Robert Wilson: Remembering Brevard S. Childs, teacher and colleague

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

The late Brevard S. Childs, who died in 2007, was Old Testament professor at Yale Divinity School from 1958 to 1999. In addition to being one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the 20th century, Childs was a bibliophile—a lover of books—in the first degree. Over the course of his life, Childs scoured bookshops, book depositories, and even book publishing factories to find the books he liked, amassing a collection of over 40,000 volumes.

“To talk about his library is to talk about his work and life,” suggested Robert Wilson, Hoober Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament, at a talk on Childs delivered during Convocation and Reunions 2011.  Fittingly, the occasion for his talk was the dedication of a new display case in the Divinity School Library that houses parts of Childs’s own collection.

Wilson, who was a student of Childs and then became one of his long-term colleagues, focused his address on the common link binding Childs’s life as a student, a scholar, and, eventually, a teacher in the YDS community. This common link was Childs’s fascination with the collecting, reading, and writing of books and the ideas they contain.

Childs initiated his life as a student when he taught himself Greek during his military service in WWII. At the University of Michigan he learned Dutch from a local minister, and after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary he completed his studies in Germany at the University of Basel. He was also one of the first Christian students to study biblical Hebrew at Jewish Theological Seminary to master the art of interpretation.

Among Childs’s most memorable works of scholarship were Myth and Reality, Memory and Tradition, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis, Biblical Theology in Crisis, Old Testament Theology in Canonical Context, and Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. These works contain some of his most notable contributions to learning, most of which pertained to the importance of the canonical shape and location of all the biblical books.

Writing in the post-war era, Childs was highly sensitive to the question of theological appropriation. The scholarship that he produced and is best known for is his ‘canonical approach’ to biblical studies and biblical theology—which requires interpreters to attend to both the original context of the biblical text and to the way the original text can be appropriated by contemporary readers with integrity and theological responsibility.

Wilson described his former teacher as “an exciting and dazzling presence in the classroom” and insisted that “all of Childs’s years of study, all of his time in the library, had paid dividends in his effortless ability to interpret the Old Testament texts and to lay out so clearly what the text meant in its original context.”

Childs’s performance in the classroom, according to Wilson, modeled a method of faithful scholarship that applies to YDS students in the present as much as it did then:  Faithful scholars should know as much as they can, read as much as they can, and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak. “Once in a while [Childs] penetrated to the essence of the text,” said Wilson in a tone almost reverential, “and the students heard not the words of Childs but the Word of God.”

Following the lecture, Bert Marshall ’97 M.Div. said, “It was really enlightening to see Childs’ development as a student and scholar in a [way] only someone like Robert Wilson could have revealed.” For his part, Wilson said, “The main point I wanted to make was the way in which his thought and approach grew over time, so that if anybody said ‘this is what his program is’ they’re probably not taking the big picture into account.”

With the picture Wilson painted, what can be said is that to understand and appreciate Brevard S. Childs, one would do well to start in the library.

Click here to view a video of the lecture.

Posted: 11/06/2011