Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets

By Mays, James Luther | Interpretation, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets


Mays, James Luther, Interpretation


Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets by Christopher R. Seitz Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2007. 264 pp. $22.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-3258-5.

CHRISTOPHER SEITZ TELLS us that the occasion for writing this book was the challenge of writing an introduction to the Prophets. Knowing how influential an introduction can be on the way its users think about and interpret the Prophets, he undertakes a reassessment of the way the Prophets have been and are "introduced" in the literature created to serve that purpose. This volume is a report of his reassessment. His thesis is that only an approach that reckons decisively with the books of the Prophets in the literary form and location the books have in the canon of Scriptures will be adequate for discerning their meaning for the faith and life of the church. The thesis is developed in a discussion of the history of the interpretation of the Prophets since the eighteenth century and in engagement with current critical biblical study, always in the context of hermeneutical and theological issues.

Seitz is richly prepared for the task at hand. Throughout his career, he has been engaged in research and publication on the Prophets. He stands squarely in the tradition of canonical criticism, hermeneutically and theologically, associated with the late Brevard Childs. In particular, his work on Isaiah has honed his sensitivity to the questions set by the prophetic writing. His immersion in his subject shows on every page and is validated in the personal bibliography appearing recurrently in the footnotes.

Up to the modern period, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve were viewed as theologically coherent literary works whose interpretative context was the rest of the canon of Scriptures. The turn to a critically-constructed history outside the Scriptures as the context for interpreting the material in the prophetic books brought a decisive change. As Seitz sees it, the story since has been one of the progressive loss of the canonical identity of the Prophets. In time, the prophets and their books became a separate subject for investigation and publication. Interest came to center on the prophets and their individual experience and missions. More recently, the prophets have been seen as creative heirs of various Israelite religious traditions, which they renewed and addressed to their time.

Seitz identifies certain figures whose work resisted this trend in a way that illustrates his concerns. E. B. Pusey (mid-nineteenth century) paid attention to a coherence among the Prophets that transcended their historical distinctiveness. George Alien Smith (late nineteenth century) portrayed the prophets as religious figures who were related in a unity at a profound level in spite of their character as distinctively arranged on an historical grid. Seitz gives major attention and space to a conversation with Gerhard von Rad who viewed the Prophets in the context of a history of tradition that linked them to other areas of the OT and to one another in a kind of unity of purpose and practice.

The development in current biblical criticism that Seitz finds encouraging is a turn to interest in the final literary form of the prophetic books and their relation to each other. It is well established that most of the prophetic books have been created in a prolonged process of remembering, writing, revising, adding, and arranging. Now, the question of the purpose and effect of this complex process is on the agenda. The movement away from the book to fragments set in a chronological grid in quest of the prophet of history is being reversed in a turn to the book as literature. The longer books are being examined to discern the way the tradents who created them preserved and heard the word of the prophet in later times. Work on the book of Isaiah especially has uncovered integrative features that shape its sixty-six chapters into a literary witness to the Lord's way with Israel and the nations. …

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