Saturday, February 15, 2014

Canon, Criticism, and the Church

I'm in the middle of reading and writing about Brevard Childs's canonical approach to the Old (and New) Testament. I don't know what to make of it, but Childs (and his critics) have convinced me of something: there is an enormous gap between biblical scholarship and the church.

It is interesting how Childs and Barton (one of his constructive critics) see this gap. For Childs, the old, entrenched historical-critical method of reading Scripture begins from a "neutral" position, and therefore can only end in a neutral position, unconnected to the life of the church. It is this method that is to blame for the gap between academy and church, because this method lives and dies by its critical distance from the church, and that distance can never be bridged.

Barton, while agreeing on much (though by no means all) of Childs's description of historical criticism, thinks that it is not inherently anti-church. Throughout its history, he argues, most practitioners of this method have been church people who have not ceased to be church people simply because of their critical (in the neutral sense of the word) stance towards Scripture. For Barton, historical criticism lets the text speak with all its depth and dimensions, its historicity and contextuality. He admits that there is a gap between this scholarship and the life of the church, but he attributes that gap to a spirit of anti-intellectualism (at least in England). The insights of historical-criticism may be irrelevant to the church, but for Barton that is mainly because the church has not allowed itself to be shaped by these insights.

So, Childs or Barton? I am tempted to simply say Yes.

That there is a gap between biblical studies and the church is undeniable. Take one of biblical studies' fairly uncontested conclusions in the 20th century about the book of Isaiah: it is divided up into three parts, or at least it is certainly not the work of one author. This is almost a given for scholars. Yet ask a selection of church goers if they've ever heard of Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah and I would posit that the answer from about 90-95% would be No. I don't say this to illustrate how naive or simplistic the "average" church goer is. Rather, it simply illustrates that there is a real gap between what scholars think about the bible and what non-scholars think.

Why hasn't a scholarly insight such as this made its way into church vocabulary? There are undoubtedly a host of reasons, some specific to each congregation. But I also think that Barton is right: there is a pervasive anti-intellectualism within the church.

I went along to a morning lecture at a bible conference here in Northern Ireland a few years back. The conference is a way for young singles to meet each other young adults to get some good, solid bible teaching into them. D. A. Carson has been a speaker at a few of these events, but this particular weekend featured a pastor from South Africa (or maybe Zimbabwe). He was working his way through the book of Isaiah, and the morning I heard him he was beginning at chapter 40. He prefaced his talk by telling us that there are some "liberal scholars" who think that this is not the work of Isaiah; they call it "deutero-Isaiah." But he said that as evangelicals we can ignore this sceptical attitude towards Scripture and hold fast to our belief that this is really the work of the prophet Isaiah, and thus the inspired Word of God.

If I keep writing this will quickly end up like one of those tortured Peter Enns posts that just can't get its head around evangelical closed-mindedness. Nevertheless, Enns has a point. And what's more, that pastor speaking in Castlewellan had a point. Critical scholarship really is considered to be "liberal" by much of the church. I could almost guarantee that a church that had an unusually high percentage of people who were familiar with deutero-Isaiah would either be one of those annoying, self-consciously liberal churches, or would be considered "liberal" even if it didn't think of itself that way.

Rather than using the old liberalism-conservatism divide, is anti-intellectualism a fair name for what is going on? Is the faith of the church afraid of understanding? For many, it seems like there is a fear of any understanding of the historicality - to use one of those made up words - of Scripture. If the Bible is shown to be rooted in history, undergoing amendment and addition over time, subject to contingency, then it seems to lose its inspired quality. Barton and other biblical critics are not out to undermine the status of the Bible, however. Rather, one of the questions these scholars raise is: what does it mean for the Bible to be inspired by God? What is the nature of that inspiration? If we can speak of deutero-Isaiah, what does that do to and for our faith? Can this insight actually enrich our engagement with Scripture?

Childs doesn't think that it can. Or, at least, that historical critics haven't been able to provide good theological answers to the issues they've raised. This is where Childs's canonical approach comes into play. It takes some of the critical insights of the historical approach on board, but it brings everything back to the reality of the canon. So, while Childs is perfectly willing to speak of deutero-Isaiah, he nevertheless reads it in its canonical context, which means that it really does flow seemlessly after Isaiah 1-39 in the canon, even if that's not the case in history.

The canonical approach is therefore "post-critical". It does not act as if critical scholarship never happened, but it does not allow itself to play the same language game as this scholarship. It beings with new questions - theological and religious questions - and looks to the canon rather than any putative reconstruction of history for answers. In this way it is vitally connected to the community of faith.

I do wonder, however, if Childs was not running ahead of the rest of the community of faith. Childs himself may be "post-critical" but I don't think that the church is. Not by a long shot. I'm with Barton on this front. The church hasn't even begun to become critical. The church isn't wrestling with the synoptic problem or the dating of Daniel. Many today - I think of Hauerwas, for example - would say that wrestling with these things is a distraction, a distinctly un-theological way of reading Scripture, and that we are better off when these questions are left to one side so that we can get on with the real business of reading this text as Scripture, and as members of a community of faith. Does that mean we write off three centuries of scholarship as one long, bad dream?

I'm not convinced that should be done. I'm not convinced that we need to leave deutero-Isaiah to one side, as a sort of failed experiment. The strength of Childs's approach is that it really is post-critical. His work could not have been done 300 years ago. But I think it is jumping the gun to see Childs's way of reading Scripture as being commensurate with the church's way of reading. The church, unlike Childs, is still pre-critical. The full import of his reading will therefore not be available to the church until the church is also post-critical. We may like to think of the church as trans-critical. Perhaps in a way it is. Certainly the church's being is not defined by the movements of the scholarly world. But the church exists in history, and cannot imagine herself to be impervious to the contingencies of history. Thus far the church - at least that part of the church I'm familiar with - has remained largely aloof from criticism. I am not sure that is a good place for the church to be.

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