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Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament – 4

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Chapter 3: Canon and Criticism

In the third chapter Childs discusses “Canon and Criticism” under six subheadings: 1) Exegesis in a Canonical Context, 2) The Canonical Approach Contrasted with Others, 3) The Final Form of the Text and its Prehistory, 4) The Canonical Process and the Shaping of Scripture, 5) Scripture and Tradition, 6) Canon and Interpretation. The purpose of the chapter is to describe an approach that will attempt to overcome the methodological problems regarding the canon described by Childs in chapter 2. To fulfill this purpose Childs will “relate the canonical form of the Old Testament to the complex history of the literature’s formation.” Childs criticizes the historical critical method in the way it is dealing with the canonical literature of the Old Testament, but emphasizes also that the canonical approach it not a non-historical reading of the Bible. He says: “The whole point of emphasizing the canon is to stress the historical nature of the biblical witness.” [1]

When doing exegesis in a canonical context it is essential to maintain a theological relationship between the people of the Old Covenant and of the New – Childs means that the common canon of the Hebrew Scriptures is the basis for serious relationship. However in the third chapter Childs limits himself to the Hebrew Scriptures, and comes back to the broader issue of exegesis in the final chapter of the book. After having set these parameters, Childs explains that the major task of a canonical analysis of the Hebrew Bible is a descriptive one that focuses its attention on the final form of the text itself. Canonical analysis treats the biblical literature in its own integrity and studies the features of these texts (as records of God’s revelation to his people along with Israel’s response) in relation to their theological and religious usage within the historical community of ancient Israel. The canonical method is thus not an attempt to apply exterior dogmatic categories on the biblical text, but to work within the interpretative structure which the biblical text has received from those who formed and used it as sacred scripture.[2]

The crucial methodological issues concerning the canonical approach are outlined by contrasting it with other critical methods. Childs explains that the canonical study shares with several other literary critical methods the concern to do justice to the integrity of the text itself, but differs by interpreting the biblical text in relation to a community of faith and practice: “The canonical approach is concerned to understand the nature of the theological shape of the text rather than to recover an original literary or aesthetic unity.” The canonical method differs also sharply from the “kerygmatic exegesis”[3] in the sense that a theological point must not be related to an original intention in a reconstructed historical context, but rather to its function in the final form of the biblical text. The canonical study is also different from the traditio-critical approach in the way it evaluates the history of the text’s formation. Canonical study assumes the normative status of the final form of the text, while the traditio-historical criticism tries to recover the historical growth of the text. Childs feels that contrasting approaches are missing the mark and do not fully understand the canonical proposal.[4]

The canonical approach insists upon the final form of the Scripture, which reflects a history of encounter between God and Israel. The final form of the text alone bears witness to the full history of revelation. The witness of the experience with God lies not in the recovery of the historical process. It is only in the final form of the biblical text that the full effect of this revelatory history can be perceived. However, early stages in the development of the biblical text are important, thus to take the canon seriously also means to take the stages of formation seriously. The early stages aid in understanding of the interpreted text, and do not function independently of it. But Childs means that it is still the final form of the text that hermeneutically establishes the peculiar profile of a passage, and any method (e.g. Heilsgeschichte, the historical critical method or philosophical hermeneutics) which seeks to shift the canonical ordering must be resisted.[5]

The Hebrew canon was formed during a long period (beginning in the pre-exilic period) of time as an integral part of the literary process. Basic to this canonical process is that those responsible (editors [Hezekiah’s court], religious groups [Deuteronomic party of Jerusalem], political parties) for the editing of the text did their best to obscure their own identity. The consequence is that the actual process, and the original sociological and historical differences within the nation of Israel, was lost. Thus Israel emerged as a religious community with its identity in the sacred Scripture. One motivation behind the canonical process is that tradition from the past was transmitted in such a way that it would be authoritative and accessible to all future generations of Israel (Deut. 31:9ff.; Ex. 12:14, 26ff). This transmission was not merely a passive channeling of material from one generation to another, but reflects an active hermeneutic that shaped both the oral and written traditions, so that the tradition would not be fixed it in the past, but religiously accessible to future generations. Thus, Childs points out that because the historical critical method has disregarded the canonical shaping, it has found itself unable to bridge the gap between the past and the present. When “decanonizing” the biblical text the interpreter has difficulty applying it to the modern religious context.[6]

Childs explains that one of the most difficult problems of the canonical approach “involves understanding the relationship between the divine initiative in creating Israel’s Scripture and the human response in receiving and transmitting the authoritative Word.” If the active human participation is a necessary feature for correctly understand the text, what then is the relationship between the divine and human of the Bible, between scripture and tradition? Childs concludes, after having briefly reviewed the long and heated controversy (Roman Catholic vs. Protestants) within Christian theology, that “the canonical method is not tied to one narrowly conceived dogmatic stance respecting the problem of scripture and tradition. The approach seeks to work descriptively within a broad theological framework and is open to a variety of different theological formulations.” However, Childs explains that the canonical method runs counter to two theological positions: 1) the position that stresses the divine initiative and rules out the human response to the divine word as theologically significant, and 2) the position that understands the formation of the Bible as purely human (e.g. Israel’s search for self-identity).[7]

The approach that Childs have undertaken has been described as “canonical criticism”. Childs himself is not satisfied with this term, because that turns the canonical approach into another historical critical technique. Rather, Childs wants to establish a stance from which the Bible can be read as sacred scripture. Negatively this means a relativization of the historical critical method, and positively it challenges the interpreter to look at the biblical text in its received form and to discern its function for an community of faith. The canonical shaping draws the boundaries within which the exegetical task is to be carried out. The effect is two fold: 1) The canonical method sets limits on the exegetical task by taking seriously the traditional parameters; 2) The method liberates from the stifling effect of academic scholasticism. In sum, Childs says, “the canon establishes a platform from which exegesis is launched rather than a barrier by which creative activity is restrained.”[8]

[1] Ibid., 71.
[2] Ibid., 72–74.
[3] This method attempted to discover the central intention of a writer, usually by means of a formulae or themes, which intention was then linked to a reconstruction of a historical situation which allegedly evoked that given response.
[4] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 74–75.
[5] Ibid., 75–77.
[6] Ibid., 77–79.
[7] Ibid., 80–82
[8] Ibid., 82–83.


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