Brevard Childs (1923-2007)
Bill Long 6/24/07
I got the word this morning from my friend Tony Petrotta that Brevard (aka "Bard") Childs died yesterday in Connecticut. Thus ends the life of one of the most productive and influential American Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholars of this generation. As with my earlier essays on Robert McAfee Brown and William Sloane Coffin, I will describe here how I connected with Professor Child's work and, on one occasion, how I enjoyed a pizza with him and my then-wife overlooking the Neckar River in his beloved Tuebingen, Germany.
What Childs Stood For/Symbolized
In order to understand Child's contribution to biblical scholarship, you need to know that until well into the 1970s the fields of New and Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholarship were dominated by Germans. The major focus in biblical scholarship beginning about 1900 was to take apart the Bible by dividing it into every smaller units of text which one could then study individually and imagine a "Sitz im Leben" (lit. "situation in life") in which the passage might have originated. Hermann Gunkel had written the pathbreaking Legends of Genesis (a nintroduction to his Genesis commentary) in 1901, which isolated various kinds of literary traditions reflected in Genesis and their possible places of origin. Thus, all the rage in Biblical scholarship for about 60 or so years was to construct a history of biblical religion that would weave together the various individual units isolated by biblical scholars into an overarching story of Israel's religion. The heirs of Gunkel were Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, and their work was very much "in the air" when I took my first course in Biblical studies at Brown University in Fall 1971.
Alongside this historical work in the Old Testament was a theological approach that tried to build on the historical investigation. Championed especially by Gerhard von Rad (d. 1971), this work focused on the integrative work of reading various individual texts in a theological way. If Alt/Noth wanted to write a history of Israel's religion, von Rad was interested in penning a history of Israel's theological conceptions and the theological themes in Israels' ancient literature. Together, however, they presented a formidable and enchantingly energetic, thoughtful and imaginative approach to the reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.
The one thing that didn't really concern many of these scholars was the reading of the text in the community of faith today. That is, their efforts were focused on how to understand the evolution of Israel's religion or thought. They kept their work safely and surely anchored in the time before Jesus Christ, even if they were, in general, active churchmen in their own day. Their work was to be, above all, "scientific;" they were hesitant to interpret the biblical texts in ways that would speak to the religious communities of their day.
Coming to America
American biblical scholarship, indebted as it was to German thought, has been anchored in different historical realities. Though interested in trying to use the fruits of German scholarship in the USA, many theologically-oriented American biblical scholars have been concerned with how the Bible still speaks in the community of faith today. In this regard, Childs led the way. He was interested not only in the way that the Bible still speaks to us but in the way that it speaks to us as canon, as he used to say. That is, Childs didn't want to confine his work either to the Hebrew Bible or the history of ancient Israel. He saw himself as an expositor of Scripture for a living community of faith today, a community that accepted both Old and New Testaments as authoritative documents. Thus, his theological work would be to link testaments in a way that was faithful to his own German training (at Basel just after WWII) but would be responsive to the living realities of American Christianity.
Metting Childs' Work for the First Time
I entered Brown University as a math major in 1970. I had little encouragement from my family to do anything other than math; we all excelled in mental calculations and abstract reasoning. But I had also had a profound change in my life in 1968-69 (we moved from CT to CA in 1967) when I met up with an evangelical Presbyterian congregation (Menlo Park Presbyterian Church) and became enamored with the Bible. I didn't know that I could take my "personal" or "faith" concerns with me into the college classroom, so to speak, so I dutifully studied math, physics and an assorted group of other courses during my freshman year at Brown. But then I decided to "study the Bible for credit" beginning in Fall 1971, and I took all the Biblical studies courses offered at the University. It was during my "Old Testament Theology" course taught by Prof. Ernest Frerichs in 1973 that I first learned about Childs. We were assigned his book Biblical Theology in Crisis (published 1970) to read, and I, frankly, didn't understand what Childs was trying to do. But Prof. Frerichs was kind enough to walk me through Childs' argument while we sipped some tea at the Blue Room at Faunce House, and I began to realize that Childs was shaking up the world of Biblical studies even in "liberal" universities like Brown.
Then, when I attended seminary at a conservative seminary, Gordon-Conwell (South Hamilton, MA), I was also directed to Childs' work by a few professors. Though the Old Testament department at GCTS was frightfully conservative and rejected even the notion of a documentary hypothesis (that the Pentateuch was comprised of at least four documents--J, E, D, P), even they would mention Childs as a "fresh voice" in biblical studies. For example, Prof. Meredith Kline, with his doctorate from Brandeis and his interest in Hittite suzerainty treaties of the 2nd millennium BCE, often would ridicule German OT scholarship with the following line: "The rejected the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch by making his work a mosaic" (of purported documents).
If professors from both Brown and Gordon-Conwell, none of which had ever met or read the work of the others, were recommending Childs, I knew that I had to deal with him. Thus I eagerly bought his new Exodus commentary and read through it, as I had time, to try to understand his "canonical" reading of the Bible.
I still have more to say about him, in the next essay.