BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 53, 2005
BREVARD S. CHILDS, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Pp. xii+332. $US35.00.
The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer. True, a lot of it is devoted to Brevard Child’s survey of the efforts by Christian thinkers to interpret Isaiah as Christian scripture. There are key figures from the ‘Church Fathers’ (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrus), from the ‘Schoolmen’ of the medieval period (Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, Martin Luther, John Calvin) as well as the modern post-enlightenment period and contemporary post-modern period. All are examined in order “that the hermeneutical issues will be understood as primary” (p. xi). This is a signal of things to come. There is a wealth of information and insight in Child’s analysis of each figure and period and, as a bonus, each ends with a handy bibliography for further reading.
But, it seems to me that the purpose of Childs’s survey is to equip himself for what he perceives as a critical struggle within the contemporary US biblical academy and church. His target is the post-modern approach that sees the Hebrew Scriptures as “largely a disjunctive corpus, often incomprehensible in themselves, requiring human ingenuity to project meaning” (p. 295). From a post-modern perspective, the New Testament is one imaginative construal of this corpus that reveals there is no inherent continuity or unity between the two testaments. Contemporary readers, like New Testament authors, must make their own imaginative construal. Childs’s principal opponent in this—the ‘main event’—in his programme, is Walter Brueggemann, a formidable and widely read post-modernist. Those who wish to follow this struggle between two heavyweights of US biblical scholarship will, of course, need to read more widely than this book. What we get here is Child’s perspective on Brueggemann. The third struggle is a quite poignant one within Childs himself as, with all civility and respect, he concludes, “Walter Brueggemann’s post-modern interpretation of the Old Testament offers a serious break with the entire Christian exegetical tradition” (pp. 294–95). One senses deep pain and regret as Childs feels obliged to part company with Brueggemann (and the post-moderns).
Childs identifies six basic hermeneutical markers in his survey of the interpretation of Isaiah: “the authority of scripture, its literal and spiritual senses, scripture’s two testaments, its divine and human authorship, its christological content, and the dialectical nature of history” (p. 322). Together, these give the Christian interpretation of Isaiah (and by implication, the whole Old Testament) its “family resemblance.” The heart of this family resemblance, according to Childs, is the “rule of faith” (first articulated by Irenaeus). This is not a creedal formulation or a particular theological system: rather, it is a shared perception of what are acceptable parameters of Christian interpretation. Even though there have been severe disagreements about each one of these markers or elements at various times in Christian tradition, Childs argues that the rule of faith has consistently provided the framework in which such disagreements were sorted out.
How effective a case does Childs make against Brueggemann with these witnesses from the tradition? Much depends on how one understands the “rule of faith.” Childs’s analysis of how the rule has unfolded in Christian tradition leads him to adopt quite a flexible understanding of it. Brueggemann, as Childs reports him, judges it to be restrictive, an attempt to “control the ‘unruly’ quality of many parts of the Christian Bible” (p. 315). Readers will, as readers always have, make their own judgements—and there is nothing particularly post-modern about doing so. Where Childs’s argument begins to falter for me is his recognition that Brueggemann is analysing the text from a secular history-of-religions approach. Later on (p. 321), Childs states that the analyses of the Old Testament within the parameters of Christian faith and within the parameters of the history-of-religions are both legitimate, but “they are different in goal and procedure.” If post-modern history-of-religions analysis is what Brueggemann is on about, then one wonders how firm a grip Childs has on his opponent. Perhaps, if this book draws a response from Brueggemann, we may get a clearer picture of just where the struggle lies.
As a compendium of how Christian scholars have interpreted the book of Isaiah through the ages, this is an impressive and valuable contribution. Few know the field as well as Childs. As a discussion of the notion of the ‘rule of faith’ and its hermeneutical characteristics, it is thought provoking and useful. As a critique of Brueggemann and the post-moderns, it is, however, somewhat disappointing.
Mark A. O’Brien
Catholic Institute of Sydney
99 Albert Road
Strathfield NSW 2135, Australia