Brevard Childs is a patient man. Few individuals could link such evident learning to a deep sympathy with the historical interpreters of the biblical book called Isaiah. The author's empathy with the weighty labor of scholars who pour over an ancient work of such complexity is not only endearing. More importantly, it demonstrates that few of the book's exegetes finished their work without achieving some mentionable merit, even when this is exceedingly modest by even Childs' generous measure.
Childs has earned the merit of becoming one of the household names of twentieth century Old Testament criticism. In what may be a valedictory effort, this proponent of `canonical criticism'-an intellectual movement that can hardly be named without mentioning Childs and his students as its patriarchal figures-indicates how Christian interpreters have read one of the Bible's most quotable books as Scripture.
In his first chapter (`The Early Reception of the Hebrew Bible: the Septuagint and the New Testament', pp. 1-31), Childs establishes the important work carried out by the Septuagint translator of Isaiah and its impact upon the New Testament writers, who voraciously quoted and based their arguments upon Isaiah texts from all sections of the book. Childs wants to survey a wide ranger of historical Christian interpreters who read Isaiah from a christological point of view as scripture and then to return to the contemporary matter of critical scholars who have `returned to the older theological concerns of the church and synagogue, but now with fresh perspectives and newer formulations.'
Chapters two through fourteen treat individual Christian interpreters of Isaiah. In the second, Childs rehabilitates Justin Martyr-whose flaws are obvious-by pointing out his fidelity to a text he shared with the Judaism he anachronistically criticized. As well, Justin's is an early attempt to mount a respectful (to Trypho) and rational defense of the Christian faith, very much within the confessional framework of the church of his day.
Irenaeus, another second-century Christian writer, is the subject of chapter three (pp. 45-55. Crediting him with the attempt `to recover a holistic reading of the Bible that united both testaments within a history of salvation', Childs displays a muffled testiness towards those modern students of Irenaeus-and other precritical figures-who seem to judge him by modern, critical standards. Childs is less sanguine about the contribution of Clement of Alexandria (pp. 56-61), noting that his figurative/allegorical language is `vulnerable to other forces, such as Gnostic speculation and Philonic exegesis, that lack the Christian doctrinal restraints basic to his predecessors.'
Childs is clearly fascinated by Origen (pp. 62-74), one of the first millennium's most important biblical scholars. With recent Origen scholars, he is careful to moderate some of the more crude presentations of Origin as a hopeless allegorist. In place of this caricature, Childs appreciates his concern for the details of the biblical text and the degree to which his exegesis rests upon hermeneutical traditions within Judaism, and brings to the conversation a more nuanced view of the relationship between typology and allegory. Still, Childs recognizes that Origen's biblical interpretation proves difficult for heirs of the Enlightenment and the Reformation to appreciate, and promises to return to the matter later in the book.
The remainder of the book is taken up by similar surveys of interpreters and interpretive periods and fashions, the relative value of which will depend to some degree on the reader's peculiar interests. For this reviewer, the chapter on `The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (ch. 16, pp. 265-287) is worth the price of the book.
The greater worth of this project emerges only slowly. Childs is burdened to discover whether there is a `family resemblance' in the struggle of Christian interpreters to understand Isaiah as Scripture, one that endures in spite of their evident personal, historical, theological, and philosophical differences. He finds that there is, indeed, such a genetic commonality in the observance of a `rule of faith' that serves as a set of parameters to restrain certain interpretive possibilities and to include others. His concluding section spells out the components of this rule, giving pride of place to the insistence that both testaments of the Christian Bible must be held together, in spite of the admitted tensions and dialectical requirements that this presents.
Childs is poignant in his evidently pained appraisal of R. Rentdorff and-more extensively-W. Brueggemann, whom he considers to have stepped beyond the bounds of this rule of faith and, therefore, to have discarded in their interpretive work the family resemblance that is necessary if interpretation of Isaiah is to be innately Christian. According to Childs, Rentdorff has moved in the direction of a secular, history-of-religions dialect and Brueggemann has embraced the language and readerly autonomy of post-modernism in a way that is irreconcilable with the long stream of Christian struggle that is chronicled in this work.
For all its likeness to a book that has been tossed off by a preternaturally capable scholar on his way to his larger work on Isaiah (Childs, 2001), this book's argument acquires a value in the final chapters-pages that are buttressed by the more prosaic analysis that has gone before-that makes it indispensable reading for students of Isaiah and of the long struggle to understand it in a way that honors those who have lingered previously over its protean pages.
Childs has been criticized for what appears to many scholars as a drift towards fundamentalism (the f-word of academic biblical scholars) in his later years, a claim that is ironic in the light of the eminent Yale scholar's critical credentials. Yet Childs himself fairly invites such comment from more secular colleagues by his resolutely theological approach to the task that has for five decades established him in both academic and ecclesial contexts. In his final pages, he affirms that both common approaches to biblical study are valid: a history-of-religions approach that `attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment' and the understanding of biblical history as `the activity of God testified to in scripture'. Yet he leaves little doubt as to which of these twin endeavors bears more enduring fruit. Childs concludes this formidable project thus: `By reviewing the history of the church's biblical interpretation, we can derive new confidence in confessing with the creed: I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.'