Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Brevard S. Childs on Scripture

I've been digging into the Book of Exodus lately. Spoiler alert: no significant insights coming in this post. But one thing leads to another. Digging deeper into Exodus led to a review of my commentaries on this book and the judgement delivered is, "Negligible." In remedying this paucity I have purchased a commentary I know to be somewhat more famous than other commentaries, Brevard S. Childs' commentary on Exodus.

Childs on anything in the Old Testament is always good, not least because he goes a bit against the grain of a lot of 20th and 21st century scholarship on the Old Testament which tries to read the books within it, if not the Old Testament as a whole, in its own right, divorced from its appropriation into the Christian Bible. The citation below captures how Childs wants to read the OT scriptures, 

"as canonical scripture within the theological discipline of the Christian church."

In other words, Childs is a determined Christian reader of the whole of Scripture, intent on reading Scripture as rule or canon and understanding it within the creedal faith of the Christian church.

Although no one told me about Childs when I was growing up within the evangelical Anglican movement, it is difficult to think that Childs and his writings would in any way have diminished the seriousness with which I learned to approach Scripture as authoritative in word and practice of the Christian life.

The more so when we read the fuller passage from which the citation above comes, words which are the very beginning of Childs on Exodus:

"The aim of this commentary is to seek to interpret the book of Exodus as canonical scripture within the theological discipline of the Christian church. As scripture its authoritative role within the life of the community is assumed, but how this authority functions must be continually explored. Therefore, although the book in its canonical form belongs to the sacred inheritance of the church, it is incumbent upon each new generation to study its meaning afresh, to have the contemporary situation of the church addressed by its word, and to anticipate a fresh appropriation of its message through the work of God's Spirit."

p. xiii, Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974. 

Here is the thing which (in my memory) was not so well worked out in my experience of evangelicalism (generally) and Anglican evangelicalism (particularly): the "how" of Scripture as authority including the integral question of the "meaning" of Scripture.

It would have been good to have spent more time discussing,

"As scripture its authoritative role within the life of the community is assumed, but how this authority functions must be continually explored."

Why? Because looking back I think we assumed certain divisions among evangelicals without reflection on how such divisions could arise if Scripture was straightforwardly authoritative. Baptist evangelicals and Anglican evangelicals differed on baptism of believers' children (we knew that ... of course!) but we were both reading the same Bible. Later (in my experience) charismatic evangelicals and non-charismatic evangelicals differed on baptism in the Holy Spirit, but we were both reading the same Bible. What ( I do not recall) we did, say in Christian Union discussions about Scripture and its authority, was discuss how Scripture was authoritative when we didn't agree on its meaning.

Childs, above, challenges us to engage with the question of meaning in relation to authority:

"Therefore, although the book in its canonical form belongs to the sacred inheritance of the church, it is incumbent upon each new generation to study its meaning afresh, to have the contemporary situation of the church addressed by its word, and to anticipate a fresh appropriation of its message through the work of God's Spirit."

Of course this could be a licence (in evangelical perspective) for a liberal approach to understanding Scripture, not least because following Childs at this point means an openness to "fresh" meaning, finding the relevancy of Scripture to "the contemporary situation of the church" and allowing God's Spirit to help us appropriately appropriate the message of Scripture. From an evangelical perspective "Spirit" desperately needs definition lest we follow the spirit of the age rather than the Ageless Spirit!

Actually - I can now see - differences between Baptists and Anglicans relate to engaging Scripture with "each new generation" (Anglicans, for example, baptise children of believers because that is the right thing to do when the second and third and fourth generations of believers come along - something the NT does not pause to address).

When charismatic renewal came upon Anglican and Baptist churches in the 1960s and 1970s, there certainly was a "contemporary situation of the church" to be understood in the light of the "word" of Scripture as we were addressed by it and, those of us who embraced this new movement of the Spirit felt we were anticipating "a fresh appropriation of [Scripture's] message through the work of God's Spirit." All the while, resolutely not conceding for a moment that anything "liberal" was involved in our thinking!

I won't offer further analysis of the 2020s situation, suffice to say that in many and diverse ways, evangelical Anglicans continue to freshly appropriate the meaning of Scripture for today.

Thanks Brevard!


Father Ron said...

Thank you, Bishop Peter, for your insights here expressed:

"..those of us who embraced this new movement of the Spirit felt we were anticipating "a fresh appropriation of [Scripture's] message through the work of God's Spirit." All the while, resolutely not conceding for a moment that anything "liberal" was involved in our thinking!"

I think you express very well the alternative understandings of both the Evangelical and my more Liberal Anglican Catholic view of what was going on in the charismatic renewal of our Church in the 1960s - 70s.

What was obvious to me, was a renewed (for some, a new) interest amongst Evangelical Christians of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and a profound movement towards the liturgical appreciation of the Eucharist - as perhaps the preeminent forum for the opening up of the Holy Scriptures in the unique context of the Presence of Christ amongst His gathered people.

Teaching about the place of the Holy Spirit in both Word and Sacrament became de rigeur at charismatic gatherings at Massey University, where both Catholic and Protestant Pastors and Teachers accepted invitations to teach and preach.

While the phenomenon of 'Baptism in the Holy Spirit' was both taught and practised in such gatherings, there was also counselling about the need not to be critical of those who did not immediately 'speak in tongues' - in the belief that this was NOT 'the' guarantee of one's faithfulness to Christ in the Gospel. The real highlight of the day was centred around the Celebration of Christ amongst us - Incarnated in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We had to learn that Jesus was no longer culturally imprisoned in the Word of Scripture, but needing to be actually exprienced and tasted in the Word-made-flesh in the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.

We had to learn that Words in the Scriptures which described other people's understanding of God-in-Christ, needed to be accompanied by the actual and personal experience of the Word Incarnate in the Eucharist - the place where Jesus Himself promised He would be present to all who believed in Him. Perhaps, paradoxically, Jesus said "DO THIS - to 're-member' ME" which we then did!

Anonymous said...

Peter's fine OP led me to crack open my own copy of Childs's Exodus with the new question: how might an evangelical (or anyone) recognize (or not) an authoritative Voice in Childs's sort of reading?

Father Ron, in a way, answers that question just above: you cannot hear that Voice in Childs's reading (or elsewhere) without participating in the Spirit-led Body. That answer does make sense of the way Child's constructed his commentary: textual and linguistic problems only surface where past readers, Jewish and Christian, have found them consequential for God's people.

But both evangelicals and liberals are heirs of the old Reformed suspicion of the Body that usually locates the Voice firmly in individuals prior to anything they do together.

Looking west from Byzantium, Protestants are never quite able to get from the individual to the Body. The anxiety that the Body might impose a human condition on justification is still, after five centuries, rather high. Anyway, an unreal individualism was the official ideology of modernity, and most Protestants are still trying to live in that past because they think that they understood it.

So when evangelicals and liberals clash, as on That Topic, they are being driven apart by the error on which they unhelpfully agree. Their synods are clumsy machines for disguising a mere majority of individuals as a consensus that is truly organic. Meanwhile, whilst Rome can and does emphasise the importance of *forming* individual consciences, and fitfully recognizes that the Spirit may speak hither and yon, the Voice it hears is magisterial, ultimately papal, and so quintessentially institutional. When its institutions collaborate with shocking evil, as they have, disillusioned Catholics have grave doubts.

Childs does not seem to have fallen into either trap. That is, his commentary listens for the Voice neither in any isolated soul+text, nor in any churchly council or curia, still less in any academic faculty, or guild. Rather-- I think + Peter also reads him this way (but maybe not)-- the Voice is heard in traditions of the faithful who read the canon and each other. God is most reliably heard, not in a treatise, memo, or fatwa, but in a wiki.


Anonymous said...

The thought that the small, still Voice is heard in a great canonical wiki has one robust argument in its favour: the scriptures themselves are just such sedimentary rocks (with fossils). So Childs's commentary, for all its careful erudition, is less like an appellate judge's opinion than like a friend catching you up on who said what in a meeting you missed. Or like a geologist's report on what you will find if you drill to a given depth.

Who then are the little voices among whom we hear the authoritative big Voice? Anglicans in Sydney, for example, seem not to listen to small voices heard in New York. And neither listen to the medieval rabbis that Childs often cites.

Between the lines of Childs's books, I detect a virtue ethic that (dis)qualifies voices for the conversational wiki as well as the readings of scripture that we should accept. Acceptable readings have the virtues of thoroughness with respect to the text itself, faithfulness with respect to its wider horizon, and responsiveness to other virtuous readings.

That subtly sublimates the usual evangelical insistence on the letter of a text and the liberal attention to the experience behind it. As in say Robert Jenson, virtuous reading requires a workmanlike care with the text, but not a belief that it is magical or perfect. Virtuous readings also attend to the experiences of authors, but situate those within the imaginary of the canon as a whole. Interpreters in Sydney and New York are more persuasive as they better engage more of the virtuous readings of scripture.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Ron and Bowman
I like the idea of a “virtuous” reading etc!
Yes, reading within the traditions of the faithful; and the “wiki” approach (which I interpret as an evolving consensus as people chip in, from here and there, including from the past).
Nevertheless Childs also presses upon the reader a choice, which some Christians do not seem to want to make: to read the OT as Christian Scripture and not as “not Christian Scripture.”

Anonymous said...

Peter, your 6:59 reminded me of John Goldingay's droll title Do We Need The New Testament?

Today, the wise and the good seem to be reading the OT as *not not scripture for Christians*. They do this in any or all of three ways: (1) reading the NT as quintessentially Judaic and hence Jewish; (2) using the Trinity as their lens for reading the OT; (3) bracketing the C4 polarisation of Israel etc into *Christians with bishops* and *Jews with rabbis* as irrelevant to a canon that was closed two or three centuries before. All three approaches disrupt some modern reflexes.

But-- if one rejects any of them, then how can the New Testament be anybody's scriptures? Its authors wrote in conscious continuity with the OT, and their words are saturated with echoes of the LXX.

With charity for all and malice toward none, I distinguish two tendencies of reading that cut across the more familiar divisions.

One sort of reader hears the Voice in a rather dry human social ethos, and construes anything cosmic, metaphysical or wondrous in the canon as poetic fancy. In conversation, they sound as though they fear that they will not hear even the ethics if they absolutely must hear metaphysics and wonders as well. Every miracle raises doubt about the Golden Rule. Given a chance to think a bit less about angels, Israel, antiquity, dogma, etc, they will grab it with both hands.

Readers of another tendency also detect that ethical Voice, but hear the cosmic, metaphysical and wondrous in scripture as part of its resonance. They are not trying to tune the overtones out; they are turning knobs to hear more of its lush music. Absent that, the ethic might be reasonable, but would not be sensibly glorious and divine. So the cosmos of the Creator-God, the saga of Jesus of Israel and the dogma of divine triunity are what keep them from drifting off to some other ethic and maybe a new religion too.

This rupture in the Body's imaginary is, more or less, what TS Eliot famously called "the dissolution of sensibility." It is also the reason why the Body was never at ease when the world was modern.

Today, we seem to be polarising for and against the proposition that Christendom was just a phase, hence That Topic, Catholics against Francis, Trumpy evangelicals, etc. Each side of that new barricade has readers of both tendencies.