The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul

Brevard Childs (2008), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Here is a fascinating study of the canonical process as a hermeneutical exercise in which the early church collected, preserved and theologically shaped the material that served as scripture; primary attention is given to the Pauline documents. 

Childs points to differing perceptions of ‘canon’.  Some see canon as the closed list of books officially accepted as authoritative and binding for religious practice and doctrine.  He holds to a broader definition, that seeks to relate the function of the documents to the life of the church.  ‘Canon’ is not only a listing but a description of a process (p 253), ‘the experience of the church in arriving at a writing’s conformation to a rule of faith’ (p 9).

Criteria for canonicity are apostolicity (eg Paul’s letters, by an apostle, become the model by which all expressions of faith were to be tested); catholicity (the ‘critically proven test of Alexandria was balanced by the inclusion of the Byzantine text used by the widest range of the great church’ (p 23); orthodoxy (not an abstract norm but closely related to worship). Childs pursues key areas for clarification of the canonization process (eg Wayne Meeks’ social context of Pauline theology, the apocalyptic shape of Paul’s theology).

A final chapter on ‘Theological Implications’ outlines the hermeneutical and community features ‘within which the ongoing exegetical activity functions’ (p 255).  The role of the canon sets parameters for interpretation that the church has affirmed in locating the arena in which the Word of G-d is heard; canon refers to the writings ‘whose witness to a living Word continues to shape and enrich its life’ (p 259).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.