Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Thanksgiving Turkey, Brevard Childs, and Cooking for Engineers

Posted in Brevard Childs, Humor, Life by Bacho on November 25, 2010

We are getting ready for a Thanksgiving meal.  Division of labor has landed me with a responsibility of taking care of the meat aspect of the gastronomical feast.  So I am currently embarking on this monumental undertaking with my my brother-in-law, Terry.  Terry is a biomedical engineering student who is applying for med schools.  So what happens when one entrusts a turkey to a PhD in Biblical studies and a bio-medical engineer?

Terry has embraced this task with a tenacity of an IRON CHEF.  He found a killer recipe for turkey at a cooking for engineers website.  Here is a quick tase of what happens when you try to brine the turkey with engineers:

“Brining is the soaking of meat in a solution of water and salt. Additional flavorings like sugar and spices can also be added, but salt is what makes a brine a brine (just like acid makes a marinade a marinade). This soaking causes the meat to gain some saltiness and flavoring while plumping it up with water so that after cooking it still contains a lot of juices.  The explanation for why brining works that I hear most often is that by surrounding the meat with salt water, salt and water are forced into the tissue through osmosis. Unfortunately, I’ve never been happy with that explanation. Osmosis is when a solvent (usually water or other liquid that can hold another substance, called the solute, in solution – like salt) moves from a low solute concentration (like the tissue of the meat) to a high solute concentration (like the salt water) through a semipermeable membrane (a surface that allows small particles to pass but not larger ones – like the cell membranes of our chicken or pork) to form an equilibrium. Hmmm… wait a minute. If that’s true then water will be drawn from the low salt concentration meat to the high salt concentration salt water. At the same time, if the salt can enter the meat (which it can), then salt will be moving from salt water to meat. Won’t that result in a salty, dry piece of poultry or pork?
Obviously, there’s more going on than simple osmosis. It is true that salt enters the meat (it tastes more salty after brining). But why is it also more juicy? Well, when water flows out of the meat, salt flows in and begins to break down some of the proteins in the cells. In the broken down state, the molecules become more concentrated and the solute levels rise within the meat. This causes additional water to flow into the meat.  But doesn’t that mean we’ve got the same amount of water as before brining? Nope. The cell membranes are semipermeable. They allow salt and water to flow in both directions freely, but larger molecules (like the denatured proteins and other solutes in the meat released by the salt) cannot flow out from within the cells. When the solutes of a solution on one side of a semipermeable membrane cannot pass to the other side, osmosis causes more and more solvent to move through the semipermeable membrane. This continues until the extra pressure from holding more solvent equals the rate at which solvent is “drawn” through the semipermeable membrane.
What has happened is that through brining, we’ve caused a state change in the cells so that they will draw and hold more water than before. As we cook the meat, the heated proteins will begin to draw in tighter and squeeze out water, but, hopefully, enough water will remain to produce a juicy, tender piece of meat.”

What is my role in this undertaking?  I named the turkey Brevard in honor of Brevard Childs.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Brevard Childs, the Book of Isaiah, and Seven Features of the Christian Exegetical tradition

At the opening of his book The Struggle To Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, Childs asks if there is any sort of family resemblance in the ways the book of Isaiah has been interpreted throughout the centuries by the scholars and churchmen as Christian Scripture.  Having made a treacherous journey across time and space, Childs provides seven features that he argues characterize the Christian exegetical tradition.  Rather than being seven concluding statements, these are seven areas where Childs perceives the struggle to read Isaiah as Christian Scripture as most definitive.

First, Childs opens his discussion with the question of the authority of Scripture.  This seems to be a basic conviction that spans time.  Childs observes, “Widespread is the confession that God is the author of the Bible’s Word.  It contains the Word of truth calling for the “obedience of faith.” [300]  Childs‘ research finds this conviction manifested in two ways.  First, the Early Church used the authority of Scripture to shape her life via preaching, worship, and instruction.  Second,  the authority of Scripture was evoked in arguments that sought to safeguard the truth of the apostolic gospel.

Second, the Scripture has both literal and spiritual dimensions to it.  One of the enduring characteristics of Childs‘ research is the ever present struggle in the church to discern how these aspects fit together.  He writes, “During much of the church’s history, enormous energy, reflection, and debate has gone into the effort to understand exactly the relation between the literal and the spiritual dimensions of the biblical text.” [303]  One of the most dramatic points in the Church history where this struggle manifested itself most clearly was at the end of the 3rd century with the emergence of the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation.  Despite centuries of misunderstandings of these schools Childs argues, “Both schools fully agreed in recognizing both a literal and spiritual dimension, and both sought to develop subtle strategies by which to guide and control the interrelationship of the two.” [303] In the end, the way forward was found not in the abandonment of one for the sake of the other, but rather in the careful appropriation of the best practices reflected in both schools.

Third, similar and many ways connected to the literal/spiritual aspect of Christian exegetical tradition is the conviction that the Christian Bible is made of two testaments.  Childs sums up what is at stake in this understanding when he writes, “The Christian scriptures bear a unified witness to one divine story that has a narrative sequence of a beginning and an end.  Moreover, both testaments share an eschatological perspective pointing towards history’s final telos, the reign of God.  The sequence with the terminology is not just a historical one, but is grounded on a trinitarian theology that confesses that one triune God at work in the different divine economies: preparation, old covenant, incarnation, new covenant, and consummation.” [303]

Fourth, Childs observes that the Church has always held in tension the dual authorship of her Scripture.  “God’s is the voice addressing the people in divine speech.  Yet at the same time human beings were designated as authors communicating the teachings of God: Moses, David, evangelists, and apostles.”  [309]  Sadly the emergence of historical-critical approach to hermeneutics has tarnished this centuries long affirmation.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally the pressures to defend the innerancy of the Bible as the Word of God has entangled the Church and her exegetes in battles so severe that the Church’s confidence in being in possession of the definitive divine revelation was severely undermined.  Yet according to Childs “the vestiges of the church’s distant memory were not fully lost.”  [310]  He attributes this to the role of liturgy in the Church.  “The traditional call to the congregation, “hear the Word of the Lord,” before the biblical passage was read continued to remind its listeners that words of a fully human author, often poorly read by a stumbling cleric, could nevertheless evoke a startling sense of the divine presence.”  [310]

Fifth, Childs articulates the struggle for the Christological content of the Christian Bible.  This might be the most controversial aspect of Childs‘ position.  According to Childs what we have in the Christian Bible is not a random and haphazard amalgam of sacred texts.  Neither are they a source of esoteric mysteries.  Rather they are a product of definitive theological reflection that its collectors ascribed to divine inspiration.  The faith of the early church rested on the apostolic witness to what they saw, touched, experienced and came to believe in Jesus.  Thus according to Childs, the canon drew a parameter that established boundaries demarcating orthodox witness to that experienced reality of God in Jesus.  “The implication of the privileged status of scripture was that its witness was not primarily formulated in terms of a single doctrinal formula, but rather as a prescribed circle designating the accepted range of confessions transmitted in the worship of historic Christian congregations (Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, etc.).”  [314]  Childs sums beautifully what the Church has known and experienced for centuries, “the meaning of [the Bible’s] history only comes through the experience of the new birth, which confirms that Christ is the goal of all biblical history.”  [272]  If Christ is indeed the supreme telos, then Childs is correct that “the challenge to “wrestle with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message.”  [314]

Sixth, Childs claims that an intense interest in the nature of history has always characterized the Christian exegetical tradition.  He talks about the dialectical nature of history where God’s unique action in history can neither be fused with empirically verifiable history or can it be separated into some sort of esoteric mystery.  According to him, “The Church struggles to discern the ways of God that are revealed to the faithful whose lives of worship and service bear testimony to the promised presence of God’s Spirit in the realm of human affairs.”  [314]

Seventh, Childs reflects on the relationship between the history and the final form of the text.  How is the long history of growth and transmission related with the final canonical shape of the Scriptures before us?  According to Childs most of recent attacks on his Canonical Approach stem from misunderstanding of the nature of exegetical task undertaken.  He writes, “It is one thing to attempt to understand the Old testament as the sacred scripture of the church.  It is quite another to understand the study of the Bible in history-of-religions categories.  Both tasks are legitimate, but they are different in goal and procedure.”  [321]  What are the main differences?  Here we come to Childs‘ programic statement that is worth quoting at length, “To understand the Bible as scripture means to reflect on the witness of the text transmitted through the testimony of the prophets and apostles.  It involves an understanding of biblical history as the activity of God testified to in scripture.  In contrast, a history-of-religions approach attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment, as a scientifically objective analysis according to the rules of critical research prescribed by common human experience…To speak of the privileged state of the canonical form is not to disregard Israel’s past history.  However, it refuses to fuse the canonical process of the shaping of the witness of the prophets and apostles with an allegedly objective scientific reconstruction that uses a critical filet to eliminate those very features that constitute its witness, namely, the presence of God in the history of Israel and the church.”  [321]

What draws me to Childs is his focus on the controlling role of the Canon of Scripture.  In him I find a carefully articulated , albeit at times hard to grasp, attempt to walk the line where faith-filled hermeneutics rejects both the limits of modernity and postmodern relativity.  The Canon of Scripture is the Rule of Faith that controls and guides the Church’s reading of her script.  This canon consciousness establishes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments that is neither accidental nor artificial.  The Christian gospel is prefigured in the Old Testament and the Old Testament trajectories lead in the climactic fashion to the Cross of Calvary.

What draws me back from Childs is his thorough entrenchment in the academia.  For all his talk of reading the Scripture in the Church most of his writings never reached a person in the pew.  It is practically impossible to read him without prior knowledge of Karl Barth and the 20th century hermeneutical terrain.  He never produced a popular level book or commentary.  His prose is dense and at places simply hard to understand.  While it is exciting that there are few recent PhDs who are working on applying Childs‘ brilliant approach to specific texts, I hope that soon there will be few brave souls who will attempt to articulate Childs‘ thoughts in the Church setting.  I think Dr. Childs would be delighted with that.

Random Miscellany of Brevard Childs’ Thoughts on Canonical Approach

Here is a collection of Brevard Childs’ programic statements gathered from various works.  A sort of one stop collection of his significant statements that give glimpses into his Canonical approach.

Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992)

The complete canon of the Christian church as the rule-of-faith sets for the community of faith the proper theological context in which we stand, but it also remains continually the object of critical theological scrutiny subordinate to its subject matter who is Jesus Christ. This movement from the outer parameters of tradition to the inner parameters of Word is constitutive of the theological task.  [68]

“In the end, what is being suggested is that genuine biblical exegesis within the context of the church requires a multiple-level approach to the text. The interpreter struggles to hear precisely the form of the witness as it entered into its concrete historical form. The function of the canoni- cal collection is to assure that this corpus of the prophetic and apostolic witness cannot be replaced, but remains the vehicle for continuing rev- elation. At the same time the reality of God testified to in the Bible, and experienced through the confirmation of God’s Spirit, functions on a deeper level to instruct the reader toward an understanding of God that leads from faith to faith. Because of a fuller knowledge of the reality of God revealed through reading the whole corpus of scripture, the biblical texts resonate in a particular Christian fashion which has been of course confirmed by the church’s liturgical experience.”  [392]

Brevard Childs, “Critique of Recent Intertextual Canonical Interpretations,” in Zeitschrift für alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 115 (2003), 177.

The Bible in its human, fully time-conditioned form, functions theologically for the church as a witness to God’s divine revelation in Jesus Christ. The church confesses that in this human form, the Holy Spirit unlocks its truthful message to its hearers in the mystery of faith. This theological reading cannot be simply fused with a historical reconstruction of the biblical text, nor conversely, neither can it be separated. This is to say, the Bible’s witness to the creative and salvific activity of God in time and space cannot be encompassed within the categories of historical criticism whose approach filters out this very kerygmatic dimension of God’s activity. In a word, the divine and human dimensions remain in- separably intertwined, but in a highly profound, theological manner. Its ontological relation finds its closest analogy in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, truly man and truly God.

Brevard Childs, Isaiah, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2001)

It is thus crucial that the interpretation not focus simply on the preliterary form of the text. To interpret this text as a historical vestige, moored in misguided hopes from Israel’s past, is to misunderstand the canonical forces at work in shaping the prophetic tradition into a corpus of scripture directed to Israel’s subsequent generations of faith. [80]

Although accurate historical dating can at times be of exegetical significance, the crucial interpretive task lies in determining the narrative function to which such texts have been assigned, rather than in supplying a reconstructed setting apart from its present literary (canonical) context.  [94]

Hermeneutically speaking it is crucial to understand how the major force in the shaping of the prophetic corpus derived from the experience by Israel of an ongoing encounter with God mediated through scripture rather than through the direct influence of allegedly independent events of world affairs. It is precisely this filtering process of scriptural reflection on the ways of Cod that gave a coherent meaning to the changing life of Israel in the world of human affairs.  [228-229]

Brevard Childs, “The Canon in Recent Biblical Studies: Reflections on an Era,” in Pro Ecclesia 14 (2005), 45.

The Church has always confessed that the Old Testament is an integral part of the Christian Bible because of its witness to Jesus Christ. Of course, just how this confession has been understood has varied in the history of the church. Yet the newness of the New Testament in its wit- ness to Jesus Christ is of a different order from that of the Old Testament. The gospel is neither simply an extension of the old covenant, nor is it to be interpreted merely as a commentary on the Jewish Scriptures, but it is an explosion of God’s good news. The theological paradox is that the radically new has already been testified to by the Old (cf. Mk. 1:12; Heb. 1:1).

Brevard Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beiträge zur Alttestamentlichen Theologie: Festschrift für Walther Zimmerli zum 70 (Geburtstag Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1977), 92.

The biblical text must be studied in closest connection with the community of faith which treasured it. Obviously these texts can be studied from any number of other contexts and perspectives, but not as Sacred Scripture! The authority of the canon of Scripture is not a claim of objective truth apart from the community of faith but it is a commitment to a particular perspective from which the reality of God is viewed

Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 99–100

We would like to defend the thesis that the canon of the Christian church is the most appropriate context from which to do Biblical Theology. What does this mean? First of all, implied in the thesis is the basic Christian confession, shared by all branches of historic Christianity, that the Old and New Testaments together constitute Sacred Scripture for the Christian church. The status of canonicity is not an objectively demonstrable claim but a statement of Christian belief. In its original sense, canon does not simply perform the formal function of separating the books that are authoritative from others that are not, but is the rule that delineates the area in which the church hears the word of God. The fundamental theological issue at stake is not the extent of the canon, which has remained in some flux within Christianity, but the claim for a normative body of tradition contained in a set of books.

Again, to speak of the canon as a context implies that these Scriptures must be interpreted in relation to their function within the community of faith that treasured them. The Scriptures of the church are not archives of the past but a channel of life for the continuing church, through which God instructs and admonishes his people. Implied in the use of the canon as a context for interpreting Scripture is a rejection of the method that would imprison the Bible within a context of the historical past. Rather, the appeal to the canon understands Scripture as a vehicle of a divine reality, which indeed encountered an ancient people in the historical past, but which continues to confront the church through the pages of Scripture. The church’s prayer for illumination by the Holy Spirit when interpreting Scripture is not a meaningless vestige from a forgotten age of piety, but an acknowledgment of the continuing need for God to make himself known through Scripture to an expectant people. Because the church uses the text as a medium of revelation the interrelation of Bible and theology is constitutive in the context of the canon. The descriptive and constructive aspects of interpretation may well be distinguished, but never separated when doing Biblical Theology according to this model”

Brevard Childs on the Christological Content of Scripture

Childs’ struggle with defining the Christological content of the Christian Bible might be the most controversial aspect of his approach to Scripture.  According to Childs what we have in the Christian Bible is not a random and haphazard amalgam of sacred texts.  Neither are they a source of esoteric mysteries.  Rather they are a product of definitive theological reflection that its collectors ascribed to divine inspiration.  The faith of the early church rested on the apostolic witness to what they saw, touched, experienced and came to believe in Jesus.  Thus according to Childs, the canon drew a parameter that established boundaries demarcating orthodox witness to that experienced reality of God in Jesus.  “The implication of the privileged status of scripture was that its witness was not primarily formulated in terms of a single doctrinal formula, but rather as a prescribed circle designating the accepted range of confessions transmitted in the worship of historic Christian congregations (Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, etc.).”

Corollary with this thought is the Early Church’s conviction that the Spirit would guide them in illuminating the Scriptures.  Childs writes, “Scripture thus has a voice that exerts coercion on its readers.  Indeed, a common characteristic of the Christian exegetical tradition through its long history has been the acknowledgement that faithful interpretation involves a response to this theocentric force.”

To what end does the Spirit guide and exert coercion on the readers of the Christian Bible?  The lived, experienced and canonically defined experience of Jesus as the risen Lord redefined the Early Church’s grasp of the telos of history, “The presentation of Christ in the world is the substantive content of all history.  This unveiling of Christ involves both history and revelation (Weissagung): history that shapes the communion of God and man; revelation that reveals in specific moments the final shape of this fellowship.  These two movements of history and revelation are joined in an indissoluble relation with Christ, who is the source of both.”

Childs sums beautifully what the Church has known and experienced for centuries, “the meaning of [the Bible’s] history only comes through the experience of the new birth, which confirms that Christ is the goal of all biblical history.”

If Christ is indeed the supreme telos, then Childs is correct that “the challenge to “wrestle with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message.”

Elisha vs. Elijah: Brevard Childs’ strong words about Karl Barth

Posted in Brevard Childs, Historical Criticsm, Humor, Karl Barth by Bacho on August 27, 2010

I was getting an impression that Brevard Childs was to Karl Barth what Elisha was to Elijah.  Then I came upon Childs’ little book Myth and Reality in the Old Testament:

“Barth avoids the dangers of a dualistic concept of history [Geschichte and Historie] by remaining strictly within the Biblical categories. Although he attempts to do justice theologically to history, in practice his history also tends to lose its earth-bound qualities. Barth certainly acknowledges historical criticism, but its findings are consigned merely to formal matters without adding any tangible content to his history. One can seriously question whether Barth has solved the problem of history or merely avoided it.”  [101]

“No bacon and cheese Rösti for you, Brevard,” says Frau Barth.

Baker’s Dozen of Modern OT Theologies…

Accodring to Wikipedia, “The oldest known source, but questionable explanation for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of  Henry III (1216–1272), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers could be subject to severe punishment. To guard against the punishment of losing a hand to an axe, a baker would give 13 for the price of 12, to be certain of not being known as a cheat. Specifically, the practice of baking 13 items for an intended dozen was insurance against “short measure”, on the basis that one of the 13 could be lost, eaten, burnt, or ruined in some way, leaving the baker with the original legal dozen.”

Lest I be accused of missing any significant work, here is a list on my top thirteen modern OT Theologies:

13.Jacob, Edmund. Theology of the Old Testament. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958.

12.Brueggemann, Walter. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. The Library of Biblical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

11.Clements, Ronald E. Old Testament Theology: A Fresh Approach. Marshalls Theological Library. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978.

10.Vriezen, TH. C. An Outline of Old Testament Theology. Newton, MA: Charles T. Branford Company, 1960.

9.Zimmerli, Walther. Old Testament Theology in Outline. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978.

8.Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Theologies in the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

5.Waltke, Bruce. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. Zondervan, 2007.

6.Rendtorff, Rolf. The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament. Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005.

5.Terrien, Samuel. The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978.

4.Eichrodt, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 1967.

3.von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology, 2 vols.  Westminster John Knox Press , 2001.

2.Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology, 3 vols.  IVP Academic, 2003-2009.

1.Childs, Brevard. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1993.

I know, that this list will not satisfy all.  So if you are tempted to grab your theological axe…What would you would add?  Any of these you would remove?  Why?


Childs vs. Brueggemann: Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture or Neutral Hebrew Text

Earlier I posted a entry about Walter Brueggemann’s struggle to read Brevard Childs.  It is now time to let Childs return the complement.  Here are some of Brevard Childs’ thoughts on Walter Brueggemann’s reading of the book of Isaiah that come from Childs’ book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture.

First, Childs argues that Brueggemann’s postmodern stance lets go of any substantive linking between the Old and New Testaments.  “The relation between the two testament derives not from anything arising from the literal sense of the Old Testament, but stems from the imaginative construal of the New Testament communities…the Hebrew scriptures are largely a disjunctive corpus, often incomprehensible in themselves, requiring human ingenuity to project meaning.”  [295]

Second, Brueggemann’s insistance on the Hebrew Bible being “generative” in the postmodern sense as a text able to produce endless number readings seems to Childs as an assault on Christian understanding of the Bible as Scripture.  “Brueggemann’s use of postmodern categories calls into question the Christian confession of a unified Word of God in an Old and New Testament that together constitute the Christian Bible.  Central to this confession is the belief that the two testaments together reveal the true will of God for his people.  The one redemptive purpose of God from the creation shaped the world’s history toward its eschatological fulfillment according to God’s sovereign power.  To suggest that hebrew scriptures are “neutral” source of imagery waiting to be construed at will by various pluralistic readings strikes at the heart of the Christian faith.”  [296]

Third, Childs opposes what he perceives as Brueggemann’s replacement of the theocentric focus with anthropocentric focus in interpretation.  “Human imagination, not the divine Spirit, is assigned the role of quickening the biblical text.  In contrast, when the early church spoke of the coercion or pressure exerted by the biblical text on the reader, it was a formulation grounded on the conviction that the written Word possessed a voice constantly empowered by God’s Spirit.  (Credo in Spiritum Sanctum.) To confuse the divine Spirit with human imaginative creativity is to introduce a serious distortion into the entire theological discipline.”  [296]

Childs’ final verdict on Brueggemann’s reading of Isaiah as Christian Scripture is sobering, “With much sadness, I am forced to conclude that Walter Brueggemann’s postmodern interpretation of the Old Testament offers a serious break with the entire Christian exegetical tradition that I have sought to pursue from the earliest period to the present.  The struggle to understand the book of Isaiah as Christian scripture is seen by him as largely misplaced, because the attempt to find substantive continuity between the Old and New Testaments, or to discover the Christian gospel prefigured in the Old, are rejected in principle at the outset.”  [294-295]

While it seems that Walter Brueggemann has become a household name in many main-line and evangelical churches Childs’ analysis of Brueggemann’s project invites a serious second look at this new patron saint of the Church.  Indeed Brueggemann is stunning in the breadth of his knowledge, eloquent in his writing and faith-stretching in his evocative and memorable statements, yet it is sad that many in the Church uncritically embrace his writings.  The phrase Prophetic Imagination is very much in vogue in the circles I move.  While the prophetic aspect of Brueggemann’s writings might be very potent and timely, it is the imagination aspect that according to Childs’ analysis that might be sneaking in a Trojan horse into the body of Christ.

Theology in Isaiah according to Childs

How many Isaiahs are there?  This perennial question finds an interesting twist in Brevard Childs’ work.  Here is an insightful section from Childs that shifts the whole discussion in a different direction.  It comes from his seminal work Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture,

“In their collected form as sacred writings the oracles did not serve primarily as historical records of a prophet’s lifework, but as a continuing message of God’s plan for his people in all ages.  By placing the oracles into a topical and often non-historical context which subordinated their original function, a theological description of Israel as the recipient of both divine judgment and forgiveness was delineated.  Historically First Isaiah spoke mainly of judgment to pre-exilic Israel.  Conversely Second Isaiah’s message was predominantly one of forgiveness.  But in their canonical context these historical distinctions have been frequently blurred in order to testify to a theology which was directed to subsequent generations of Israelites.  Sinful Israel would always be the object of divine terror; repentant Israel would receive his promises of forgiveness.  To assure this theological understanding, the redaction of the book as a whole also assigned promise to First Isaiah and judgment to Second [and Third] Isaiah.”  [327].

As I read this section two questions come to mind.  First, is this indeed the theological crux of Isaiah as a canonical book?  Second, did Childs in his last sentence completely destroy what he was trying to build up?  In other words, if one assumes the late exilic/post-exilic final editing of this book, does that imply that the redactor[s] were conscious of the modern three-fold division and tried to work along its boundaries, or did they try to create one, unified theological statement?

The Canonical Text and Canonical Process according to Brevard Childs

Posted in Brevard Childs, PhD Research, Reading the Bible as Scripture by Bacho on August 14, 2009

In his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture Childs tackles one of the most persistent criticisms of his approach, “Why should one stage in the process be accorded a special status?  Were not the earlier levels of the text once regarded as canonical as well, and why should they not continue to be regarded within the exegetical enterprise?” [p.75]

Here is his answer,

[N.B. The italics are mine]

“The reason for insisting on the final form of scripture lies in the peculiar relationship between text and people of God which is constitutive of the canon.  The shape of the biblical text reflects a history of encounter between God and Israel.  The canon serves to describe this peculiar relationship and to define the scope of this history by establishing a beginning and end to the process.  It assigns a special quality to this particular segment of human history which became normative for all successive generations of this community of faith.  The significance of this final form of the biblical text is that it alone bears witness to the full history of revelation. Within the OT neither the process of the formation of the literature nor the history of its canonization is assigned an independent integrity.  This dimension has often been lost or purposefully blurred and is therefore dependent on scholarly reconstruction…Scripture bears witness to God’s activity in history on Israel’s behalf, but history per se is not a medium of revelation which is commensurated within a canon.  It is only in the final form of the biblical text in which the normative history has reached and end that the full effect of this revelatory history can be perceived.” [75-76]

Interview with Brevard Childs

Posted in Brevard Childs, PhD Research, Reading the Bible as Scripture by Bacho on August 9, 2009
I found this interview with Brevard Childs helpful in understanding his approach to reading the Bible.  Sometimes interviews can be a helpful entry point into scholarly conversation for outsiders.  They tend to cut through the jargon and eliminate the sea of footnotes and supporting evidence.

[from “Essential Readings for Scholars in Religion” – Westminster John Knox Press – Fall (2000)]

Brevard S. Childs is Sterling Professor of Divinity and Fellow of Davenport College, The Divinity School, Yale University, and author of Biblical Theology in Crisis, and The Book of Exodus and Isaiah (Old Testament Library) all from Westminster John Knox Press.

WJK: Professor Childs, you have been engaging in this endeavor we call Biblical interpretation for quite a while now. What surprised you most in your work on Isaiah?

CHILDS: One of the continuing surprises that faces every interpreter today arises from the enormous changes that have taken place in respect to Biblical interpretation during the last, say, thirty years. When I wrote my commentary on Exodus during the late 60s and early 70s, no technical commentary on Exodus in English had been written for over fifty years. All the exciting post-World War II insights of form criticism, history of interpretation, and biblical theology which had been developed in Europe form the 30s had not yet been exploited. In those years there was generally a broad agreement s within the discipline on the significance of these tools for interpretation, and the results from their use were welcomed, often with enthusiasm.

Today there is a great abundance of commentaries, both popular and technical, and on every book of the Old and New Testaments. However, the change in the field is manifested when one sees, especially in the Old Testament, that there is little or no consensus on the approach to exegesis, on its goals, and on its results. Indeed, some post-modern critics would even argue that radical diversity is constitutive of all interpretation and that the meaning of a text lies largely in the eye of the beholder. In short, hermeneutical issues have moved onto center stage and each commentator is forced to decide what he or she understands by the interpretive task and how one goes about achieving it. As a consequence, in spite of a plethora of commentaries on Isaiah, tremendous confusion still reigns regarding virtually every serious problem or interpretation.

WJK: Isaiah is arguably one of the, if not the, most important book in the Christian canon. In your opinion, what is it that makes Isaiah so important?

CHILDS: The importance of the book of Isaiah in the Christian canon arises from several factors. First, the sheer length of the book with its sixty-six chapters sets it apart from most of the books of the Old Testament. (Jeremiah is actually longer to judge by the pagination of BHS, but with fewer chapter divisions). Secondly, modern research has established the long span of historical events crucial in the shaping of Israel reflected in its composition from the eighth century, through the exilic period, and deep into the post-exilic era. Thirdly, the magnificence of the literary style, the unparalleled richness of its vocabulary and imagery, and the overwhelming power of its message remain awesome to every serious reader. Finally, and above all else, the book of Isaiah has always received special attention because of its theological content in which the church saw the New Testament Gospel adumbrated.

The frequency of the New Testament’s citations of Isaiah, rivaled only by the Psalter, demonstrates the centrality of the book for the Early Church. Particularly its messianic hope resonated strongly from the church’s inception and was continually reinforced in its liturgy, music, and art. Consequently, it was not by chance that this book was described by the church as the Fifth Gospel, and many of the church’s greatest theologians have been challenged to write commentaries on Isaiah (Origen, Eusebius, Cyril, Jerome, Theodoret, Thomas, Luther, Calvin).

WJK: Your work in Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (and its New Testament counterpart) has earned you the methodological moniker of “canon criticism.” What methods) did you deploy in this commentary?

CHILDS: I have always objected to the term “canon(ical) criticism” as a suitable description of my approach. I do not envision my approach as involving a new critical methodology analogous to literary, form, or redactional criticism. Rather, the crucial issue turns on one’s initial evaluation of the nature of the biblical text being studied. By defining one’s task as an understanding of the Bible as the sacred Scriptures of the church, one establishes from the outset the context and point-of-standing of the reader within the received tradition of a community of faith and practice. Likewise, Scripture is also confessed to be the vehicle of God’s self-disclosure which continues to confront the church and the world in a living fashion. In sum, its content is not merely a literary deposit moored in the past, but a living and active text addressing each new generation of believer, both Jew and Christian.

Of course, the Bible is also a human work written as a testimony to God’s coercion of a historical people, and extended and developed through generations of Israel’s wrestling with its God. Biblical interpretation is a critical enterprise requiring exact handling of the language, history, and cultures of its recipients. The crucial hermeneutical issue turns on how one uses all this wealth of information. The goals of interpretation can be defined in countless different ways, but for those confessing its role as sacred Scripture the goal is to penetrate deeply into its content, to be illuminated theologically by its Word, and to be shaped and transformed by its gracious disclosure which witness is continually made alive by its divine communicator.

The divine and human dimensions of Scripture can never be separated as if there were a kernel and a husk, but the heart of the Bible lies in the mystery of how a fully time-conditioned writing, written by fragile human authors, can continually become the means of hearing the very Word of God, fresh and powerful, to recipients open to faithful response. The book of Isaiah excels in its ability to drive its reader out of a stance of distant objectivity into one of self-involvement with the ever-active ways of God in the world of human affairs.

WJK: Your Exodus volume in the OTL is a high-water mark in interpretation. Looking back upon that volume and considering this new one on Isaiah, what has changed in the field and in your own work?

CHILDS: When I published my Exodus commentary in the early 1970s, a major concern was in seeking to relate a critical, historical reconstruction of the text’s development to its theological content. For a while it seemed to many that von Rad and his school had found a suitable way, but increasingly the speculative nature of form and traditio-historical exegesis emerged as the biblical text was repeatedly fragmented. Then some twenty years ago, in conscious opposition to such diachronic methods, there arose a powerful call for a synchronic, literary reading of the text that at first was greeted with much enthusiasm by many within the guild. However, very shortly it became evident that a literary, synchronic reading could be just as theologically inert as the older historical approach. Obviously, the hermeneutical problems were far more complex than first thought. In this context I sought to offer a new avenue into the text that could integrate both dimensions of the diachronic and synchronic in a way which did justice to its canonical role as sacred Scripture.

First, I remain deeply concerned with the unity of the book which, I agree, cannot be formulated in terms of a single authorship. By the term canon I am not merely addressing the book’s formal scope, but including the quality of the theological testimony assigned to the prophet Isaiah. A major concern of the commentary is to articulate in what sense one can truly speak of the canonical corpus as the Word of God to Isaiah. A subtle and profound reflection is called for to do justice both to the unity and diversity of this canonical collection.

Secondly, one of the most important recent insights has been the recognition of the role of intertextuality. The growth of the larger composition has often been shaped by the use of a conscious resonance with a previous core of oral and written texts. The great theological significance is that intertextuality reveals how the editors conceived of their task as forming a chorus of different voices and fresh interpretations, but all addressing in different ways, and in different ages a part of the selfsame, truthful witness to God’s salvific purpose for his people.

Finally, regarding the place of the New Testament in an Old Testament commentary on Isaiah, the primary task of the latter is to hear the Old Testament’s own discrete voice and to honor its own theological integrity. Yet as a Christian interpreter, I confess with the church that the Old and New Testaments, in their distinct canonical shape, together form a theological whole. By probing deeply into the Old Testament’s prophetic text, I hope to illuminate the extent to which the selfsame theological reality that Israel confessed was confirmed, adapted, and reinterpreted by the Christian church to bear witness to Jesus Christ.