A REVIEW ON BREVARD S. CHILDS. “THE CANONICAL SHAPE OF THE PROPHETIC LITERATURE.” INTERPRETATION 32, 1 (1978): 46–55.
Brevard S. Childs attempts to advocate the primacy of canonical approach over the historical-critical method in reading prophetic literature. In fact, he advocates the same approach to read the Bible as a whole. The paper is divided into three sections.
The first section is a brief analysis on different methodologies, thesis, purpose of the paper, and hypothesis. It is widely agreed that the modern research assumes that the current shape of literature has pre–literary stages that can be reconstructed by using critical methodologies. Besides appreciating the contributions of modern research, Childs, however, suggest that historical-critical approach is inadequate to study biblical literature. The historical-critical method has fragmentised the text with speculations about the sitz-im-leben; and politicised the text—by which the normative role of Scriptures was downplayed in the church. Having stated the problem, Childs proposes canonical approach in studying prophetic literature in five steps.
Firstly, canonical process considers literary and theological impetus in shaping the final form of the Hebrew Bible, in particular, prophetic literature which is a normative Scripture for the future generations.
Secondly, canonical process reflects the historical encounter between God and Israel—by which the final form is shaped. Childs remarks that canon’s assertion on biblical text as a witness to Israel’s encounter with God and the one which is under the effect, is an alternative explanation to the ambiguity of canonical process and the formation of the final form. However, he does not give any reason for such ambiguity. The final form points to an end of normative history in which revelatory history is discernible.
Regarding the canonicity of the earlier stages of biblical traditions, Childs, states that prior to the formation of the final form, earlier stages were considered canonical. In this regard a critical function of canon on earlier stages is exercised in passing the tradition with all its historical information and the being selective in arranging or expanding the traditions. The two critical functions may be regarded as form and redaction criticism, which Childs overlooks. Childs, though, he advocates the primacy of canonical approach depends on other methodologies to explain his approach which he deems it to be different. If the “process of the formation” and the history of its canonization” are deliberately made ambiguous or lost, then how is it possible to provide a critical judgment regarding the canonicity of the earlier biblical traditions? (47-48)
Childs suggests that the final form itself possess a hermeneutic function—by which certain elements are emphasized over the other. He suggests that any methodology that deviates from the “canonical ordering” needs to be avoided as they tend to shift the focus of the text from its message to its historical and literary aspects.
Finally, canonical process is an integral process by which the earlier traditions were shaped and transmitted to be used by future generations of Israel. This process started in the preexilic time and gained momentum during postexilic time. The actualization of the traditions along with theological import organized into the text by which interpretative guidelines were provided. Contrastingly, modern research seeks to ignore canonical shaping of the text and thus the interpreter finds it difficult to interpret the same in one’s own contemporary context.
In the second section, Childs illustrates the actualization of the traditions in the prophetic literature with the theological reflection—by which the text provides interpretative guidelines for its appropriation. He gives eight examples from different prophetic books.
The first example discusses about the expansion of the original message within larger theological context. Amos’ message of doom and restoration has been arranged within the larger eschatological context (Am 9:1-10 cf. Am 9:11-15). However, the critical scholarship suggests an editorial work from the later generation. Childs did not consider that the same canonical process might be at work in the suggestion made by the critical scholarship.
The next example discusses about the assigning of “new metaphorical role” to the original prophesy. (49) The original material has been arranged in such way that chapters 1-3 of Hosea can be symbolically interpreted. However, Childs overlooks the historicity of Hosea’s marriage which undergirds the metaphorical explanation of the same.
The purpose of detachment of the prophetic material is to subordinate the material to a “new theological context.” (50) The critical scholarship suggestive of Babylonian exile, contrastingly, Childs suggests that the exilic setting of Second Isaiah has been detached so that the material may have an eighth century setting with an eschatological meaning. However, one can see that both Childs and Critical scholarship seek to reconstruct the historical setting of Isaiah—an eighth century context by the former and a Babylonian exile by the later.
The next example is regarding edition of the prophetic material by looking at larger canonical literature. The prosaic language of Jeremiah’s message, from literary criticism’s perspective, is an editorial work of Deuteronomic school; whereas, from canonical perspective it is preservation of Jeremiah’s words—by which the words were provided with a commentary that is in line with the former messengers loyal to Mosaic Law. Similarly, the common oracles of Isaiah and Micah (Isa 2:1-4 cf. Mic 4:104), from a historical perspective, is an editorial work of common tradents of two traditions; whereas from canonical perspective, it is to provide a commentary for a mutual benefit. However, Childs do not give any reason for such a canonical move whereas; historical criticism is suggestive of common editors or redactors of two traditions.
According to the next example, the canonical shaping of the prophet’s message in terms of its original historical ordering is assigned a new role through a “radical theocentric focus.” (51) This new role is not to downplay historicity of the text; rather, it transcends the text—by which an eschatological view of God’s salvafic plan is made evident. This kind of canonical shaping has influenced the final form. In Nahum and Habakkuk, the hymns function as “dramatic illustration of the eschatological triumph of God.” (51) The book of Ezekiel, with all its ambiguity in terms of its geographical location, audience, and absence of conventional prophetic speech forms, transcends prophet’s message from temporal to transcendent level. Thus, Childs, observes this shift to be a ‘canonical key’ by which the text is relativized and the final shape is affected.
Childs suggests, in the next example, that a “rule-of-faith” framework is used to provide an “interpretative guideline” for the prophetic message. (51) While the critical scholarship considers the two appendices at the end of Malachi as an editorial work of priestly editor; canonical process views the same as a unity of law and prophets, and as a balance between past and the future. The same is true for the book of Ecclesiastes in which the order—God’s commandments (12:13) and impending judgment (12:14) placed together by a rule-of-faith. However, Childs do not establish what constitutes rule-of-faith.
The next example discusses a “patterning schema” of the prophetic material to support a “new typological role”—by which an original historical sequence of the text is subordinated and refocused to a dominant theological motifs. (52) The books of Isaiah and Micah illustrate the above in which oracles of doom and salvation have been arranged alternatively.
The final example discusses the “radical eschatologizing” of original material and its focus by which the symbols are interpreted differently. (52) Childs observes this as “internal theological shaping” by which a tension is worked out in to the text—between original visions and present shape of the oracles. He points to this tension in the book of Zechariah and book of Joel. The original focus of these books was fashioned in such a way that one can see a tension between original historical focus of the text and futuristic focus.
Childs concludes that the above examples points to a “creative” force behind collecting the material and shaping the same. (53) One can see that the above examples do exhaust the interpretation of prophetic literature which Childs disagrees. Moreover, he shifts his focus to the interpretation of the OT as a whole while discussing prophetic literature.
The third section discusses seven theological implication of the canonical shaping. The first one is regarding OT exegesis. The task of OT exegesis is to interpret the canonical text. The prophetic literature, in particular, needs to be interpreted from theocentric perspective—from which Israel’s identity is a derivative. The tradents deliberately have hidden their identity in the text so that the text gets attention. However, it is very ambiguous how tradents tried to “hide their footprints,” which Childs overlooks. (53)
The second one is that since earlier traditions are considered canonical, they do not pose any threat to the divine authority. Childs disagrees with the scepticism of protestant and reformed churches regarding traditions as a threat to divine source. The words of prophets and word of God in the traditions are considered to be divinely inspired. Canon seeks to preserve witness of such traditions and hence resisting any method that accounts for different levels of authority to the Scripture.
The third implication is that the historical referent can be identified within the canonical text of the Scripture. The understanding of prophets would be very difficult, if one resorts to historical-critical method. Thus, Childs remarks such an attempt will lead to a “major hermeneutical confusion.” (53)
The next implication is that one can bring out the relevance of the text without resorting to historical-critical method as canonical shaping warrants for an “intentional theological shaping” (52) of the text for edifying future generations.
The fifth implication is that it is quite impossible to formulate theology of prophets, if one attempts to reconstruct the text based on historical-critical method. The sixth implication is that if the canonical shaping is not taken seriously, then it is very difficult to understand the New Testament’s usage of OT prophets. From canonical perspective, Childs observes that NT understands Second Isaiah, Joel and Hosea in eschatological terms.
Finally, Childs concludes the article by discussing and clarifying the role of canonical approach in the exegetical task of OT. For him, canonical approach should not be regarded as another method in the overarching historical-critical method. Contrastingly, it is a vantage point from where the Bible must be read. Conversely, canonical approach sets limit to the scope of biblical exegesis. Childs observes two dimensions. First one is negative—canonical approach strongly resists the assumption that prior to starting exegesis, one must look at the text from a historical-critical lens. Second one is positive—canonical approach frees the interpreter in the exegetical task by which he/she is confronted by the authoritative word of God. The relevance and function of the text can, thus, be understood and applied to the community of faith.
Childs’ canonical approach to see the Scriptures as Sacred is appreciable. The approach is a reaction against any critical method that atomises the Scriptures which seeks to decanonize the same. Therefore, one can see a stark discontinuity between historical-critical method and Childs’ canonical approach. Moreover, Childs approach was often criticized by the critical scholarship as it tends to ignore the historicity of the Scriptures. The notion that tradents obscured their footprints in the text has not been established by Childs. While focusing on the final form, Childs, however, ignores different versions of the final form. While claiming a discontinuity from historical-critical method, Childs, however, depends on the same to elucidate his approach. Nevertheless, Childs’ approach liberates the interpreter to exegete the prophetic material as sacred word of God which is authoritative and normative for the community of faith. Furthermore, such an exegetical task would call for a different hermeneutic inquiry to interpret prophetic material and the Bible as a whole.
YESHWANTH B. V.