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.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.
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)
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.Ecclesiastes as a case study:
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)
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)2Clearly 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.
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.
(update: the follow-up post can be found here)
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.