Monday, October 29, 2007

Two heavyweight scholars slug it out

Phil Sumpter suggested that I read Brevard Childs's critique of Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. The critique, with a reply from Brueggemann, was published in the Scottish Journal of Theology seven years ago.1

Readers of our respective blogs will know that Phil's theological sympathies lie with Childs, whereas mine lie with Brueggemann. I found the exchange between Childs and Brueggemann illuminating, but not very flattering to Childs.

The core disagreement:

Here's an excerpt from Childs's article which directs our attention to the key difference in the two scholars' approaches.
The present form of the biblical literature emerged during a long process of collecting, shaping and transmitting a wide variety of different traditions arranged in sections of Torah, Prophets, and Writings toward the end of serving communities of Israel as an authoritative guide of faith and practice.

In this process various editors exercised a critical function in registering from the received traditions that which they deemed truthful and authoritative. This shaping thus involved a Sachkritik [i.e., the editors passed judgement on the texts that had been handed down to them] which was not simply reflective of private, idiosyncratic agenda, but which arose from actual communal practice and belief. Accordingly, Moses not Korah, Jeremiah not Hananiah, were judged to be faithful tradents of divine revelation.

In a word, Israel shaped its literature confessionally to bear testimony to what it received as containing an established range of truthful witness. At the same time, the biblical editors subordinated other voices, either by placing them within a negative setting, or omitting them [from the canon] altogether as deleterious to Israel's faith.

(p. 230; both the emphasis and the paragraph breaks were added by me)
Here we have a concise description of Childs's "canonical approach" to Old Testament interpretation. The editors of the Bible did not pass on Israel's traditional texts uncritically. They shaped the texts during the process of transmission; they contextualized the texts by inserting editorial remarks; and they left other texts out of the canon altogether. Hence the canon functions as a control, subtly determining how the reader interprets any individual text.

There's nothing unique to Childs about the analysis so far. Critical scholars agree that this editorializing activity went on during the transmission of Israel's traditional texts. They also agree that the goal of that activity was to set boundaries on interpretation — i.e., to subordinate certain voices.

Where Childs stands apart from other critical scholars, including Brueggemann, is in maintaining that canon as an instrument of control is good. According to Childs, we must respect the boundaries that have been marked out for us. Evangelicals would likely agree with that statement, but it's unusual to hear it from a critical scholar.

Childs tests Brueggemann's book against this standard:
In contrast, when Brueggemann seeks to describe a category of countertestimony to the so-called core tradition, he feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment. … [For example,] 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 countertestimony, he is running in the very face of Israel's canonical witness.

Yet it is also obvious that Israel's genuine complaints before God constitute a major positive witness within a large portion of the Bible. They are present in the Psalter, Prophets, and Wisdom literature as a truthful testimony to Israel's experience before God in order not to contradict, but rather to establish its core tradition of faith.

(pp. 230-31; emphasis added)
Ecclesiastes as a case study:

In the reference to Ecclesiastes, we have a case study of the differences between Childs and Brueggemann.

Ecclesiastes seems to be a very humanistic book. For example:
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? (3:19-21)2
Clearly this text stands in uneasy tension with other parts of the Bible.

In Brueggemann's view, it is a mistake to try to eliminate that tension. We must allow Qoheleth to testify to his experience. It is an authentic experience that many believers can identify with; it is a legitimate countertestimony to Israel's core tradition. We must not paper over the cracks in the biblical witness.

Childs, on the other hand, says that the editors of scripture have already passed judgement on the book of Ecclesiastes. He agrees that Ecclesiastes is a truthful testimony to Israel's experience. But he adds that the editors have carefully circumscribed (subordinated) Qoheleth's voice by appending a critical comment at the end of the book:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl. 12:13-14)
According to Childs, the apparent problem now vanishes. Ecclesiastes doesn't contradict the rest of the Bible. Because of this editorial appendix to the book, Ecclesiastes establishes Israel's core tradition.

Conclusions:

I have more to say, but I will do so in a follow-up post. For now, let's draw some conclusions.
  • The distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" is sometimes facile, and Childs illustrates one way in which it can break down. Childs is "liberal" insofar as he is a critical scholar. Evangelicals typically insist that the Pentateuch, for example, was written by Moses, under YHWH's inspiration. They would be reluctant to concede that editors have altered the text in the process of transmission.

    But Childs ultimately arrives at very conservative conclusions. He champions orthodoxy, insisting that voices like that of Qoheleth must be subordinated to the witness of the canon as a whole. For that reason, Childs is likely to appeal to evangelicals, who engage in a similar practice (the "harmonization" of scripture).

    So is Childs a liberal or a conservative? Answer: Yes.

    And Childs is not so exceptional. James Dunn, for example, is a New Testament scholar who works within liberal presuppositions but often arrives at conservative conclusions.

  • One can see that there is considerable agreement between Childs and Brueggemann, because they both accept the findings of critical scholarship. They agree that considerable editorializing activity has taken place during the process of transmission of the biblical texts.

  • In the end, the difference between them boils down to a value judgement. Childs considers the data and deems the editorializing activity good. Brueggemann considers the data and deems the editorializing activity suspect.

    We all know that the Church (and the synagogue, though it's not my place to say it) has a long, problematic history of suppressing dissenting voices. Leaders in the Church have a vested interest in retaining their position of privilege. To do so necessarily means that marginalized people must be kept on the margins.

    One clear example of this is the subordination of women to male leaders. Consider the data. At one point, St. Paul says there is no male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. But at other points, Paul says that women must not speak in the assembly; and they are not to teach or to exercise authority over men.
    As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1Co. 14:33b-35)
    What shall we make of this text? Is this Paul's voice? Or — as the evangelical scholar Gordon Fee argues — is this an interpolation by a later editor of Paul's letter to the Corinthians?

    If it is an interpolation, should we accept the opinion of the later editor? (That would seem to be the logical conclusion of Child's canonical approach.) Or should we insist that the editorial activity distorts Paul's voice, and allow Paul to have his say? In my view, we should follow Paul's egalitarian principle and open up church leadership to women.

    Thus I come down firmly on the side of Brueggemann. The editorializing activity really did take place, as Childs and Brueggemann agree. But this tendency of the orthodox to suppress voices that make them uncomfortable — I regard it as suspect, with Brueggemann, pace Childs.
More to come in the next post — probably 48 hours from now.

(update:  the follow-up post can be found here)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
1SJT vol. 53, no. 2, 2000, pp. 228-233. Brueggemann's reply is at pp. 234-238.

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

8 comments:

James Pate said...

I guess the question I would have then is, "Should we always go with what is earlier?" There are people who do that. One woman I knew rejected I Timothy because Paul did not write it (in her view, and the view of most critical scholars). But she was not consistent, since she believed in the New Testament rather than the Old on a number of occasions.

James F. McGrath said...

Great post! In pursuing this further, one topic that it might be worth addressing is the idea of 'a canon within the canon'. Is it inevitable that, in practice, religious communities and individuals will focus more on some texts than others? This is relevant to the idea of 'red letter Christians' which is currently gaining prominence - and highlights that the idea of there being more and less important stuff in the canon is found within the canon!

I suppose one way to approach it is to recognize that Ecclesiastes is both somewhat marginal in the canon, but nonetheless necessary. Faith without any element of doubt easily becomes credulity. Maintaining the tension in some sense seems crucial.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

James P.:
I guess the question I would have then is, "Should we always go with what is earlier?"

I don't think there's any rule that can guide us in every case. I agree with Brueggemann that we should simply learn to live with the tension.

Another way Brueggemann puts it is to say that whatever interpretive decision we make, we're going to have to revisit the issue again:

"[The Bible] invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we’re going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again. … Nothing stays settled."

That principle follows logically from Brueggemann's conclusion that the tension can never be finally resolved. We reach an interpretive decision, but the tension remains. So, sooner or later, circumstances will force us to go back and reconsider the issue.

In terms of biblical authority, I will add this: I do tend to accord greater authority to certain individual voices, who were obviously catalysts in the formation and further development of the faith. This would certainly include Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul.

Thus it matters whether 1 Timothy was written by Paul or someone else writing in Paul's name. Not because one is earlier than the other, but because Paul was an extraordinarily inspired theological genius. Those who came after him were a pale echo of the man himself, meaning no insult to them.

James M.:
… the idea of 'a canon within the canon'. Is it inevitable that, in practice, religious communities and individuals will focus more on some texts than others?

I think you already know my answer to that question: Yes, in practice everyone has their favourite texts to which they subordinate other biblical texts. That is another model for ironing out the tensions in scripture, and to some extent I go along with it.

But, as I said to James Pate, there is no single rule that can direct us in every instance. It's important to let every voice have its say, even if we find some voices more beneficial than others.

I suppose one way to approach it is to recognize that Ecclesiastes is both somewhat marginal in the canon, but nonetheless necessary.

Thank you for contributing that observation: I think it's an excellent way of expressing things. Presumably no one would want to make Ecclesiastes central to faith!

But Brueggemann and others might argue that it is an underused resource. It has more value in pastoral care than one might suppose, precisely because it articulates one aspect of a walk with God — those times when God seems remote and the sacrifices we have made for the faith seem to have been vain.

That, too, is a topic I need to return to. Brueggemann makes some very constructive observations about it.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thank you for this very well written and clearly thought out post, Stephen. I appreciate you taking the time to read the text and engage with it so intensively. I now intend to give my own response to the article on my blog (focussing on Brueggemann's missunderstanding of Childs in his repsonse), so for now I would just like to focus my attention on your Qohelet case study.

You make a statment, which I think is key to grasping the fundamental difference between B. and C., which is more than Childs simply assuming the canonical tradition to be good, whereas B. thinks its suspect. You say:

In Brueggemann's view, it is a mistake to try to eliminate that tension[in the book of Qohelet]

and then add

But [Childs] adds that the editors have carefully circumscribed (subordinated) Qoheleth's voice by appending a critical comment at the end of the book

This is the key question: what is Qoheleth's voice that Childs is supposedly subordinating and Brueggemann liberating? Who, in fact, is Qoheleth? As far as the only text we have available is concerned, Qohelet is the author of the entire book (v.1). To reconstruct various authors present within the text is to go against the way the material is presented to a realm that only exists at the level of hypothesis. To be sure, Childs also believes that in historical reality there were no doubt various voices present, but he takes the text's self presentation of a single author, somehow subsuming the diversity of the text under this one 'persona', seriously. It is as much a textual witness as the fact of internal diversity. When Childs talks of the voices of Moses, Isaiah or Qohelet, he isn't making a historical comment on the identity of the original author and what he said, he's making a hermeneutical comment about how these 'persona' function at the level of the final form of the text to give it a certain unity. This is a serious response to the reality of the text as it stands before us and is not an act of 'harmonization' (I know Brueggemann says that, but he just doesn't get Childs on this point). This hermeneutical unity of the one author 'Qohelet' does not mean that diversity within the text needs to be flattened out (do you think Childs just ignores 3:19?), rather it needs to be read in relation to this one persona who hovers in the background, challenging as that may be. What Brueggemann does, by assigning 3.19 to a different voice is to iron out this challenge of seeing unity with diversity by simply creating multiple voices that are irreconclable and are simply left at that. He actually rejects the canonical presentation of Qohelet in favour of multiple authors (thus killing Qohelet?) in order to do exactly what he accuses Chids of doing: to achieve unity. Except, whereas Childs is interested in a theological unity at a level beyond the text, with these varying voices pointing to it, Brueggemann creates an artificial unity by dissecting the text so that it fits more comfortably with his own, external categories. Why decompose Qohelet unless you can't personally grasp how one person (persona) can contain within himself multiple perspectives? Brueggemann's inability to accept paradox at the authorial level (i.e. how can one man, 'Qohelet', say such contradictory things?) forces him to dissolve the text into units that are not in line with the actual text before us, but rather in line with his more modernistic understandings of authorial intentionality. The final form of the text, on the other hand, says nothing about multiple authors with conflicting views. All it says is that there is one author with conflicting views.

Here Brueggemann seems to be contradicting his own premise, which rejects imposing unifying categories on a disparate text. Childs' unification follows the flow of what is there, Brueggemann's must dig behind what is there in order to reconstruct multiple authors, each now assigned to one of the many points of view, due to the fact that Brueggemann can't handle the fact that one 'persona' (a unifiying hermeneutical construct) can say conflicting things. Brueggemann thus imports an alien ideology into the text (i.e. authors can only have one point of view) and builds his theology, not on what the Bible says, but on what his critical tools have given us after they have 'sorted out' the voices of the Bible into categories more palatable to a modern thinker. Thus, his whole theological approach is based on a modern construct, the modern idea that associates point of view with one person. Childs, on the other hand, chooses to work in the categories the text itself makes available to us, which is to seek unity (authorial persona; ultimately the one voice of God) with diversity. It is thus that he can talk meaningful of Moses and Isaiah has 'authors' of the books named after them, whether written by these authors or not.

I should also add that the idea that the redaction of the texts was nothing more than serving political ends, such that one should be suspect of them, is only of amongst several possible theories. Seitz is more eloquent on this, as he talks of disciples submitting themselves to a Word of God which is greater than them and which they see being worked out in their own day. See my post on politics and canon.

According to Childs, the apparent problem now vanishes. Ecclesiastes doesn't contradict the rest of the Bible. Because of this editorial appendix to the book, Ecclesiastes establishes Israel's core tradition

The problem doesn't vanish, it is actually made more difficult. Rather than separating and leaving at that, the biblical presentation of the material as the perspective of one man of wisdom forces us to see how these disparate parts relate to one reality in different ways. The 'discrete witness' is maintained, but they are made to converse with each other in a way that must lead to unity. The Biblical presentation of unity means one must work to a unity. Brueggemann ignores this challenge for his own more comfortable view of traditions in conflict. Avoiding 'closure' can be as much as act of cowardice as an act of hegemonic control. The sword cuts both ways.

An interesting question would be to see what Childs actually does with Ecc. 3.19. I doubt he would just ignore it or declare it redundant in the light of ch. 12. But even if we found his interpretation inadequate and indeed to 'harmonizing', that wouldn't undermine his approach. It would just mean that he hasn't lived up to it correctly.

[Childs insists]that voices like that of Qoheleth must be subordinated to the witness of the canon as a whole..

No he doesn't. Rather the voice of Qohelet is left to stand as what it is presented as being: the voice of Qoehelt, not multiple voices which need to be critically sifted, separated, and presented in isolation from each other. This is not harmonization, it is a more profound understanding of the way a diverse word witnesses to the one Word. Brueggemann's approach leaves us with no reality that is witnessed to, just the debate itself.

Brueggemann considers the data and deems the editorializing activity suspect.

When one rejects the criteria the Bible gives us, I'd like to know what criteria one uses to get it the Bible's truth. These criteria must by definition be external to the Bible, which actually puts Brueggemann into the classic liberal position of subordinating the text to whatever modern ideals happen to be available (e.g. a postmodern penchant for lack of finality on anything).

We all know that the Church (and the synagogue, though it's not my place to say it) has a long, problematic history of suppressing dissenting voices.

One of those traditions, found within the pages of the NT itself, is the rooting out of heretics. Not nice, but not necessarily a matter of pure power politics either. Concern with gnosticism may have had something to do with a concern for the truth of the Gospel. Possibly. It depends on your value judgement of whether the canonical tradition should constrain our interpretations or not. Like it or not, this is an intrinsic part of biblical faith.

In my view, we should follow Paul's egalitarian principle and open up church leadership to women.

Why? (See my point on Brueggemann as classic liberal).

I agree with Brueggemann that we should simply learn to live with the tension.

I too am a great believing in the necessity of living with tension (as is Childs). But not for the sake of it. It is rather part of God's ways with the world. Simply living with the tension for the sake of it inevitably leads to dissolving the tension. This is a conclusion that started moving me away from Brueggemann. It sounds like daring talk,but unless its held together with an ongoing attempt to read the Bible in relation to a single unity no genuine tension can be maintained. It's just tension for tension's sake. Which is why Childs' approach is actually more radical than Brueggemann's. I know you go on to reject this, but I remain sceptical.

I would like to add some more positve words!

I am not completely against Brueggemann and hope you don't think I'm pushing you away from him (well, I am, but only to a degree). That's the problem with these kinds of conversations, they can become very polemic. I think Brueggemann is potential useful in the area in which you yourself are interested, namely pastoral concerns. But that concern with a pastoral reality can only be derivative of the theological dimension. The pastoral cannot take precedence, such that our appreciation of what we think our church needs or does becomes the framework for our interpretation. That is actually going to be my starting point in my own post on this issue, Childs and Brueggemann's differing understandings of “ecclesial context”.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Phil:
I think Childs wants to have it both ways. He pays lip service to the findings of critical scholarship; and then he sets those findings aside as if we were still living in a pre-critical era.

I'm not putting words into Childs's mouth. I quoted him:

"In this process various editors exercised a critical function in registering from the received traditions that which they deemed truthful and authoritative. This shaping thus involved a Sachkritik …. The biblical editors subordinated other voices, either by placing them within a negative setting, or omitting them altogether as deleterious to Israel's faith."

And then Childs turns his attention to Brueggemann's use of Ecclesiastes:

"When Brueggemann seeks to describe a category of countertestimony to the so-called core tradition, he feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment. … [For example,] the biblical editors retained the radical scepticism of the book of Ecclesiastes largely in an unredactored 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.)."

Therefore I simply do not understand you when you write, As far as the only text we have available is concerned, Qohelet is the author of the entire book (v.1).

How is it possible to come out at such a place? Childs explicitly states that 12:13-14 is an epilogue added by later editors of Ecclesiastes. But then — what? We're supposed to play make believe and pretend that the critics have not spoken? We're supposed to pretend that 12:13-14 coheres with the message of the rest of the book? Here we have entered fantasyland.

Again, you write:

Childs also believes that in historical reality there were no doubt various voices present, but he takes the text's self presentation of a single author, somehow subsuming the diversity of the text under this one 'persona', seriously. … He's making a hermeneutical comment about how these 'persona' function at the level of the final form of the text to give it a certain unity.

But there is no unity. There is only contradiction: 12:13-14 contradicts the message of the rest of the book. Having recognized that fact, Childs then ducks his head in the sand and acts as if we have a coherent text.

I want to emphasize that Childs uses the phrase, "The biblical editors subordinated other voices."

Again, "Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment." Here he uses the word, Sachkritik.

Let's be clear about this: what we have is Childs participating in the process of suppressing the voice of Qoheleth.

I said at the outset of the post that the article does not show Childs in a flattering light. I will have more to say about that in my follow-up post.

But for now, let me say that Brueggemann absolutely does not misunderstand Childs. Childs's agenda is explicit. His agenda is to side with the later editors of scripture, who subordinated the voice of Qoheleth to the other, relatively orthodox witness of other biblical texts.

And he dares to find fault with Brueggemann for not joining him in that project of suppressing Qoheleth's voice.

I will speak frankly here: Childs's position in this article makes me angry. He is on the side of the priviledged patriarchs who oppress women and gays and marginalize those who (like Qoheleth) struggle with doubt. Childs acknowledges openly that the editors of scripture set out to suppress certain voices: and he lends his authority to that agenda in the modern era.

It does not speak well of him. I'm glad you referred me to this article, but it has caused Childs to fall precipitously in my estimation.

James F. McGrath said...

I had some second thoughts about the 'marginal' voice of Ecclesiastes. I've posted what I found myself thinking about in my most recent blog entry, entitled What would Jesus read? :)

Phil Sumpter said...

I think Childs wants to have it both ways. He pays lip service to the findings of critical scholarship; and then he sets those findings aside as if we were still living in a pre-critical era.

I've never seen any evidence for that. In fact the contrary. Could you give me an example? I would have to cite his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture or his Biblical Theology as examples where the critical dimension of the text actually funnels the way he reads the final form. Levinson made the same point.

Concerning Qohelet as author of Qohelet, I need to clarify where I'm coming from (it's an odd concept, the idea of author as hermeneutical construct, rather than historical figure, so I'm probably not doing a good job of explaining it). When Childs, in your quote, talks about various editors contributing to the final form, he is making the same kind of historical-critical judgement as Brueggemann. But its a question of what you do with this. Childs doesn't absolutise this reconstruction, such that it should provide the framework for our interpretation. He believes that faithful interpretation consists in submitting to the categories of the text of the Bible, not reshaping it according to the hypothetical categories both he and Brueggemann use when evaluating the historical dimension of the text. As such, it is a fact that Qohelet is presented as if it were written by one author, regardless of if it was or not. The competing voices that both scholars identify and allocate to different historical personages are, as far as the book of Qohelet is concerned, written by one person. This has hermeneutical implications for how to read the text, if we want to take the decisions of the redactors seriously. It means that, somehow, there must be a kind of unity within the diversity, as the totality is consciously presented as coming from one person. The hermeneutical implications of 'author' are quite complex, and are treated better by Levinson in relation to the authorship of 'Moses' of the Pentateuch (the 'canonical Moses', as unifying persona behind the diverstiy of texts) and Seitz in relation to 'Isaiah', who is somehow present in the totality of the book. In fact, Seitz is far more eloquent and clear than Childs on this. I recommend, amongst his other work, his essay, “How is the Prophet Isaiah Present in the Latter Half of the Book? The logic of chapters 40 – 66 within the Book of Isaiah”, inJBL 115/2 (1996) 219 – 240.

Of course, one can ignore the final form of the text, which tells us that it was all written by Qohelet (i.e. ignore the hermeneutical implications of this, i.e. to seek unity amidst the diversity) and use our critical framework as our context, rather than the text. We should just be aware of what we are doing when we do this, which is to subject the Bible to alien categories taken from the Enlightenment. I actually feel that Brueggemann is contradicting himself deeply here, because his whole theological approach to scripture, which he grounds in a postmodern rejection of the the Enlightenment historical critical project, is predicated on the idea that we should let the text speak for itself, not to fit it into our critical categories. To do so is make the text servant to our modern categories of truth. But when Brueggemann deconstructs the text using criteria alien to the text itself (i.e. there are various authors, despite what the book says) and then decides to stay at the level of the deconstruction, i.e. to simply remain at a place with competing voices, despite the texts own demand to read in unity (because of the single “authorial” voice that stands behind the whole), he is doing exactly what he critiques the historical critical establishment for doing. He's not being true to his own approach, as he's reshaping the text to fit our understandings of truth. Of course he would be horrified to hear he is doing that, but that's what he does when he isolates multiple voices in the text, literally forcing them apart from each other when the text insists they belong together. You yourself have often said that we have to access to events beyond the text. The text is all we have. Well, if the text is all we have, why should we decompose what is presented to us as a unity? Childs' decision to interpret the book in relation to Torah does not dampen the voice. It sees the voice in relation. But he chooses to do so, not because of some insecure modernist need to find a single system within the text (which he has never claimed), but because the text leads him to do so. The structure of the whole forces him to seek these connections.

Of course, you can still say no, I don't trust the tradents. But then not only are you imposing your modern ideology on the text (you have to, because to reject the work of the tradents is to read the text in a different context, not the canonical context the redactors have shaped for posterity, but the critical context of sources and developmental schemas) you are placing yourself outside of the tradition. Unless there really are universal standards of truth, objectively accessible to all, such that the Bible and theology must be submitted to them before we can accept what to believe, I don't see where we would get the criteria with which to distinguish between the good and the bad, between what should be read in concord and what not, if not from the Bible itself. The tradents knew what they were doing, which was to shape a text so that later generations would be able to follow its contours in obedience and thus have the hermeneutical guidelines there for them. If one chooses to be 'suspicious' of their work, where does one get one's criteria for truth, such that we can resift what they've done and represent it according to our own schema (i.e. the non-canonical one of testimony vs counter-testimony, which exists only at the level of a critical reconstruction which consciously steps outside of the categories the Bible itself gives us).

I want to emphasize that Childs uses the phrase, "The biblical editors subordinated other voices."

This is not the same as ducking one's head in the sand and ignoring the tension. Childs is here proposing a historical-critical theory of how the text of Qohelet came to us. Brueggemann would no doubt agree with this statement. It's a question of what we do with it. The final form does not say that editors have been busy subordinating, it just presents the entire contradictory material as authored by one voice. Childs recognises the diachronic dimension and what the editors were up to (as does Brueggemann). But he doesn't let this diachronic dimension rule the day. If the editors did that, what are the implications? The text they've created asks the book to be read as a unity. Childs and Brueggemann may be wrong, due the the speculative nature of all theories of development. But even if they are wrong, the final form still presents these contradictory voices as coming from one voice. So we'd still have to read it as a unity. Brueggemann makes his speculative theory (which Childs shares) the dominating framework such reshaping what is presented as a unity into a diversity. An artificial move, as it is based on speculation. It doesn't matter how likely it was, it matters what norms we are to follow when interpreting the 'tradition' for faith. Brueggemann operates with the norms of the critical establishment, Childs subordinates those norms to the Bible (the word 'canon' means 'rule', so it implicates normativity. 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).

Let's be clear about this: what we have is Childs participating in the process of suppressing the voice of Qoheleth.

You still haven't answered the question of who Qohelet is, and who's voice is being suppressed. The only Qohelet the text talks about is the author of the whole book. If the text is to gain supremacy (something Brueggemann talks about), then chapter 12 is as much Qohelets voice as chapter 3. When Brueggemann decides to surgically remove chapter 12, then who's voice is being suppressed? I think Brueggemann is doing what you claim Childs does. Brueggemann isn't consistent.

I should point out that subordinating voices is not in and of itself wrong. So the mere fact that the editors used a Sachkritik (a concept I find hard to understand, it's untranslatable into English and it is not how you define it, I'm afraid) is not in itself a sign that they are wrong. Unless one operates with the assumption that anything goes and all talk about God is OK. As such, mythological elements which the tradition has subordinated and reshaped should be seen as equally valid and the final form. Maybe Yhwh did have a divine consort? Some scholars see evidence of that in the text, which has now been subordinated by the monotheism of later Yahwism (not that I personally believe that). The biblical faith is exclusive, regardless how uncomfortable that may be for Brueggemann's pluralism. There is right and wrong, and so excluding 'wrong' when it turns up is perfectly desirable. So I repeat, unless we think that polytheism is as valid as monotheism, we should be thankful to the editors for their subordinating work, not suspicious!

In the light of this, does Childs' participation in 'suppression' still anger you? I would have thought, if we value our faith, we should be grateful.

I should also point out that Childs' approach does not say at the outset what we should believe. He just follows what the Bible says, goes in the direction it points. Femenist scholars such as P. Trible talk of the importance of women in the stories, who are certainly in the background but which the canonical tradition has preserved. The canon has not preserved them my mere dint of including them (Brueggemann's concept of canon), but also in the way the material presents them. The religion of the weak overpowering the strong is played out even in the final form of the text, without our needing to following Brueggemann and separate the text into competing elements. Thus Trible's feminism is truly biblical, because it stays within the boundaries which the bible sets, not reconstruct the boundaries as Brueggemann does.

He is on the side of the priviledged patriarchs who oppress women and gays and marginalize those who (like Qoheleth) struggle with doubt.

I also don't quite what 'privileged patriarchs' have to do with Childs' reading of Ecclesiastes, unless all form of suppression (such as the suppression of docetism, marcionism, fascism, racism etc.) are somehow inherently patriarchal. Childs doesn't suppress Qohelets struggle with doubt. He considers it as much a voice of Qohelet as Qohelets demand to read Torah. Both are form Qohelet and need to be read as such, rather than just chapter 3. When Childs talks of editors suppressing chpt. 3, that's a completely different kind of statement. It's a theory of textual development. When looking at the final form however, in its own integrity, Childs wouldn't say that we should suppress chapter three, he would say that we must also be willing to submit to its hard word, as it stands. But as it stands, chapater 12 (whether we like it or not), is simply there and is simply allocated to the same author. Let the editors do the suppressing, not us (cf. Above for the idea that suppressing isn't always wrong).

James,

I've commented on your blog.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

My experience as a blogger has taught me that a single post can trigger a dozen points of disagreement. Dialogue can quickly become unmanageable, at least in a blogging format. So please excuse me if I focus on a few core issues. No doubt the other issues will come up again in another context, and we can pursue them at that time.

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.

Childs uses a two-step process. (1) He engages in a critical analysis of Ecclesiastes. He concludes that the later editors of scripture added an appendix which "subordinates" the message of the book to the rest of Torah. Which indeed constitutes the passing of a judgement on Ecclesiastes: "[Brueggemann] feels free to reconstruct voices on which Israel's authors had already rendered a judgment."

Step (2) is represented in your comments. Childs backtracks and says, "But after all, the text presents a single author." (Whoa, what happened to your critical conclusions?!)

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?!)

I think you need to read Childs more critically. This is unsubtle slight of hand. Childs gives his exegesis a veneer of critical respectability by affirming critical conclusions. 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.

[Brueggemann's] whole theological approach to scripture, which he grounds in a postmodern rejection of the the Enlightenment historical critical project, is predicated on the idea that we should let the text speak for itself, not to fit it into our critical categories. … But when Brueggemann deconstructs the text using criteria alien to the text itself (i.e. there are various authors, despite what the book says) and then decides to stay at the level of the deconstruction, i.e. to simply remain at a place with competing voices, despite the texts own demand to read in unity … he is doing exactly what he critiques the historical critical establishment for doing. He's not being true to his own approach.

I appreciate that there is some merit to what you say there. I do think Brueggemann contradicts himself to some extent. I don't agree with Childs's critique of Brueggemann, but I have read a couple of other critiques that have more merit, in my view. I expect I will post my thoughts on those in the near future.

But I do believe Brueggemann succeeds in letting the texts speak for themselves, in a way that I will explain below.

I myself am of two minds about critical scholarship. On the one hand, there is the problem of historical criticism. I have grown sceptical about historical criticism, partly because the data for ancient events is simply too meagre to allow us to arrive at dogmatic judgements.

I'm also beginning to suspect that ultimately historicity only matters to a limited extent. If Jesus never existed, and someone else composed the sermon on the mount, I would still think it was the most sublime ethical document I had ever read, and I would still commit myself to the task of trying to live in accordance with it.

However, literary criticism continues to matter to me. (So does historical criticism, but less than it once did.)

After years of carefully considering the NT texts, I came to the same conclusion as Brueggemann: the texts conceal various voices (Paul didn't write the pastoral epistles, for example) and those voices aren't in agreement with one another (e.g., James and Matthew are in tension with Paul and Mark).

Once you see the texts that way, what are you going to do? I was an evangelical for fifteen years and it cost me personally and dearly to break with evangelicalism. But I can no longer speak with integrity of "one faith", delivered "once and for all" to the saints.

On the contrary, when we enter the biblical texts, we enter contested territory. All this I concluded long before I ever picked up a book by Brueggemann.

I think Childs's sleight of hand is simply illegitimate. 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.

What is the alternative? The great merit of Brueggemann's proposal is precisely that it allows the texts to speak! Let James speak, even if Protestantism long ago sided with Paul! Let John speak, even though his record of Jesus' life and words is of doubtful historicity! Let Ecclesiastes speak, even though we are committed to a faith that affirms God as an ever-present help in times of trouble!

Indeed, let the two voices within Ecclesiastes speak: the voice of Qohelet (or his biographer, according to DaveB) and the voice of the more orthodox editor of the book. Let's recognize the legitimacy of the "little texts" (including Qohelet's voice) and attend to them, even while we also recognize the legitimacy of the Great Tradition (including the voice of Ecclesiastes's editors), and commit ourselves to it.

That's Brueggemann's proposal as I understand it, and in my view it has great pastoral merit. Brueggemann's method is more intellectually honest and of greater pastoral utility than Childs's canonical perspective.

I recognize that ultimately Brueggemann's position is inconsistent with postmodernism. Brueggemann (like Childs) ultimately comes down on the side of the Great Tradition.

But that's faith, isn't it? We don't know truth for certain. We can't eliminate the tensions, ambiguities, and problems, either of the text or of the lived reality of the Christian walk with God. But we can commit ourselves to the Great Tradition as an act of faith. Brueggemann is a Christian first and a postmodernist second.

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 is a precritical judgement on your part. Of course Brueggemann is reconstructing the biblical message according to his own norms. But Childs is doing the same thing. So are you. So is Dave Bellman, and James McGrath, and so am I.

Welcome to the (post)modern era, when we have learned that there is no such thing as objective scholarship, that scientific positivism was a castle built of thin air. You're looking for a norm that isn't subjective: I bid you good luck.

I also don't quite what 'privileged patriarchs' have to do with Childs' reading of Ecclesiastes.

In my anger, I went too far and arrived at an allegation that I can't substantiate.

However, my point has some merit, insofar as Childs sides with the religious authorities who would suppress and marginalize certain voices. Historically, that has included women, people of colour, gays, and sometimes mentally handicapped folks, as well as anyone who doesn't fit the Procrustean bed of orthodoxy.

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.