauged-person in your sight, I hope to show that what you've just said, while contradicting my comments about Ecclesiastes (thanks, great points there), ulitmately underline my point about the canonical approach contra Brueggemann's approach.

Childs simply argues that whatever process there was that brought us to the final form, it was confessional, i.e. it had the intention of proclaiming God to a new generation. The bits that we see before us were put there to serve this end, and the order of the bits needs to be taken seriously if we are position ourselves within their 'worldview'.

The key phrase you made was the following:

"All this being said, is seems one must be sensitive to the narrative flow before quoting the words of Qohelet as normative."

Apart from the fact that Childs explicitly critiques Brueggemann for staying at the level of the sentence and not moving to the level of narrative (p. 229), this illustrates what canonical shaping is all about. The epilogue belongs to the perspective of a narrator who hovers in the background of the whole book. The perspective of this narrator has hermeneutical implications for how we read the text, along the lines you have demonstrated. Whatever the critical dimension (whoever added the final epilogue), it has implications for the meaning of the final form. Childs never said that Qohelet is written from the perspective of this person, that was my guess working in terms my understanding of the canonical appraoch (it would apply to Isaiah). However, the point is, as you say, that "one must be sensitive to the narrative flow before quoting the words of Qohelet as normative.". Brueggeman isolates this passage and allocates it to 'counter-testimony', whereas he allocates chpt. 12 to 'core-testimony'. This doesn't follow the narrative flow and flattens the text, as if all voices should be given the same value without paying attention to context. It's as if we would say the voice of the Rabshekah should be given equal value to that of Isaiah! Biblical theology couldn't tolerate the idea and the broader narrative context shapes how we should respond to the Rabshekah's statements. Sure he's 'subordinated', but that's a good thing, and we, as Christians, should following the guidance of the narrative which subordinates him for us. This is especially clear in your Job example. The way Brueggemann seems to be presenting it, we would have to take both the friend's advice and Yhwhw's voice on the same level, and view Yhwh's voice (which, if we want to be cynical, is only the view of a particular author speaking for Yhwh, using his voice to mask his own political agendas) as equal to that of his friends.

Am I still plagued, or can you declare me clean?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I should mention that I have appended a brief update to this post, after the concluding Brueggemann quote. I was aware that I had left things dangling at a bit, but it wasn't until this morning that I figured out what I wanted to say.

• James:
I haven't had a chance to read your posts yet, though I plan to do so later today. I'm glad you're joining in, so that we've got a multi-blog discussion going!

• Phil:
Thanks for your comments. I certainly don't object to hearing from you — repeatedly, even! I hope people will get something out of our dialogue.

Re tables —
They have to be built using html. It's a bit fiddly, but it's easy after you've done it a few times, and I think the results are well worth it. To you or anyone else who is interested in learning how to construct a table, just email me at

stephen(dot)peltz(at)gmail(dot)com

I would be happy to send you the html I always start with, and some instructions in how to use it.

It's difficult for me to reply to so many points, so excuse me if I'm selective.

(1) Re Ps. 14 — Brueggemann accepts Childs's formula, "an established range of truthful witness", as I said in the post. Moreover, Brueggemann maintains that the various testimonies are to be adjudicated by "the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself."

I don't think anything further needs to be said in Brueggemann's defense. He doesn't maintain that "anything goes", that there is no such thing as heresy.

On the other hand, Brueggemann insists (a) that the Bible preserves various voices for us, and those voices stand in uneasy tension with one another; and (b) that we must attend to all of those voices, including those who undermine our tidy little prior theological commitments.

I came to those identical conclusions long before I first read Brueggemann, based on careful consideration of the NT documents. That's why Brueggemann resonates so powerfully with me.

Brueggemann's proposal takes the texts _more_ seriously — more seriously! — than any method (whether critical or evangelical) that seeks to ignore, subordinate or domesticate the unsettling voices, in order to focus on those voices which affirm what we have already decided to be true.

(2) I have no problem with Childs disagreeing with Brueggemann's method (just as Brueggemann disagrees with Childs's method).

I am offended, however, by Childs's charge of Gnosticism, which is a flagrant attempt to marginalize Brueggemann.

(3) Re "Qohelet as one book assigned to one authorial voice" —
I'm going to take up this point in response to your comment on the previous post. It's regrettable that the dialogue gets broken up that way, but on the other hand it prevents this comment from going on too long!

• Dave B.:
I'm not going to try to overturn your interpretation of Ecclesiastes, because you know one hundred times as much about this topic as I do! Thanks very much for dropping in to comment!

I will offer two brief observations, however.

First, there is no way of reading Ecclesiastes that eliminates the offense the book is likely to cause to an orthodox believer.

Second, in response to this statement —

Ecclesiastes is the story of Qohelet’s search for meaning in a world in which his experience of things (which is hebel) does not match what he, as one brought up in the Israelite tradition, has been taught and knows to be true. It’s important to note how excruciating this disconnect can be and in the case of Qohelet it brings him to the brink of insanity.

No doubt Brueggemann would emphatically embrace what you said there. Brueggemann is largely motivated by pastoral concerns: what happens when experience does not cohere with our theology — when experience contradicts faith?

Brueggemann's goal is to ensure that the voice of a struggler like Qohelet is not muted or subordinated to a more orthodox but triumphalist account of the faith. He believes the witness of biblical voices like that of Qohelet is a valuable, underused pastoral resource.

I am very interested in your survey of Ecclesiastes. I'll have to check out Fox and Longman when I have an opportunity to do so.

dave b said...

Good discussion, guys!

Phil—this exchange highlights my reluctance regarding canonical approaches. I certainly applaud the decision to take the “final form” of the text seriously. But I’m just not convinced that there is sufficient evidence that what we have in the book of Ecclesiastes (or some other books) is “canonical shaping.” What is stopping us from appropriating Eccl as a carefully crafted whole—like we read any other book. I never fully understood Childs’ reluctance to embrace more literary approaches to biblical interpretation (from which he clearly distinguished his canonical approach), and the only answer that I can seem to come up with is that he had too much invested in the historical-critical methods which he was taught and imbibed (though, perhaps that is not altogether fair). It’s true that some of these narrative approaches share with canonical approaches an appreciation for the “final form” but it seems that a weakness of the canonical approach is that it is vulnerable (unnecessarily so in my mind) to questions about the “real” motivations behind “canonical shaping.”

Anyway, it’s clear from your comments that we agree that things need to be understood in context—so I guess I will lift the plague . . . for now.

Stephen—thanks . . . I’m not an expert on Eccl at all but I have recently spent a good deal of time pouring over a manuscript for an excellent commentary on Ecclesiastes so all these things are fresh in my mind.

You write: “there is no way of reading Ecclesiastes that eliminates the offense the book is likely to cause to an orthodox believer.” I humbly but wholeheartedly disagree—in fact I am one such believer and the book causes me no such offence. Again, the problem is not with the book but with the reading strategy, and the key is reading the whole book. Certainly, there are points in the book which jar the reader and we certainly don’t want to flatten those out. Yet, the confession of Qohelet, i.e., “remember your creator” is akin to beginning with the “fear of Yhwh.” Qohelet notes at the beginning of his quest that he is going to search out “all that is done under heaven,” and he says he goes about it “by wisdom.” Fox has argued convincingly that this use of “wisdom” (hokmah) is ironic and clearly Qohelet has a kind of empirical epistemology (he searches out, observes, etc.). This epistemology leads him to regard life as full of enigma and mystery. So there is probably not a single or simple answer your question: “what happens when experience does not cohere with our theology — when experience contradicts faith?” but perhaps Eccl teaches that maybe our experience of reality (especially when it is based upon an autonomous epistemology) is not always completely reliable. Also, read in the context of the canon, which is not tangential to this whole discussion, is not the world that Qohelet lives and struggles to understand the same world presented in Genesis and the rest of Scripture, that is a good but fallen creation?

Fox’s work on Eccl is great because he recovers the literary character of the whole book and he highlights the importance of epistemology (in Eccl in particular but in wisdom in general). Fox has written a load of stuff on Eccl and if your interested in the book you could start with his “Frame-Narrative and Composition in the Book of Qohelet.” Hebrew Union College Annual 48 (1977): 83-106. Also definitely check this out: http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/qoheleth_bartholomew.pdf.

I think if you read some of this stuff on Eccl I might be able to arrange for the plague on your house to be lifted as well :-).

Phil Sumpter said...

WARNING: this response is huge. Tell me if you want to narrow things down a bit in the future! This is a topic that is significant to me at the mo, so I'm investing a fare bit of time into it!

Stephen,

I think before Childs' reputation has any more damage done to it, perhaps the best things would be to read his actual exegesis, and then we can discuss whether he ignores the critical dimension, sides with the powerful, and is logically inconsistent. I haven't got round to reading much of it myself, unfortunately. I've just ordered his Isaiah commentary, which I hope to dip into as I prepare my infernal thesis proposal.

Nevertheless, I'm going to partially give into the temptation and write a few responses ...

Re Ps. 14 — Brueggemann accepts Childs's formula, "an established range of truthful witness", as I said in the post. Moreover, Brueggemann maintains that the various testimonies are to be adjudicated by "the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself.".

This is all good on the part of Brueggemann, but Childs' critique of him includes not just his attention to the Bible, but the way the Bible functions theologically in his broader model (the eternal courtroom model). Childs' full quote is as follows:

“interpretation is defined by Brueggemann as an ongoing process of negotiating among the full range of conflictional testimonies which avoids any absolute claims - whether historical or ontological – beyond the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself”.

Brueggemann's model excludes resolution as a matter of principle and so all we have is the argument. Whether one judges this to be a good thing or not (I can certainly see its attractiveness), a theological evaluation of Brueggemann's theological proposal would ask: does this fit with the nature of the Bible and with the core claims of Christian faith (which Brueggemann, in a way, submits to)? Brueggemann doesn't address Childs' claims that this isn't the case, he just says that Childs is as subjective as anyone else. This is to avoid the issue and reify Brueggemann's postmodern epistemology into an all-encompassing critical principle, something for which postmodernism isn't cut out to do. On my own post on this issue I discuss this in more detail, and I claim that this even has implications for the identity of God himself. It should be pointed out that even at the level of exegesis, Brueggemann ignores what Dave calls 'the narrative flow'. The hermeneutical significance of narrative is really no longer deniable. Once cannot abstract a voice out of context and make it speak for itself, if one wants to understand the message of the entire piece. Childs notes this in his critique (p. 229).

I don't think anything further needs to be said in Brueggemann's defense. He doesn't maintain that "anything goes", that there is no such thing as heresy.

I know he doesn't claim it. He comes close to calling Childs docetist. I just wonder how, given his proposal, one would distinguish between heresy and not, given that the constraints of the narrative are ignored. Can you answer why we should reject Job's friends' advice, in the light of ch. 45? Or why the Rabshekah in Kings is not just another legitimate voice, cruelly subordinated by the hegemonic ideology of monotheism? How does one know?

On the other hand, Brueggemann insists (a) that the Bible preserves various voices for us, and those voices stand in uneasy tension with one another; and (b) that we must attend to all of those voices, including those who undermine our tidy little prior theological commitments.

I think just about any scholar would agree with these statements. What Childs and Seitz suggest is that it's not just what is preserved, but also how it is preserved that is important. Brueggemann needs to explain why the value judgements made by the tradents were wrong, when claiming that Hananiah was a false prophet, or that Qohelet's 'empirical epistemology' is theologically inadequate.

In addition to that, if the tradents can't be trusted, then what about the boundaries of the canon itself? Maybe the Gospel of Thomas is another legitmate voice after all, subordinated by the ecclesial hierarchy for political reasons? Brueggemann would not accept this himself.

I am offended, however, by Childs's charge of Gnosticism, which is a flagrant attempt to marginalize Brueggemann.

It's quite usual for theologians to identify potentially heretical trends in other scholars and to label them accordingly. That's because theology is about God, and what we say about God matters. An adequate response to Childs' charge is to prove him wrong, to establish that Brueggemann is in fact not Gnostic, or at least tending in that direction (which is Childs' actual claim). In the article, Brueggemann may sound hurt at being misunderstood, but he doesn't reject such accusations in principle. Indeed, he raises a similar analogy between Childs approach and Docetism (as John has done with me on my blog).

[Brueggemann] believes the witness of biblical voices like that of Qohelet is a valuable, underused pastoral resource.

I know that time is short and that you don't have the ability to spend your day responding to comments, but I'd just like to say here that although this is a great motive, I personally wonder how that would work. I'm sure it does, but how. Especially considering, as far as I understand the Gospel from my Protestant perspective, the good news must first make a judgement on us before offering the solution. In other words, proffered solutions to the human condition need to make the right analysis first. Commitment to pasoral care is great, but it can't be a first order commitment such that it determines how theology should read the Bible. First we understand how the Bible works, and then we turn to pastoral issues. In my own post on this I suggest that Brueggemann has done the opposite, in that he's turned his pastoral diagnosis as the dominating framework for discovering the solution in the Bible. That may not make sense .... you can just ignore me here if you want!

But you are right: Qoehelt is no doubt underused and I too have a problem with the way only the more postive bible verses are used by Christians. There's a whole smorgasbord of emotion which is usually ignored, and Brueggemann is very helpful in helping us confront that.

• I've never seen any evidence for [Childs setting the findings of critical scholarship off to one side]. In fact the contrary. Could you give me an example?

We are already discussing an example.


This is not what I would call an example, unless pointing out the structure of the book is the be all and the end all of interpretation. Childs just points out the shape of the book, as he sees it. Just like Dave does with his observations about the narrator. It's one thing to say that there is a narratorial perspective that colours the way we should read the details, and another to interpret what those details actually are. Childs does not proffer his own interpretation of the meaning of the text, just says that the epilogue is as much a part of the book as other parts, and that as far as literary structure is concerned it has a regulative function on interpretation (which he explains in the historical critical categories of subordination. He may well be wrong there, as Dave suggests, but the epilogue still operates regulatively in relation to the rest of the book. Ch. 3 is no independent voice). Unless all acts of subordination are necessarily evil in and of themselves, regardless of what is subordinated and why (and by whom), one cannot reject this function of the epilogue out of hand. To accept each paragraph of the Bible, independent of its context, would lead to ridiculous conclusions.

I should emphasise again, it's not Brueggemann's attachment to tension that bothers me (I like that as much as you), it's his overall method by which he extracts theological meaning from the Bible.

Childs backtracks and says, "But after all, the text presents a single author." (Whoa, what happened to your critical conclusions?!)

If Childs was that obvious I don't think he would have had the career that he had. I've already described what I mean by 'author': not historical author but author as 'hermeneutical construct'. On Daves interpretation, the author is the narrator, as presented in the text, not the acutal person who sat down to write the piece. If they are the same person (historical/hermeneutical) or not is a separate issue. This is a difficult concept, which is why I recommended the Seitz articles which deal with it in more detail. His Word Without End also has a chapter entitled “Isaiah and the Search for a New Paradigm: Authorship and Inspiration”.

Moreover, "We can only assume that the text speaks with a single, unified voice, since the text on its own terms is the work of a single author." (Whoa,what happened to Childs's conclusion that certain texts within the book constituted a judgement against other texts within the book?!)

As far as I understand Childs' claim, the critical judgement was made by the editor. That, as Dave rightly highlights, is a historical speculation that tries to explain how the text got here. However the text in fact got here, Childs (more so elsewhere) insists that interpretation should not base itself on the process but on the effect of the process. The effect is all we have that is objective, i.e. the text before us (as you yourself have said). As such, the epilogue needs to be read for what it is: as a regulative principle in relation to the other parts. Dave's interpretation is one possiblity for explaining what we have before us. Childs' historical critical theory of editors making judgements is part of his broader claim that the true nature of the text is kerygmatic, i.e. it functions as proclamation (cf. My comments below to Dave on the relationship of literary approaches to the Bible and canonical approaches). This is part of the difficult question of the relationship between the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the text.

But in the final analysis, those critical conclusions are simply suspended so that Childs can revert to the safe space of Israel's core tradition

As I have said, I think it would be best to read some of Childs' actual interpretation before we make these kinds of judgements. In addition to that, I would be careful with language like “safe place”. There is no fixed place that is automatically safe. Places are safe depending on your own presuppositions as to what constitutes security. Belief in a 'tricky' text which defies resolution can become just as much a “safe place” as a belief that the Bible makes concrete claims. Postmodern deconstruction builds fortresses of its own.

It won't do to accept Ecclesiastes on its own terms, as a coherent work written by a single author. We know better than that.

Do we? Dave has just contradicted that.

But that's not the point anyway. This is my crude attempt to understand this issue: the Bible speaks of a reality that is not totally coexstensive with ours, its function is to shape us as disciples and to witness to a God who is hidden yet makes himself know in mysterious ways. His written word is part of that revelation, so how it functions is important. Making historical critical judgemenst about authorship ('we know better than that') is not he same as submitting to its message. In order to submit to its message, we need to read it properly. And given the shape of this literary work it makes sense to read it as a unity beause it presents itself as having a single authorial perspective. This is part of the idea of author as hermeneutical construct, not historical author. Thinking that simply reconstructing the development of the text guarantees an apprehension of its truth is to make a judgement that risks hearing what the text really wants to say.

The great merit of Brueggemann's proposal is precisely that it allows the texts to speak!

In the light of all the above (e.g. narrative structure, narratorial perspective), this is precisely what Brueggemann doesn't do, either on canonical nor on literary grounds. I guess I could say it's bad exegesis all round. It's only good if one operates with the historical critical paradigm, that seeks as a matter of principle to identify sources and separate them. Although Brueggemann rejects this, he ends up doing it himself in his own way.


• Unless one believes there is no such thing as wrong interpretation and heresy, one must operate with some definition of normativity. Childs' definition follows what the final form gives us, Brueggemann reconstructs his own norms based on his own theories of truth, which actually contradict the shape of the Bible itself).

I see: Childs is objectively true to the Bible while Brueggemann is awash in a sea of subjectivity.


This isn't what I'm saying. Both are subjective. It's just a matter of context . Childs' context is the Bible before us (Qohelet as one book, designed in a certain kind of way), Brueggemann's seems to be a series of isolated voices, placed in tension with each other. Brueggemann may be right, but in the light of Childs' arguments I think he's wrong. And if he's wrong, then he ends up doing what you've cited me as saying. This is ulitimately a theological judgement about what constitutes normativity in theology, not an epistemology judgement about who is more 'objective'. Despite the fact that we all have our own 'norms' when interpreting (i.e.we are subjective), we could at least agree on what context to operate in. Childs reads the canonical context, Brueggemann deconstructs it and so his interpretation is based on another (the context of voices in conflict).

That's the company Childs keeps. Whether he was of the view that (for example) women are unfit for Church office, I can't say. But it would seem to be a logical conclusion of his canonical perspective.

I'm sorry, but this really makes me want to say, 'read his work'. As for women priests, how do you come to the conclusion about what is right? Anything goes? Or do you have criteria? The canonical approach just says that there are criteria, the final form of the text. What the Bible says is a matter of interpretation.

Dave,

this is already a huge comment, but I appreciate your points so I'll do my best to provide a response.

What is stopping us from appropriating Eccl as a carefully crafted whole—like we read any other book.

I'm not sure that the canonical approach requires that we see canonical shaping everywhere. If the whole is written by a single author, then so be it. I doubt that can be said for all books, however. It's an interesting point, to what degree Childs is dependent on the diachronic dimension. I would say very. But I don't think this can be ignored, which brings me to your next point ...

I never fully understood Childs’ reluctance to embrace more literary approaches to biblical interpretation

Here's my brief response, given time (I'd love go into this in more detail if you're interested). I think it depends on which literary approach you're talking about. Childs approvingly cites Sternberg (1992: 62, I think), who talks about the significance of the reality outside the text for understanding its meaning. This is part of the historical dimension of the text. Sternberg's literary approach is functional to a degree, in that the meaning of a text is connected to the reason why it was written in the first place. In the same way, the meanings of the texts for Childs are connected with their function as canonical scripture. 'Scripture' is a kind of genre category for Childs. This genre cateogory of 'scripture' points to the fact that they are to witness to a reality outside of themselves, such that theology can never be identified with just the surface meaning of the text. He talks of practioners of 'narrative theology' who can be either super -conservative or super-liberal, somehow the method doesn't say anything about the reality of God, it just creates its own reality, which is theological false for Childs. I guess a literary analysis such as yours helps us understand the plain sense of the text, but there is a deeper meaning which is got at when the text is read in relation to other texts in the canon, which I think he calls the spiritual sense. This act of reading texts in relation to get at their common substance is what figurative reading is about (when done probably), and I don't think literary approaches take us that far. We stay at the surface of the text. The fact that, according to Childs, the text is 'canonical' in the way he describes it, guarantees that one must move beyond it to the reality that called it forth in the first place. I think this is equivalent to the 'historical', extra-textual dimension of the text, in that something outside it is significant for its meaning. In this sense “questions about the “real” motivations behind “canonical shaping.”” significant both hermeneutically and theologically.

Phew, that's my super quick attempt to rush off an answer to a difficult (but great) question. I'd love you to push me on this, if you feel so inclined.

I've finally posted my position on the Childs/Brueggemann debate, if you want to check it out.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Dave:
Certainly, there are points in the book which jar the reader and we certainly don’t want to flatten those out. Yet, the confession of Qohelet, i.e., "remember your creator" is akin to beginning with the "fear of Yhwh." … Perhaps Eccl teaches that maybe our experience of reality (especially when it is based upon an autonomous epistemology) is not always completely reliable.

Indeed, perhaps that is the lesson we should draw from Ecclesiastes, taken in the context of the canon as a whole. (Which, as I have been at some pains to point out, is a principle Brueggemann fully supports.) But I'm not persuaded that that lesson is what Qohelet set out to teach.

I intend to read the two articles you have suggested to me. Indeed, I appreciate the recommendations very much. I'm not a seminarian and, without the help of well-read folks like you, I must discover good resources for myself.

However, it should be clear that I resist any method that attempts to arrive, prematurely, at an orthodox reading of Ecclesiastes. I've decided the language that would be most helpful here would be "to domesticate" the text. With Brueggemann, I resist any attempt to domesticate the voice of Qohelet (or his biographer).

In common with Childs, your approach seems to involve taking one or two relatively orthodox verses and using them as a prism through which to read sustained sections of the rest of the book. The balance here (occasional verses used as a control for sustained sections) strikes me as questionable.

I concede that it might be the right way to read the book: if you're not an expert on Ecclesiastes, then I am not even a beginner. But my first impression is that this is a not-so-subtle attempt to domesticate the book; and, as I've said, I'm resistant to any such approach.

• Phil:
I don't object to the length of your comments. I realize that these issues matter a great deal to you. And I know I'm stepping on your toes by being so sharply critical of Childs. I would not in any way restrain you from mounting a spirited defence of his approach, which has been so helpful to you.

For my part, I would prefer to treat one or two points at some length, rather than briefly touch on six or eight points. And I'm aware that we will have the opportunity to address the issues again in another post. If these issues really matter (as we both agree they do), inevitably they will come up again.

I will repeat myself on what I believe to be the core difference between us. I have indeed supplied you with an example of Childs suspending his own critical judgements.

Childs wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, he says that a later editor of Ecclesiastes has passed judgement on the text and subordinated Qohelet's voice to a more orthodox theology. On the other hand, he wants to treat the text as a single indivisible whole with a unified message.

A unified, orthodox message, naturally!

As I've said before, I don't think this is intellectually honest. I understand that critical judgements are provisional and, moreover, that they raise huge problems for exegesis. But once we have reached those critical judgements, we can't return to an innocent reading of the text, as if there isn't a conflict of opinion embedded within it. Yet that is what Childs sets out to do (according to your account of his method).

I will read the Seitz article you've recommended to me (with pleasure!) but Seitz can't persuade me that Childs's isn't trying to have it both ways. He insists that Brueggemann must respect the judgement that Israel's editors have passed on the text. In other words, he's using that critical judgement as a convenient axe to wield against Brueggemann's method; but then he sets the critical judgement aside in order to pursue his own, "canonical" interpretation.

Nice trick! But the exegete is either bound by the critical judgement, or he isn't. How can it be binding on Brueggemann but not binding on Childs?!

Interpretation is defined by Brueggemann as an ongoing process of negotiating among the full range of conflictional testimonies which avoids any absolute claims - whether historical or ontological – beyond the court of appeal found in the biblical text itself.

Here I am quoting Childs (not Phil).

Note that Brueggemann does not say there are no absolute claims. He says there are no absolute claims beyond the court of appeal found in the biblical text. I think this is a very good summary of Brueggemann's position.

Brueggemann's position would seem to exclude the Gospel of Thomas, though I've never heard him offer an opinion one way or the other. And Brueggemann's position does not invite us to choose Korah and his sons over Moses. This is a caricature of Brueggemann, who is at bottom an exegete of the biblical texts.

Brueggemann's model excludes resolution as a matter of principle and so all we have is the argument.

Now I'm quoting Phil! And again, I think it's a fair summary of Brueggemann's position.

I realize that Brueggemann's approach is bound to make people uneasy. We all agree: there is orthodoxy and there is heresy. In principle, then, there must be a demarcation where we pass over from the one to the other.

But Brueggemann is ever mindful of pastoral realities. He is a churchman. And he recognizes that — however true the principle may be — the Church is never able to finally locate that line between orthodoxy and heresy.

At various points in Church history, the Church has thought it had marked out where the line lay. But somehow those judgements always turn out to be temporary. Another generation of believers rises to fight the issues all over again.

In the modern and postmodern situation, we realize that earlier generations were far too confident of their precritical judgements. And so the Church has been plunged back into the fray, trying once again to determine where the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy is properly situated.

What I'm saying is, Brueggemann accurately describes what goes on in practice. In principle, there's a line. In practice, every judgement turns out to be provisional. As Brueggemann puts it, the text invites us to arrive at an interpretation for now: but we know that inevitably we're going to have to come back to the issue and do it all over again.

We can be filled with regret over this eventuality, but it is how things really are.

Brueggemann comes close to calling Childs docetic.

No. Brueggemann says (I'm paraphrasing), "You call me a gnostic, and I could call you docetic in return". In other words, is name-calling any way to proceed toward truth?

I've run out of time at this point. I'll come back later to see whether there is any other point that I really must reply to.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Oh yes … quickly ….

You hit Brueggemann where it hurts most when you say that he does not allow the texts to speak. This is, of course, really a disagreement over method. You want us to read the text as if it is the work of a single (fictive) author who presents a unified message. Because Brueggemann rejects such an innocent reading of the text, you say he isn't letting the text speak.

Many readers settle on key books and verses which define orthodoxy for them. Every text or verse which does not fit into that straightjacket must then be repudiated, subordinated, marginalized, or harmonized. You say Childs doesn't do that, yet it seems to me that he wants to homogenize Ecclesiastes. He wants to allow the editorial judgement at the end of the book to take the rough edges off the rest of the text.

The classic example from the NT is reading James (who clearly states that we are not saved by faith alone) through a pauline lens.

In my view, any such homogenizing approach fails to let the texts speak. I've suggested to Dave that he wants to read sustained sections of Ecclesiastes through the prism of occasional verses. It's a good way to arrive at an orthodox reading of the text, but those sustained sections of the text are thereby domesticated, in my view.

Whereas Brueggemann would allow those sustained sections of the text to testify to an element of Jewish (and Christian) experience that is not uncommon. You ask me how this pastoral use of Ecclesiastes works, in practice, and it's a fair question. I intend to address it in a future post, using Brueggemann's insightful little book on the Psalms as a starting point.

Places are safe depending on your own presuppositions as to what constitutes security. Belief in a 'tricky' text which defies resolution can become just as much a "safe place" as a belief that the Bible makes concrete claims.

That's a very good point; you're quite right. Mea culpa.

Finally:
Rereading your comment (for the third time), I realize I haven't done justice to your question about how Brueggemann arrives at certain value judgements about the trustworthiness of the tradents. I think I'll just let you reply to me at this point, if you choose to do so. But I'm aware that you raised an issue that will require further consideration on my part.

dave b said...

Man, I don’t know how you guys have the time for this level of discussion on a blog. Both of you might be interested to know that Childs wrote up a bit on Ecclesiastes in his Introduction to the OT as Christian Scripture.

Just a few points.

Phil—I would love to keep this going and wish I had more time for it. For now though I’d just add that biblical interpretation has historical, literary, and theological dimensions and in my opinion all three are vital. I suspect that your response about literary analysis, plain sense vs. spiritual sense, figurative reading, etc., gets at the issue of the relationship between general hermeneutics and theological hermeneutics that we started some time ago and never really finished. You say “I don’t think literary approaches lake us that far.” It’s true that SOME literary approaches (or better literary approaches alone) don’t take us that far, but the fact is that the biblical texts are literary productions which call for an approach to interpretation which is sensitive to this fact.

Stephen, I am more than happy to recommend good reading just let me know what you are interested in (and to what end).

You write: “it should be clear that I resist any method that attempts to arrive, prematurely, at an orthodox reading of Ecclesiastes . . . I resist any attempt to domesticate the voice of Qohelet (or his biographer).

I’m probably not making myself as clear as I could be regarding Ecclesiastes. You write in the profile on your blog: “[the blog] is a vehicle for me to investigate the potential of narrative and rhetorical criticism as a tool for expounding scripture.” This is how I suggested you read Ecclesiastes. You suggest that my approach appears to take “one or two relatively orthodox verses and use them as a prism through which to read sustained sections of the rest of the book. The balance here (occasional verses used as a control for sustained sections) strikes me as questionable.” On the contrary. I realize that you probably didn’t do a close reading of Ecclesiastes for this post but it seems that you (and for all I know Brueggemann as well) take one or two relatively UNorthodox verses and use them as a prism through which to regard the rest of the book as subversive. Please correct me if I’m wrong. What I’m trying to show is that Qohelet himself finds resolution at the end of his quest (12:1-7), that is his struggle ends in a profession of faith. This certainly doesn’t take away from the excruciating pain that he went through to get to that point, but it does give us some insight (does it not) into the often very confusing portions earlier in his biography.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Oops! I meant to ask you a question.

If Childs is not guilty of homogenizing the texts, then what is the meaning of his criticism of Brueggeman? (i.e., that Brueggemann fails to respect the judgement that Israel's editors have passed on the book of Ecclesiastes.) Evidentally Childs accepts the judgement of the editors, which necessitates that he reads Ecclesiastes through the prism of orthodoxy.

Phil Sumpter said...

Stephen,

I think we're running into the danger here of going beyond the material we have. I think our arguments should be better grounded in the relevant texts. Thus, as we talk about Ecclesiastes, it's better that we look at what these scholars actually say about it. I think Dave was right to point out the relevant chapter in Childs' Introduction. In fact, until one has read that one can not really says that one has really dealt with Childs. It's a key work, to be followed by his Biblical Theology. Once these are read, I think the conversation will become more fruiful. Unfortunately, the facutly here in Germany is extremely unsympathetic to Childs, so I can get hold of this book. Once my budget allows, I intend to buy it. Give it a read, along with his introductory comments on the whole discipline of reading the OT.

In common with Childs, your approach seems to involve taking one or two relatively orthodox verses and using them as a prism through which to read sustained sections of the rest of the book

Only exegesis of the text will adjudicate this point, rather than an a priori commitment to either orthodox or un-orthodox texts from the outset. A canonical approach only asks that we respect the literary shape of the final form. As someone into 'narrative approaches', this insight should be dear to you! It would seem that Brueggemann is weak in this area, and thus his reading is open to criticism on the basis of the final form. To repeat, a canonical approach doesn't determine before hand what one should believe (either orthodox or not, innocent or not). As long as that is done, one can criticise Childs with his own criteria.Maybe the final form actually does want the unresolved tension Brueggemann speaks of. That's perfectly possible. The point is that it is only interpretation of the final form that can adjudicate.

Childs wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, he says that a later editor of Ecclesiastes has passed judgement on the text and subordinated Qohelet's voice to a more orthodox theology. On the other hand, he wants to treat the text as a single indivisible whole with a unified message.

I've tried to explain why this isn't the case and you've simply repeated your statement without dealing with my explanation. Admittedly the relation between the diachronic and the synchronic dimensions of the text are tricky, but my suggestion of the author 'inside the text' is part of my attempt to explain. My recent comments to Dave on the necessity of history also highlights this point. I think the canonical (kerygmatic) nature of the diachronic process vouchsafes a theological concentration on the final form. This is no doubt unclear, but whether you understand it or not it would seem prudent to attempt to understand it before rash judgements are made as to Childs' 'underhandedness' or 'innocence'. This is a difficult area, but no one has dealt with the tension between the diachronic and the synchronic, so it's hardly an adequate criticism that rejects Childs for not having created the perfect formulation. Brueggemann is also unable to account for the tension. This is why I appreciated Dave's raising of the issue.

A unified, orthodox message, naturally!

Again, try to be as critical of anti-orthodoxy as you are of orthodoxy. Taking an anti-orthodox position in the name of being 'brave' can look slightly unconvincing when it turns out that one's commitment to that which subverts ultimately serves a private agenda. Using language such as 'pastoral' doesn't guarantee that one is being pastoral. I'm not personally questioning your motives at all, but it sounds as if you are just using the force of the rhetoric as support for your arguments.

Childs isn't pro or contra conflict. He just doesn't turn it into an a priori grid to sift the text. If it really is there, then fine. Brueggemann obviously doesn't think he's doing this, but Childs claims he is. The solution is the see who's approach best explains the shape of the text as we have it.

In other words, [Child's] using that critical judgement as a convenient axe to wield against Brueggemann's method; but then he sets the critical judgement aside in order to pursue his own, "canonical" interpretation.

As I said, I understand your confusion. But this is a difficult area which Brueggeamann also hasn't resolved. If he opts for diachronic option, i.e. to read the text in a stage before the epiolgue was added (if it was separate at all, cf. Dave's remarks), he still has to account for the fact that it is now there, and deal with that theologically. In fact, I really like the little sentence I came up with so I'll repeat it here: the canonical (kerygmatic) nature of the diachronic process vouchsafes a theological concentration on the final form. Try reading Childs' Introduction to understand this. It's certainly more profound than a 'nice trick'.

Brueggemann's position would seem to exclude the Gospel of Thomas, though I've never heard him offer an opinion one way or the other

He may well reject it, the question is how does he come to that conclusion. If he rejects the work of the tradents, then why should he accept the work of the canonizers? There are plenty of academics today who talk of the closing of the canon as a political move designed to serve the needs of the elite (P. Davies, G. Aichele).

And Brueggemann's position does not invite us to choose Korah and his sons over Moses.

Do you consider that a good thing? The Bible renders and explicite judgement: they were killed for their sin. Of course, that may just be the politically motivated view of a group of elite 'mosaists' trying to suppress the marginal voice of the 'korahites'. Who do we trust and why?


But Brueggemann is ever mindful of pastoral realities. He is a churchman. And he recognizes that — however true the principle may be — the Church is never able to finally locate that line between orthodoxy and heresy


Here's where I would really like you to read my latest post. I've dealt with this in detail and think it is possibly Brueggemann's biggest weakness.

What I'm saying is, Brueggemann accurately describes what goes on in practice

Again, please read my post!

Dave,

how do I find time for this? I'm doing a long distance doctorate with no conversation partners, so I leap at opportunities like this.

For now though I’d just add that biblical interpretation has historical, literary, and theological dimensions and in my opinion all three are vital.

Totally. By the way, what do you think of the phrase I came up with, I think it succinctly presents the theological significance of historical criticism for Childs, while justifying our focus on the final form: the canonical (kerygmatic) nature of the diachronic process vouchsafes a theological concentration on the final form. I quite like that :-).

realize that you probably didn’t do a close reading of Ecclesiastes for this post but it seems that you (and for all I know Brueggemann as well) take one or two relatively UNorthodox verses and use them as a prism through which to regard the rest of the book as subversive.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Dave:
You write in the profile on your blog: "[the blog] is a vehicle for me to investigate the potential of narrative and rhetorical criticism as a tool for expounding scripture." This is how I suggested you read Ecclesiastes.

Quite right. I have spent a lot of time looking at historical-critical scholarship, and the narrative approach is new to me. I do want to understand it and see what possibilities it opens up. Thanks for contributing a narrative perspective to the dialogue. My apologies if I wasn't sufficiently open to it, in the context of the Childs v. Brueggemann discussion.

I do intend to follow up on those resources you recommended to me.

I realize that you probably didn’t do a close reading of Ecclesiastes for this post but it seems that you (and for all I know Brueggemann as well) take one or two relatively UNorthodox verses and use them as a prism through which to regard the rest of the book as subversive. … What I’m trying to show is that Qohelet himself finds resolution at the end of his quest (12:1-7), that is his struggle ends in a profession of faith.

You're right, I didn't do a close reading of Ecclesiastes as part of my preparation for this post. But let's quote the text you refer to in full. And let's include verse 8:

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them"; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low — they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets — before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

What sort of resolution is this? The Preacher returns, once more, to his mantra: all is vanity. And the tone of these verses! As Brueggemann observes (of the book considered as a whole),

"This testimony cannot be taken apart from its context and the tone in which it is cast. For all of these rather stereotypical affirmations about Yahweh, the whole of life at best is mystifying and enigmatic. At most, it is a bewilderment, a tribulation, and vanity." (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 395)

In my view, that's a defensible judgement.

One could argue that Qohelet regrets the error of not remembering his creator in his youth. But the orthodox affirmation constitutes one third of one verse! It is followed by a sustained passage that drips regret and resignation. And the text climaxes in the familiar refrain, "vanity of vanities". So does this passage really constitute a breakthrough in Qohelet's perspective?

I haven't dug very deep into this text, so I don't want to take a dogmatic position. I'm just saying, the surface appearance of the book supports Brueggemann's judgement: that the orthodox affirmations of the book are "rather stereotypical", while the general tone of the book is one of resignation and futility. It takes some effort to read the book any other way.

• Phil:
I'm content to give you the last word. I acknowledge that I haven't adequately addressed at least one of the important issues that you have raised.

I'm disappointed, however, by the ultimate retreat to Childs's other books. I had hoped we could discuss what Childs says in his critique of Brueggemann. You haven't answered my question:

If Childs is not guilty of homogenizing the texts, then what is the meaning of his criticism of Brueggeman? (i.e., that Brueggemann fails to respect the judgement that Israel's editors have passed on the book of Ecclesiastes.) Evidentally Childs accepts the judgement of the editors, which necessitates that he reads Ecclesiastes through the prism of orthodoxy.

But let it pass. No doubt we will take up these issues again, in another context. Perhaps in response to your blog post. And I'm planning a post on Childs's commentary on Exodus.