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?

The Bible: Text, or Work?

I just started reading Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World, and already in the introduction he’s dropped some bombshells. He begins by defining the three terms in the title, starting with “text”.

A “text” is not a “work” – both terms refer to a written document, but the term “work” implies an emphasis on the author communicating a message, whereas “text” emphasizes the role of the interpreter or interpretive community. We might refer to a book as the work of an author, but we might also refer to it as the text of an interpretive or religious community; I doubt we’d see reference to a book as the work of a community, unless the whole community had a hand in writing it, and if we speak of the text of an author we’re probably referring to that author’s influences.

Of course, Watson uses very different terms to describe the difference between text and work (he’s a bit wordy), but I hope I’ve captured the idea.

Of course, the Bible is both work and text. Someone wrote it, after all, and they definitely had a point (or else, why would they write it?). On the other hand, we can’t really read the Bible without reading it as a text, in the context of thousands of years of religious interpretation and tradition in our community of faith. The point is that our interpretive frameworks will treat it as one or the other, and it’s difficult to emphasize both at the same time.

Watson mentions the quest for the historical Jesus, which at its base is trying to get to the reality behind the text: scholars in this tradition recognize that the gospels, like all historical accounts, are quite selective about what they report, and want to unearth as much of the reality of what occurred as possible. The whole historical-critical approach emphasizes the “work” aspect of a book. Watson thinks that they’re mistaken about the true nature of the Bible – that is, he sees it as “text”.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasize the Bible as text: we read the Bible as members of the Church, in light of (and even in continuity with) two thousand years of interpretive tradition. For Watson, it means that we must take theology into account in our hermeneutic (he’s arguing in this book for a method of theological hermeneutics), but taken further it implies a Roman Catholic hermeneutic, in which tradition is held up (almost) as high as Scripture as being authoritative for Christian doctrine.

In between these two ends of the spectrum seems to be where Evangelicals camp out. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, which was the textbook for the hermeneutics class I took in both college and seminary, Grant Osborne emphasizes that interpreters need to figure out what a book meant in order to figure out what it means – that is, we need to check out the original author’s intention in their original context in order to discern an appropriate interpretation for our own context, which may include our Church community and tradition. In light of the difficulty of being accurate in our understanding of the original context and message of a work, scholars since the 1970’s have been emphasizing the final form of the Bible – that is, we need to read scripture in light of its relation to itself, reading each book as it relates to all of the others, in the order and collection that we’ve received them (this is called Canonical Criticism). This is a move from “work” to “text”, though how far that move is can depend on where the interpreter sees the Spirit at work: does the formation of the canon to Scripture’s “final form” represent the Spirit at work in the councils of the early church, or does it represent the Spirit at work in Christian tradition up to the present day?

Theological interpretations have more room to breathe if we take a “text” view of the Bible, whereas historiography is more central if we take a “work” perspective. Is either perspective right? What do you think? Is the Bible primarily a “work”, or a “text”?


Reading on, Watson describes the “Church” element of his title, and this also reflects on his view of the Bible as “text”. Those who see the Bible as “work” emphasize the original intended meaning of the author, a point which has much to do with the genre in which the author chose to communicate. But because the Church is the central place in which the Bible is read and interpreted, Watson says, the primary genre of all of the biblical texts becomes that of “holy scripture” – that is, the original genre of the work is subordinated to the text’s position and function in the Church, which is to be read aloud as part of the worship of the church, and interpreted through a sermon. The very fact that it is interpreted by a sermon after it is read suggests that there is interpretive freedom – otherwise, wouldn’t the text just speak for itself and not require a sermon? (This has been argued.)

I’m torn about all of this. If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and preserving the meaning of the Bible, then we should be Catholics, and embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Obviously we are not all Catholics, and tend to reject the notion that tradition is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, Spirit or no. This fact alone troubles me deeply, and I think it’s a point that Pentecostals haven’t done nearly enough to explore. But if we don’t agree that the Spirit affirms all of Christian tradition, then Watson’s approach seems to be saying “this is right because this is how we do it” rather than saying “we do it this way because it is right.” I’m interested to see how he navigates this balance without arguing for Catholicism.