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Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament – 2

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Chapter 1: The Discipline of Old Testament Introduction

Childs presents the “The Discipline of Old Testament Introduction” in chapter 1 by discussing this topic under the following subheadings: 1. The History of the Discipline, 2. A Critique of the Historical Critical Introduction and 3. Old Testament Introduction and the Canon. The review of “The History of the Discipline” is brief. Childs gives two reasons for this: 1. The history has already been frequently reviewed in various Introductions, monographs and encyclopaedia articles; 2. The major critical issue is how to interpret this history.

Childs emphasizes that “the real point of controversy is how one evaluates this history” [of Old testament Introduction]: a journey from ignorance and error to an era of freedom measured only by critical thinking, or a growth in unbelief where the truth of the Bible was sacrificed on the altar of human wisdom and pride. Childs means that both evaluations have missed the mark. On the one hand it is impossible to deny the enormous gains that have been achieved in the critical study of the Old Testament. On the other hand Childs questions seriously “the form of the critical Introduction as an adequate approach to the literature it seeks to illuminate.” There are several reasons for this critique: 1) A great gap between the critically reconstructed literature and the actual canonical text has emerged; 2) the critical Introduction usually fails to understand the special dimensions of Israel’s religious literature by disregarding the function of canonical literature; 3) The usual historical critical Introduction has failed to relate the nature of the literature correctly to the community which treasure it as Scripture. This suggests that the issue is the problem of the canon – “how one understands the nature of the Old testament in relation to its authority for the community of faith and practice which shaped and preserved it.”[1]

To find support for his argument, Childs refers to the history of the discipline from the perspective of the canon. When the early Christian church inherited the Jewish scriptures it was assumed that these writings functioned authoritatively. The question was not if Jewish scriptures were still canonical, but if the Scriptures supported the claims of Jesus Christ. Soon the first major challenge to the continuity of scripture and Church came (Marcion) and the response to this attack (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later Augustine) points out several strengths to the Christian understanding of canon: 1) It allowed the church to receive these writings as a divine word; 2) Thus, an inclusive principle was followed which allowed the full diversity of the biblical writings to be maintained; 3) A dynamic relationship, testified to in the church’s liturgy, was established between scripture, its author (God), and its addressee (the church). But there were also weaknesses in the early church’s understanding of canon: 1) The early church was not able to hear the Old Testament on its own terms, but increasingly the canonical text was subjected to the dominance of ecclesiastical tradition (that New testament had superseded the Old); 2) The religious and political development of the previous three centuries had effected a bitter alienation between the synagogue and the church and had struck at the heart of a canonical understanding of the scripture which related the sacred writings of the Jews to a living community of faith.[2]

Childs explains that a breakdown of Old Testament as canon continued during the medieval period and the impact of the Renaissance and Reformation on the concept of canon was profound and far-reaching. During the sixteenth century the problem of the authority of the biblical canon became a topic of polemics that threatened to separate Bible from church, which led in the direction of setting up a “canon within the canon”. The unity of the canon in the exegesis was threatened. The rise of the historical critical school in the post-Reformation period then witnessed the collapse of the traditional concept of canon (see Cappellus, Semler, Simon). By the nineteenth century the traditional form of the Old Testament discipline had been radically reshaped by the newer methodology (e.g. text criticism).[3]

Childs concludes that the effect of this development was that those scholars who pursued historical criticism of the Old Testament no longer found a significant place for the canon. And those scholars who retained a concept of the canon were unable to find a significant role for historical criticism. This polarity lies at the centre of the problem of the discipline of Old Testament Introduction. Childs continues by saying that the crucial task is to rethink the problem of Introduction in such a way as to overcome this tension between the canon and criticism.[4]

[1] Ibid., 39–41.
[2] Ibid., 41–43.
[3] Ibid., 43–45.
[4] Ibid., 45.


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