A Non Sequitur in the Argument for the Canonical Approach to Scripture

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What is the “canonical approach,” and in what respect is its main supporting argument a “shell game”?

Revised: 05-Dec-2008

One approach to Scripture that has gained a strong following since its appearance in the early 1970’s is the so-called “canonical approach,” associated with Brevard Childs (†2007). This way of reading the Bible assumes that literary aspects of the Bible in its final form, including aspects not native to any of the individual writings, should have a bearing on what the Bible is said to mean. Although this approach appeals to many of the more pious habits of thought that Christians have concerning the Bible, I am convinced that it represents a huge step away from the approach of the early Church.

Although I have long recognized the debt that Childs’ approach owes to a certain non sequitur, it is only recently, while watching an online lecture by Childs’ student Christopher Seitz, that I came to see just how central this non sequitur is for this approach. In some respects, of course, referring to Childs’ argument as a “shell game” is unfair, as it is obvious that Childs was not doing anything dishonest with his arguments about “meaning,” while those who work real shell games (like those I have personally witnessed on 52nd Street in New York) know fully well what they are doing. I say this as more than just an admission that my rhetoric, in this respect, is not trimmed to fit Childs’ true intentions, but also to make the important point that many (like Childs himself?) are attracted to the canonical approach for pious-sounding but misguided reasons.

What is the “canonical approach,” and in what respect is its main supporting argument a “shell game”? Simply put, the “canonical approach” is a way of reading Scripture in which those aspects of the biblical canon that postdate the work of the individual authors (e.g., the ordering of the books within the canon, the addition of a spurious ending to Mark, etc.) are viewed as aspects of what the Bible “means.” “Scripture” is construed, on this view, not as a collection of writings to be interpreted according to what its authors mean, but in a corporate sense as well, as if the arrangement of the whole were itself “authored.”

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
    [Read more about author]

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