Shepherd, Charles E. Theological Interpretation and Isaiah 53: A Critical Comparison of Bernhard Duhm, Brevard Childs, and Alec Motyer. The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 598. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014. Hb $112.00.   Link to Bloomsbury

This monograph arises from Shepherd’s Ph.D. work at Durham University in 2012 under the direction of Walter Moberly. He proposes to study a theologically rich passage in the Hebrew Bible through the lens of three significant Isaianic scholars as way to explore the value of classical historical criticism in the light of recent developments in the field of theological interpretation of Scripture. Bernhard Duhm represents historical criticism of the nineteenth century and is well known for the religionsgeschichtliche Schule of Protestant liberalism. Brevard Childs is often associated with canonical criticism and is something of a godfather of recent theological interpretations of Scripture. Alec Motyer represents an evangelical voice who has a strong faith commitment to Scripture. Shepherd describes Motyer as an evangelical who “reads the Old Testament without recourse to critical questions” and is guided by “core theological and doctrinal convictions” (p. 6). In fact, Shepherd considers Motyer’s work on Isa 53 “a true tour de force in evangelical interpretation” that is theologically coherent and exegetically independent (p. 198).

ShepherdAside from their magisterial commentaries on Isaiah, an additional factor in selecting these three scholars is that their hermeneutical approach is a “rhetorical positioning away from a perceived threat” (p.200). Duhm moved away from teleological readings of the prophets which read Isaiah only through the lens of Christ (“Erscheinung Christi”). Childs moved away from Protestant Liberalism’s fascination with “Historie” by emphasizing the connection between the Old and New Testament. Motyer does what Duhm avoided, he reads the prophets as messianic prophecy fulfilled in Christ, although he seeks to set the prophecy in an original eighth century B.C. context as well as applying it to the modern church.

Another contrast between the three scholars studied in this monograph is each has an interlocutor representing a threat which proper exegesis will answer. For Duhm, “supernaturalists” such as Delitzsch and Hengstenberg, although Shepherd points out it is not always clear if Duhm has a specific scholar in mind (p. 233). Childs approach is in dialogue with “anthropocentrists” in contrast to his own “theocentric” hermeneutic. He has in mind the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Since Motyer is concerned with the unity of the book of Isaiah, he distances himself from the “rationalists,” specifically Eichrodt and Von Rad. Shepherd says “Motyer’s rhetorical shaping suggests that those who are open to traditional source-critical work have no basis on which to wed text with doctrine” (p. 237).

Shepherd devotes two chapters to each scholar. He first sketches the theological hermeneutics represented by the scholar, then he examines the application of those hermeneutical strategies on Isaiah 53. This text was chosen because it is, as Shepherd puts it, an “easy target” (p. 5). More than this, Isa 53 has been located in various ways in history and has been an important text moving from antiquity to the Christian theology. The complexity of the passage is conducive to both historical critical studies and a theological reading. Shepherd is clear that the his study is not interested in the correct reading of Isaiah 53, but rather the moves made by the interpreters as well as the theological and philosophical commitments which inform those exegetical decisions.

Shepherd offers several observations by way of a concluding chapter. Duhm’s comments in Isa 53 demonstrate his work as an interpreter on the “raw materials” of the text, and he does not think the poem refers to the Christ event. Yet Shepherd points out Duhm “felt the need to reflect theologically,” although in a section separated from his exegesis. This “historical distancing” of theology and history is somewhat artificial, Shepherd suggests, but it was “already underway in his prior exegetical moves” (p.203).

Childs consciously approaches the text of Isa 53 as a Christian interpreter and stands with those interpreters who have gone before. Since Childs argues the poem has been “loosed from particular historical settings and relocated to a literary context,” the concrete, original historical context is important only in the sense of “types,” or foreshadowing of how the final writer intended the poem. The placement of the poem in Second Isaiah points to an eschatological theme: “God intervenes to end the exile and to usher in his eschatological reign” (p. 208). Reading the poem as a Christian, Childs stands with virtually all patristic and scholastic interprets by identifying Jesus as the servant. The original context is inaccessible and may even be at odds with a theological reading of the text.

Motyer approaches the text as a divinely inspired revelation from God and therefore emphasizes God’s sovereignty and involvement in history. Yet he is still interested in the facts of history, although these are the facts as they relate to God’s work of redemption. Shepherd considers this a “strange relationship” with modern knowledge. Motyer uses history to avoid “make believe,” but the Bible itself is immune from critical analysis (specifically, Motyer’s reading of Isaiah as the work of a single eighth prophet). Motyer reads Isa 53 as a referring to a servant in history, but the poem “reminds” the Christian reader of the “resurrection, ascension and heavenly exaltedness of the Lord Jesus” (p. 213). Shepherd concludes Motyer collapses the distance between history and Christian theology. Old Testament and New Testament share the same messianic context and theological foundations. As an example of this, Shepherd cites Motyer’s unapologetic reading of Isa 53 that supports penal substitutionary atonement (p. 228). While Childs would be cautious in imposing this kind of theological category, Duhm rejects this kind of theological reading.

In his epilogue Shepherd asks if Historical Criticism is a “Friend, Foe, or Foil.” Shepherd interacts with Francis Watson’s assertion that historical criticism does not really exist since every generation of Christian interpreters have used all of the scholarly tools available to them. In fact, to create a dichotomy between “historical criticism” versus “theological interpretation” assumes the two exist in complete isolation. This is simply not how exegesis works. “The task of the biblical ‘historian’ was likewise bound up with questions of personal commitment” (p. 260).

Conclusion. Shepherd’s study achieves what it proposes to do. He does in fact offer a “sympathetic yet critical” reading of these three diverse scholars. By contrasting Duhm with Moyter, Shepherd appears to be favoring Childs as a “golden mean” between the two extremes, the modernism of nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism and the twentieth-century evangelical (fundamentalism?) reaction to liberalism. But he does not set Duhm or Motyer up as straw men; their ideas and hermeneutical strategies demonstrate Shepherd’s thesis that personal commitment will always color interpretation.

NB: Thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.