The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture

By Adams, Dwayne H. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture


Adams, Dwayne H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. By Brevard S. Childs. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, xii + 332 pp., $35.00.

In his book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Brevard Childs has done a service to the Church in both clarifying Christian hermeneutics of the past and setting forth some of the hermeneutical issues the Church will face in the future.

In his preface, Childs sets forth his aims in light of certain theological issues. If the Church confesses Scripture as divine word for the guidance of the church, the nature of this role needs to be carefully considered. Does the text still possess what Childs calls a "coercive force" on the present reader? By this, he seems to mean a "thus saith the Lord" quality. How has the Church read the Scripture throughout its history? Is there any similarity of approach between Christian interpreters of Isaiah, even in view of the vast differences, that could demonstrate a truly "Christian" exegetical tradition? Is there a "family resemblance" of identifiable hermeneutical features within these various approaches?

Childs's book proceeds through the history of the Church, identifying key commentators and their hermeneutical approaches. He focuses his study narrowly on Isaiah in order to draw wider conclusions regarding hermeneutical method.

Childs begins his study with the Septuagint. The LXX of Isaiah represents the first stage of the hermeneutical progress from the Hebrew text of Isaiah to the readers of another time, place, and language. These translators sought to respect the semantic integrity of the Hebrew but also to employ a Greek idiom intelligible to a Hellenistic Jewish audience. In this chapter, Childs also surveys the NT use of the LXX of Isaiah. He uses sample texts from Matt 1:23; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 4:16-30; John 12:41; and Rom 4:24-25. Childs argues that although the NT writers demonstrate great freedom in how they use Isaiah, their interpretive steps are not outside the boundaries of patterns already present within Jewish hermeneutical circles.

The next nine chapters focus on commentators from the period AD 100-460, from Justin Martyr to Theodoret of Cyrus. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin demonstrates the Christian acceptance of the OT as divinely inspired. Unfortunately, his uncontrolled use of the figurative sense will expand in the works of later Alexandrian commentators, such as Clement of Alexandria. Irenaeus provides the Church a hermeneutical boundary by application of the "Rule of Faith," along the lines of the Apostle's Creed. Clement of Alexandria's uncontrolled use of allegory illustrates the danger of reading Scripture through a Platonic philosophical lens.

One of Childs's primary aims is to clarify the basis for the use of allegory in this early period. He dismisses the suggestion that the Alexandrian school completely rejected the literal sense and replaced it with subjective allegory in contrast to the Antiochene school that supposedly employed historical exegesis in the acceptable modern sense. Childs asserts that both schools valued the literal sense and both schools dealt with a second sense, rooted in their common view that all Scripture was Christological in nature. The difference between the schools was how they dealt with the secondary sense. The discussion of Origen's use of allegory is especially helpful here. Evangelicals have also begun to re-examine the Church fathers and their use of the figurative (cf. Daniel Treier, "Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis?" Trinity Journal [Spring 2003]).

Childs provides two representatives of the Antiochene school: Chrysostom, the great preacher, and Theodoret of Cyrus. The figurative is controlled by the use of typological interpretation that sought to preserve the theological value of the OT historical context while allowing some events to be seen to prefigure later fulfillment in the NT.

Childs jumps from Theodoret (ca. …

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