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The Church’s Guide for ­Reading Paul:

The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus

by Brevard S. Childs

Eerdmans, 288 pages, $28


When the history of biblical scholarship for the twentieth century is written, a prominent spot will be given to Brevard Childs. Trained in Europe, he first made his mark in American circles by standing apart from the then dominant wing of Old Testament scholars who had been trained at Johns Hopkins University by W.F. Albright.

What set Childs apart was his consistent desire to interpret the Bible within the framework of the Church, without forsaking the diachronic frame of development that had emerged under the name of historical criticism. The way to avoid the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of nihilistic postmodernism was to attend carefully to the way the canon of Holy Scripture developed. It cannot be accidental that Benedict XVI singled out the canonical method of reading Scripture as a major point of inspiration for his own work on Jesus. The influence of the bookish professor at Yale reached all the way to the Vatican.

In his most recent and, sadly, last book”he passed away in 2007”he took up the subject of the Pauline correspondence. The fact that he wrote on this subject reveals much. Childs was an Old Testament scholar by training, and biblical scholars tend to hew closely to the strict limits of their discipline. Childs, however, made it his business to remain up to date in the scholarly debates of both testaments, and he wrote frequently and compellingly about the challenge of reading a two-testamented Bible within the Church. In this last foray into the New Testament, Childs outlines how the Christian reader should approach the Pauline corpus.

For Childs, there are two important dimensions to the problem of the canon. One concerns the list of books and their order. Our earliest manuscripts (c. a.d. 200) present the letters as an edited collection. Though the manuscripts vary a bit, the following order is given by the majority: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

This is already an important datum, for, though some of the letters were addressed to particular churches and discussed specific problems within those communities, we have no manuscript evidence of single letters being circulated”only evidence of the circulation of collections of the letters. If the point of historical criticism is to get at the simple sense of the text, then the question must be raised: Just what text are we speaking about? Is it a letter considered on its own or a letter as part of a collection? As Walter Bauer of Göttingen astutely observed, the interpretation of an ancient text should not begin with a hypothetical reconstruction of the author’s intended purpose but with the question as to how it was first heard.

The canonical shaping of the correspondence is not limited to what the final collection looked like. The editing of these letters had begun long before. They were already being assembled in the first century as a collection of texts that could be called scripture (2 Peter 3:15“16). Modern interpreters have spilled much ink over the problem of the particularity of the Pauline correspondence. What, we might ask, can a modern reader learn from an ancient letter sent to Galatia that deals with issues that are unique to that community? The particularity of the epistles is, as Nils Dahl famously remarked, a challenge for those who want to read them as Sacred Scripture.

As Childs notes, this problem was not lost on the early Church as it shaped the letters for a broader readership. The fact that many manuscripts of Ephesians do not begin “to the saints who are in Ephesus” but rather “to the saints who are also faithful” indicates that the letter had no single destination and must have circulated more broadly. Other points in the correspondence indicate the letters circulated were not understood as limited to specific problems within a given congregation (1 Thess. 5:27 and Col. 4:16, for example). Similarly, many have ar­gued that the complicated textual trans­mission of the last chapter of Romans indicates editorial adjustments that were made to facilitate the hearing of the letter by a wider audience.

The most important interpretive decisions by the shapers of the canon were the decisions to put the Letter to the Romans at the head of the collection and the pastorals at its close. Childs fully agrees with Bornkamm’s observation that, regardless of the author’s intention, the Letter to the Romans “has in fact become the historical testament of the apostle.”

For Childs, there are a number of reasons why this is the case. Romans is the least particularistic of the letters addressed to specific congregations. Its prescript (Rom. 1:1“7) is unusually long and universal”Paul is the apostle to all the Gentiles. Moreover, the letter treats in a nearly encyclopedic fashion most of the major theological issues that are found scattered among the various other letters. For those who assembled the collection as a whole, this letter became the best way to introduce it.

The role that Romans plays in orienting the reader is evident in the way Childs handles a number of interpretive challenges in the Pauline corpus. Consider, for example, how law and faith are addressed in Galatians and Romans. Galatians treats Jewish law in an almost stridently negative fashion, while Romans is much more positive. Rather than presenting the law as a problem, the central concern has shifted to the ontological status of sin as a power. Law, according to Romans, is good in and of itself but does not provide a sufficient solution to the problems occasioned by the fall.

Childs’ point in this debate is not to soften the distinctions drawn by the two books. (Canonical reading does not imply harmonization; tensions must be left in place.) The issue, Childs contends, is paying close attention to the broader theological plane that Romans provides and seeing how it can subsume the more pointedly negative construal of Galatians into a larger synthetic whole.

The pastoral letters have proved controversial for modern interpreters. On one end of the spectrum there is the position of Ernst Käsemann, who argued that these letters represent the ossification of Paul’s vibrant gospel into a set of rigid creeds that are now the property of a hierarchical church bereft of the founding charisma. It is not by accident that the Protestant scholar referred to this process as the emergence of an “early Catholicism.” On the other end of the spectrum was a Catholic scholar by the name of Heinrich Schlier, who argued that the clerical offices established in these letters were in direct continuity with those that could be found later, in second-century patristic sources.

Childs argues that neither of these positions is tenable. Ironically, he finds a middle way between these two extremes in recent German Catholic scholarship. What is at issue is the manner in which the Pauline teaching was handed on: The New Testament canon has already anticipated the problem of how the post-apostolic generation was to engage the gospel.

It is important to affirm that Paul is not the historical author of the pastoral letters. Instead, these three letters were “a well-structured collection that developed within a canonical process in a living continuity with the ongoing growth of Paul’s legacy for the early Christian Church.” Where Käsemann sees ossification, Childs sees the living transmission of the Pauline gospel. The pastoral letters refer the reader back to the earlier correspondence in order to counter the heretical claims that emerged in the wake of Paul’s death. Canonical exegesis is not limited to the decision in the second century to publish a collection of letters in Paul’s name. The corpus of the letters itself illustrates that the process of shaping the canon began much earlier.

It is difficult to do The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul justice in a short review. What is truly impressive about the work is how Childs attends dialectically to the formation of the Pauline theological legacy in the individual letters, on the one hand, and how the tradition transmitted that legacy, on the other. Already in the evolving corpus of the letters themselves, we can see Paul, or his early copyists, preparing these profound reflections on the mystery of Jesus Christ for subsequent ­generations.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.