Disliking a Hero: Assessing Brevard Childs after Seminary - A guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

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.



Unknown said…
Great post. I love that von Rad was accused of being the "Bultmann of the OT" for emphasizing the biblical and confessional account of Israel, as opposed to the historical-critical. That's just delicious irony, given the way Bultmann is viewed by NT scholars. I'll have to find some excuse to use that.

I wonder if you've read Daniel Driver's book Brevard Childs, Biblical Theologian: For the Church's One Bible. He was a student of Seitz, now teaching in Toronto. I haven't read much of his book, but I mention him because he's my cousin and a very sharp guy. More conservative than I am, to be sure, but a good scholar.
crob said…
David, thanks for reading. Yeah, I like that Eichrodt quote as well.

Also, that's really weird/interesting that Daniel Driver is your cousin. I have read his book, and it is an EXCELLENT piece of work, indispensable for tracking Childs and his snarled reception. I wish everybody who talks about/dismisses Childs would read it. That said, (my impression is) Daniel Driver's drunk the Kool-aid pretty deeply. I'd like to stake out a position towards Childs that is appreciative and indebted but not hagiographic.
Phil Sumpter said…
I once had a long chat with W.H. Schmidt in which I tried to sell him my understanding of Childs' 'canonical process'. He said he agreed with everything I said except the point about the final form being Sachkritik).

I never got round to telling him the full story, though.

For what it's worth, I actually think that there are three things about Childs' vision that do make him stand out as an original thinker, one who has gone a decisive step beyond his German forebears, and they are as follows: ontology - Sachkritik - hermeneutical shaping. Almost none of these three feature in an integrated manner in the heritage you have sketched, and they do not feature in your own summary of Childs either. I consider this a major lack, and the great value of Seitz is that he has in fact cottoned on to this. Few others have, the results are dynamite (apocalyptic?), and we need scholars to pick up on it an run with it(I should add that Rendtorrf, too, does not pick up on this interrelated triad; he has 'hermeneutical shaping', but your summary of him shows that he has not picked up on 'ontology' or Sachkritik, at least not a Sachkritik that is related to ontology; the best indictment of the fruit of Rendtorff's ommission on is Childs' article, 'Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?' I've not encountered many people who would even dare tackle the exegetical programme Childs outlines in that article [and which he hints at at the end of his chapter on God in his BTOT]. I'd recommend reading BTONT again with a eye on his use of the language of 'vertical' and referentiality; I'm afraid it's totally missing in your construal).

In sum, I appreciate your lucid, eloquent and sophisticated analysis. I am excited that you're going on to do doctoral work and I really do look forward see what you cook up in the years to come. As far as this particular analysis is concerned, however, I think you've not fully grasped the depth of what Childs was on about and you've been unfair to those who have (I'm thinking of Seitz in particular)... I love your posts and look forward to reading more :)
Phil Sumpter said…
I just realized I didn't tick the box saying "e-mail follow up comments" so I'll just take the opportunity to throw away some spontaneous thoughts to your more specific comments.

- Defenses of a canonical approach as Childs understood it in our contemporary context need to be combative, though I'll refrain from saying why here (I'm not sure what mystagogical means).

- Rendtorff's construal of the relation between historical core (some nomads escaped) and broader tradition (the addition of other bits and bobs) is precisely the opposite of what both Childs and Seitz are trying to get at and so cannot be marshalled as a "parallel" to Childs' canonical process; at best it stems from an intellectual milieu that made Childs' canonical process thinkable, but I'm almost tempted to say that the two proposals are two different species (look at Seitz's language: he is redefining "history" itself--this is to push into the realm of metaphsyics; the immanent Trinity even).

- You say of Childs' theses that "They are arguments like others (it should go without saying), susceptible to debate and improvement." Isn't your implicit portrayal of his advocates who supposedly endorse this view anything more than a caricature? Perhaps the systematic theologian McGlasson might come close, but even his strong statements fit into the genre of what he is writing over all (very apodictic).

- You haven't actually critiqued anything Childs has proposed, merely argued that he has a historical background. I'd love to read another post in which you do that (you've raised some great questions in the past; e.g. at Chicago).

crob said…
Phil, I was hoping that this piece would attract your eye! I know you'd have good feedback. And take me to task. I am obliged.

You are right about my "intro to Brevard Childs" piece, that it omits the triad you specify (actually, it has some of the hermeneutical shaping, but not the ontology or Sachkritik) -- mostly because I thought it would be too hard to talk about in a straightforward, easy way

...which may be the same as to say that I don't understand it well enough, that I cannot summarize it accessibly. I will certainly take up your recommendation to re-read the end of BTONT and to get hold of that other article.

With THIS post, my goal wasn't to be comprehensive, so I don't feel too bad about leaving out Childs' ontology/Sachkritik bit. Of course you are in a much better position to judge this, but I guess I do wonder how even Childs' formulation of ontology and Sachkritik marks him out as radically original. Discussion of Sache and res etc was a mainstay of 20th century biblical scholarship, no? Maybe Childs put the pieces together in a particularly finely-tuned way, but they already lay at hand in one form or another, correct?
Unknown said…
If we're going to talk about Sachkritik, then we definitely need to bring Bultmann into the conversation, given that's his baby.

I'd be very curious to hear what the line of progression is that leads from Bultmann to Childs. Is von Rad the connecting link? Does he speak about Sachkritik? I know very little about the German OT theology field.
Phil Sumpter said…
Hello Collin,

I totally agree that talking about the interrelation between ontology—Sachkritik—hermeneutical shaping is difficult; the issue is complex, Childs wrestled with it and I wrestled with his wrestling in my PhD; I still haven’t stopped. But that, in my humble opinion, is where the juice is; this is what constitutes the ‘canonical process’ in the first place; without it we don’t have a canonical process. I think the significance of the living nature of the referent comes out a fair bit in his Isaiah commentary—again, something a lot of people don’t pick up on because they aren’t looking for it in the first place.

Were Sachkritik and res a mainstay of 20th century Biblical scholarship? I don’t know if it was a “mainstay”; I get the impression it generated a period of interest and then died. The terms are completely foreign to the halls of Biblical studies in the University of Bonn. When I mentioned the terms in colloquia there some of the older professors gave a kind of knowing look, as if to say, “Ah yes, there is that … “ but then didn’t know what to do with it. The one published response by a living member of the Protestant faculty, W.H. Schmidt, can be found in his Einführung. He basically goes with von Rad/Barth in saying, ‘yes the texts are witnesses to a theological referent,’ but then undercuts the possibility of that insight bearing any fruit by following Bultmann and saying, ‘but we can’t know it as it is hidden in a human form; all we can do is look at the ‘finger’ [Barth’s language, which he doesn’t actually use], rather than the thing it is pointed at’. He thus substitutes theocentric exegesis with anthropocentric exegesis (he is followed in this by his student Axel Graupner). The interesting thing is the result: pure diachronic exegesis with a massively existential twist—as if that is what the tradents of the tradition really cared about (!).

My impression (though it is not particularly informed and is influenced by my stay in Bonn) is that in Germany Bultmann has won the day in Biblical studies, not Barth. It’s Barth’s understanding of the res that Childs follows and not Bultmann’s. He then weds this to hermeneutical shaping and Sachkritik in a way that no one else—including Barth—has done (incidentally, it is very interesting to note both Barth’s and Childs’ interest in form criticism—as you recently pointed out on your blog).

My current experience is that interest in theo-referentiality has practically died out in Biblical studies. Schmidt complained to me about the way in which Biblical studies has become a sub-set of cultural studies rather than theology, and I agree with him. The discipline has been massively secularized.

About Childs having roots: sure, especially Barth (things only began to come together for me with Childs after I read Barth and Diem’s Dogmatik). But I do think he does something very special on his own as well.

Hello David,

I don’t think there is a progression from Bultmann to Childs; it is from Barth to Childs. Bultmann and Barth had a major falling out precisely on this issue (Collin has a fairly helpful article on this). I actually have a section on this in my thesis, in particular how the two differ on this issue and on how Childs is more similar to Barth, and would be happy to share it with you if you have the time and energy to read anything in addition to your current workloads.

Childs has an interesting comment on von Rad’s presuppositions concerning the nature of the tradition-historical process in BTONT. He saw it as a process in which a single reality received elucidation over time. Not sure how Bultmannian that is; it could be Barthian.
Unknown said…

Given that my dissertation is on Barth and Bultmann, and that I have a 25-page section on this debate, I'm well aware of the history. And of course I know that Childs is closer to Barth (or at least thinks he is). But that wasn't my point. The issue is that Sachkritik is Bultmann's concept, not Barth's. Barth may have practiced Sachkritik, and I think he did, but the term itself can't be associated with him, in my opinion. Perhaps Sachexegese could be ascribed to Barth (and often is), but I don't think it works to split the two terms between Barth and Bultmann, given that both concepts are developed positively by Bultmann, particularly in his 1925 essay on theological exegesis. I trust you are aware of all this.

In any case, I think Barth was clearly wrong in his debate with Bultmann on this. His position, while rhetorically excellent, is materially empty, in the end. But perhaps we can talk about that another time.
crob said…
Haha. You guys have A LOT to talk about. Maybe cc me to those emails exchanging the relevant dissertation chapters.

Phil, as far as your 1:46 PM comments go:

--I'm a bit confused how Rendtorff is doing the OPPOSITE of Childs. Maybe Rendtorff's reconstitution of "history" to mean the final literary form of a tradition has less theological density than Childs', but how are they opposites?

--you're right, I didn't make any material criticisms of Childs. I merely traced some of his history. My beef (in this post) is only with his/Seitz's rhetoric ("combative and mystagogical"): when one's ideas participate so thoroughly in a larger discussion, when the pieces of one's proposal are, in principle, already on the field of play, then don't attribute to one's project the uniqueness of Jesus Christ (I exaggerate...somewhat).

--is my portrayal of Childs' advocates unfair, in that I (implicitly) claim of them that they hold his ideas above debate? Maybe. But as it is, his defenders really are unusually vehement and reverential (just read some of Seitz's prose!)...I don't know what to compare that ethos against: followers of van Til? Barthians? But in any case, it makes me suspicious. Either 1) Childs is a genius who deserves that kind of advocacy, but has been deeply misunderstood (because of intellectual trends within biblical studies? because of his [and all his tribe's] inability to explain things clearly?) or 2) Childs has some really good ideas, like other giants of 20th c. scholarship...but there's something else, sociologically, going on with his zealous aftercomers. I don't know. Maybe it's both.

As for your 2:57 remarks -- I found them really provocative. Particularly your current experience with "theo-referentiality" in biblical studies (I love that!). Certainly that echoes my own experience. I will mull on that one some more. (I wonder what you think of folks like Spieckermann, and the ways he's handling the historical and theological dimensions of biblical texts together, cf his "YHWH bless and keep you," available online.)

Also, Phil, could you provide a loose bibliography for the rising and falling interest in Sache and res in 20th c. scholarship; Childs doesn't give much in that section of BTONT (p 89ff)...in what periodicals and publications did this interest play out? and when? and why ever did it die out? Maybe you know more about that, David?
Phil Sumpter said…
Life has caught up with me, hence my late response; I will try to write something more substantial on Monday ... Thanks for your feedback--much appreciated.
Phil Sumpter said…
So, it's Monday, but I am really struggling with time. I'm leaving Israel in three weeks and have tonnes to do. I would so love to pursue this more deeply rather that whip off quick comments, but I cannot afford anything more at the moment. Perhaps once things settle down back in Germany ...

Here are some very quick responses, no doubt things I will regret when I think about them more deeply:

- David: You are totally the expert and I would love to read your stuff. In fact, Collin sent me three articles on this subject and one of them was by you. I still need to read it!

The main thing I want to emphasis is this thesis of mine, and you may destroy it at will: the difference between Bultmann and Barth on Sachkritik boils down to their varying definitions of the nature of the Sache. For Bultmann it is somehow existential - man's quest for his identity (I've got to admit, I struggle to ‘fully’ grasp what that means), whereas for Barth it is ontological, the Trinitarian God. That's it. My sources are limited: Bultmann's NT theology, book on eschatology, and another book, the name of which doesn't occur to me. For Barth I used his Einführung and Dogmatik im Umriss.

But I'm not grounded in these things the way you are (my BA was in cultural anthropology, my MA in OT), so I am happy to be corrected.

The relevance of my thesis in this context is that it has profound hermeneutical implications. Bultmann's starting point precludes the possibility of a canonical process the way Childs understands it from the very outset. It's logical outcome hermeneutically is what can be found in, e.g., Gunneweg. Barth's undergirds Childs and I think that something like it was always operating in the background without Childs ever fully mentioning it.

I should add that Childs really did not mention it. You say that Childs "thought he was Barthian." Perhaps he did "think" that, but he never made the claim and would probably have felt uncomfortable with it if you told him. The connection is made by his readers.

Incidentally, I know someone called Timothy Goering who is doing a PhD on Gogarten at Bochum (http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/lehrstuhl-ng3/mitarbeiter/goering.html). We had a long chat like this; he sided with Bultmann; I didn't agree. He's very bright and well worth getting in touch with (we’re on facebook).
Phil Sumpter said…
- ‘Opposite’ was the wrong word to describe Rendtorff’s understanding of the tradition-historical process (the way you put it at least; and it does jive with me) in relation to Childs. Just very different. The questions is the nature of the referent (cf. my comment above to David). In other words, what is the nature of ‘history’ itself. It is not just a matter of the growth of the text being an additional historical datum to be taken into account when reading the final form, it’s that the ‘history’ that is the reference of the ‘witness’, ‘at every level from original witness to final form’ is not an immediately self-evident category, and modernity fails to grasp that (Bultmann’s main mistake). Perhaps this is what BArht meant by the ‘logos within the event’. There is immanent eschatology contained in every event that the canonical process is extrapolating, as it is ‘this’ history that is the moment of ultimate concern and – what is more – it is a living reality, one that coerces itself upon the tradents, evocating a response, imprinting itself upon the shape of their testimony. In my book, it is only the Trinity that can ground the canonical process.
- Thanks for your recent post, your comments are well worth responding to and I hope I find time.
- I’ve read a fair bit of Seitz. I love him. His vehemence certainly sets him apart from Childs, who was unusually mild and humble. Is he being inappropriate? I’m not sure. We need to make sure we’ve grasped what it is exactly that is riling him. I like your two options. They’re worth a study in themselves (Driver’s book maintains that many simply didn’t get him, and he is right; I think ‘that’ insight is very interesting).
- RE: Spieckermann: He’s very interesting; good example of a classical historical critic with genuine theological interests. From the little I’ve read (a bunch of article and extracts from his book on the Psalms) he stands very much in the tradition of interpreting the meaning of the text in terms of the reconstructed debate that lead to its current form (or stands behind it, the current form being mangled). It’s still not clear to me how he goes from that to current truth claims, though I’m sure he has a sophisticated model and I’d like to find out. His approach lacks the concept of Sachkritik that Childs was working with, i.e. that later tradition was critically appropriating earlier tradition in light of a fuller grasp of that original traditions true substance, with the aim of mediating that substance more adequately to a later generation. I find Childs’ historical hypothesis more historically plausible, as a matter of authorial intentionality, though it ultimately needs the Spirit to hold it together.
- I can’t provide a bibliography, I’m afraid. My comments were just based on my personal experience, loosely gathered observations, and – with hindsight – Childs’ interesting article ‘The OT in Germany 1920-1940’. I can e-mail it to you if you can’t access it. He talks about interest tapering off sometime in the 50’s. He has a pretty damning opinion about the present ‘political correctness’ (not his phrase) in academia.
Hope this all makes sense!
Cheers guys :)

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