“By taking seriously the canon, one confesses along with the church to the unique function that these writings have had in its life and faith as Sacred Scriptures. Then each new generation of interpreters seeks to be faithful in searching these Scriptures for renewed illumination. . . . Ultimately, to stand within the tradition of the church is a stance not made in the spirit of dogmatic restriction of the revelation of God, but in joyful wonder and even surprise as the Scripture becomes the bread of life for another generation.”–Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis
Brevard Childs is not exactly a household name—not in most households at least. But in households that do a lot of biblical criticism, he stands a good chance of being considered the 20th century’s indispensable figure. His 1970 book Biblical Theology in Crisis was (and remains) a genuine paradigm-shifter. In the years since its publication, it has been agreed with and disagreed with, but it cannot be ignored. It changed the way that professional academics study the Bible.
Well, that’s not quite true. But he did change the way that professional academics frame one of the most important questions that they use when they study the Bible—the question of context. What kind of thing is the Bible? Where does it come from? Why is it here? What narrative assumptions should we use to study it?
The biblical context was the central question of the heated debates in seminaries of religion that raged during the first half of the 20th century. It was an all-out culture war between (and I use Childs’ terms here) “fundamentalists,” who believed that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and historically unimpeachable; and the “liberals,” who saw the Bible as a series of allegories and examples to be used in confronting racism, poverty, and other social ills.
The uncertainty over context produced the “crisis” of the book’s title. He uses the word “crisis” in the non-hyperbolistic sense of “a situation where something has to change.” Childs saw the churches and the seminaries drifting further and further apart and the normal churchgoer not even recognizing the Bible of the biblical scholar. This was the situation that had to change. So he changed it.
Specifically, he made a revolutionary argument about context that very quickly became a critical commonplace: that the “final form” that the Bible has taken in the Christian canon is itself the context that should be used for interpreting it. However the Bible was pieced together, and whatever events during the Babylonian captivity its authors may have been responding to, the fact is that, for thousands of years, a version of the Bible has been a sacred and meaningful text for billions of people in Christian communities. This is the form of text that matters most because it is the one that the community responded to.
This view of the Bible—often called “canonical criticism,” though Childs himself did not use this term— makes certain questions irrelevant (or at least unimportant) for as long as we employ it. It is not important, for example, that we tease out and mark the actual words of Jesus and distinguish them from things we think came from other sources. Or that we determine which of the letters of Paul were actually written by Paul. These are important composition questions for other critical lenses, but they are irrelevant to the final form in the canon.
The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.
And something like the set of critical assumptions that Childs defined, I think, is a very strong contender for the “How to Get Book of Mormon Scholars to Stop Bickering About Historicity and Study the Damn Text” award for the 21st century.
The Book of Mormon is a much stronger candidate for a final-form approach than the Bible ever was, since its primary historical context is unknowable from anything other than the text (which is not primarily about explaining a historical context). We can’t go back and study the shipping records of Zarahemla or look at the way that diacritic marks were used in Reformed Egyptian. We don’t have maps. We do not have access to any reliable information about the language, culture, geography, or history of the people portrayed in our sacred text.
We do have the context of its initial translation: 19th century, Jacksonian America. But it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community. No matter how hard we try, we cannot make an argument that the “secret combinations” of the BOM were part of the 19th century anti-Masonic movement without turning it into something other than the thing that made it an important religious text.
So, what does a final-form interpretation of the Book of Mormon look like? I’m still working on that, but, minimally, it seems to me that it would make, at least provisionally, the following interpretative assumptions at the outset. Let me be very clear here that I do not present these as the end of an interpretive process (i.e., “I have thoroughly and rigorously examined all of the evidence about the Book of Mormon and here are the conclusions I have come to”), but as the beginning of an interpretive process (i.e. “All interpretations start with certain assumptions that obscure some parts of the text and illuminate others–let’s start with these assumptions and see where they lead us). Here are a few such starting places:
- Interpretation of the Book of Mormon can never be completely divorced from its position as a devotional text for a community of believers, since it is that devotional context that makes it the sort of text that people want to interpret. However, interpretation can respond to or incorporate this devotional context in many different ways, some of which will support and others of which will not support its devotional use. But the fact that the text actively structures the spiritual life of millions of believers (in a way that, say, Ovid’s Metamorphosis no longer does) is not entirely irrelevant to its interpretation, as it is part of the social and political context of any interpreter.
- The understanding that the Book of Mormon describes actual historical events is fundamental to its canonical context. This historicity has to be at least provisionally accepted in order to interpret the text on its own terms. Interpretations that do not do this remove the text from the canonical context that gives it its meaning, much as interpretations of the New Testament that reject the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection remove it from the Christian worldview that gives it meaning. This does not make such interpretations inferior, but it does make them different in ways that are worth noticing.
- Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point. Everything that can ever be known about Nephites, Lamanites, or Zarahemla comes from the Book of Mormon. The question, “is the Book of Mormon an accurate guide to the history of Messoamerica?” is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is an important religious book that has structured the spiritual lives of millions of people. Though the text presents itself to us as a representation of actual historical events (see above), it does not claim to be part of any context that we know enough about to study with the tools of scholarly inquiry.
- The 19th century context of the Book of Mormon matters, but so do the 20th and 21st century contexts. It is the reception of the text by a religious community that makes the 19th century context important, not the assumption that it was created in the 19th century. In other words, while the anti-Masonic movement cannot be presented as the reason that the BOM talks about secret combinations, it can legitimately be seen as one of the reasons that its initial audience responded to it the way that it did.
- The Book of Mormon is part of a canon that includes both Testaments of the Bible along with other unique LDS scriptures (The Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price). It is best interpreted as part of this canon.
- The canonical language of the Book of Mormon is English. It is the English version that launched the Latter-day Saint movement and became the basis for subsequent translations. “Reformed Egyptian” is not available to us. The original plates are not available to us. The extent to which the Nephite culture of, say 49 BC would have retained Hebrew influence is completely unknowable. It is simply not possible to study the Book of Mormon from a scholarly perspective except as a work originally created in English.
Looking at the Book of Mormon in this way requires some line walking. It requires, for example, that scholars affirm (or at least do not actively deny) that the Book of Mormon is a historical record while, at the same time, resisting attempts to study it in its (unavailable) historical context. But most of these assumptions already inform the best work being done on the Book of Mormon by Mormon and non-Mormon scholars alike. And that is the real advantage that I see to Childs’ model of critical inquiry. It does not require scholars to believe, but it does require that they take belief seriously—and that is a game that everybody can play.