Brevard S. Childs

I have begun reading Brevard S. Childs’ The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. Of this book Childs himself wrote, “There were few reviews that invariably turned to a defense of the historical critical method that appeared to these reviewers to be threatened, but the substance of my New Testament proposal was seldom addressed.” [1] There is something exciting about revisiting the argument of a book that the “scholarly consensus” ignored.

Toward the beginning he notes five areas of “theological debate regarding canon” that were taking place when he wrote the work (1984):

(1) Diversity of perspectives within the NT. What do we do with these? How can we discuss a canon that guides the church as Scripture if there seems to be internal tension?

(2) The usefulness and necessity of a “canon within a canon”. If we think Paul gives greater insight into the gospel that James is it OK to consider Paul’s canon within the great canon to be superior? What about within the Pauline corpus? Do the so-called “authentic” epistles gain place over the so-called Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral epistles?

(3) “How much theological authority can be attributed to the canonical decisions of the early church?” Do we see the canon as having any value in the books selected and the order decided?

(4) How does this impact our view of tradition? If tradition had any role in shaping the canon is there any sense in which we can continue to affirm sola scriptura with the Reformers? Childs asks if we need to go back toward sola traditio.

(5) How should canonicity impact exegesis?

These are excellent discussion starters! [2] I intend on sharing here the general conclusions reached by Childs as I move through the book. At this stage here is how I would tentatively approach answering:

(1) I would let the voices stand while seeking a sort of “harmony” that derives from the tension. I have addressed this in blog post prior to this one (e.g. here and here). My “model” is a choir or orchestra. No, the sounds are not the same but together they make something greater (more truthful) than the sum of their parts.

(2) I need to think on this one further. For instance, would I see Pauline theology as normative with the rest of the canonical witness needing to conform to this center? The Gospels? I don’t know. I think we are have a subconscious “canon within a canon”, but I don’t know if we should intentionally seek one.

(3) I think the early church should be given as much authority as regards canon formation as it has been the doctrine of the Trinity or the various Christological creeds and so forth.

(4) I think there may be a way to preserve sola scriptura (not solo scriptura) using the model of a constitution. A constitution is birthed due the the decisions of a evolving nation. So the tradition of the nation at that point has its hand in the formation of a constitution as well as various amendments. Nevertheless, the constitution, once formed, stands above the nation that made it and can in return reshape her. We may see an analogy in how the church relates to Scripture.

(5) As concerns canonical impact on exegesis let me provide two approaches. First, if someone is seeking to do historical-grammatical exegesis, then no, the canon doesn’t have impact on that task which I am beginning to see as more the historian’s task than the theologians. Second, if someone is trying to do Christian theology, then yes, the canon informs our reading of the text. Intercanonical and intertextual readings take precedent over the historiographical approaches when it comes to doctrine/dogma.

I know this is a random, here-and-there post addressing some preliminary concerns to a canonical reading, but if you have your own thoughts on the situations Childs mentions, or some thoughts on any of my preliminary answers, I welcome your comments!

[1] Brevard S. Childs, The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus. 1.

[2] Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. 20-21.