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There is perhaps no biblical scholar in recent years that has done more with the concept of canon and influenced generations of scholarship than Brevard Springs Childs. His primary contribution, as it relates to this study, is his approach to biblical interpretation known as Canonical Interpretation. By “approach,” it is meant that Childs is not concerned with overturning the world of critical biblical scholarship, but instead is concerned with the way believing communities come to the Bible to read it as canon. The question of the hypothetical synoptic source Q provides a particularly sharp example of Childs’ concerns. He writes,

“It is erroneous to infer that the canonical approach which is being outlined is opposed to historical criticism in principle. The issue at stake turns on how it is used. Recovery of the pre-history of a composition, such as Q, can be useful in measuring both the continuity and discontinuity with the present canonical function. However, to insist on finding the key to the final form of the text in this early stage of development can easily become a hindrance in discovering it canonical role.”[1]

In other words, according to Childs not only should reading the Bible as canon influence the way one approaches the bible, but also the way one reads the bible; what questions the reader asks of the text and the answers that one expects from the text are closely related to the way one approaches the bible.

Thus, for Childs, unlike Jan Assmann, canon involves much more than the history of development. Instead of finding significance in the historical process of the canon, Childs believed that the “witness of the Old Testament lies in the historical shape that the Jews gave their Scriptures.”[2] In other words, according to Childs not only should reading the Bible as canon influence the way one approaches the bible, but also the way one reads the bible; what questions the reader asks of the text and the answers that one expects from the text are closely related to the way one approaches the bible. In this regard, Childs was highly critical of the historical approach to the writing of Old Testament introductions that he believed misread the text by misunderstanding the Old Testament’s place in the community of faith. For Childs, the shape and role of the canon were inexorably tied to the community from which it emerged. He his own Introduction to the Old Testament, he wrote,

“[T]he usual historical critical Introduction has failed to relate the nature of the literature correctly to the community which treasured it as scripture. It is constitutive of Israel’s history that the literature formed the identity of the religious community which in turn shaped the literature. This fundamental dialectic which lies at the heart of the canonical process is lost when the critical Introduction assumes that a historically referential reading of the Old Testament is the key to its interpretation. It assumes the determining force on every biblical text to be political, social, or economic factors which it seeks to establish in disregard of the religious dynamic of the canon.”[3]

Crucial for Childs, is the conviction that to read the Bible as anything other than an inscripturated canon of a believing community that seeks to pass their faith on to successive generations is to flatten the text and misrepresent it.

In this series of posts, Childs’ view of canon will be addressed, with special attention given to the way that his formulation of canon might profitably interact with Jan Assmann. These areas of interaction are Childs’ particular formulation of canon, his understanding of the relationship between canon and successive generations of tradents, and his understanding of the biblical canon as a witness.

[1] Brevard S. Childs, New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (London: SCM, 1984), 50.

 [2] Idem, Review of James Sanders Torah and Canon, Int 37/1 (1973), 90.

[3] Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979), 41.

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