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What is Canonical Theology?

Ever since I first encountered biblical studies I’ve been immersed in discussions about whether or not a “canonical” approach to the Bible is to be preferred over some other sort of approach. One of the difficulties with this discussion relates to a lack of clarity about what such an approach might be. Canonical approaches range from the simple assertion that Scripture should be read a whole, for the church to methodological statements about how the actual literary shape of the canon functions to shape a particular theological reading of Scripture. Therein lies some of the numinousness that surround issues of how we determine methods of theological interpretation.

My one thought at this point, as an apreciator of methods that tend to go under the label “canonical” is that if a canonical approach is understood as positing the shape of the Christian canon as a sort of regulating principle that constitutes a stable universe of coherence and meaning, then I’m not sure it works. I’m wary of such and overdetermined approach to the biblical text in that such macro-level sytheses seem to inevitably require the flattening out of dissonances within the scriptural canon.

Brueggemann makes reference to this in his critique of Childs in his recent book, A Pathway of Interpretation in which he tries to distinguish his own approach from the “canonical” and the “critical”, styling himself as lying somewhere between them, attempting to allow discordant texts to seriously confront the reader in their otherness and intrusiveness (contra the critical) without positing an overarching closure to the message of the Scripture as a whole which determine our readings of particular texts (the canonical). I don’t know if Bruegemann’s critique of Childs really has the traction he thinks it does, and I think the problem with Brueggemann’s position is that he seems to only want to find discordant voices all over the place, having an over-developed suspicion of any genuine unity to the canon. But there still remains the problem of positing the shape of the canon as a sort of ordering principle which predetermines proper readings of scriptural texts. There seems to be just as much an ideological danger in such an approach as that as in old-style historical criticism. I can’t say for sure if this is really a problem with Childs’ canonical approach, but I do see this danger in many of the thinkers that have received and self-applied the label of canonical methodology. Maybe others can shed more light or thought on this.


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:


    I’m right there with you, Halden ;-).

    I think Phil Sumpter would be somebody who could shed some light here . . . what do you say, Phil?

    I agree with you Halden, I see value to the “canonical” approach, but as you note (at least in the shape it is given at the alma mater, and even with Childs, as I understand him) there does seem to be a flattening of sorts. In fact (to use theology proper) it seems rather monistic in its approach, rather totalizing and “modernistic.” I think some of the richest exegetical places are found in the discordant portions of scripture; and to get rid of the “husk” in this way, to me, certainly reflects the scalpel of historico/criticism rather than any kind of christocentric, “Evangelical,” approach.

    Monday, February 2, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Hmm. I have little to contribute here, but as a reader I appreciate your post, Halden. I’m a grad student in Philosophy right now and haven’t fully immersed myself in Biblical Literature and hermeneutics since undergrad four years ago. I feel vastly uninformed at times, and I’m presently in a place where I feel like I’m re-learning how to read scripture, and need guidance. From your comment here and the comments in a book I was recently reading, I’m thinking I should try to find some accessible Bruegemann.

    Monday, February 2, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  3. D C Cramer wrote:

    I believe this is unrelated, but there is a recent theological movement called “canonical theism,” centered on the work’s of William J. Abraham: CANON AND CRITERION IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY and CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF DIVINE REVELATION. Perhaps there are some similarities, despite their different frames of reference?

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 6:57 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    The problem with Brevard Childs is that he forces everything to fit his conclusion. I know Phil really sees a lot in Childs, and I’ve learned a lot from Phil’s generous reading of him, but I’m with James Barr until the bitter end.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  5. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Oh, and D C Cramer, I helped prepare that work for Abraham, and I should note that “canonical theism” is really quite different than Childs’ project.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  6. Adrian Woods wrote:

    The point of Canonical Theism is that the church canonized more than just a collection of books. So if you are going to talk about Canonical Theology, you ought not constrain it to just the bible. Rather, it is the entirety of the canonical tradition through which the Holy Spirit reaches out and transforms the individual. Thus, the canon (that is the entire canon) is primarily formational not informational.

    Canonical Theist want to be careful not to conflate or reduce the canon to just the bible. And further, not to confuse the bible as a criterion of knowledge, justification, or warrant. Therefore, CT are working to develop an epistemology of theology.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  7. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Thanks Bobby for the tip :)

    Hi Halden,

    I’m delighted that you have taken up this issue. I think that as long as we affirm that Scripture is our primary witness to God, then the “canonical approach,” in particular as Childs has envisioned it, still provides us with the most viable and challenging set of propositions. The problem is, as you have observed, that the name “canonical approach” has been adopted by so many that it is hard to know what it is exactly (see Schultz’s article for something of the diversity under Evangelicals alone, let alone its more liberal fans, e.g. Rendtorff). The problem is exacerbated when Childs is consistently misrepresented . I struggle to find worthy interpreters (an aquaintance of mine as just written his doctorate on the subject. He writes that the Childs of the secondary literature is Frankenstein. Seitz is a refreshing and stimulating alternative). Brueggemann, for example, sometimes leaves me speechless. I often have the feeling that he simply wants to stick Childs in his pre-packaged box in order to make his own proposals easier to articulate. I’ve posted a series of rants and dialogues here. For a great critique by a great OT scholar, go here).

    I’ve struggled to understand Childs myself over the past year or so (he’s been practically the sole focus of my blog!). He’s not easy, primarily because his thinking is so global (and because I have no formal training in theology!). As Seitz has pointed out in the best analysis yet (“The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation), Childs is often critiqued from opposing ends of the theological spectrum (e.g.some say he’s too synchronic, some say he’s too diachronic [e.g. Rendtorff on his Biblical Theology]). In my opinion, the trick is to locate Childs in his own “universe,” as it were, in order to understand his perception of both the nature of the text and the nature of its substance (its subject matter, Sachverhalt, res). It is from these concrete particulars that Childs works. They provide him with his orienting coordinates, rather than a commitment to a transcendent position outside of both church tradition and the textual witness. In this sense, ironically, I believe that it is Brueggemann, with his pre-commitment to “de-construction” (whether post-modern, psycho-analytic, or Marxist—his main dialogue partners), rather than Childs, who subordinates Scripture to an alien ideology (see possibly the best critique ever by Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in the Harvard Theological Review: “Is Brueggemann a Pluralist?”, in which he compares the two scholars). Childs actually takes the “risk of faith” that Brueggemann only manages to aestheticise. Out of his concrete and particular faith Childs draws a series of hermeneutical conclusions that have tremendous power. I personally think this is the correct way to proceed, as Christianity is marked by particularity. Answering the numinous question of “how we determine methods of theological interpretation”, as you put it, involves taking into account both the dogmatic and textual/historical dimensions of the reality in which we live.

    So what is the “reality” within which Childs operates?

    As far as I can see, his starting and finishing point is Barthian: God reveals himself, and that is what matters. He reveals himself by breaking into human history, consciousness, and reality, and that which is revealed is the sole significant content of the witness to this revelation, its one true love and the reason for its being. The reality itself is what matters, and it is God’s will that this reality should be made know through the vehicles of human testimony. The human witness is thus a vehicle of revelation, a historically and culturally bound subject who functions to point beyond himself to something transcendent, though always done out of his or her own particularity. Out of this movement of God through human vehicle to recipient (the elect), we have a history, a real history in the usual sense of the word, of relationship between God’s people and God. It is a relationship of promise and calling, as well as failure and judgement. Through the various media of divine revelation (prophets, priests, kings, sages, children, redactors, temple, text, cult, tradition …) a progressive revelation takes place in which God’s people are pushed to recognise God and his ways ever deeper (the “I will be who I will be” in the Exodus, and not just God Almighty, for example). This history is outside the text, spans our present context, and reaches into the future to the consummation of all things. This is the true context of the modern exegete, though his or her stage in the narrative is admittedly different to that of earlier stages of God’s economy (different are the means of revelation [two-testamental Scripture, apostolic tradition] and the apprehension of the “reality” [God in Christ]). The calling of the theological exegete is to live in this reality, to be transformed by it, and to witness to it for others. That is why we read the Bible: in order to understand its true subject matter, its true “substance,” or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, its res. For Childs, then, true theological exegesis is always a matter of reading the text in light of its referent: we have to “pierce the text to its substance,” so that, for example, the word of Jeremiah becomes a vehicle for another word, which is the full reality testified only partially to by himself (hence, also, Childs’ preference for a form of Christian allegory, with its assumptions of textual referentiality, over Jewish midrash, which really does treat the text as self-referential. See my post here.). This movement is circular: we understand the part in light of the whole, and the whole in light of the part (as the fragmentary witness is latterly fused with “its full ontological reality”).

    Within this dogmatically construed history/reality, God’s witness has taken on a particular shape, one that is relevant for our stage in the divine economy. It is the particularity, indeed the peculiarity of this odd witness that is key for Childs’ approach. He doesn’t appeal to Derrida, he simply analysis the Bible and Church Tradition to the best of his limited abilities and comes to certain conclusions. “Scripture,” in other words, is no general category of phenomena, in the light of which our particular species called “Bible” ought to be read. Rather, Scripture refers to this unique bequest, replete with its own form, shape, and demands.

    So what is the nature of this witness, produced by this odd history?

    Childs talks of traditions-become-text, over a long period of dialectical engagement between community, text, and res. God spoke once through his elected channels, this word was efficacious and registered itself among the elect. In other words, the witness (in whatever of the forms mentioned above) was a living vehicle, one that “pressed” for deeper fulfilment in time. Those who stood under its authority perceived with hindsight the fullness of the message, that, for example, Assyria was only a type of a fuller reality represented by Babylon and later Satan’s kingdom, that the land was just a foretaste of something far more eschatological. This growing understanding was registered in the structure of the traditions themselves, ultimately taking more literary form. The process was thus kerygmatic, achieve its goal by hermeneutical manoeuvres. Witnesses were read in light of the fuller reality, and shaped appropriately, by subordination, relativisation, emphasis or simply juxtaposition (etc. etc.). As the tradition became stabilised (more or less, it is fairly irrelevant that this was never fully completed) in the form of an authoritative Scripture, it is logical that the final form that documented the fullness of this divine history/reality (hence my blog name, Narrative and Ontology). Yet even in this finalised, stable literary form, they still bear this full history of revelation that gave them birth, and still maintain within themselves the thread of “apostolic” continuity between the original witness, now buried under the redactional layers or lost to a now alien culture. This history constitutes the texts for what they are. If you ask, what kind of text is the Bible, this is part of the answer, and a refutation of Childs’ approach must partly take place at this level. This history, this “ontology of scripture” (if that’s the right phrase), has hermeneutical implications. We are to read the text according to its own being, as it were. Concretely, we are to read the text in relation to its substance, guided by the shape that has been given to the literature which functions as a regula fidei, a boundary marker for revelation, a kanôn, one with both positive and negative functions.

    One thing is key to all this: the canonical process is marked by what Childs calls a Sachkritik, a criticism according to substance. That means that the redactors who shaped the traditions into what they became were doing so under the authority of the original word and were shaping the whole in light of what came before. The Psalms were paired with each other because they witnessed to a single reality, despite their diversity. It is the substance that guided the process and it is the substance that should concern us. Thus, post-modern attempts to playfully let texts rebound off each other are excluded. This also excludes that which Childs has falsely been accused of himself, namely treating the canon as “a stable universe of coherence and meaning,” as you put it. The unity of the canon does not lie at the level of the text, as if it can all be fit into a seamless dogmatic whole. The unity of the canon consists in its referent, that which the texts are about, in their various ways. The unity is “ontological,” as Childs ceaselessly put it (Brueggemann seems to refract the discord he finds in Scripture into the deity itself).

    All this is contained in the single genre designator: “Witness.” I reckon Childs could have called his introduction an “Introduction to the Old Testament as Witness.” It’s just that “scripture” describes the peculiar way in which it came to fulfil this function, the particular form it came to take. That the term on its own, understood without the content I’ve outlined above, can otherwise have a fairly innocuous meaning, can be seen by comparing it to Brueggemann’s definition. For him, the text as witness does not mean witness to this peculiar ongoing reality with its peculiar historical results. It means, to quote him from his “ABC of Old Testament Theology,” the text as “linguistic utterance.” He thus proceeds by close analysis of words and sentences in their grammatical constituents, pitting propositions against each other with out taking into account, or at least respecting the authority of, a prophetic redactors decision to relativise one insight by subordinating it to another (for example in Qohelet).

    I may be being overly harsh with Brueggemann. I was once a passionate Brueggemannanian myself and have read a fair few of his works. I think my greatest disappointment with him, despite his misrepresentation of what Childs is actually doing, actually comes from attempting to live out his approach. I tend to jump into things, and I came across him at a time when I was hungry in general for an approach that took into account everything my cultural anthropology course and my experience was challenging me with. After a while, however, I felt living his gospel was like eating thin wafers that couldn’t keep me going for the long haul, or even help me to witness to any substantial reality to my friends. Childs turned up providentially at the right time, and his approach has proved itself in the doing and living. I guess I could say that the canonical approach, the Childsian version of it, has proved to be a better vehicle of revelation, or rather has enabled me approach the vehicle that already exists in a manner that brings true life.

    There is so much that has been left unsaid, and this comment is too long as it is! I’ve taken the time because, as you know, I respect this blog and your opinions and would appreciate critical response from a dogmatist, someone whose job is to wrestle with the reality beyond the text! Feel free to tear apart what doesn’t make sense …

    And Flyer, I think that Childs’ response to Barr would not have been, “that’s wrong,” but “yes, but that’s not the point …”. I find myself quite liking a lot of what Barr says (when he isn’t spitting ad hominem).

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I knew you would have something insightful to say, Phil ;-) . . . thank you.

    I think what you’ve said is helpful, I esp. like the relationship that you highlight between the senus literalis and the sensus spirtualis; which you brought out in your other comment — but I think is under discussion in this one as well.

    Really, all I see with Childs (well not all), at least in re. to this discussion and your points is that he endorsed a senus plenior reading of scripture; albeit unfolded in a very creative way. Would you say this is the case, Phil (not to be too reductionistic)?

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  9. bobby grow wrote:

    Or Phil,

    maybe Childs’ approach would better be captured by sensus referensus, preserving both the “literal” notion of referent (penultimate), and what it finally and always gives way to in its “spiritual” or “Christic” referent. Is this what you’re saying about Childs?

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Maybe you lads would like my new song lyric?

    (‘Maestro! a calypso beat’)

    I like to say it in Latin
    Makes me sound pretty smart
    I can say things I couldn’t
    In anglais a la carte

    A French mot would do
    In a pinch or a jam
    But the word I speak
    In Latin
    makes me the man I am.

    Gratia Dei sum quod sum
    Thanks be to God I am what I am.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  11. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Lest you think I am speaking to anyone in particular: NEIN! :)

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  12. CTN wrote:

    That was awesome! I was trying to figure out why Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis was so frustrating, and you helped me understand why. While I appreciate his ability to let tensions sit in a particular pericope, he fails to speak to the reality to which the text is pointing. Sure, he’ll say that this text only says so much about who God is, and is always sensitive to beat back attempts to systematize/moralize the texts, where we want to make the text say more than it does. For instance, take what he says about Calvin’s, et al’s attempts at blaming Cain for failing to provide an offering that was pleasing to God in Genesis 4). The way Brueggemann explains Genesis 4:3-5 is as follows

    “The trouble comes not from Cain, but from Yahweh, the strange God of Israel. Conventional interpretation is too hard on Cain and too easy on Yahweh. It is Yahweh who transforms a normal report into a life/death story for us and about us. Essential to the plot is the capricious freedom of Yahweh. LIke the narrator, we must resist every effort to explain it. There is nothing here of Yahweh preferring cowboys to farmers. There is nothing here to disqualify Cain. Calvin and others after him malign Cain and give reason for his rejection, thus introducing a moral dimension into the incident. But when Calvin does so, he knows more than the text. The rejection of Cain is not reasoned but is a necessary premise for the story. Life is unfair. God is free. There is ample ground here for the deathly urgings that move among us.”

    Now obviously there’s more that Brueggemann writes about with regard to the significance of this passage. While he’s reticent to say more about Yahweh than the passage does, he goes on at length regarding the moral implications of the text when read in parallel to Matthew 5:21-26 and 1 John 3:11-18 about brotherly love.

    Also, I’m wondering if Brueggemann is more akin the early Barth’s theological exegesis, while Childs represents the the more mature Barth’s theological exegesis. I’m currently in a class with Beverly Gaventa and Bruce McCormack called “Paul and Karl,” which will dig into the Romans commentary a bit more. Not a fully developed thought, just a hunch for now, but perhaps you or anyone could speak to that.

    Thanks again!
    Chris TerryNelson

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  13. Bobby Grow wrote:

    That’s cute, Roger :-) .

    I’m certainly no Latin expert, but I do know some “Latinisms” . . . so what do you think about sensus referensus ;-)? Which really means, “many/fuller referents.” Do you think that this is a viable way to think about a relationship between the New Testament/Old Testament? Say for example between promise/fulfillment motifs.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  14. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Hi Bobby,

    in response to your first comment: all I see with Childs … is that he endorsed a senus plenior reading of scripture; albeit unfolded in a very creative way.

    I think all Christian exegetes have, at some stage, to posit a sensius plenior reading of Scripture. Allegory, of one form or another, constitutes our tradition (cf. A. Louth). Childs wants to understand how to get there and in what it consists. The journey, the “very creative way,” has a hec of a lot of implications. His results can look different to other theological exegetes (Brueggemann, Rendtorff, Steins), and that’s because of the bag of assumptions/conclusions he is working with.

    Your second comment: maybe Childs’ approach would better be captured by sensus referensus, preserving both the “literal” notion of referent (penultimate), and what it finally and always gives way to in its “spiritual” or “Christic” referent.

    Again, some form of referentiality is assumed by most interpreters. Childs’ contribution lies in thinking about the nature of the referent (theological/historical) and its relation to the text (it is beyond the text, which is only a vehicle). His understanding of the significance of ontology is important here. See his important essay, “Does the OT witness to Jesus Christ?” He talks of the text being infused with its “full ontological reality,” once one has made the move from part to whole and then back again. Again, I think his special contribution lies in thinking about what “canon,” in his definition, implies about how this move should take place.

    Hi Chris,

    I haven’t read Brueggemann’s commentary. From what I remember of him, he talks of not being able to go beyond the text, of not even wanting to, hence his fixation on individual words read literally and in their immediate syntactical context. It seems to me like an odd attempt to be more objective, to protect himself from importing something into the text that isn’t there. But objectivity is impossible anyway (as he himself proclaims on other occasions) so it is odd that he should feel driven to do this. If one ignores the genre of the text as witness, its fuction within the community of faith, the intentionality of the redactors, its place within the larger testimony, Hebrew literary devices, the ecomony of salvation etc. then one is likely to come up with an interpretation like this. Interestingly, M. Sternberg (Poetics) talks of “gapping” as a Hebrew literary technique that invites us to search the Scriptures in order to fill the gap. The author purposely doesn’t comment in order to challenge us to make our own theological/moral judgement, but in the light of the whole work. Brueggemann, on the other hand, is intent to leave the gap there and make an immediate dogmatic statement about God’s capriciousness. Which seems like bad exegesis to me. There was an interesting exchange between Brueggemann and Childs in the Scottisch Journal of Theology (Childs reviewed his Theology, Brueggemann responded by missing the point). I made an attempt an analysing this in my post“Ecclesial Context:” Brueggemann vs Childs.

    As for early/late Barth, I can’t say, I’m afraid.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  15. Matt Emerson wrote:

    At the seminary I attend, “canonical theology” makes most of the faculty and students here think of one person: Dr. John Sailhamer. If you read his chapter in Scott Hafemann’s “Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect”, his “Introduction to Old Testament Theology”, or his “Pentateuch As Narrative”, his essential point is that the canon (and narrowly the OT canon) was put together in a certain way and has seams that connect the different parts (i.e. Law, Prophets, and Writings in the OT). So, when canonical theology is discussed, it’s discussed in terms of how the shape of the canon affects interpretation, and especially how it shows how the OT is pointing to Christ.

    -Matt Emerson

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Matt, yes I read Sailhammer some years ago and was taken with that approach for some time. I do like the sort of literary canonical study which examines the seams between the different portions of the OT. What I’m wondering about here is how such studies get construed theologically. In other words, if we observe a canonical shaping to the OT, does that function hermeneutically as creating a sort of closed system of meaning? That’s the step I feel like people take, and it’s one that I’m worried about.

    Phil, your comments are beyond incisive here. I agree with your critique of Brueggemann and look forward to getting deeper into Childs.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  17. bobby grow wrote:


    thank you for your response, very insightful, and pointed. I agree with you on Childs’ and his unique approach to the role that the ‘shape’ of the canon has hermeneutically. I’m not sure that I am totally on board with him, but that might be just because I have not spent enough time with him (I’ve spent more time with Sailhammer). My undergrad experience at Multnomah, by-and-large, was embroiled with controversy around some of these very issues (Sailhammer’s canonical approach [represented by one prof] vs. the LGH [represented by the rest of the profs]). I saw some value in both approaches, and have tried to come up with a via media (for you Roger ;-) . . . I’m still working at that — thanks again, Phil!


    when you say “closed system of meaning,” is your concern that the ‘community of faith’ (the church through the centuries, into the present) is effectively, “cut off” from having any kind of creative role at exegeting the text (e.g. maybe prima scriptura has something to do with this[?])?

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  18. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Hi Halden, thanks for getting back to me. Sorry if this is a dumb question (nothing new to me), but just to clarify, by “beyond” do you mean “not”?

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Phil, It was a superlative, so “really, really incisive” is what was meant.

    Bobby, what I mean is the idea that the shaping of the canon effectively “produces” a particular biblical interpretation or pattern of interpretation. In other words, I don’t think canonical shaping can interpret the Bible for us, as if its some kind of key that encodes and delivers the “meaning” of the text to us. Does that make more sense?

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  20. Matt wrote:

    I don’t think it closes meaning (does anything except the coming of Christ?), but I do think it certainly points us in a clearer direction. I hope that answers your question.


    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  21. Phil Sumpter wrote:


    well that’s a relief :)

    What I’m wondering about here is how such studies get construed theologically. In other words, if we observe a canonical shaping to the OT, does that function hermeneutically as creating a sort of closed system of meaning?

    I think your concerns are very valid here. This is where Childs is often underappreciated: his sensitivity for diversity within the canonical process itself. He talks of various kinds of canonical shaping and the various ways in which they should be evaluated. He evaluates, for example, the juxtaposition on the twelve in the Book of the Twelve differently to the juxtaposition (if that’s the right word) of the three parts of Isaiah. Again, the juxtaposition of the two testaments is of a different order to the juxtaposition of books within a testament. I looked at this in my post Two Testaments, Four Gospels: The hermeneutical significance of juxtaposition.


    “closed system of meaning,”

    Childs is often accused of this, though he consistently rejects it and critiques other canonical approaches which do indeed practice it. Frei is accused of going in this direction, but I reckon he was far more subtle than he is given credit for (see my post Hans Frei on Textual Referentiality. I understand the accusation as meaning that the Bible is self referential, i.e. the parts make sense only in relation to each other and not in relation to an external referent. It treats the Bible as a hermetically sealed universe, which one can enter without having necessary knowledge in other spheres of truth, e.g. historical critical information or dogmatic truths. Childs calls it “midrash,” (I think Levinas may be doing this, see this quote) and contrasts it with “allegory.” See his essay, “Critique of recent intertextual interpretation.”

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  22. Bobby Grow wrote:


    yes, thank you . . . I’m a bit rusty on this, having been away from it for awhile. I understand exactly what you mean, I remember “that prof” at our school arguing that, in fact, the very “order” (the TaNaK order that is) serves as a normative cipher for interpreting scripture; and I objected to that then, and still would.


    interestingly, “that prof” I reference (with Halden above) “coincidentally,” as I recall is very influenced, or very partial to Hans Frei. I can recall a diagram he provided where he has “biblical truth/history” hovering over “historical/history;” effectively “cutting off” (your hermetically) any necessary “correspondence” (thus assuming a particular epistemology) between the two. This is indeed troubling, since it does endorse or assume a self-referentiality that has no foundation (at least methodologically) in concrete “reality” (and it seems to me that scripture itself assumes an epistemology and thus ontology that is at odds with this approach). So thanks again for the clarification!

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    Just to be clear, about the Tanakh issue regarding canonical seams, I think they are perfectly valid and shed some light on some key trajectories…I just don’t think they can overdetermine one’s interpretation of the OT.

    In other words, I think the seams and canonical shaping should be interpreted in light of what we discover in dealing with the particularities of the canonical texts rather than the seams serving to inform how we interpret the particulars of the text itself.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  24. bobby grow wrote:

    And Halden,

    I agree with you there, I overstated a bit. For example I think it is very helpful to see Chronicles lead into Matthew and the Gospels in general (given the various motifs: Davidic, Temple, etc.); and there are other valuable literary connections to be made in this way. I just don’t think that making this “way” the norm (i.e. reading scripture through TaNaK ordering as ‘inspired’) is necessary to read scripture “rightly.”

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  25. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Hi Bobby
    Quid pro quo.
    ; /

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  26. bobby grow wrote:

    Hi Roger,


    touche, see it’s not just Latin . . . a little French too :-)

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  27. Roger Flyer wrote:

    omg lol etc
    Phil, you’re a german!?
    and we are speaking in our native tongue lingua sprachen?

    Thursday, February 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  28. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Du bist Deutscher? Eigentlich bin Engländer (Gott sei Dank!) und lebe nur hier. Ich habe die Sprache wegen meiner Frau gelernt und merke erst im Nachhinein, dass ich meine Doktorarbeit überhaupt nicht schreiben könnte ohne diese Sprache lesen zu können!

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 1:04 am | Permalink
  29. bobby grow wrote:

    Yo quiero, Taco Bell ;-)

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 2:54 am | Permalink
  30. Roger Flyer wrote:

    I am ugly American who studied French in high school. Je dois aller a la bibliotheque. Ou est the wc?

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    I’m going to ban Bobby and Roger if you don’t cut this out!

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  32. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Hey Halden-
    Bobby’s not to blame for whatever it is that’s got you upset. Sorry to mess with the seriousness of your blog, Halden.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  33. bobby grow wrote:

    Well it takes at least two, not all your fault, Roger.


    yeah, sorry . . . I will be more serious in the future.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  34. Halden wrote:

    I’m just kidding you guys.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  35. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Well an emoticon would’ve helped ;-) . . . ah the perspicuity of blogging.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  36. Roger Flyer wrote:

    I still don’t know. Is Phil German? I wasn’t trying to be funny I thought he was German and writing in English!

    I don’t read or speak it, but I think he might have been telling me he’s English but his wife dragged him there in Deutschland? Phil…? Help.

    And levity does lighten some of the Latin and droning of BIG ideas. I’ll try to hold off my commentary.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  37. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Vir sapit qui pauca loquitur.

    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  38. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Sorry, Roger, I thought you were saying that you were German! No, I’m British (thank God) and only speak German because, as you say, my German wife dragged me here (though I think I’d rather live in Germany than England, given its current cultural disintegration). I also said that in hindsight it was a great idea to learn the language as I cannot imagine writing my doctorate without knowing it. There is an aweful lot of stuff on the canonical shape of the Psalms that only exists in German. In addition to that, Barth is easier to read in the original, once you get used to the painfully long sentences.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  39. Roger Flyer wrote:


    Thanks for clarifying. I know that curiosity seekers like me can cause a bit of eye rolling. I did know that learning to read German is important to be able to understand contemporary theologians (which to the uninitiated is just plain odd.)

    I love this blog and a couple others because they help shape my own emerging, evolving theology even as I don’t understand or know much of the theological library or all the necessary tongues of academia.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  40. Ched wrote:

    Though slightly too pedestrian to join this conversation, I’ve enjoyed the robust exchanges.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

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