Disliking a Hero: Assessing Brevard Childs after Seminary - A guest post by Collin Cornell
This spring I graduated from seminary and this fall I will begin a doctoral program. The in-between time has been good for revisiting – and interrogating – some of the intellectual sources I brought to seminary.
Primary amongst the figures who shaped my thinking before seminary is Brevard Childs. As with most of my heroes from college, my understanding of this man’s ideas stood isolated from their historical backdrop. His proposals thus appeared more unique and innovative than they really were, as I discovered by reading into a larger discussion within mid-century (German) research. Childs caused a ruckus on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s hard to know how much that owed to his unparalleled command of biblical scholarship from both hemispheres rather than to creative genius. His transcontinental education made him unusually competent to develop and marshal the insights of the one school (theologically supercharged German tradition-historical criticism) to the confusions of the other (American “biblical theology”).
In any case, situating Childs within a wider intellectual horizon has meant that I hear him and his aftercomers in a new way: specifically, I don’t like that they come off as offering a panacea to the problems of contemporary biblical theology. Their tone is combative and mystagogical: here and here only lies the salvation of a badly damaged theological vessel. “The canonical approach” is synonymous with Childs’ deployment of its key concepts. Sadly, I imagine this posturing has created as many wholesale rejections of their project as it has zealous party members. In fact, even if the entire edifice is unique in its assemblage, most individual tenets of Childs’ enterprise find some forebear or analogue in German scholarship. They are arguments like others (it should go without saying), susceptible to debate and improvement.
To take one example, in his most recent book, Childs’ successor, Christopher Seitz, defends “the canonical approach” against various criticisms (The Character of Christian Scripture). One of these is that the canonical approach “does not pay sufficient attention to history” (36). Seitz seems to have conservative evangelicals in view; unlike them, Childs denies that the Bible uniformly represents historical “facts.” With mainstream scholarship, Childs recognizes the gap between the history of Israel as recovered by modern critical methods and the history of Israel as rendered by the Bible. But he does not play the one off the other, empirical history against literary history. Instead, Childs envisions the literary development of biblical traditions and especially their eventuation in the final form as itself a form of history: indeed, as a providential extension and intensification of the empirical history beneath. Childs “sees historical reference as taken up into a fresh account of what history in fact is, lodged at the level of the literary presentation of the final form” (ibid.). Or, in other words, “the development of the text into its final form is also a historical fact, worthy of investigation” (38).
Seitz lists this idea – literary history as history – as a constitutive piece of the canonical approach, which Seitz in turn characterizes as specially tied to Childs as an individual (32). What Seitz’s presentation omits is the genesis of this idea in German research of the early 1960s – and the critical storms it endured at that time.
Gerhard von Rad’s classic OT theology also acknowledged the distance between the two pictures of the Israel’s past, critical and biblical – and proposed to build a theology from the latter confessional record. This decision occasioned much debate. Several exegetes and theologians accused von Rad of constructing a theology out of facts that simply did not happen. Victor Maag deemed the confessional version of Israel’s history a “surrogate” and a “falsifying fiction” (SchThU 1959, 18; all translations are mine). Franz Hesse wrote that “our faith lives from that which happened in Old Testament times, not from that which is confessed as having happened…Kerygma is not constitutive for our faith, but historical reality is” (ZThK 1960, 21). The venerable Walter Eichrodt called von Rad the Bultmann of the Old Testament, because he thought von Rad, too, sundered the kerygma from “historical reality” (TOT, 514).
In reply to such detractors, von Rad insisted that “the kerygmatic picture of history is in its own way also a fundamental fact of enormous historical power [Geschichtswirksamkeit]” (EvTh 1964, 393). How? In a festschrift essay for von Rad, his student Rolf Rendtorff illustrates. As a method, tradition-historical criticism reverse engineers the traditions whose finalized form the Bible enshrines; it traces bundles of story back into earlier forms, and ultimately, to the presumed “historical event” at their starting point. In the case of the tradition about Israel’s being led out Egypt, Rendtorff holds that the kernel of the story “touches ‘fact,’” e.g., nomads emigrated from Egypt to Canaan (“Geschichte und Überlieferung,” 88). But in its subsequent evolution, a mass of other traditions gathered around this kernel: the sea escape, the wilderness wandering, the Sinai covenant, etc. The latter complex, taken as a whole, is the object of von Rad’s theological interest. Not so von Rad’s critics, who wished only to take the isolated “historical” kernel as theologically determinative. But this is arbitrarily to bracket the historical process that followed from that founding event: namely, its interpretation and amplification (89). A true history of Israel comprehends the entirety of a given tradition, and especially its shape at the end of its journey, where the fullest exposition of its meaning is found.
Rendtorff also frames this process theologically by claiming the witness of Israel as an act of God, too, where his critics treated only the “naked facts” at the root of biblical traditions as divinely effected. Rendtorff asks: “does God act only here and there and leave Israel to itself in the between-times?” (90). His answer is no: God’s activity encompassed not only the punctiliar wonders that Israel remembered but their whole life, including their literary endeavor. Here, too, Childs peculiar manner of wedding inspiration and providence finds a parallel. Not only his tradition-historical orientation but his theological mobilization of this method resembles his German relatives.
Childs and his followers are hardly guilty of pastiche; their accomplishments are real, and I stand in their debt. But as with all heroes, I have learned to see him in context. And when this context is so contested – and so very local – I wish that he (and they) had not chosen quite such apocalyptic rhetoric.