Friday, December 11, 2009

The Church's Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus, Book Review

Title: The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus 
Author: Brevard S. Childs
Publisher: Eerdmans, 2008
Price: $28.00 (amz | wts)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 276

For those familiar with Old Testament studies, the late Brevard Childs needs no introduction. Though, his contribution to the field of New Testament studies is perhaps less prominent. In 1985, Childs wrote The New Testament as Canon in an attempt to stimulate the kind of discussion and dialogue generated by his work on the Old Testament. The response, however, was underwhelming, and his proposal was either dismissed or ignored among New Testament scholars (pp. 1-2). The present volume is Childs’ attempt to continue applying the canonical method to the New Testament and specifically to Paul’s letters.

In chapter one, Childs begins by indicating some of the problems involved in a historical-critical reading of Paul’s letters. He then outlines his arguments for a canonical approach to discerning Paul’s theology. Throughout the rest of the book and in each exegetical example, Childs will endeavor to draw out “the exegetical and hermeneutical implications of canon for understanding within the context of the church” (p. 3). Chapter two surveys alternative proposals attempting either to expand or modify the historical critical enterprise. Interacting with Ulrich Luz, Richard Hays, Frances Young, Luke T. Johnson, and Wayne Meeks, Childs evaluates their proposals in light of a canonical approach.

In chapter three, Childs investigates the shaping of the Pauline corpus itself. For him, Romans plays a comprehensive role at the head of the collection by introducing Paul and the essence of his theology. The Pastoral Epistles, then, serve as a counterpart to Romans by consolidating Paul’s teaching for later generations of readers.

Chapter four functions as the centerpiece of the book and contains eight substantial case studies where Childs traces a theme as it develops canonically through Paul’s letters. These themes represent a broad spectrum of biblical theology and include the gospel, faith, life in the Spirit, the community, Israel, and the apocalypse. The development of these themes bears the weight of Childs’ approach, as he seeks to demonstrate the benefit and necessity of viewing the individual letters within the scope of the Pauline corpus.

In chapter five, Childs moves to the writings that bookend the Pauline corpus in the New Testament canon. Thus, he delineates the role that Acts and Hebrews play in introducing and concluding the content of Paul’s letters. They set the framework in which Paul’s letters are to be read and understood. For Childs, Acts legitimizes the message of the apostles and Hebrews grounds that apostolic gospel in the broader context of the Old Testament Scriptures (pp. 230-31, 250-51). Childs concludes the volume by offering several theological implications of viewing the Pauline corpus in the way he outlines in the previous sections. Here, he underscores the theological integrity of a canonical reading and the interpretive guidance the canon provides.

One of the most helpful elements of the book is Childs’ attempt to demonstrate the acute difference between a critical reading and a confessional/canonical reading of Paul’s letters. A common critique by those who have adopted Childs’ program is that he concedes too much to the critical approach. While he maintains that the two approaches should be held in a balanced “dialectic,” his specific task is to demonstrate the contribution of the canon and its relation to the church.

For Childs, keen attention to the canonical shape of the biblical text and to its discernible “canon consciousness” adheres most closely with the nature of Scripture itself and the way it functioned in the life of the Christian community. Throughout the book, Childs consistently ties his analysis back to the confessional function of the canonical shaping of the New Testament. In this way, his introductory discussion is developed and the implications of focusing on the final form of the text are highlighted.

A significant aspect of the book is Childs’ discussion of the internal canonical shaping and framing of the Pauline corpus (chapters three and five). Surprisingly, his discussion here is relatively brief in comparison to his well-developed case studies. While some might consider this brevity a weakness, Childs nevertheless provides ample material and direction for further work in this area. To be sure, the approach to Paul’s letters he adumbrates here would benefit from sustained analysis in both the academy and the church. Anyone seeking to understand Paul’s letters and their broader connections to the New Testament canon would do well to consider Childs’ observations closely and carefully.

In the introduction, Childs notes that his previous volume on the New Testament “languished in silence, largely unread” (p. 1). It would be a grave mistake for students and scholars to issue a similar response to this volume.
Ched Spellman
In Review and Expositor 107.4 (Fall 2010), 562-64.

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