Home > Christianity, Criticism, Study of the New Testament, Study of the Old Testament > The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture

The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture

  • Author: Brevard S. Childs
  • Pub. Year: 2004
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 350
  • ISBN-10: 0802827616
  • ISBN-13: 9780802827616
  • Format: PDF*
  • Price: $26.60

A key emphasis of Brevard Childs’s distinguished career has been to show not only that the canon of Scripture comprises both Old and New Testaments but also that the concept of “canon” includes the way the Christian church continues to wrestle in every age with the meaning of its sacred texts. In this new volume Childs uses the book of Isaiah as a case study of the church’s endeavor throughout history to understand its Scriptures.

In each chapter Childs focuses on a different Christian age, using the work of key figures to illustrate the church’s changing views of Isaiah. After looking at the Septuagint translation, Childs examines commentaries and tractates from the patristic, Reformation, and modern periods. His review shows that despite an enormous diversity in time, culture, nationality, and audience, these works nevertheless display a “family resemblance” in their theological understandings of this central Old Testament text. Childs also reveals how the church struggled to adapt to changing social and historical conditions, often by correcting or refining traditional methodologies, while at the same time maintaining a theological stance measured by faithfulness to Jesus Christ. In an important final chapter Childs draws out some implications of his work for modern debates over the role of Scripture in the life of the church.

Of great value to scholars, ministers, and students, this book will also draw general readers into the exciting theological debate currently raging in the Christian church about the faithful interpretation of Scripture.

A Pause to Reflect

By David A. Baer

Brevard Childs is a patient man. Few individuals could link such evident learning to a deep sympathy with the historical interpreters of the biblical book called Isaiah. The author’s empathy with the weighty labor of scholars who pour over an ancient work of such complexity is not only endearing. More importantly, it demonstrates that few of the book’s exegetes finished their work without achieving some mentionable merit, even when this is exceedingly modest by even Childs’ generous measure.

Childs has earned the merit of becoming one of the household names of twentieth century Old Testament criticism. In what may be a valedictory effort, this proponent of `canonical criticism’-an intellectual movement that can hardly be named without mentioning Childs and his students as its patriarchal figures-indicates how Christian interpreters have read one of the Bible’s most quotable books as Scripture.

In his first chapter (`The Early Reception of the Hebrew Bible: the Septuagint and the New Testament’, pp. 1-31), Childs establishes the important work carried out by the Septuagint translator of Isaiah and its impact upon the New Testament writers, who voraciously quoted and based their arguments upon Isaiah texts from all sections of the book. Childs wants to survey a wide ranger of historical Christian interpreters who read Isaiah from a christological point of view as scripture and then to return to the contemporary matter of critical scholars who have `returned to the older theological concerns of the church and synagogue, but now with fresh perspectives and newer formulations.’

Chapters two through fourteen treat individual Christian interpreters of Isaiah. In the second, Childs rehabilitates Justin Martyr-whose flaws are obvious-by pointing out his fidelity to a text he shared with the Judaism he anachronistically criticized. As well, Justin’s is an early attempt to mount a respectful (to Trypho) and rational defense of the Christian faith, very much within the confessional framework of the church of his day.

Irenaeus, another second-century Christian writer, is the subject of chapter three (pp. 45-55. Crediting him with the attempt `to recover a holistic reading of the Bible that united both testaments within a history of salvation’, Childs displays a muffled testiness towards those modern students of Irenaeus-and other precritical figures-who seem to judge him by modern, critical standards. Childs is less sanguine about the contribution of Clement of Alexandria (pp. 56-61), noting that his figurative/allegorical language is `vulnerable to other forces, such as Gnostic speculation and Philonic exegesis, that lack the Christian doctrinal restraints basic to his predecessors.’

Childs is clearly fascinated by Origen (pp. 62-74), one of the first millennium’s most important biblical scholars. With recent Origen scholars, he is careful to moderate some of the more crude presentations of Origin as a hopeless allegorist. In place of this caricature, Childs appreciates his concern for the details of the biblical text and the degree to which his exegesis rests upon hermeneutical traditions within Judaism, and brings to the conversation a more nuanced view of the relationship between typology and allegory. Still, Childs recognizes that Origen’s biblical interpretation proves difficult for heirs of the Enlightenment and the Reformation to appreciate, and promises to return to the matter later in the book.

The remainder of the book is taken up by similar surveys of interpreters and interpretive periods and fashions, the relative value of which will depend to some degree on the reader’s peculiar interests. For this reviewer, the chapter on `The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (ch. 16, pp. 265-287) is worth the price of the book.

The greater worth of this project emerges only slowly. Childs is burdened to discover whether there is a `family resemblance’ in the struggle of Christian interpreters to understand Isaiah as Scripture, one that endures in spite of their evident personal, historical, theological, and philosophical differences. He finds that there is, indeed, such a genetic commonality in the observance of a `rule of faith’ that serves as a set of parameters to restrain certain interpretive possibilities and to include others. His concluding section spells out the components of this rule, giving pride of place to the insistence that both testaments of the Christian Bible must be held together, in spite of the admitted tensions and dialectical requirements that this presents.

Childs is poignant in his evidently pained appraisal of R. Rentdorff and-more extensively-W. Brueggemann, whom he considers to have stepped beyond the bounds of this rule of faith and, therefore, to have discarded in their interpretive work the family resemblance that is necessary if interpretation of Isaiah is to be innately Christian. According to Childs, Rentdorff has moved in the direction of a secular, history-of-religions dialect and Brueggemann has embraced the language and readerly autonomy of post-modernism in a way that is irreconcilable with the long stream of Christian struggle that is chronicled in this work.

For all its likeness to a book that has been tossed off by a preternaturally capable scholar on his way to his larger work on Isaiah (Childs, 2001), this book’s argument acquires a value in the final chapters-pages that are buttressed by the more prosaic analysis that has gone before-that makes it indispensable reading for students of Isaiah and of the long struggle to understand it in a way that honors those who have lingered previously over its protean pages.

Childs has been criticized for what appears to many scholars as a drift towards fundamentalism (the f-word of academic biblical scholars) in his later years, a claim that is ironic in the light of the eminent Yale scholar’s critical credentials. Yet Childs himself fairly invites such comment from more secular colleagues by his resolutely theological approach to the task that has for five decades established him in both academic and ecclesial contexts. In his final pages, he affirms that both common approaches to biblical study are valid: a history-of-religions approach that `attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment’ and the understanding of biblical history as `the activity of God testified to in scripture’. Yet he leaves little doubt as to which of these twin endeavors bears more enduring fruit. Childs concludes this formidable project thus: `By reviewing the history of the church’s biblical interpretation, we can derive new confidence in confessing with the creed: I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.’

Here’s two useful review bout this book:

H. G. M. Williamson

Christ Church, Oxford

Oxford, U.K. OX1 1DP

Following his 2001 commentary on the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament Library series, Childs has now placed us further in his debt with this absorbing survey of and reflection on the history of the book.s interpretation within the Christian church. Whereas the earlier work of J. F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), was a genuine reception-historical study, so that it drew on a wide range of sources both profound and ephemeral, Childs avowedly restricts his focus to those who have sought to work with the book as part of the church.s canonical scripture, and that means above all commentaries.

Of the book.s eighteen chapters, thirteen are devoted to individual commentators or other writers, from Justin Martyr to Calvin. Indeed, half the book is taken up with the patristic period alone before we jump from Theodoret of Cyrus, who died in 460, to the great medieval scholar, Thomas Aquinas, and thence via Nicholas of Lyra to the reformers Luther and Calvin. Thereafter, Childs moves more briskly through a selection of commentators of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Grotius, Calov, Cocceius, Vitringa, Lowth, and Calmet) in chapter 16, then nineteenth and twentieth centuries (with George Adam Smith.s commentary of 1888.90 as the most recent) in chapter 17, before finally glancing at some postmodern interpreters (principally R. Rendtorff and W. Brueggemann). As .bookends,. the first chapter treats the Septuagint and the New Testament.s use of Isaiah (the former not strictly Christian, of course, but reasonably included because of its pervasive influence), and the last chapter reflects more discursively on the .family resemblances. between all these interpreters under such headings as the authority of Scripture, its literal and spiritual senses, its form as two Testaments, and so on.

The breathtaking range of Childs.s vision is such that no one will read this book without learning much and having preconceived notions challenged. In the patristic period, for instance, he demonstrates how the usual characterization of the distinction between the Alexandrian (allegorical) and Antiochene (historical) schools is far too simplistic; in the eighteenth century it will surprise some to find a major effort at the rehabilitation of Calmet.s reputation, and so on. As Childs admits, there may be many scholars who are more deeply acquainted with one or another of the individual commentators treated here, but it would be surprising if anyone else writing today were in a position to encompass the whole so authoritatively. And just to underline the point still further, not the least useful aspect of the book is the bibliography that follows each chapter, providing full details both of the primary sources and in a separate section of the major secondary discussions.

Almost inevitably there will be some names that surprise by their inclusion or, more probably, by their omission. Among the latter, I note especially that no attention is given to the great rabbinic commentators (they are just mentioned in passing a couple of times). Of course, Childs will respond that they have no place in a history of Christian interpretation. But in that sense, neither does the Septuagint. Their influence on Christian interpretation was far more extensive than is generally realized, however, for while the Reformers were busy polemicizing against the Jews on the one hand, they were on the other more or less dependent upon them for their knowledge of Hebrew and for the interpretation of textually obscure passages (as witness eventually the Authorized or King James Version). The situation was no different in this regard from Jerome a millennium before; his dependence upon Jewish informants is well acknowledged, but that did not prevent him from anti-Jewish polemic either! In fact, Christian debt to these scholars may well have gone beyond the philological, for there is at least something of a family resemblance between Christian concern for the literal and spiritual senses of scripture and the rabbinic distinctions between peshat and derash.

Another gap which I regret is any attention Hugh of St. Victor and his school (there are just a couple of passing mentions), which might have helped bridge the gap from the patristic to the medieval periods. Indeed, we would hardly realize in this long story that for much of its history the Christian church had no knowledge of Hebrew, and some reflection on the hermeneutical consequences of the choice of language in which the Bible was studied would have been welcome.

Finally, the modern period is dealt with scantily, but this will surprise only those who fail to appreciate Childs.s purpose. The great nineteenth- and twentieth-century commentaries that pass unmentioned (Dillmann, Duhm, Marti, Gray, Procksch, Westermann, and Wildberger, to name but a few), though written by professing Christians, do not struggle with the text as part of a two-Testament scripture but limit themselves to a severely historical exegesis. And although he does not say so, Childs is unlikely to set much store by the attempt to overcome this by tacking on a section entitled .Ziel. in the Biblischer Kommentar series.

Why that is so becomes plain from the whole drift of the discussion, in which it is not difficult to detect the commentators who come closest to Childs.s own ideal. Of all the family resemblances which he detects, it is that which is characterized as the struggle to bring together the literal and the spiritual senses of scripture that commands most attention. The permutations here are many and subtle, and one senses an impatience with some older as well as more recent commentators who emphasize either at the expense of the other. Thus Jerome (initially to my surprise) does not come out too well, despite full credit for his philological learning (.too narrow a view of biblical history. [97], and he .never adequately resolved the problem of the relation between the two levels. [101]), whereas John Chrysostom the preacher .remains a model for every successive generation in rendering the scriptures faithfully and with inspired imagination. (108; but note that this should not be confused with the imagination of the postmodern Brueggemann, which comes in for severe censure toward the end of the book).

Judged on this basis, it is hard to escape the impression that Calvin is as near the pinnacle as any, though Luther.s solution via a dialectic of letter and spirit, law and gospel, comes close insofar as it seeks to furnish a hermeneutical approach to both Testaments in a way that allows each its own integrity as a vital witness to Christian truth by holding the physical and the spiritual together in unity. Calvin, however, took this to the furthest limit. His humanistic training ensured that he would give proper scholarly attention to what would later become the concerns of the historical-critical method, but because he held that the text also reflected the intention of God himself, operative through the Spirit, the spiritual meaning derives directly from the literal as part of an organic whole, not by way of arbitrary allegory, as was often the case previously, nor by way of pious addition (as I suspect the Biblischer Kommentar.s .Ziel. might be characterized), but rather by using .his exegesis to provide an explicit link with Christian doctrine. (225). Herein lies the clue too to the rehabilitation of Calmet as well as the brief dismissal of Gesenius, Hitzig, and other such early historical-critical pioneers (265).

The question that all this raises for the contemporary scene.a question that Childs does not tackle directly, so far as I can see, but that has been put firmly on the agenda by the so-called .theological exegetes..is whether any exegesis that is not confessionally

Christian is automatically deficient. To address the issue personally (and it is difficult to know how else to do so), I approach the Old Testament as a professing Christian, and in preaching and some forms of my writing I too struggle with it as part of Christian scripture. In that guise, I recognize all too well the issues that Childs is raising, and I benefit from his insights into an appropriate hermeneutic. But does that mean that when I am asked to write in a narrowly academic context, addressing fellow scholars of a different faith or of none, my work is impoverished by working only at the level of the .literal. (to use Childs.s description)? There are times (though not so much in this book) when Childs has seemed to many to imply so. The alternative perspective, to which I want, at least, to adhere, is that such work is valid on its own terms, and although it does not express itself confessionally, it may nevertheless be of service to those who write in that vein (and indeed to myself when I do so separately). To use explicitly Christian theological language, it reflects an incarnational approach to scholarship, something that goes along the kind of line in Calvin of which Childs so evidently approves but that also moves beyond it by not wearing its doctrinal consequences on its sleeve. Such scholarship may not be all that is to be said of a text, but if unity of knowledge (including Christian knowledge) goes for anything, then it is as wrong to decry such work as inimical to Christian scripture as it would be to move off in the gnostic direction, so laudably opposed by Irenaeus early on in this long story (see ch. 3). As I have said, Childs does not address this issue directly, so for all we know he may heartily agree. But whether he does or not, we are deeply in his debt for raising such profound issues for reflection in our own day just as he has so brilliantly shown that they have accompanied the church in its struggles with scripture for nearly two millennia.

Citation: H. G. M. Williamson, review of Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2005).


Roy F. Melugin

Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University

Fort Worth, TX 76129

Brevard Childs.s study of the struggle to understand the book of Isaiah as Christian scripture presents us with an examination of various approaches to the interpretation of Isaiah from the second century C.E. down to the beginning of the twenty-first century. There is also a chapter on the treatment of Isaiah in the Septuagint and in the New Testament. The research by Childs shows that there has been great diversity among Christian interpreters of Isaiah. But is there at the same time some kind of unity? Or as Childs puts it, .Is there a .family resemblance. that emerges from this analysis of many generations of Christian biblical study? Are there any parameters that identify exegesis as Christian?. (xi).

Before we turn to Childs.s question as to whether there are certain parameters that might be considered .normative. for Christian interpretation of .Old Testament. books such as Isaiah, let us first explore Childs.s analysis of the diversity of Christian interpretation. The apostolic witnesses in what is now called the .New Testament. exhibit considerable diversity in using Isaiah to speak in Christian terms; yet to employ Isaiah to explicate the gospel was for them a widespread practice. Justin Martyr, too, before there was a .New Testament. as such, assumed that the Jewish scriptures, together with the apostolic tradition, were authoritative as revelation.

By the time of Irenaeus, however, there was talk, not simply of apostolic tradition, but of a written New Testament consisting at the very least of four Gospels, Acts, and apostolic letters.to be joined with the Jewish scriptures as revelatory text. Moreover, Irenaeus appealed to a .rule of faith,. that is, a summary of the church.s story. And in reciting the story from creation through conquest, Irenaeus presented almost entirely a literal reading of the narrative. Only when he came to the prophets did he turn to clear Christian interpretation of God.s purposes. Yet as Irenaeus wrote further, he spoke typologically by contrasting the first Adam with the second, Eve with Mary, and the tree in the garden with the cross.

Lack of space prevents full rehearsal of Childs.s history of interpretation of Isaiah. I can only point superficially to his discussion of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyril of Alexandria to show how .literal. or .historical. or .plain. senses of what Christians commonly call .Old Testament. were supplemented in a spiritual way by interpretations sometimes called .allegorical.. Moreover, I do not have room to show in detail how Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome differed from the Alexandrian interpreters by understanding spiritual meanings as emerging from the more basic .historical. sense. Nor have I space to develop in detail Childs.s discussion as to how the Antiochene John Chrysostom considered allegory to be legitimate only when the language of the text itself indicated its presence.or how Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus understood the .spiritual. sense in terms of historical fulfillment of prophecy or in terms of typology. Furthermore, Childs.s detailed discussion of Martin Luther.s letter-spirit/law-gospel duality cannot be fully explained here. Certainly for Luther, these dualities were not primarily to be located literarily in Old and New Testaments respectively but were instead different existential realities, both of which were present in both Testaments. Childs.s discussion of Calvin is also too complex for a sound byte.size presentation here. Thus I will mention primarily Calvin.s almost complete focus on the .plain. sense of scripture. Although the storyline of Christian scripture extends from creation at the beginning to eschatological consummation at the end, all of it was included in the .literal. sense of scripture. Literal sense for Calvin was not divided into .spiritual. and .carnal..

Indeed, .literal. included the spiritual (the work of the Spirit) and was not a separate level of meaning (see Calvin, e.g., on Isa 5:2; 19:1; 63:1). While there were indeed two covenants (old and new) with typology playing a significant role in the relation between the Testaments, there was no difference in substance between the two. There were only differences, Childs tells us, in the administration of the divine will, such as Old Testament promises expressed as earthly blessings, while the New Testament pictures blessings as heavenly.

It is abundantly clear that, at least through the sixteenth century, Childs sees a certain commonality (a .family resemblance.) in the great diversity of hermeneutical approaches to Christian interpretation of Isaiah (and, indeed, the Old Testament as a whole). First of all, the Old and New Testaments were both .universally. used throughout the church as Christian scripture (301). Only near the beginning of the Enlightenment and afterward did .new scientific knowledge . . . along with philosophical rationalism. lead to serious questioning of the .divine authority. of the Christian Bible (301). Furthermore, in the diversity of Christian interpretation Childs sees a .family resemblance. in widespread acceptance of a fundamental relationship between the two Testaments, commonly seen as involving both .literal. and .spiritual,. however differently these two were understood. Moreover, there was a broadly shared understanding of scripture as containing two Testaments, however differently the relationship between the two might be perceived. In addition, there was widespread belief in both Testaments as divine revelation and a broadly accepted understanding that both Testaments are related to God.s activity in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, I cannot rehearse here Childs.s fascinating discussion of various attempts to maintain an understanding of the Old Testament as Christian scripture during the Enlightenment and in the period immediately preceding. It is abundantly clear that Childs considers the Enlightenment.s assumptions about rationality and its reduction of meaning to a history of religions approach as a serious impediment to theological interpretation of the Bible. Although both history of religions and theological approaches are legitimate, the differences between their appropriate functions must be clearly understood. Childs turns also to postmodern interpretation: .Working on the assumption that all literary interpretation is an activity involving an imaginative construction of the author in shaping a text, postmodernism denies that there is only one determinate sense of a text, but rather postulates meaning as an ongoing creation of the reader in dialogue with a given composition. (292). Here Childs focuses on Walter Brueggemann.s Isaiah commentary (Isaiah 1.39, Isaiah 40.66 [Westminster John Knox, 1998]) as presuming, in a postmodern way, that there are unlimited possibilities of meaning in Isaiah, depending on the biases of its interpreters. Brueggemann rejects any claim that the book of Isaiah predicts or anticipates Jesus Christ. Such talk not only distorts Isaiah itself, according to Brueggemann, but is also disrespectful of Jewish readers (see page 6 of both volumes of Brueggemann.s commentary). Brueggemann often discusses citations in the New Testament, but he considers them to be imaginative construals that have read Christian interpretations back into the Isaiah of the Jewish scriptures. For Brueggemann, Childs says, .there is nothing besides Israel.s speech that undergirds the Hebrew scriptures. (Childs, 294; see Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament [Fortress, 1997], 723).

Near the end of his book, Childs argues vigorously against the proposals of Brueggemann and Rolf Rendtorff .that the church should hear the voice of the Hebrew Bible on its own, independent of the New Testament. (Childs, 306; see Brueggemann, Theology, 733ff.; Rendtorff, Canon and Theology [Fortress, 1993], 31.45]). Even though in one sense Childs acknowledges that Brueggemann is quite accurate that the .rule of faith. widely appropriated in Christian interpretation is as much a construal as is Brueggemann.s own postmodern reading, nevertheless, says Childs, Brueggemann .mounts his case in the language of a secular, history-of-religions analysis. (Childs, 315). Yet, for Childs, .appeal to a rule of faith rests on a theological argument. (315), which functions quite differently from a history of religions approach.

The importance of Childs.s book should not be underestimated for those interested in usage of the Hebrew Bible as Christian scripture. Indeed, Childs.s study of the history of Christian interpretation of Isaiah allows him to make a strong case that, despite the diversity of Christian interpretation, there is a strong .family resemblance. Among Christian interpreters in their seeing .Old Testament. books as theologically related to the New Testament in terms of a two-Testament witness to Jesus Christ. To be sure, the books in the Christian Old Testament were not written to speak explicitly of Jesus Christ, but such a history of religions understanding (accurate though it is) is quite different from the historic theological usage of a two-Testament canon in the Christian community. Since the fundamental connections between the Jewish scriptures and Jesus seem to be a part of the very earliest confessions in the church, I see no good reason to disagree that there is a theological importance for Christians to explore ways of interpreting the Old Testament in relationship with the testimony of the Christian canon.

I am somewhat perplexed, however, by Childs.s apparent categorical rejection of postmodern hermeneutics (290), on the one hand, and his partial embrace of Brueggemann.s use of it, on the other: .This postmodern hermeneutical hypothesis is not to be easily dismissed; indeed, it expresses much that is true. (316). While I understand that Childs says this in criticism of Brueggemann.s presumed failure to understand arguments in favor of a rule of faith, Childs nevertheless seems to exhibit a degree of appreciation for postmodern hermeneutics. In my thinking, New Testament rereadings of Israelite biblical texts involve creative readerly activity that is, in some respects at least, similar to common postmodern views of the role of readers in the construal of textual meaning. Furthermore, I would ask, what analogies might there be between talk of the role of the Spirit in (re)interpretation and usage of scripture, on the one hand, and, on the other, postmodern understandings of creativity on the part of readers in the interpretation and usage of texts?

Finally, though I understand the limited focus of both this volume and also of Childs.s understanding of his 2001 commentary called Isaiah (Westminster John Knox) as a technical scholarly commentary, I think there is still need for a study of Isaiah as Christian scripture that focuses in more depth on the interpretation and usage of particular Isaianic texts in the existential realities of modern life and in the faithful shaping of Christian praxis.

Citation: Roy Melugin, review of Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2005).

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