Childs and Brueggemann: Canonical Text or Canonical Interpreter?

I’ve appreciated much of Brevard Childs’ work in terms of biblical theology and his discussion of the canon.  I’ve also enjoyed reading some of Walter Brueggemann.  In an adaptation of Childs’ Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, namely Biblical Theology: A Proposal, Childs notes Brueggemann’s criticism of his canonical proposal.  This is pretty fascinating, but also rather involved, so I’ll do my best to summarize it in clear terms (the quotes are from Biblical Theology: A Proposal, pages 40-44).

First, Brueggemann says that Childs focuses on the theological aspect of Scripture using only the text as the authority instead of the theological content.  Brueggeman says the authority should be in the theological context rather than the text itself.

Second, Brueggemann parts ways with Childs by suggesting that the “canonical interpreter” is the decisive thing that hands over (tradent) the theological norm.  In other words, Brueggemann says the interpreter is engaged in the ongoing process of actualizing the text to recover the freeing concerns God has in the world.  Childs would disagree.

Third, Brueggemann emphasizes the need to read the theological substance of the Bible from the point of view of the oppressed in society, like Israel often was (or those within Israel were).  Basically, the theological substance of the Bible has to do with the oppressed being freed from alternative power structures.  Childs, of course, wouldn’t highlight this the way Brueggemann does.

Childs says that Brueggeman, in these critiques and differences, misses his main point: “The whole point of focusing on scripture as canon in opposition to the anthropocentric tradition of liberal protestantism is to emphasize that the biblical text and its theological function as authoritative form belong inextricably together” (p. 42).   Sharply, Childs notes that though Brueggemann would cringe at this suggestion, his (Brueggemann’s) hermeneutical move is identical to that of the Enlightenment.

Why or how?  Because, writes Childs, Brueggemann separates the text and the norm (content).  Brueggemann focuses on the norm or content within a certain community in which the text begins to work.  Childs describes Brueggemann’s method: “The inert text…receives its meaning when it is correlated with some other external cultural force, ideology, or mode of existence” (p. 42).  Childs says this  proposal of Brueggemann is radically different than his own.

Here’s Childs’ punch line, so to speak.  “The saddest part of the proposal is that Walter Brueggemann is sincerely striving to be a confessing theologian of the Christian church, and would be horrified at being classified as a most eloquent defender of the Enlightenment, which his proposal respecting the biblical canon actually represents” (p. 44).

Wow! That’s pretty significance.  If you’re interested on some background layers of this discussion (the “text v norm” or “text v interpretation”) you’ll have to voyage through Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative .  Also, let me note, I’m pretty sure the serious student of the OT would find bigger sections of Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament helpful, as I have, though some of his methodology  might make you scratch your head (if you agree with Childs as I do).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

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