On Adopting the “Final Form” Approach

Just a quick post, before I get back to my thoughts on Original Sin.

In his Text, Church, and World, Francis Watson examines the way we approach scripture. He notes in part 1 that there has been a shift from a historical-critical approach, which has ruled biblical studies for some time, to a canonical-critical approach. The old approach was to look for clues to what the document or community behind the document had originally said, look for evidence of redaction or editing in the text, and construct a chronological map of the beliefs of the early Christian community. In the new approach, we instead accept the Bible in its “final form”.

What we don’t often ask is, what does “final form” even mean? There are many different translations, each of which has their own emphases and have been influenced by, for example, the historical-critical work that we no longer engage in like we used to. New translations will bring new perspectives. Is there such thing as a “final” form? Stabilized, perhaps, but not final; we’ll no longer add or remove whole books, for example.

Another question we don’t often ask is why we moved from historical-critical approaches to canonical approaches, and whether or not this is more fitting of an approach to Scripture, borrowing as it does from literary studies. Should we have a unique approach to Biblical studies?

Watson gives three reasons for the current approach: first, that the application of literary studies techniques has already proved itself by giving us some quality Biblical scholarship. That’s good. Second, focusing on the final form emphasizes the communal usage of the text: the Bible is, and always has been, used by worshipping communities, and we should take this into account in our approach to it, which is something working with the final form does very well. And finally, he says, “this is the form of the text most suitable for theological use,” and that the “content of the biblical texts is inseparable from their form” (Watson, 17).

While I look forward to approaching the texts in their final form from a theological perspective, in the meantime I’d like to ask you, dear readers: have we really shifted to looking at the text in its final form, or are we still looking for J, E, D, P, and Q? Should we be? Should we be looking at pre-modern interpretive practices, or working from postmodern literary approaches? Is there something unique about Scripture that makes one of these approaches more fitting than others? Should we be combining approaches, and can that be done successfully?