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When reading Childs, one of the key issues is what he means by canon. Failure carefully to read Childs has, unfortunately, led to widespread misrepresentation of his views.[1] One of the chief purveyors of misinterpretations of Childs has been James Barr. As Childs notes in a review of James Barr’s Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, wherein Barr misrepresents Childs severely,

“It is obvious that James Barr and this reviewer differ widely on many essential points. However, what is far more disturbing is what appears to be the level of misunderstanding. I come away from reading Barr’s book with the impression that the major concerns of my Introduction have been badly misinterpreted and that much of the attack has missed the mark.”[2]

Unfortunately, however, such misreadings have been rather widespread and have pointed to a misunderstanding of Childs’s scholarly aims and, even more basically, his key formulations. Indeed, Driver has shown that Childs’ reception has differed greatly in German scholarship and in English scholarship.[3] This is due to the strong German influence exerted on Childs during his PhD work at Basel, which has resulted in a misunderstanding on the part of his English readership even of what Childs means by biblical theology. For this reason, understanding Childs’ formulation of canon is essential.

As hinted at above, Childs’ conception of canon is a broad conception that encompasses a great deal more than the final form of the text, a list of approved books, or even an authoritative text. Indeed, Driver notes that this constituted one of Barr’s worse misreadings of Childs; he seems to believe that Childs’ conception of canon consisted entirely of these three elements, and entirely misses in Childs’ argument that the canonization process is central to his concerns.[4] Childs himself recognizes that this formulation is broad when he writes,

“As I have already suggested, the process of the formation of authoritative religious writings long preceded the particular designation of the collection as canon in the fourth century. For this reason I am using the term canon in a broader sense than is traditionally the practice in order to encompass the entire process by which the formation of the church’s sacred writings took place.”[5]

Childs understands canon in this broader sense because he believes that the biblical text evidences a canon consciousness on the part of the tradents of the faith. Not only were they receiving texts as Scripture, but they were also shaping and reworking them with an eye toward future generations. For Childs,

“the concept of canon was not late, ecclesiastical ordering which was basically foreign to the material itself, but that canon-consciousness lay deep within the formation of the literature. The term also serves to focus attention on the theological forces at work in its composition rather than seeking the process largely controlled by general laws of folklore, by socio-political factors, or by scribal conventions.”[6]

To study the Bible as canon, then, is not a purely literary or structural approach to the Bible. Rather, to read the Bible as a canon of Scripture that reflects the hermeneutical and theological concerns of the tradents is to study the Bible both as an historically situated text as Scripture of a faith community.

[1] For a fuller account of the misreadings of Childs see, Daniel R. Driver, Brevard Childs, Biblical Theologian: For the Church’s One Bible (FAT II: 46; ed. by Bernd Janowski, Mark S. Smith, and Hermann Spieckermann. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), esp., 41–58.

[2] Brevard Childs, Review of James Barr Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Int 38/1 (1984), 67.

 [3] Driver, Brevard Childs, 35–79.

 [4] Ibid., 229–230.

 [5] Idem, New Testament, 25.

[6] Idem, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (London: SCM, 1992), 70–71.