Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Childs on Jesus and Isaiah 53

Childs' Isaiah commentary can be a dense work. It's a distillate of everything he's written over his career, packed into the restricted dimensions of a single volume Isaiah commentary. Today I read his thoughts on "The Suffering Servant and Christian Theology" (422, 3) and was again challenged to rethink some of the basic assumption I bring to both the Old and New Testaments. Here are his thoughts, what do you think?

The theological category used for [the] interpretation [of Isaiah 53 in the NT] was not primarily that of prophecy and fulfillment. Rather, an analogy was drawn between the redemptive activity of the Isaianic servant and the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The relation was understood "ontologically," that is to say, in terms of its substance, its theological reality. To use classic Christian theological terminology, the distinction is between the "economic" Trinity, God's revelation in the continuum of Israel's history, and the "immanent" Trinity, the ontological manifestation of the triune deity in its eternality. Thus, for example, the epistles of Ephesians and Colossians argue that the creation of the universe cannot be understood apart from the active participation of jesus Christ (C0l. 1:15ff). Or again, the book of Revelation speaks of "the lamb slain before the foundation of the world" (13:8). In a word, in the suffering and death of the servant of Second Isaiah, the self-same divine reality of Jesus Christ was made manifest. The meaning of the Old Testament servant was thus understood theologically in terms of the one divine reality disclosed in Jesus Christ. The morphological fit between Isaiah 53 and the passion of Jesus continues to bear testimony to the common subject matter within the one divine economy. Of course, in a broad sense, isaiah 53 does continue to function as prophecy since the chapter is bracketed within the eschatological framework of an unfolding divine economy.
To summarize, the servant of Isaiah is linked dogmatically to Jesus Christ primarily in terms of its ontology, that is, its substance, and is not simply a future promise of the Old Testament awaiting its New Testament fulfillment. It is significant to observe that in Acts 8, when the eunuch asked about the identity of the Isaianic servant, Philip did not simply identify him with Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, beginning with the scriptures, "he preached to him the good news of Jesus." The suffering servant retains its theological significance within the Christian canon because it is inextricably linked in substance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is and always has been the ground of God's salvation of Israel and the world (423).


Bob MacDonald said...

What do I think? I think there is one covenant and that the New Heavens and the New Earth can be read into the object markers in Genesis 1:1. When God sees the light that it is good, it is Christ that God sees in that day when the Lord God made the heavens and the earth.

I think we are so busy with decomposition and problem solving that we fail to see the wholeness in the humility of God from the beginning - what is man that thou art mindful of him...

So where is my resurrection today - not in what I see or do not see, but in the gift of Christ to me in each troubled and not so troubled being that I encounter (even myself). There is where I am called to act in parity.

A young girl of about 10 washed my feet at a service on Maundy Thursday and I the 'old' man of 62 hers - what impressed me was not the service but an astonishing equality in the mind of the servant.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain. Still prophetic along with trouble and suffering? - of course. Still a promise? yes - to anyone willing to share the suffering of the servant and refrain from the will to power.

Just a few random thoughts - thanks for all your work to educate us oldies.

James Pate said...

I once gave a presentation in a class about Childs and Isaiah 53.

Here was my dilemma, and I could be wrong. My impression was that Childs tried to see the suffering servant as a Jesus-like character. He interpreted Isaiah 53 to mean that the servant literally died, for example. Not everyone agrees with that, for R.N. Whybray says the servant was put in prison and released when the Persians invaded Babylon.

The servant dying and then seeing offspring implies his resurrection, right? And so, for Childs, was there a sixth century B.C.E. figure who died and rose from the dead, becoming a type of Jesus? I mean, it doesn't seem to me that Childs goes so far as to say that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 IS Jesus. He seems to say that he's LIKE Jesus.

Phil Sumpter said...

Bob, thank you likewise for sharing your wisdom and experience!


Childs considers interpretations which don't take the phrase "and he was cut off from the land of the living" tortuous. The mention of his grave in v. 9 rules out figural interpretations such as Whybray's.

I don't know what Childs thought about the actual historial referent of the text. He claims that the text itself is very reticient so we shouldn't push too far "behind" it in order to get at something it wasn't willing to give us. Rahter, the larger literary context should serve as the context of interpretation. This doesn't reduce the mysteriousness of the identity of the servant, but it places him and his work within the context of the unfolding "economy of God."

As for the servant being Jesus, it depends on what level you are talking. In terms of pure historical referentiality, no. The servant is, as you say, "like" Jesus ("analogous," as Childs says). So within the context of the economic Trinity this figure is one part of the unfolding plan of God. Yet, on another ontological level this figure is Jesus, in the sense that Jesus represents the fulfilment of God's ways with the world, pre-figured in this mysterious Isaianic sufferer. This is on the level of the immanent Trinity.