Theological Reflection in the Context of the Canon (Childs)

How does a student of Scripture relate the witness of Scripture to extra-biblical evidence?  In other words, how do you deal with a “tension” between an OT historical text and archaeological findings?

Childs has a nice section in Exodus (p. 299-302) where he wrestles with this question.  Below are a few of his statements.  I’m not going to comment on it much, because I’m still digesting it myself.

First, Childs says there are two basic approaches to this question, neither of which he likes.  The first way is the “supernaturalistic” viewpoint, which controls and corrects extra-biblical evidence.  Childs says this position wants to use extra-biblical evidence, but ultimately doesn’t let the evidence speak for itself.   The second way is that of rationalism, which “represents the opposite extreme.”  “It seeks to determine the truth of the biblical testimony on the basis of critical evaluation according to rational criteria, based on past human experience.”  This position eliminates the basic theological issues of the Scripture by scientifically and rationalistically explaining away everything in Scripture. (Side: later Childs says one example of rationalizing an OT story is explaining the water from the rock in Ex 17 as a parallel to modern examples of water breaking through the crust of rock in the desert.)

Childs: “In my judgment, a correct understanding of biblical theology in the context of the canon allows one to break out of this old impasse.  First of all, the theological concept of canon is a confession.”  The canon “serves a unique function in the relation between God and his people…. In other words, scripture is not simply one means among several others of testifying to a unique self-disclosure of God in Jesus Christ.  To take the concept of the canon seriously is to assign to scripture a normative role and to refuse to submit the truth of its testimony to criteria of human reason.”

Now Childs gives a however:  “However, the canon lays no claim to universal knowledge…”    “The integrity of the canon is maintained without calling into question legitimate areas in which the judgment of human reason is appropriate.”  I once heard an OT scholar say that extra-biblical evidence can be an occasion for reinterpretation, but not the grounds for it.  I think this is sort of what Childs is saying, if I “get” him here.

He closes this section like this: “The biblical exegete is forced to hear testimony from inside and outside the community of faith because he lives in both worlds (earlier he said that ‘both worlds’ speak the same language, share the same thought-patterns, and share similar experiences of daily life).  He dare not destroy the canonical witness by forcing it into the mold of the ‘old age,’ nor dare he construct out of the canonical witness a world of myth safely relegated to the distant past.  Rather, he confesses his participation in the community of faith by ‘searching the scriptures.’  He seeks to share the bread of life with the church through the testimony of scripture.  He remains open in anticipation to those moments when the Spirit of God resolves the tension and bridges the gap between faith and history.”

shane lems

sunnyside wa

8 comments on “Theological Reflection in the Context of the Canon (Childs)

  1. Joshua Lim says:

    I’m reading through Childs myself, and I keep wondering whether there is a connection between his view of understanding Scripture as confessional document–as witness to God–and Kline’s framework interpretation of Genesis 1.

    While not denying the authority of Scripture, Kline seems to get past a lot of the irrelevant science-related discussion and straight to the heart of what the text is saying.

    So I’m wondering whether this is the mentality of Childs. As long as we view Scripture as source rather than witness we miss the main point and argue about things the text never sought to address.

    Of course, this is not to say that extra-biblical information is unimportant or shouldn’t inform our understanding of Scripture.

    Anyway, as I’ve only recently begun to read Childs I’m curious to know what your thoughts are.



  2. Richard says:

    I find Childs critique of the “supernaturalistic” viewpoint to be spot on, i.e. that it imposes a way of reading the text upon the text itself rather than letting the text be what it actually is.

    In interpreting we need to be so careful not to impose our own understanding of what the text should be upon the text but rather let it speak for itself.


  3. Reformed Reader says:


    Hmmm…actually, I haven’t yet had the two come together in my readings – in my “thought process” anyway. I suppose there may be some parallels between Kline’s “Structure of Biblical Authority” and Childs’ perspective(s), but they’d probably be more implicit than explicit. I’ll think about that as I read on. Let me know if you find more on that line.

    Richard: Amen. The question is not “what do I think the text should say/do;” rather, it is “what is the text saying/doing to me?” Childs and others have taught me to read the OT, for example, as an OT document, not an ancient document that perfectly corresponds to my modern western ways of thinking. Prayerfully, we hope the text changes us instead of we it.



  4. Joshua Lim says:


    Sorry, I should have been more specific. I was thinking in broader terms. I’m not sure what similarities Kline and Childs have in regard to content (Childs makes passing mention of SBA in his Biblical Theology), but I meant more in terms of their approach to Scripture.

    I’m new to Childs and I’m still trying to figure where to place him on the theological grid. The reason I brought up Kline was because some people tend to think he’s a liberal due to some of his views (ANE treaties, framework interpretation, etc.). Similarly, Childs is often dismissed as a liberal for some of his views. The reason this is strange to me is because Childs doesn’t seem to have a lower view of Scripture’s authority than most conservative scholars. If anything he just has a much more intricate view of how the divine and human aspects of Scripture work together. And despite some of his more liberal views he seems to come out with conclusions dealing more thoroughly and (I think) more faithfully with the text.

    Don’t know if I’m really making much sense! This is probably stuff you’ve already talked/thought about (I just read the Brueggermann post).

    I can’t say much since I’ve only started reading Childs last week. It’s all fairly new to me. I just had to post a comment when I saw this entry! haha. Anyway, thanks!


  5. Matt says:


    You’re right about Childs and Kline — neither really fit onto the typical ‘liberal/conservative’ grid.

    FWIW, I think Childs deserves a closer read than many ‘conservatives’ have given him. His understanding of canonical context is actually quite useful for addressing many of the current ‘problem areas’ in evangelical OT studies.


  6. Joshua Lim says:


    I agree. What I really like is that for Childs, dealing with textual criticism doesn’t mean approaching Scripture with an unbelieving presupposition. He doesn’t react by going to the other end and, as he would say it, ‘flatten’ the text. I just get nervous with how far he seems to go sometimes. Maybe it’s because I like easy answers, or maybe it’s because Childs is too critical, I’m not sure yet.

    To anyone who’s interested:

    Childs criticizes SBA in his intro to the OT. Thought it was relevant to what we were (kind of) talking about earlier:

    “. . . M.G. Kline, who attempts to establish an unbroken canonical continuity from the Mosaic period by finding an analogy in the ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty treaties. However, Kline’s basically dogmatic formulation of the history of the canon in terms of a divine inspiration which assured an inerrant transmission of the Word of God (23) reflects completely the pre-Semler, seventeenth-century understanding which has not even seen the historical problem. These issues are far too complex simply to circumscribe by a strictly theological definition. Therefore, in spite of some excellent insights, the total impact of the book misses its intended goal.” (56)

    Not really sure what I think of Childs’ critique, but I thought it was interesting.


  7. Reformed Reader says:

    Thanks for that quote, Joshua, and I’m enjoying the dialogue! Hopefully I can add more on these lines as I trek through Childs in Exodus, but I want to read something newer of his as well. I’m also reading Frei’s “Eclipse of Biblical Narrative,” and I can see definite echoes between him and Childs, though I’m still working it all out. I’d recommend tearing into Frei, which helps for the hermeneutical background of a lot of these things. It also amazes me (in Frei’s book) to see how in hermeneutics the “conservatives” and the “liberals” sometimes ended up on the same page, though with gloves on their fists!

    Anyway, always feel free to add your two cents, we certainly appreciate it and read it!



  8. Joshua Lim says:

    Thanks, Shane. I’ve put Frei’s book into my Amazon cart. Now I just need the cash to get it!

    I recall Childs interacting with Frei in his Biblical Theology. I don’t remember all the details, but his main thing was that the term ‘narrative’ didn’t capture the depth of how we ought to approach Scripture, and he himself wouldn’t use the term except with a lot of qualifications. I think one of Childs’ criticism may have been that reading scripture as narrative is still reading it as source rather than as witness. I may be wrong, though.

    Anyway, I’m definitely going to check out the book you recommended. Thank you!


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