A Critique of Childs’ Canonical Method

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books Frequent readers of this blog will know that Andrew and I are in many ways appreciative of the canonical insights of former Yale OT professor Brevard Childs (d. 2007).  Childs has well emphasized that we should focus on the final form of the biblical text and therefore interpret Scripture in a canonical, holistic manner.  Childs didn’t totally reject the higher critical method, he simply focused on the biblical text as we have it.  Childs also taught that the post-apostolic Christian communities chose, shaped, modified, and redacted the NT texts.  Thus, since the 4th century or so, the church has had the NT canon in its “final form.”

One blog post cannot properly deal with a big discussion like this, but suffice it to say Childs’ methodology has a number of difficulties.  Michael Kruger does a nice job of pointing out certain problems in Childs’ canonical approach.  I’ve edited them to keep the post relatively brief.

“1) Childs is hard pressed to justify a sociological view of inspiration from the Scriptures themselves.  The variety of biblical texts on the subject [of inspiration] … give no indication that inspiration is a [post-apostolic] community affair, but rather view it as operative in key individuals and at key junctures in redemptive history.”

“2) There is also no indication that the early church viewed itself as bearing the same degree of inspiration as the apostles, or as having the authority to add, change, or modify the Scriptures (either OT or NT; i.e. Deut. 4:2, Rev. 22:18-10, Didache 4:13, Irenaeus Haer. 5:13.1).  The church understood its role as the preserver of inspired texts, not the editor of them.”

“3) If the canonical documents can be continually shaped by successive Christian communities, what is significant about the fourth-century community that gives it permanent normative status?  Why should that particular community be the point where the shape of the canon is ‘frozen?’ …If the canonical documents were revisable for the first four centuries of the Christian church, then there seems to be no reason offered by Childs for why the canonical documents would not be continually open to revision even up to the present day.  If so, then there can be no ‘final form’ of the canon from which Childs can do his biblical theology.”

“4) If the response to this problem is that the Christian community has the authority not only to shape, mold, and change the canonical documents, but also to decide when to stop the ‘canonical process’ and create a final canonical version, then it is difficult to avoid the implication that the church bears more authority than the canon itself.  Thus, [Childs’] canonical-criticism finds itself in a very similar place as the Roman Catholic model….  In the end, [Childs’] canonical-criticism approach provides us with another canon derivative from, and dependent upon, the Christian community and thus unable to genuinely rule over it as the ‘norma normans’ (the norms that norms).”

Kruger gives one more major critique of Childs’ approach, which I’ll post at a later time.  For the record, I’m not at all suggesting that we should stay away from Childs or those who share his methodology – many of his insights are helpful and penetrating.  Here I’m simply noting that his approach is not without its flaws.  His view of canon isn’t as canonical as it could be and those of us with a Reformed understanding of Scripture will certainly disagree with his views on the inspiration, historicity, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture.

Kruger’s entire discussion is found on pages 52-59 of Canon Revisited.

rev shane lems

1 thought on “A Critique of Childs’ Canonical Method”

  1. From the Administrators: Comments shut down after 15 days on most posts, but occasionally we get a late comment submission that we feel significantly adds to the discussion.

    Collin Cornell sent an E-mail with the following comment and we wanted to get it up here as a nice counter point to Kruger’s description of Brevard Childs.


    I haven’t read Kruger’s work, but every once in a while I see this kind of characterization of Childs pop up: that his view of inspiration is “sociological,” i.e., authority was somehow conferred on scripture by the post-apostolic community. Then follows a comparison with Roman Catholic theology, where likewise canonicity depends on churchly consent, and, in effect, scripture loses its capacity to norm Christian faith and doctrine.

    This is a basic misunderstanding of Childs. The authority of scripture does not, for him, derive from the church. Childs is thoroughly Reformed: the word of God is always prior to and, indeed, creates the church.

    How can Childs be so misread? Because unlike many evangelical interpreters, Childs accepted that biblical texts “travelled for a while” in the communities that preserved them and did not come “fresh off the press” from their their ostensive biblical authors. The traditions that eventuated in the Bible were integrally shaped by the community of faith. Importantly, however, the community of faith recognized what was already the case in these traditions: that they comprised the word of God. They were not made the word of God by ancient Israel or the early church – though these people shaped prophetic words and sacred stories so as to be optimally accessible to all successive generations of the people of God.

    For more on Childs, here’s an introductory piece I cooked up: http://kaleidobible.blogspot.com/2013/03/intro-to-brevard-childs.html


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