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.

Book Review: Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Beginning and End of Wisdom

O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 235 pp. $17.99, pb. Link to Crossway

The plan of this book is to help the reader “build a fire” by helping them to know and enjoy Wisdom literature. More importantly, O’Donnell wants to show the reader “how to build the fire” by giving them some tools for reading Wisdom literature. What makes this book different than most short books of Wisdom Literature is that O’Donnell specifically wants to read this material through the lens of Jesus and the Cross. He wants the reader to “put on Gospel glasses and look at this text” in order to preach Christocentiric sermons on Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In order to do this, he provides six sermons based on the beginning and end of the three Wisdom books. After these illustration sermons, he offers a chapter describing his Christological method for reading Wisdom.

What O’Donnell does not do in his sermons is exegesis of the text. By this I mean that there is little reflection on the meaning of words or the context of the ancient world. In his sermon on the opening section of Ecclesiastes, his title is “Why Work?” and the content of the sermon is on the importance of working hard for the at righteousness. He looks at work through “Gospel Glasses” and examines Jesus work doing the will of the father, then draws a line to his audience, urging them also to do the will of the father. I find this style of sermons as more or less thematic, based on some theme in the text, but in the end totally unconnected with the text read at the beginning of the sermon.

In his last chapter, O’Donnell shares several tips for preaching Christ in Wisdom literature. He recommends that the preacher not draw a straight line from the Old Testament to some ethical / moral teaching for his congregation. Rather, a Christocentric preacher will draw the line from the Old Testament, through Christ, and then to an ethical command for his congregation.

How is this to be done? O’Donnell recommends a judicious use of typology. For example, his sermon on Job 42 focuses on the sufferings of Job as a type of the sufferings of Jesus. “What Isaiah foretold, Job illustrated and Jesus embodied.” (125). I think that this style of typology is not particularly helpful if my goal is presenting what Bible actually says. There is nothing at all in Job 42 or in the later use of Job’s story that makes me think that this typological analysis is valid. In fact, I find it scarcely better than allegorizing the text. O’Donnell does not want to allegorize the Old Testament, and claims that this typological study is not allegory. I cannot see the difference. He does state that typology is “not an easy skill,” it takes time, hard work, and spiritual illumination (127).

I find this characterization intimidating since it implies that my resistence to typology is the result of non-illumination, even if it is the result of hard work and time spent in the text. The Holy Spirit may very well illuminate a pastor who takes the time to exegete a text and reflect on historical, cultural, and literary contexts in order to apply the text to his congregation. I think that a sermon on a section of Proverbs, for example, does not have to jump from the text of the Hebrew Bible to Jesus in order to be valuable for a Christian congregation. I certainly do not think that this is necessary for Job or Ecclesiastes. This is where I seriously differ with O’Donnell, I am after the original intention of the author. The application of a text ought to be drawn from that text. By using“gospel glasses” in parts of the Bible which are not expressly Christological, I think the meaning of the text suffers.

I found his appendix on reading Hebrew poetry well written and helpful, although he is standing on the foundation of Robert Alter. He provides a nice introduction to the forms of Hebrew poetry and gives some good advice on dealing with biblical imagery. For example, he urges his readers to not overanalyze imagery, allowing the fluid language of the text to be evocative and moving. I think that this section could be enhanced by taking into consideration the use (and abuse) of metaphors in poetry, but there is still much here that will help a preacher to better approach the poetry of the Hebrew Bible.

This was not the book I expected it to be when I began reading it. Rather than a short introduction to Wisdom Literature, it is book about how to preach Wisdom Literature with a decidedly Christ-centered approach. I think that O’Donnell achieves that goal, I just wonder if that goal is the right one for the pastor who preaches from Wisdom Literature.

More on Quality Exegesis

I had my Greek students read D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. This is usually a popular assignment since the book is an easy read and interesting. There is something amusing about reading about other people’s mistakes, for some reason.

One of my students made several excellent observations based on his reading of the book. Jon Austin claimed in his review that “…there is a moral responsibility of pastors, professors, and myself to present the exegesis of the gospel with integrity.” I think this is an interesting way to put the problem. It is a moral responsibility to do good exegesis for sermons and Bible studies. I do not think the opposite of “good exegesis” is necessarily “bad exegesis,” but “lazy exegesis.” Most pastors have a very busy schedule and more likely than not do not get to spend quality time “doing exegesis” of the Bible for their sermons. I understand this and experience this regularly myself.

At best, most pastors have to struggle along with the commentaries rather than doing genuine exegesis. Hopefully they are able to use more than one commentary, but likely as not a single favorite source is all that informs the reading of a text. Hopefully the pastor is able to purchase a few new resources when they begin a new series, but I am afraid that some are content with the old standards they had in college or seminary.

This Pulpit is Plagiarized.

What I fear is that many pastors limp along with the worst form of preparation: surfing the internet for ideas which they can cut and paste into their sermons. If the pastor’s moral responsibility is good exegesis, then the pastor’s moral failure is using sources without critical evaluation or worse yet, plagiarizing sermon elements from blog posts or considering Wikipedia “sufficient preparation.” This is just as much of a moral failing as plagiarizing a paper in college or lying on a resume. My guess is that there are too many pastors who do not agree and continue reading things they got in an email that week as part of their sermons.

Another factor is reliance on topical sermons rather than exegetical ones. I have commented on this before, but I am strongly in favor of expositional preaching, usually through books. Part of the reason for this is that it allows the preacher / teacher to address topics as the arise out of the text, rather than using the Bible as a proof text to support and already-assumed premise. Again, Jon was insightful in his paper: “When we are teaching our congregations topically, we tend to manipulate meanings of words and sentences to our advantage.” I am sure most pastors do not think they are “manipulating” the Bible, but it usually turns out that way when proof-texts are offered. When someone actually reads the proof-text in context and finds that it does not say what the preacher claimed, credibility is lost.

I think that more pastors need to take seriously their high-calling to present the Word of God powerfully by immersing themselves in the Scripture they intended to preach. Since we are dealing with the most precious thing imaginable, God’s Word, legitimate, quality preparation is absolutely essential.

“What Does a Stellar Exegesis Look Like?”

A student asked me, “What does a stellar exegesis look like?” He is in the final stages of writing his first exegetical project for my Greek class and reading some very good commentaries on Ephesians.  Here is my response:

“To misquote Berkley Mickelson, exegesis is both an Art and a Science.  Like music or painting, I can teach you the methods and show you the tools, but you have to make the art with them. So too with biblical exegesis.  I can show you how to use Bauer and TDNT, the Bible Dictionaries, etc.  But you are going to use them in a way that is unique to your personality, and you will do this art in ways that I cannot imagine at this moment.  Just like with music or painting, you have to get some of the basics down, then dive in and be creative.”