How Scripture Speaks

By Chapman, Stephen B. | The Christian Century, September 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

How Scripture Speaks


Chapman, Stephen B., The Christian Century


BREVARD CHILDS, one of the leading Old Testament scholars of the 20th century and a biblical theologian of international renown, continued to publish major new works right up until his death on June 23. His magnum opus was undoubtedly Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress, 1993). This 745-page volume was followed by a commentary on Isaiah (Westminster John Knox, 2001), a further volume on the reception history of Isaiah (Eerdmans, 2004) and--in a manuscript finished just before his death and to be published later this year--a treatment of Paul's letters.

Childs's scholarship was too wide-ranging and subtle to be summed up in a slogan or thumbnail sketch. In many respects, however, his life's work could be viewed as a sustained act of reflection on how reading the Bible is not, in a phrase made famous by the 19th-century biblical scholar Benjamin Jowett, "like reading any other book."

Moderns adopted that program in order to make the Bible fully susceptible to grammatical and historical analysis, and Childs never hesitated to affirm that historical criticism brought a genuine advance in exegetical precision. In certain ways one does read the Bible like any other book, especially perhaps another ancient text. But not in every way.

That qualification expresses the core of Childs's scholarly concern. For Childs the biblical writings are religious documents, and they are either read with awareness of their religious nature--read "as scripture," in his words--or they are badly misconstrued. In his view scripture was, in fact, being "rendered mute" even within the church because the hermeneutical assumptions of modernity increasingly excluded theological concerns in advance. The contemporary loss of scripture's "voice" was the problem that Childs set out to address.

That task would entail a complete reappraisal of the methods and goals of historical criticism. As it had come to be practiced, historical criticism produced a stultifying Humpty Dumpty effect. The biblical text was deconstructed on the basis of historical guesswork so scholars could reconstruct the history behind the text. Yet once the sources and stages of the text had been identified, scholars either neglected the question of how the text had then achieved its present shape or substituted their reconstructed history for the story presented by the text itself. Either Humpty Dumpty was not put back together again or he took on a disfigured appearance.

The theological necessity of doing justice to history lay at the heart of the historical-critical impulse, and no one challenged Childs more on this point than James Barr, a British Old Testament scholar who passed away last October. What Barr and others had difficulty seeing was that Childs did not advocate an unhistorical reading of the "final form" of the biblical text but an approach that appreciated what literary critic Robert Alter terms "composite artistry."

In Childs's treatment, for example, the dramatic differences between the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-3:24 could be readily acknowledged. Most likely these two versions had arisen at two different times in Israel's history and in two different streams of tradition. …

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