Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

R.I.P. Brevard S. Childs (1924-2007)

childs.jpgI saw the sad news last night from both Jim West and Ben Myers that Brevard S. Childs (1924-2007), one of the most important Old Testament scholars the U.S. has ever produced, died Saturday.   I waited until I could find out more than just that stark notification of his death, however, before posting this brief tribute.  Dr. Childs apparently died Saturday afternoon from complications from an injury sustained in a fall in his home. He was 83.

A brief obituary is on the website of Yale Divinity School here.  Brevard Childs, Stirling Professor of Divinity at YDS from 1958-1999 was a major shaping force in post-WWII approaches to Old Testament study, especially insisting that the Hebrew Scriptures be studied by Christians as the Old Testament, a vital part of Christian Scripture.  I was only influenced by Childs second hand, both through his writings and because he had been THE most influential teacher of my teacher, Pamela J. Scalise.   To read Childs’ work was, for me, to understand viscerally that critical biblical study did NOT stand in tension with a commitment to the Church’s canon (although Childs never offered any substantive argument for the Protestant canon over the Catholic canon or the Orthodox canon). He would review the entire modern history of biblical interpretation in his commentary, but then ask the all-important question of what it meant to interpret a particular book or passage in canonical context, that is, as part of the received text that the Church confesses as Scripture, including what it’s placing (e.g., between which books) by later editors in the shape of the canon might mean for how we should read this final version of the text.

Childs’ focus on the final version of the canonical text had few followers among biblical scholars (others with a “canonical focus” like James A. Sanders or Rolf Rendtorff had different foci, with Sanders concentrating on the process by which a text became part of the canon–or various canons), but it probably did inadvertantly lead to many biblical scholars shifting from an exclusive concentration on reconstructing historical events behind the biblical text and paying more attention to the final texts themselves–though most others did this through the tools of literary theory.  Other Old Testament theologians concerned seriously with the texts as Scripture, such as Walter Brueggemann or even the evangelical Anglican John Goldingay, were more comfortable focusing on the diversity of the texts and the tensions between their various perspectives, whereas Childs’ focus was on reading the Scriptures as a unified whole. Some evangelical theologians, such as Charles J. Scalise, found Childs’ work to be a helpful bridge from biblical scholarship to doctrinal theology.

Dr. Childs’ unexpected death is a loss not only to the world of academic scholarship, but also to the church–and the church’s attempts to read the Old Testament as Scripture and shape its life together accordingly.

June 25, 2007 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Obituaries

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