Book Review: Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Childs, Brevard S. The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004. 332 pp. $35, hdbk. $19.25, Kindle.

When Brevard Childs finished his commentary on Isaiah in 2001, he had some unfinished business. In the Introduction to The Struggle to Understand Isaiah, he explains that writing a commentary does not permit serious reflection on the way Isaiah has been read by past interpreters or the hermenutical assumptions made by these interpreters over the long history of reading Isaiah as Scripture.

Childs summarizes the problem he wants to address in this way: “I am very conscious of the great confusion in the church generated by an endless number of conflicting approaches for reading the Bible. Not only has the subject been heavily politicized both by the right and the left, but the field has become awash with a parade of fads, each promising major advances in personal and communal enlightenment” (x.)

Every generation has sought to read and interpret Scripture as God’s word, and apply that Scripture to the “present day.” And every generation has created a “method” which is believed to be the proper way to read Scripture. While some of the allegorical interpretations of the medieval church are laughable today, it was at one time the “assured results of scholarship.” In the same way, reading a serious scholarly commentary from the late nineteenth-century is usually an exercise in futility since the method used to read and interpret scripture has been completely rejected.

Does this mean that the church was hopelessly confused about the meaning of Scripture for the better part of two millennia until we wise moderns came along to sort things out? Or does this mean that Scripture has no real meaning until enlightened imaginations encounter it and create meaning? Neither option is attractive to Childs. He therefore wants to read a wide selection of commentaries on Isaiah in order to discover any consistency over the centuries of interpretation. My first reaction is “I cannot learn anything from Origen!” But this is not true; as Childs shows there is some consistency from the earliest Christian readings of Isaiah to the present.

Despite the fact that it is pre-Christian, Childs begins with the Septuagint as the earliest interpretation of Isaiah. This is an important step since it shows that Jewish readers in the second century B.C. were already struggling to read Isaiah and apply it to their own situation. After observing how the translators of the Septuagint struggle to read Isaiah, Childs surveys examples of commentaries on Isaiah from the earliest Christians (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen) through the great thinkers of the Church (Jerome, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas) and the Reformation (Luther and Calvin). He treats the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and postmodern interpretations in single chapters.

By moving through such a large number of representative commentaries, Childs then concludes by looking for what he calls “family resemblances” between these various Christian voices. He finds seven basic characteristics of Christian interpretation of scripture based on his historical survey of Isaiah commentaries.

  1. Authority of Scripture.
  2. Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture.
  3. Scripture’s Two Testaments.
  4. The Divine and Human Authorship of Scripture
  5. The Christological Content of the Bible.
  6. The Dialectical Nature of History.
  7. History and the Final Form of the Text.

In the end, I think that Childs has collected the basic consistencies in this wide variety of literature. At least the first five of his points (and probably the seventh) would be true for any commentary I have read and found useful for teaching and preaching. I would also hope that my own reading of the Bible is consistent these points as well.

I do have some reservations, however. I do not think that every passage from the Hebrew Bible must be read Christologically. Certainly Isaiah 7:14 must be, since there is warrant in the New Testament for this topological reading. But what about Hezekiah’s illness in Isa 39? Must I read Christ into that account? It seems to me that the text has nothing specific to say about Christ and a great deal to say about how God is dealing with his people at that time and place in history. To find a Christological principle in Isaiah 39 seems to rob the text of the original meaning.

Childs provides an excellent overview of how thoughtful Christians have read Isaiah in the past.  This alone makes the book a valuable contribution.  His conclusions show that there is much consistency between the various Christian voices which have struggled to read Isaiah.  Whether this is a platform for developing a “Christian Hermenutic” remains unclear, but Childs certainly shows that one cannot read Scripture as a Christian unless Scripture is central.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture

  1. Some time back (and I am still searching for the exact source) I read that someone – possibly Origen, possibly St. Jerome – referred to Isaiah as “the fifth Evangelist.”

    • Isaiah as the Fifth gospel is an old description, John Sawyer has a book by that title although he did not originate the phrase. Sometimes the reference is just to Isaiah 53, but the whole book is very important for the writers of the NT, they all stand on the foundation of Isaiah.

  2. Thanks for this review! I have a couple of questions. First about the book: I’m curious whether any post-patristic Eastern Orthodox commentaries are included? (I find that most books written in the Western church overlook the East when discussing “Christianity” or “the Church”, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there weren’t any; but it would be a strong point I’d like to know about if there were!

    Secondly, you discuss the extent to which a Christological reading is necessary. What do you think about the need for a pneumatological reading?

  3. I did not include a chapter list, which I always see as a lazy way to pad a book review. However, in this case it was probably a good idea. He covers: the LXX, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyprus, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, Luther, Calvin, 17-18th century, 19-20th century, and Postmodern interpreters. So nothing that could be called “Eastern Orthodox” is represented. Calvin and Luther are much more detailed than John Chrysostom (6 pages vs. 26 for Luther).

    As for the second question, if you mean that the Holy Spirit guides the interpreter, something like the classic doctrine of illumination, they I would say that is necessary for the best exegesis and foundational for any preaching of God’s word. I may not find Jesus lurking behind every story and event in the Hebrew Bible, but I have to be yielded to the Holy Spirit to communicate what is there to a Christian congregation.

    However, I think there are some excellent commentaries written by non-Christians, and some fairly rotten ones written by Christians. Having the Holy Spirit does not make up for not knowing Hebrew and doing the hard work of Exegesis.

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