An Interview With Brevard S. Childs
[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.