[Book Review] Biblical Theology by Brevard S. Childs

Childs, Brevard S. Biblical Theology: A Proposal. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002. 96 pp. $11.98 [Paperback] <Download PDF>

Systematic Theology or Dogmatics, Theological and Historical Studies, Ethics, Hermeneutics, and Homiletics, are fields of studies that have been around since antiquity. How about Biblical Theology (BT)? From this investigation, Brevard Childs traverses his proposal. In this succinct version of his monumental work Biblical Theology of OT and NT, Childs attempts to raise the banner of the scriptural canon as the authoritative norm of the body of Christ.

Brevard Springs Childs (1923-2007) was the Professor of Old Testament at Yale University for 41 years (1958-1999). He pioneered the methodological approach to interpreting the Bible by emphasizing the final product of its canonical text. “The term ‘canon’ points to the received, collected, and interpreted material of the church,” Childs defines (40).

Childs proposes to read the Bible as one, whole-twofold canon “with its two different voices, both of which the church confesses bear witness to Jesus Christ” (54). A canonical reading keeps the interpreter treating the Old Testament as the unfulfilled promise of God and the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old. Indeed, the NT is the witness to the fulfillment of the Old. Nevertheless, it is “not just an extension of the Old, nor a last chapter in an epic tale” (54). Separating the two makes both halves of the other half—not whole.

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The OT is authoritative as the NT. Although both testaments are linked through their historical narrative and theological continuity.[1] The former does not depend on the latter’s interpretation. Childs laments, “As if the Old Testament’s witness were limited to how it was once heard and appropriated by the early church” (52). Biblical Theology is not the NT’s interpretation of the OT. For lucidity, both Testaments bear witness to Lord Jesus Christ. However, a proper understanding is essential that the NT writers “do not possess a full knowledge of Christ then corrects the Old Testament” (66-67).

Furthermore, Childs points out the significant role of Biblical Theology as a hermeneutical discipline. He said, “Its fundamental goal to understand the various voices within the whole Christian Bible, New and Old Testament alike, as a witness to the one Lord Jesus Christ” (66). Childs sees the integrity of OT as distinct from NT’s. Both testaments have diverse voices. Still, the two testaments are witnesses of Jesus Christ. While careful, he clarifies that the proper interpretation of OT is not always about Jesus necessarily, as if it has a hidden agenda (70-71). Childs notes this purpose of BT after dismissing the errors of modern hermeneutics. He warns that—when trying to apply a theological stance or looking from the lens of NT in interpreting the OT—it is unacceptable to perceive the original voice of the witnesses in OT in the light of NT. He sees it as unfaithful and an exegetical flaw. Moreover, this modern exegesis confuses the meaning and bends the time-conditioned assumptions of both OT and NT (65). The way of the modern exegete is a form of biblicism (70).

After properly exegeted and keeping the original integrity of both testaments, Childs contends that the hearers or readers ought to see the wholeness of the message centering on the full reality of God Christ. This faithful work of proper hermeneutics then leads to application in contemporary understanding, not leading to cultural relativism, “but to a profounder grasp of dynamic function of the Bible as the vehicle of an ever-fresh word of God to each new generation” (72).

Childs ends his succinct work with another brief demonstration of how this canonical approach of BT relates to Systematic Theology and several thematic or schematic BT such as salvation history, history of Israel, and its implications.

Evaluating this work, due to the brevity of this publication, urges readers to seek more about what Childs meant about “canon” and its related matters. Comprehensive detail on the formation process of the canon before emphasizing its final form. Moreover, the fact that Childs—even in brevity—places homiletics in hermeneutics makes his work more interesting. He argues that scriptural reality, after faithful exegesis—a descriptive study of the original integrity of both testaments—and the dynamic voices of OT and NT, ought to be translated into contemporary reality.

Lastly, Childs’ canonical approach shapes the exegesis to church relevance, putting back the Scripture within the church. However, it seems to be elitist in praxis. Not everyone, especially within the church, has the competency to study the descriptive nature of OT and NT, their historical placement, and the theological context of their time. Besides requiring much time, it also demands a lot of resources and effort. Why so? These logical reasons lead to indifference to the church’s hermeneutical task, which can lead to ministerial autocracy.

This work of Childs was a game-changer in the latter half of the twentieth century. A canonical Biblical Theology somehow requires a pre-knowledge of other BT approaches and fundamental systematic theology. This specific work is a primer for those who desire to understand Childs’ canonical approach both in summary and with a clear thesis. However, Childs’ Biblical Theology: A Proposal is not recommendable to be a primer for BT classes unless read side-by-side with other supplemental books. A recent work edited by Edward Klink and Darian Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology, is a good start for this subject.


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[1] Read Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Locket, eds., Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 143, 149. They noted, “Childs understands ‘canon’ to have a historical and theological dimension…. [And needs a] ‘multi-layer’ interpretation.”

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-in-white-sweater-holding-brown-leather-book-5199754/

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Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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