Friday, July 27, 2007

To Brevard Childs, With Gratitude

Many people have had a powerful formative influence on me. I have written of some of them in this space, including Champ Ruffin and Howard Giddens. There are others of whom I will write in the future, such as Bill Coleman, William Key, and Page Kelley. I shared a personal relationship with all of those men; they were at various times my mentors and teachers.

But there are many other people who have influenced and guided me whom I never met or whom I met only briefly at a conference. Their impact on me has come through their writings. Some of them I have read so much that I feel like I know them even though they wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a lineup. That list is long: Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, and Brennan Manning come immediately to mind.

Another person who belongs on that list is Brevard S. Childs. His books have followed me around for a long time. I first encountered him during a summer in the mid-1980s when I was a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was assigned to be the grader for a summer course on the Book of Exodus that was being taught by visiting professor John I Durham, who was then teaching at Southeastern Seminary. Durham was at the time working on his volume on Exodus that appeared in the Word Biblical Commentary. On the first day of class he told me that he really didn’t need a grader because he wanted to grade the papers himself but that I was welcome to sit in on the class. I did, and it was a remarkable experience. The textbook that he used was Brevard Childs’ commentary on Exodus that is a part of the Old Testament Library series. As an experiment in the interpretation of a biblical book in its canonical context, including its use as the Scripture of the Church, it was breathtaking.

My next encounter with Childs came as I prepared to take the comprehensive exams that had to be passed before I could move on to the dissertation writing stage. Dr. John D. W. Watts, my Old Testament Literature professor, required me to compare and contrast the approaches taken by two very different Old Testament introductions: that of Otto Eissfeldt and that of Brevard Childs. Childs’ work was entitled Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Childs’ emphasis in that work was that the canonical shaping of the Old Testament was to be taken seriously. While the historical critical study of Scripture was important, and while Childs certainly knew his way around that field, he said that the Old Testament has finally come down to us as Scripture. That is, it has been shaped by the faith communities that produced and preserved it. Thus, that theological shaping becomes very important in its interpretation. Childs’ ideas were sometimes controversial but they were nonetheless influential on a generation of Old Testament scholars, including me.

My third encounter with Childs came when I was teaching Old Testament at Belmont University. I was attempting to develop a new Old Testament Theology course and I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I decided that I should select the very best textbook that I could find to help me through it. I chose Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments by Brevard Childs. It was a very challenging book but I figured that, since the course was a Senior level one, the students should be able to handle it. And they did pretty well with it. But, as they say, timing is everything. Several members of the class had just completed an elective course on Contemporary Theology offered by the then Dean of the School of Religion, Steve Simpler. In that course they discussed, among other things, Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology. Childs, with his emphasis on taking the Bible seriously as the Scripture of the Church, asked some good questions about the approaches of some of those modern theologians. Some of my students who had become enamored of those modern theologies overreacted to his questions. Some of my more conservative students overreached in claiming Childs as an ally in their battle against feminism. I took two things away from the experience. One, I needed to learn that sometime I had to take better control of a class (I let some of the discussions get out of hand). Two, it was very possible to take the Bible seriously as the Scripture of the Church while at the same time taking people’s personal experiences with appropriate seriousness as well.

Brevard Childs died on June 23, 2007, at the age of 83. I wanted to say publicly how important his writings have been to me. To read an excellent obituary, go here.

1 comment:

Scott said...

I still have my copy of Childs' Biblical Theology. Without a doubt he helped form my appreciation of canonical criticism.

It is interesting to hear your story about that Biblical Theology course. I would never have guessed that you "didn't know what (you) were doing!" It would be interesting to go back and read my journal that you asked us to keep that semester. My guess is that many of my current thoughts can be found in nascent form in those journal writings and lecture notes.