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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Journal of Theological Interpretation, vol 1.1 – Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz of Theological Interpretation






The (Re)Turn to Theology
JOEL B. GREEN, Editor-in-Chief
Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis
Texts in Context: Scripture in the Divine Economy
Mission, Hermeneutics, and the Local Church
Trust and the Spirit: The Canon’s Anticipated Unity
Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture
Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story
A “Seamless Garment” Approach to Biblical Interpretation?

Joel B. Green

Craig Bartholomew (Redeemer College, Canada)
Tony Cummins (Trinity Western University, Canada)
Stephen Fowl (Loyola College, USA)
Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Princeton Theological Seminary, USA)
Luke Timothy Johnson (Emory University, USA)
J. Gordon McConville (University of Gloucestershire, England)
Graham McFarlane (London School of Theology, England)
Andrew Purves (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, USA)
Murray Rae (University of Otago, New Zealand
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen (Eastern College, USA)
Francis Watson (University of Aberdeen, Scotland)

Correspondence and papers for submission should be directed to Prof. Joel B. Green, Asbury Theological Seminary, 204 N. Lexington Ave., Wilmore, KY 40390; e-mail: See inside back cover for information for contributors.

The Journal for Theological Interpretation (ISSN 1936-0843) is published and distributed by Eisenbrauns, P.O. Box 275, Winona Lake, IN 46590 USA. E-mail:

Copyright © 2007 by Eisenbrauns Inc. All rights reserved.

The (Re-)Turn to Theology
“Theological interpretation,” writes Kevin Vanhoozer, “is biblical interpretation oriented to the knowledge of God.” In modern times, the impulse toward theological interpretation as a mode of critical engagement with Scripture is often identified with Karl Barth’s Der Römerbrief (1919). As a hermeneutic, however, theological exegesis has a much more hoary pedigree, deeply rooted as it is in Israel’s own Scriptures, in what Michael Fishbane termed “inner-biblical exegesis,”3 in the interpretations of those Scriptures by the translators of the LXX in its various renditions, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the NT, and among both Jews and Christians in the early centuries of the Common Era. Precisely because of their authoritative status, the capacity of biblical texts to speak with immediacy into the lives of contemporary readers was a nonnegotiable presupposition. Their capacity to speak on God’s behalf not only among past communities of God’s people but also in present communities of the faithful was essential.
Indeed, early on in the church, theology was an exegetical enterprise, and exegetical commentary took the form of the homily and theological treatise, along with catechetical lectures and pastoral letters, in which the simultaneity of Scripture—that is, its capacity for significance across time and space—was on prominent display. In the practice of theological exegesis, we can date the beginnings of ebb tide to the eighteenth century. There we find Johann Salomo Semler’s (1725–91) distinction between public and private uses of Scripture in the service of the rational investigation of the Bible distant from the polemics of dogmatic theology and advocacy of the study of the biblical canon by rational means, like any other book; followed by Johann Philipp Gabler’s (1753–1826) methodological distinction between dogmatic theology and biblical theology, which relegated the work of biblical studies above all to linguistic and historical analysis.
A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities. Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church and in critical reflection on the church’s practices. Issues of this sort do not always come naturally for biblical scholars or for theologians. The forms of scientific/empirical exegesis that have followed in the wake of giants such as Semler and Gabler have had the general effect of segregating further and further professional biblical studies from the everyday interpretive practices characteristic of the church and disconnecting not only biblical scholarship but often the Bible itself from the theological enterprise, whether systematic or practical. Given its accredited status, legitimated by its longevity in the modern era and authorized by powerful cultural forces associated with modernity, scientific exegesis continues as the default operating procedure. As a result, persons engaged in discourse and practices at the interface of biblical studies and theological reflection often find not only that they must mine the distant past for exemplars of the craft of theological exegesis but also that they are required to mount an apology for their engaging in this form of interdisciplinarity in the first place. Is theological exegesis serious biblical studies?
Biblical scholarship in the modern period has not oriented itself toward approaches or development of means that would enable us to tune our ears to the voice of God. How do we read the these texts as Christian Scripture so as to hear God’s address? The methods of choice have generally focused elsewhere: the voice of the reconstructed historical Jesus, the voice of the redactor of the Gospels, or the voice of the “community” behind the text, for example. What of the religious communities who stand before the text, who seek to engage it as Scripture, to stand under and embody its message. As pastors and theologians have often complained, the passing of two centuries of biblical studies has left both the church and the people engaged in constructive theology with little access to “what the apostles and prophets said.” N. T. Wright admits that “many systematic theologians … have become impatient with waiting for the mountains of historical footnotes to give birth to the mouse of theological insight.”
The horizons of contemporary theological study evidence a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo of academic biblical studies. As important as historical investigation and linguistic inquiry are for critical biblical study, they do not exhaust the subject matter of the Bible or the ways in which the biblical materials might be engaged critically or the role of Scripture among God’s people. Reference books (e.g., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible), commentary series (e.g., Two Horizons Commentary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), book series (e.g., Studies in Theological Interpretation), recovery of ancient theological exegesis (e.g., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, The Church’s Bible), and related initiatives (e.g., Scripture and Hermeneutics Project)—together, these works signal innovations in exegetical study from within and in the service of the community of disciples who turn to the Bible as Christian Scripture.
Set in relation to the history of biblical interpretation, the program before us surfaces a number of important and not a few challenging questions for theological interpretation. These include:

• What is the status of the theological tradition, including the tradition of biblical interpretation, in theological interpretation today?
• What is the role of history and historical criticism in theological interpretation?
• What is the status and role of the OT in the two-testament canonical Scriptures?
• What is the place of exegesis in theological method?
• What is the nature of the “unity” of Scripture?
• What is the role of the canon in theological interpretation?
• Does theological interpretation extract theological claims or principles from the Bible?

And there are many others besides.
The Journal of Theological Interpretation welcomes conversation around such issues as these. Accordingly, we invite contributions in areas such as the following:

• Theological exegesis of selected biblical texts
• Concerns of theological method and the role of Scripture in theology (including practical theology) and ethics
• The history of reception or history of interpretation of biblical texts
• Hermeneutical challenges in theological exegesis
• Major review essays interacting with key books, contemporary or classical

Joel B. Green, Editor

Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis

Abstract—This article proposes that faith is the epistemological precondition for reading Scripture well and argues for a recovery of theological exegesis of the Bible. After a short introduction, the second part of the article critically surveys recent arguments for nontheological exegesis (Räisänen, Fox, Meeks). The third part of the article suggests that theological exegesis is not a method but a practice and then programmatically sets forth 12 identifying marks of the practice of theological exegesis. The final section of the article offers an example of the approach advocated here, by giving a reading of Luke 7:18–23. Contrary to the findings of modernist criticism, Luke does not represent a low Christology. By attending more fully to the OT intertexts evoked by this passage, especially Isa 35, we gain a firmer grasp of the theological coherence between Luke’s testimony and the church’s dogmatic tradition about the identity of Jesus.

Key Words—theological exegesis, faith, Scripture, practice, tradition, intertextuality, Kyrios, Christology, Luke 7:18–23

The title of this essay recalls and celebrates the work of Paul Minear, the extraordinary biblical theologian, who reached his 100th birthday in 2006. It has now been exactly 60 years since Minear, who taught NT for many years at Yale Divinity School, published a challenging programmatic book entitled Eyes of Faith: A Study in the Biblical Point of View. At the heart of Minear’s work lies one luminous insight: what we ordinarily take to be “real” is in fact a distorted picture of the world, and it is only the revelatory power of God’s word that casts a true light on the landscape of human experience and, at the same time, heals our capacity to see.
Minear prefaces his work with an epigraph from William Blake that describes the eyes, the human organs of vision, as “dim windows”:

This Life’s dim windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’ the Eye

One could take Blake’s verse as an invitation to embrace Gnosticism or perhaps Plato’s allegory of the cave—an invitation, that is, to renounce sensory experience in favor of some ethereal realm of ideas. Minear, however, has something quite different in mind. When he speaks of what we see through “eyes of faith,” he refers to the very concrete and radically disturbing vision of embodied reality offered us by the biblical narrators and by the prophets and apostles. In this vision of the world, the truth about human life is given only in Scripture—that is to say, only through the mysterious working of God in the election of Israel and the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is no accident, then, that the epigraph to the final chapter of Minear’s book is drawn not from Blake but from Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans; Minear’s approach to biblical theology is deeply shaped by Barth’s radical call for all our perceptions to be interrogated and reshaped by the Word of God as disclosed in Jesus Christ.
The image of “eyes of faith” as the epistemological precondition for grasping the surprising truth about the real world serves well as an entry point to our reflections about biblical hermeneutics and “theological exegesis.” Minear’s visual imagery might well remind us of a distinctive story in Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus performs a peculiar two-stage healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22–26). After putting saliva on the blind man’s eyes and laying hands on him, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?” The man replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking around.” Then, Mark tells us, Jesus laid hands a second time on the man’s eyes, “and he looked intently” (interestingly, the verb is διαβλέπω—in light of Blake’s poem, I am tempted to translate it “he looked through the eyes”) and “his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” I fear that, most of the time, even if we have been touched by Jesus, when we biblical scholars look at the text of Scripture, we see trees walking. (Or perhaps in some cases, we see trees chopped down, split, and stacked into piles of firewood.) It is my devout hope, however, that we are entering a new historical moment in which we will again be touched by Jesus so as to find our sight clarified.

The clarification of sight mentioned above is urgently necessary, for the past two centuries of critical study of the Bible have brought us to a fork in the road, and we need to be able to read the road signs before us. The Finnish NT scholar Heikki Räisänen describes the diverging paths as follows:

Biblical scholars will soon find themselves at a crossroads. Will they remain guardians of cherished confessional traditions, anxious to provide modern man with whatever normative guidance they still manage to squeeze out of the sacred texts? Or will they follow those pioneering theologians … fearlessly reflecting on the biblical material from a truly ecumenical, global point of view?

With the choice so described, it is not hard to see where Räisänen’s own sympathies lie. He is convinced that “the absolutizing interpretation given by the early Christians to the ‘Christ event’ ” was “somewhat exaggerated” and that the duty of “serious scholarship” is to render a purely historical account of the biblical texts. As a result, the older project of “NT theology” should be replaced by two different projects: (1) the writing of “a history of early Christian thought” from a dispassionate neutral perspective;6 and (2) a critical reflection on the NT and its history of influence, from a philosophical perspective informed by modern awareness of religious pluralism. Räisänen bemoans the fact that for more than a hundred years the truly historical project of NT interpretation was sidetracked by the influence of confessional neo-orthodox theology, because of the influence of Barth and Bultmann. But now at last in the bright new world come of age, NT scholarship can be liberated to move forward to a purely historical interpretation (following the fearless pioneers who approach the Bible from a “global point of view,” whatever that might mean) and to leave behind the constraints of dogma. If all this sounds eerily reminiscent of the 19th century, that is because it is.
At least in Räisänen’s case, he clearly recognizes the 19th-century intellectual sources of his proposal, and he understands that he is making a revisionary proposal “against the grain” of a long tradition of significant theological inquiry. But alas, it is not always so among members of the biblical guild, especially in the United States. Whereas a generation ago it was widely accepted that there could be a fruitful synthesis of historical and theological inquiry in biblical studies, this claim is increasingly challenged by some insistent voices that seek to exclude any sort of explicitly religious or theological perspective from a place at the table in scholarly study of the Bible. In the spring of 2006, an article was posted on the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) web site by Michael V. Fox, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Wisconsin. In this essay, Fox forcefully argues that “faith-based study” has no place in biblical scholarship: “Faith-based study … can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it.” Fox continues with the following disdainful remarks: “Trained scholars quickly learn to recognize which authors and publications are governed by faith and tend to set them aside, not out of prejudice but out of an awareness that they are irrelevant to the scholarly enterprise. Sometimes it is worthwhile to go through a faith-motivated publication and pick out the wheat from the chaff, but time is limited.”
Lest it be thought that Räisänen and Fox represent marginal, idiosyncratic perspectives, I place in evidence the presidential address given by Wayne Meeks in Barcelona at the 2004 meeting of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS), the major international society of NT scholars. In this lecture, entitled “Why Study the New Testament?” Meeks contends that the traditional theological approach to interpretation has a baleful effect because it seeks to find “normative” meanings in texts. The student of the NT should now instead seek to trace the “formative” effects of the NT—that is, its influence on the formation of culture. Meeks does concede that biblical scholars may continue to speak to “the whole unruly assortment of faith communities for whom the documents we are interested in are construed as part of sacred scripture.” He even generously remarks that there is “no reason to be embarrassed about the proprietary claim that these groups make on us.” Still, our “largest audience” is “the non-Christian majority of the world,” and addressing that audience is “the most exciting and certainly the most important challenge we will face in the present century.”
The fantasy that the vast non-Christian world will have more than a slight passing interest in the scholarly deliberations of the SNTS is perhaps a forgivable foible of a superb scholar who has carved out a distinguished career at Yale in a secular department of Religious Studies. What is of more concern, however, is that Meeks’s desiderata for the future trajectory of NT scholarship include not only the challenge to address the non-Christian world but also the assertion that NT scholars should abandon their role as teachers of the church. He puts his case like this: “We should start by erasing from our vocabulary the terms ‘biblical theology’ and, even more urgently, ‘New Testament theology.’ Whatever positive contributions these concepts may have made in the conversation since Gabler, we have come to a time when they can only blinker understanding.” This is so because these terms “smuggle in a cognivist model of religion”11 and because they “claim textual and historical warrants” for normative propositions that are actually contingent products of the interests of later interpretive communities. And finally, Meeks declares, “ ‘biblical theology’ has functioned ideologically in the attempt to secure our own positions in the theological hierarchy, as the teachers of the teachers of the church. We have not done very well in that role, and we should give it up.”
If that is the view from the chair of the SNTS presidency, how does the future of biblical scholarship look from lower down the academic “food chain”? I take you back now to an even more recent posting on the SBL web site, this time an article by Hector Avalos of Iowa State University, entitled “The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession.” Avalos sweepingly describes “the ever-growing irrelevance of biblical studies in academia” and opines that “keeping biblical scholars employed, despite their irrelevance to anyone outside of faith communities, is the main mission of the SBL.” This is, however, a doomed enterprise, because “the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.” Avalos goes on, “in the interest of self-disclosure,” to describe himself as a “secular humanist” and to admit that even though he loves studying the Bible (a surprising statement not corroborated by anything else in his essay), “my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.” Given the opinions expressed in Avalos’s essay, this is probably a wise vocational discernment.
Here is the point I am leading to. There is an important sense in which Avalos is correct: the intense academic study of the Bible really is not important outside of faith communities. Once one starts down the fork in the road to which Räisänen, Fox, and Meeks beckon the scholarly guild, one ultimately, inevitably, arrives at the dead end portrayed in Avalos’s gloomy postcard from Ames, Iowa. Once one has arrived at this destination, the very project of studying something called the Bible becomes intellectually incoherent. As Robert Jenson has incisively remarked, “outside the church, no such entity as the Christian Bible has any reason to exist.” The Bible is a collection of documents gathered by and for the church to aid in preserving and proclaiming the church’s message. Therefore, “the question, after all, is not whether churchly reading of Scripture is justified; the question is, what could possibly justify any other?”
Precisely because the dead-end character of secularistic study of the Bible has become increasingly apparent, many thoughtful interpreters have begun to explore the other fork in the road. I am happy to say that the past ten years have witnessed an extraordinary resurgence of interest in theological exegesis of Scripture and that several fascinating new projects are in the early stages of development. One noteworthy component of many of these initiatives has been a sustained effort to recover a sympathetic understanding of the church’s ancient traditions of scriptural interpretation. A great deal of scholarly energy is now being poured into theological exegesis. The initial results of these efforts are, not surprisingly, mixed in quality, but there are many encouraging signs that theological exegesis can produce readings that are nuanced in their attention to textual detail and simultaneously—mirabile dictu—nourishing for the church.
It is, however, not always clear exactly what is meant by the catchall term theological exegesis. Someone might suggest that theological exegesis is like pornography: we do not know how to define it, but we know it when we see it. Perhaps it would be wise to leave it at that. But I think, on the contrary, that there may be value in offering some identifying characterization of the sort of exegesis that we are seeking to encourage and recover. There is a certain value in naming the goals we seek. In the remainder of this essay, then, I want to offer two things: (1) a brief description of the character of theological exegesis as I understand it and (2) an example of my own recent attempts to read Scripture with eyes of faith.

What makes exegesis “theological”? Theological exegesis is not a “method.” It is not a set of discrete procedures that could be set alongside, say, textual criticism or redaction criticism. Rather, theological exegesis is a complex practice, a way of approaching Scripture with eyes of faith and seeking to understand it within the community of faith. What are the salient identifying marks of this practice? I propose twelve identifying marks.
(1) Theological exegesis is a practice of and for the church. We lavish our attention on the biblical texts because these texts have been passed on to us by the church’s tradition as the distinctive and irreplaceable testimony to events in which God has acted for our salvation. That is to say, theological exegesis regards these texts as Scripture, not merely as a collection of ancient writings whose content is of historical interest. A bare description of the ideational content of biblical writings (“the theology of Luke” or the like) is therefore not yet theological in the sense meant here. Theological exegesis, as Meeks rightly but disapprovingly notes, seeks to read the Bible as normative for a community.
(2) Theological exegesis is self-involving discourse. Interpreters who read the Bible theologically approach the text with an awareness that we are addressed and claimed by the word of God that is spoken in the text, and we understand ourselves to be answerable to that word. For this reason, exegesis that is authentically theological will frequently contain sentences that employ pronouns in the first and second persons. A strictly third-person form of discourse lends itself to the mode of pure description, in which the author may stand apart, uninvolved in the text’s world. Theological exegesis, however, draws us into the world of the text and demands response. As self-involving confessional acts, theological readings are closely interwoven with the practice of worship.
(3) At the same time, historical study is internal to the practice of theological exegesis. The reasons why this is so are themselves fundamentally theological: God has created the material world, and God has acted for the redemption of that world through the incarnation of the Son in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. History therefore cannot be either inimical or irrelevant to theology’s affirmations of truth. The more accurately we understand the historical setting of 1st-century Palestine, the more precise and faithful will be our understanding of what the incarnate Word taught, did, and suffered. The more we know about the Mediterranean world of Greco-Roman antiquity, the more nuanced will be our understanding of the ways in which the NT’s epistles summoned their readers to a conversion of the imagination.
(4) Theological exegesis attends to the literary wholeness of the individual scriptural witnesses. This, I would propose, is one of the signature contributions of biblical studies over the past 50 years to the task of theology. The Bible must be read neither as an anthology of disconnected theological sound bites nor, on the other hand, as a single undifferentiated story. Nor can its message be adequately grasped only through excerpts encountered in the church’s liturgy. Rather, the Bible contains a chorus of different voices, and the distinctive integrity of each part in the chorus is essential to its polyphonic performance. This is especially true for texts such as the Gospels, which come to us in the form of cohesive narratives. It matters, as Irenaeus insisted, that we have not a single homogenized Gospel but, rather, a fourfold Gospel, in which the discrete voices of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can and must be heard. Theological exegesis attends lovingly to the distinctive testimony of each witness.
(5) My fifth point is the dialectical converse of the previous one: theological exegesis can never be content only to describe the theological perspectives of the individual biblical authors; instead, it always presses forward to the synthetic question of canonical coherence. This does not mean, of course, the assimilation of everything to a single doctrinal norm, as has happened sometimes when, for example, justification sola fide is made the single lens for interpreting all biblical texts. But it does mean that theological exegetes will seek the big picture, asking how any particular text fits into the larger biblical story of God’s gracious action. (This is one of the points at which Luke Timothy Johnson and I have consistently differed. He believes we can simply listen to each canonical witness separately and then move directly to contemporary appropriation, whereas I insist that Christian theological exegesis has historically sought to allow the different biblical witnesses to “talk to each other” and to articulate some sort of complex unity.)
(6) Theological exegesis does not focus chiefly on the hypothetical history behind the biblical texts, nor does it attend primarily to the meaning of texts as self-contained works of literature; rather, it focuses on these texts as testimony. This means we need to learn to stand where these witnesses stand and look where they point. Insofar as we do this, we will learn to see as they see; as Minear’s Eyes of Faith promises, we will find our vision trained anew. If we read the texts as testimony, we will find ourselves constantly reminded that the Bible is chiefly about God, not about human religious aspirations and power struggles.
(7) The language of theological exegesis is intratextual in character. In intratextual theological exegesis, our interpretations will remain close to the primary language of the witnesses rather than moving away from the particularity of the biblical testimony to a language of second-order abstraction that seeks to “translate” the biblical imagery into some other conceptual register. Of course, this sort of “translation” project was at the heart of Bultmann’s hermeneutical program; however laudable its intention, it was theologically vacuous and unfruitful. As R. R. Reno complains, many contemporary failed attempts at theological exegesis commit precisely this same “translation” fallacy, without the same hermeneutical sophistication displayed in Bultmann’s work.
(8) Theological exegesis, insofar as it stays close to the language and conceptions of the NT witnesses, will find itself drawn into the Bible’s complex web of intertextuality. The NT insistently cites and alludes to the OT, argues for a narrative continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, and interprets this continuity through discerning typological correspondences between the two. Consequently, theological exegesis will have to concern itself with tracing and interpreting these complex intertextual correspondences between the testaments.
(9) Theological exegesis thereby is committed to the discovery and exposition of multiple senses in biblical texts. Old Testament texts, when read in conjunction with the story of Jesus, take on new and unexpected resonances as they prefigure events far beyond the historical horizon of their authors and original readers. The NT’s stories of Jesus, when understood as mysterious fulfillments of long-ago promises, assume a depth beyond their literal sense as reports of events of the recent past. Texts have multiple layers of meaning that are disclosed by the Holy Spirit to faithful and patient readers.
(10) Learning to read the text with eyes of faith is a skill for which we are trained by the Christian tradition. Consequently, theological exegesis knows itself to be part of an ancient and lively conversation. We can never approach the Bible as though we are the first ones to read it—or the first to read it appropriately. We know that we have much to learn from the wisdom of the people who have reflected deeply on these texts before us. Consequently, theological exegesis will find hermeneutical aid, not hindrance, in the church’s doctrinal traditions.
(11) Theological exegesis, however, goes beyond repeating traditional interpretations; rather, instructed by the example of traditional readings, theological interpreters will produce fresh readings, new performances of Scripture’s sense that encounter the texts anew with eyes of faith and see the ways that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to the churches through the same ancient texts that the tradition has handed on to us. To put the same point in a slightly different way, the Spirit-led imagination, an imagination converted by the word, is an essential faculty for the work of theological exegesis.
(12) Finally, when we speak of theological exegesis, particularly when we acknowledge the Spirit’s role, we must always remember that we are speaking not chiefly of our own clever readings and constructions of the text but, rather, of the way that God, working through the text, is reshaping us. In his foreword to a recent collection of Minear’s essays, J. Louis Martyn quotes the famous dictum of Johann Albrecht Bengel, “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” Martyn however, proposes that the maxim should be reworded to read, “Apply yourself wholly to the text, and the text will apply itself wholly to you!” If it is true, as we confess with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12), then we may indeed expect to be transformed as we read. This means that theological exegesis must always be done from a posture of prayer and humility before the word. In the preface to the English edition of his Romans commentary, Karl Barth asks whom or what his book should serve. Here is how he answers the question: “No doubt it should be of service to those who read it. But, primarily and above all else, it must serve that other Book where Jesus Christ is present in His Church. Theology is ministerium verbi divini. It is nothing more nor less.” If this is true of theology in general, surely it is true a fortiori for theological exegesis.

In the final part of this article, I want to attempt an actual act of reading that will seek to illustrate theological exegesis in practice. I shall not at every point explain how this reading exemplifies the identifying marks of theological exegesis that I have just described, but I hope that some of the connections will be evident.
It has become a conventional view in modern NT criticism that the Gospel of Luke represents a “low” or “primitive” Christology. According to this view, Luke portrays Jesus as a Spirit-anointed prophet, a teacher of divine wisdom, and a righteous martyr. Lacking, however, are any doctrines of preexistence and incarnation; lacking is any clear assertion of Jesus’ identity with God. As we shall see, an attentive theological exegesis of Luke’s Gospel gives us substantial reason to question this characterization of Lukan Christology.27
In Luke 7:18–23, the imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to question Jesus about his identity. They ask, as John has instructed them, “Are you ὁ ἐρχόμενος [‘the Coming One’], or shall we look for another?” The question is given particular emphasis by its repetition in vv. 19 and 20 (in contrast to Matt 11:3); this is a good example of Luke’s emulation of OT narrative style, but it also serves the important purpose of forcing the reader to linger over the question and to ponder its significance, particularly the significance of the term ὁ ἐρχόμενος. The carefully chosen language of the question evokes Ps 118:26 (Ps 117:26 LXX), which is the culminating doxological passage of the cycle of Hallel Psalms (Pss 113–18): “Blessed is ὁ ἐρχόμενος in the name of the Lord.” The Hallel Psalms were sung on the occasion of Israel’s great national festivals of Tabernacles and Passover. Both of these festivals were associated with Israel’s national liberation from bondage in Egypt and therefore also—in the first-century context—linked with the hope of a future liberation from Roman rule and the coming of a new king. Luke, more clearly than the other Synoptic Gospels, makes this royal hope fully explicit in his account of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, as the crowd chants, using the words of Ps 118:26, “Blessed is ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). Thus, reading retrospectively in the context of Luke’s narrative, we see that John the Baptist’s question in Luke 7:19–20 is a politically loaded query. He is asking whether Jesus intends to proclaim himself Israel’s long-awaited ruler who will restore the kingdom of David. John is asking, “Are you the Coming One, the coming King?”
Jesus’ answer speaks volumes without answering the question directly: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:22). The answer makes sense only when we recognize that it echoes a number of motifs drawn from Isaiah’s portrayal of the end of Israel’s Exile and God’s eschatological restoration of the nation. The first and most important echo should remind John’s emissaries of Isa 35:5–6a:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

These stirring images are part of Isaiah’s vision of the exiled Israelites returning on a miraculous highway through the desert to Zion. Isaiah paints a picture of God’s healing all that is broken, putting all things right in the eschatological time. The great Charles Wesley hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues” draws on precisely these images:

Hear him ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,
your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
and leap, ye lame, for joy.

But Jesus’ answer also sounds a second, slightly less prominent echo in the phrase “the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” The Greek expression here, πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται, reminds us of the passage from Isa 61 that Jesus had earlier read in the synagogue in Nazareth to inaugurate his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor
(εὐαγγελίσασθαι πτωχοῖς);
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind.

On that occasion, Jesus had stunningly announced, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16–21). Thus, in Luke 7, Jesus’ apparently cryptic response to John’s disciples is actually a very clear, intertextually coded response. By evoking Isa 35 and Isa 61, Jesus offers a scriptural interpretive framework for the miraculous deeds that John’s disciples have seen him perform. The passages from Isaiah should signal to John—or to any hearer steeped in Israel’s Scriptures—that Jesus’ activity is indeed to be understood as the inauguration of the coming kingdom of God for which Israel had longed and for which John was waiting.
Yet these passages at the very same time gesture toward a dramatic reshaping of Israel’s national hope. The motifs selected by Jesus in his answer to John’s disciples pointedly avoid images of military conquest. They focus instead on actions of healing and restoration. Precisely by doing so, they offer John and his followers a new, nonviolent image of “the Coming One” and teach them to read Israel’s Scripture with new eyes. In effect, Jesus’ act of teaching John’s messengers how to “read” his own ministry in light of Isaiah’s words is in itself part of his work of opening the eyes of the blind.
The concluding macarism, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί, literally “is not caused to stumble in me”) should probably be understood as yet another echo—this time, pointing to Isaiah’s image of the stone laid in Zion (Isa 28:16), which will also be a stone of stumbling for Israel (Isa 8:14; see the fusion of these two texts in Rom 9:32–33). Isaiah’s famous and enigmatic “stone” image draws a sharp contrast between the prophet’s trust in God’s promise and Israel’s faithless reliance on military power as a source of security. The point is that John and his disciples should not “stumble” over Jesus’ unexpected peaceful way of bringing in God’s promised reign. (Luke later underscores his point narratively by telling the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who are leaving Jerusalem in disappointment despite having heard the report of the empty tomb. They say, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” [Luke 24:21a]; that is, they had been expecting the conventional royal military redeemer.) The writer of the 19th-century hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal” gets the point just right:

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.

Luke sketches all this with economy of language and literary power though allusion and metalepsis. The reader who knows the Psalter and Isaiah will get the point well enough. In light of the echoes from Ps 118 and Isaiah, the answer that we as readers are to supply to John’s question is something like this: “Is Jesus the Coming One? Yes, he is the Coming King to which Ps 118 points, the eschatological deliverer anticipated every time the Hallel Psalms are sung. He is the one for whom we have hoped, but his coming kingdom must be interpreted not in terms of violent or coercive power, but in light of Isaiah’s images of divine mercy and restoration.”
There remains one more important thing to be said about this text. Jesus’ answer to John hints at one more, still deeper truth at the heart of the good news Jesus is proclaiming. The texts from the prophet Isaiah that echo in Jesus’ answer also adumbrate the return of the LORD to Zion. Israel is to be saved, according to Isaiah, not by a merely human leader who will bring them back from Exile; rather, God himself will appear on the scene to lead the triumphant procession of returning exiles. As we have already seen, Jesus alludes forcefully to Isa 35:5 (“then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped”). But how will these saving acts occur? Listen to the verse just before this, Isa 35:4: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God … He will come and save you.’ ” Should we hear this echo as a metaleptic hint that the identity of this Coming One is something far greater than what John the Baptist envisioned?
The suggestion may seem farfetched until we consider more broadly the way in which the Evangelist Luke subtly narrates the identity of Jesus throughout his Gospel. Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who regularly uses κύριος as a title for Jesus. κύριος is, of course, the Greek word used by the Septuagint to translate the holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton (often dubiously rendered in modern English translations as “Yahweh”). There are at least 15 instances in Luke where the Evangelist refers to Jesus as the κύριος. Consider the following examples: “and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43); “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11); “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her” (7:13); “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet” (10:39); “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (22:61); “the Lord has risen indeed” (24:34). Most appositely, within the very passage we are considering, we find this: “John summoned two of his disciples, and sent them to the Lord to ask …” (7:18b–19a). In short, Luke quite remarkably applies the title κύριος both to the God of Israel and to Jesus of Nazareth—occasionally in a way that suggests a mysterious fusion of divine and human identity in the figure of Jesus.38
The hermeneutical effect of Luke’s repeated narrative of usage κύριος is not unlike the effect achieved at the end of Paul’s Christ-hymn in Phil 2, which astonishingly ascribes to Jesus the eschatological lordship that Isa 45:23 emphatically reserves for God alone: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Kyrios, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10–11). In that same confession, Luke invites us to join. Consequently, when Jesus says to John’s messengers, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me” (Luke 7:23), his blessing answers in call-and-response fashion the very text to which John’s question alluded, Ps 118:26: “Blessed is the Coming One, the One who comes in the name of the Kyrios.” It turns out, beyond all possible human power of anticipation, that Jesus is both ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the Coming One and, in embodied form, ὁ κύριος, the LORD.
In view of these exegetical findings, I would hazard the following conclusion: the “low” Christology that modernist criticism has perceived in Luke’s Gospel is an artificial construction achieved by excluding the hermeneutical relevance of the wider canonical witness, particularly the OT allusions in Luke’s story. It is precisely by attending more fully to the OT allusions in Luke’s Gospel that we gain a deeper and firmer grasp of the theological coherence between Luke’s testimony and what the church’s dogmatic tradition has affirmed about the identity of Jesus.
And so, though we may be imprisoned and beset by doubt, though the time of the kingdom’s coming seems slow, though the power of violence still seems to rule, we are taught by Luke—when his Gospel is read within the intertextual network to which it points—to recognize Jesus, the one who brings good news to the poor, as our LORD. Recognizing this, we find our eyes, like the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, opened to see in Moses and all the prophets the truth of the gospel’s testimony: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.… He will come and save you.”

Texts in Context: Scripture and the Divine Economy

Abstract—In this article I investigate the phenomenon of hermeneutical plurality with respect to biblical texts. My purpose is to defend the legitimacy of claims that a scriptural text may speak in ways that diverge from the “original meaning” of a text, so far as that may be discerned, but also to offer a theological account of the limits that must be set upon this hermeneutical freedom. I begin by locating my argument within the landscape of recent hermeneutical debates, go on to explore, as a case study, the text of Isa 52:13–53:12, and then develop a theological account of what is involved in speaking of the “meaning” of a biblical text.

Key Words—hermeneutics, Scripture, Isaiah, meaning, text, context, divine economy.

In his book Engaging Scripture, Stephen Fowl considers three accounts of biblical interpretation. The first account, Fowl explains, contends that biblical interpretation is determinate; that is to say, it aims to light upon a single meaning of the text usually to be identified with what the author or compiler intended. Fowl quotes Ben Witherington III as representative of this view:

Meaning resides in the text and is placed there by the author by means of his or her configuration of its words and phrases. Therefore, though the writer may be deceased, his or her words and meaning can still live on without trying to impose a modern meaning on the text that violates the author’s intended sense.

In some circles of biblical interpretation the author may be regarded as God himself, while in other circles more attention is paid to the human origins of the text. In this case, a portrait of a notional author, often unidentifiable with any precision, is pieced together from clues both within and outside of the text. However the relation between human and divine authorship is conceived, a commitment to determinate interpretation entails that the “meaning” of the text is circumscribed by what the author intended. In consequence, there is no scope in a single text for a multiplicity of meanings. In the face of variant readings the determinate interpreter will argue that in all but one case, at best, alien and illegitimate meanings must have been “imposed” upon the text. The task of interpretation, accordingly, is to determine which one of the variants is correct—once and for all.
Determinate theories of meaning are not the preserve of theologically conservative readers who might wish to defend the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. A similar effort to stand guard over the original meaning of a text may be found in Philip Davies’ efforts to exclude from the academy Christian readings of OT texts. “No ancient writer,” Davies writes, “should have his or her text accorded a retrospective meaning dictated by the dogmatic requirements of an institution that chose to ‘canonize’ it.” The implication, not consistently followed through by Davies, is that retrospective meanings of all kinds are problematic if they go beyond or conflict with authorial intention.5 They are, Davies argues, “alien impositions” on the text. It is precisely the phenomenon of “retrospective meanings” that I wish to defend, not, however, in defiance of the intentions of the author—so far as they may be discerned—but in accord with them. Frances Young is quite correct to say that “[y]ou cannot make a text mean anything you like, and the author’s intention does bear upon the question of meaning, even if it does not exhaust it.”7 I do not wish to ride roughshod over authorial intention, therefore, but rather to defend the legitimacy of variant readings informed by and congruent with the original purpose to which the text was directed.
Fowl secondly considers the case of “indeterminate,” or, as Fowl prefers, “anti-determinate” interpretation. Motivated by the recognition of a vast plurality of interpretive contexts and voices, “the aim of indeterminate interpretation is to upset, disrupt, and deconstruct interpretive certainties.” Anti-determinate reading, characteristic especially of deconstructionism, rejects the claim that there is a single meaning of a text and resists the imposition of any semantic limits upon texts. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, on this view, and is unconstrained, apparently, by authorial intention or by the “plain sense” of the texts themselves. The intention to be applauded in such a hermeneutics is the recovery of “what is excluded, reduced or obscured” in established systems of reading.9 The voice of the “other” is rendered audible. Not to be welcomed, however, is the removal of all hermeneutical limits so that texts can be made to mean whatever the reader pleases.
Fowl’s third and favored alternative, “underdetermined” reading, begins, following Jeffrey Stout, with the recommendation that we abandon the idea that the text has a meaning. It is the indeterminate meaning of the word “meaning” itself that leads Stout and Fowl to this recommendation. We would do better, they argue, to isolate from the notion of the “meaning” of a text the particular function that we want to perform. Thus, for example, we might say that we are interested in the author’s communicative intentions. “Alternatively,” says Fowl, “we might want to display a text’s contextual connections to the material or gender-based means of its production,” and so on. The recommendation, then, is to articulate precisely what we are looking for and “not cloud the issue further by calling the result of this interpretive activity ‘meaning’ at the expense of other interpretive interests one might pursue.”11
I take from Fowl his suspicion of determinate meaning, especially where that is conceived narrowly and restrictively as the author’s intended sense discoverable by setting aside one’s own doctrinal or ideological commitments. I agree too with his rejection of anti-determinate interpretation that, despite a commendable concern to resist both the presumption that a text can be “mastered” and the tendency to exclude or override readings that differ from one’s own, nevertheless fails to provide any safeguards against errant readings of a text. I depart from Fowl, however, in proposing that an account of textual meaning may be given that does not reduce to authorial intention but remains respectful of it, does not exclude variant readings—though it will exclude some, and does not preclude a range of interpretive interests being brought to the biblical text. This proposal will be developed in section three below (“Discerning the Meaning[s] of the Text”).

It has been common practice in Christian theology and proclamation to read christologically the servant passages in Isa 52:13–53:12, thus identifying the suffering servant motif as applicable to Jesus Christ or even as a direct prophecy of Christ. We know, however, that Isa 40–55 was formulated in the sixth century before Christ as a prophetic response to Israel’s exile in Babylon. The question arises, therefore, whether it is legitimate to read this text in specific reference to Jesus of Nazareth. We must beware, Walter Brueggemann counsels, of forcing upon the text “readings that are far removed from its seemingly clear intent.”
It is well established that Isa 40–55 (Deutero-Isaiah) originates not from the period of the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, who lived and worked in Jerusalem from about 750 to 700 BC, but rather from the sixth century, shortly before the fall of the Babylonian Empire. The authorship of Deutero-Isaiah is unknown, but internal evidence suggests that more than one author may have been involved, and that at least one redactor has contributed to the present canonical form of the text. Despite uncertainties about the authorship, however, and many more disputes about the meaning of the text, a measure of agreement about the broad historical setting of these chapters can be adduced.
Following the devastating assault of Babylonian armies upon Judea in the early part of the sixth century, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, a segment of the Jewish population was exiled to Babylon. That Jerusalem in general and the temple in particular had been reduced to rubble threw into question the scope and nature of Yahweh’s sovereignty and power. The tortured cries of the book of Lamentations, among other works of the period, testify to the theological crisis occasioned by the devastation that had been wrought upon Jerusalem and upon the people of God. If Yahweh authorized this devastation, as most assumed, what was his purpose in doing so? Or, if Yahweh was not in control, perhaps his sovereignty had been eclipsed by Marduk and Nebo, the gods of the conquering Babylonians.
The prophet Jeremiah’s analysis of the situation focuses on the lack of covenantal faithfulness among the people of God and interprets the crisis in terms of divine chastisement. Thus, according to Brueggemann, Babylon’s acknowledged power is “firmly subordinated to and incorporated into the intention of Yahweh.” Such was Jeremiah’s view, but the authority of the prophets was itself a casualty of the calamity that had befallen Israel (see Lam 2:9, 14). A crisis of such magnitude threatened to reduce to rubble not only the temple in Jerusalem, but the whole edifice of Jewish faith and thought. The long years in exile only added to the crisis. The gods of Babylon, a victorious and prosperous land, surely had more claim to authority and power than the God of Israel whose people were scattered and beaten. Or so it seemed.
It is to this context that the words of Isa 40–55 are addressed. Deutero-Isaiah accepts Jeremiah’s thesis of divine sanction and chastisement (Isa 42:24–25, 48:9–11, 51:17–23), but also proclaims an end to the suffering and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. The immediate cause of that deliverance is understood to be the conquest of Babylon in 538 by the Persian king Cyrus and the subsequent liberation of the exiles (see 2 Chr 36:22–3, Ezra 1–2). Comfort for God’s people is the theme thus announced in the opening lines of ch. 40 and developed through the succeeding chapters. Central to the prophet’s testimony, furthermore, is the conviction that comfort will come through the ministrations of Yahweh’s chosen “servant.” The Sitz im Leben of the fourth servant song of Isa 53, therefore, is the Babylonian Exile and the announcement through Isa 40–55 of Yahweh’s imminent deliverance of his people and the glorious restoration of Jerusalem. This historical and literary context is the key determinant of the original meaning of the text. The underdetermined hermeneutic that I will seek to defend below is one that places high value on attentiveness to this context, while leaving open the possibility that, by divine direction, the text will be a vehicle for the speaking and hearing of God’s word for other places and times. Responsible reading of this text, however, must remain cognizant of the fact that the God understood to speak through it in new situations is the God of Israel who once returned the exiles home and restored to them the promised land. That reality, along with the way it was understood and presented in the text of Deutero-Isaiah, remains germane for all subsequent readings of Isa 53.
One of the most pressing questions confronting readers of Isa 53 is: Who was or is Yahweh’s chosen servant? Was he a historical figure of the time or one who had gone before, such as Moses; is Israel as a whole the servant of Yahweh; does the servant prefigure a still-future Messiah; does the prophet construct or adopt the figure of the servant as an ideal redeemer of Israel and a light to all nations; or is “my servant” a reference to the prophet Deutero-Isaiah himself with Isa 53 being penned by disciples as a eulogy after his death? These have been the main lines of interpretation to date. Among those who favor the view that the servant refers to a historical figure at the time of the Exile there is further debate, not only about who that figure might have been, but also whether the same person is in view in all four of the servant songs. A survey of scholarly literature undertaken in 1948 by Christopher North revealed a wide diversity of opinion on the identity of the servant with no clear consensus in view. Subsequent literature has generally been cautious in its claims about the servant’s identity.21 My interest in what follows lies not in trying to resolve the problem, but in showing the diversity of interpretation. The question to be explored is whether we can live with variant and conflicting readings while remaining responsible and faithful readers of this text.
A Historical Figure at the Time of the Exile

With due cautiousness Joseph Blenkinsopp has recently revived the suggestion that the servant of Isa 42:1–4 is King Cyrus who is elsewhere honored with the title of Yahweh’s “shepherd” (44:28), and is also described as “anointed” (45:1). But even if Cyrus is conceivably the servant referred to in the first of the four songs, the vicarious sufferings and atoning death of the servant in ch. 53 are, as Blenkinsopp acknowledges, much less plausibly predicated of the Persian king. Blenkinsopp favors the view of a number of scholars that the three later songs may refer to Deutero-Isaiah himself, with Isa 53, referring to the servant’s death, having been composed by a later disciple. Isaiah 56–66 provides evidence of a group of disciples of Deutero-Isaiah, from which the eulogy of Isa 53 could have emerged. Blenkinsopp cautiously concludes,

What is proposed here, then, is that the servant eulogized in 52:13–53:12 is identical with the one who soliloquizes in 49:1–6 and 50:4–9 and is presented in deliberate contrast to Cyrus, the servant of Yahveh in 42:1–4. The inclusion of 52:13–53:12 in this section and the links with 49:1–6 and 50:4–9 favor the view that the Servant is none other than the author of the core of these chapters, the so-called Deutero-Isaiah.

We need not detail the matter any further here or decide upon the merits of Blenkinsopp’s suggestion. The point has been simply to illustrate the type of exegesis that seeks a historical individual or individuals of the exilic period as the original referent of the servant songs.
Corporate Israel

Building upon his recognition that the “servant” can hardly refer to Cyrus beyond the first servant song in ch. 42, Blenkinsopp notes that “in the great majority of cases in chs. 40–48, Israel/Jacob, the people, is the servant, whereas in the following section 49–55 … the servant is an individual prophetic figure.” An exception is 54:17 which provides an indication that subsequent disciples would take over the responsibility of the suffering servant and regard themselves as the faithful bearers of the prophetic message to Israel. Hints elsewhere of a corporate identity for the servant (e.g., 44:1) might suggest a deliberate blurring of the servant’s identity. It is entirely plausible that the calling of the servant to a prophetic and redemptive role for the nations applies equally to Israel as a whole as it does to the particular servant, Deutero-Isaiah, albeit Israel has not, at the time of the Exile, sufficiently taken up this task. Such is the view of Hans-Jürgen Hermisson, who writes, “The primary reference in all four songs is to the prophet Second Isaiah himself. Nevertheless, the individual prophetic Servant Second Isaiah cannot fulfill his worldwide mission of being a light to the nations without God’s Servant Israel, whom he calls back to God and prepares to be the prime exhibit before the world of God’s saving power (cf. 49:5–6).”
The claim that Israel as a whole, or else a remnant, is the servant anointed by Yahweh for a redemptive role among the nations is a reading of the text commonly taken up in later Judaism, as we shall see.
Messianic and Eschatological Readings

The understanding of Israel itself as the suffering servant to whom the songs refer has not excluded Jewish interpretations that identify the servant with a Messiah still to come. Martin Hengel comments that “[u]nder certain circumstances the two possibilities could be viewed simultaneously as different aspects of the text, because a Messianic figure is always at the same time a representative of the whole people.”28 In both cases, however, Jewish interpretation began to move beyond the identification of the servant with a figure of the exilic period and thus found for the text a meaning and applicability somewhat removed from its original context.
Another feature of early Jewish interpretation of Isaiah (as a whole), closely allied to messianic interpretations, is the eschatological reading of the text. Ben Sira, for instance, writing around 200 BC, celebrated Isaiah’s “trustworthy vision” (Sir 48:22) and wrote:

By a Spirit of might [Isaiah] saw the future,
and comforted the mourners in Zion.
Unto eternity he declared the things that shall be,
and hidden things before they came to pass. (Sir 48:24–25)

The same appears true of interpretations of Isaiah within the Qumran community. Hengel notes that, on the basis of the fragments of the Isaiah pesharim A–D from Qumran Cave 4 (4Q161–165), one can assume that this important prophetic work was interpreted almost entirely with reference to the “last days,” that is, in Qumran, also with reference to the present time “at the end of days.”
The practice of applying the text to the situation of the readers, as in Qumran, is, of course, precisely the phenomenon I am interested in here. The question is, what legitimates this practice, especially when it moves beyond the confines of the original historical context and renders that Sitz im Leben of little hermeneutical significance?
Postexilic Figures

The history of Jewish interpretation has sometimes taken the servant to refer to, or at least be applicable to, a historical figure or figures quite remote from the exilic period of the sixth century BC. One of the best known of these appears in the book of Daniel. In his 1942 dissertation on the reception of Isa 53, Hans Walter Wolf identifies several echoes of Isa 53 in the OT, including Dan 11–12 where the “wise ones” who “lead the many to righteousness” (Dan 11:33–35, 12:3) are apparently identified with the suffering servant. The suggestion had previously been made by G. H. Dalman, who writes, “The masdîqê hā-rabbîm are certainly to be considered as the concrete manifestation of the Servant of God in Isa. 53.… Isa. 53 was then understood of the fate of those who were teachers of the law in the time of violent opposition preceding the end of things.”
Hengel endorses the point by noting that “the author of Daniel can identify Isaiah’s Servant with ‘the wise’ because the fourth Servant Song begins by saying … ‘See, my servant will act wisely’ (Isa. 52:13, NIV).” Daniel 12:3 promises the divine vindication of the wise who will lead many to righteousness. So too in Isa 52:13 the servant shall be “exalted and lifted up” because, as we learn in 53:11b, “the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” Divine vindication and the redemptive action of the one for the many come, however, through suffering. Daniel 11:33 notes, “The wise among the people shall give understanding to many; for some days, however, they shall fall by sword and flame, and suffer captivity and plunder.” The situation in which Daniel was written is, of course, one of persecution and trial. The book originated in 165/164 BC when, again, the temple had been desecrated and Israel was suffering persecution at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Isaianic allusions in Daniel’s call for perseverance thus serve to impress upon Israel that Yahweh has not deserted them, but will, through the faithfulness of his servants, deliver them from hardship once more. Blenkinsopp notes, “The parallels are close enough to justify the conclusion that the author of the apocalypse of Daniel is identifying the group to which he belongs with the Isaian Servant as an example of suffering and martyrdom borne heroically in the expectation of ultimate vindication.”
Perhaps the author of Dan 11–12 regarded Isa 53 as a prophetic promise to be fulfilled at a future time of persecution, now upon them, although I would expect in that case that the allusions to Isa 53 would be much more explicit than they are. More likely, I suspect, is that Daniel’s author interpreted Isa 53 as setting forth the type of a servant figure now represented in the wise ones of his own time, or else, while understanding the servant to be a particular historical figure of the sixth century, he nevertheless sees no difficulty in appropriating the text anew as a word for his own time.
Christological Interpretation

A much more far-reaching and explicit reappropriation of the text of Isa 53 takes place in respect to Jesus of Nazareth. It is clear, of course, that the early church understood Jesus in terms of the suffering servant who “bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:12) and “makes many righteous” (Isa 53:11), but, in opposition to earlier opinion, some scholars have recently argued that the impetus for such interpretation came from Jesus himself. Opposing the view that “the application of the Servant conception to Jesus was the work of the early church,” Peter Stuhlmacher writes:

Rather, as scholars including J. Jeremias, H. W. Wolff, O. Betz, L. Goppelt, and others have long since realized, it is the other way around: the Christological interpretation of Isaiah 53 that comes to the fore in Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:3b–5; I Peter 2:22–25; Hebrews 9:28 and so forth was not first and foremost the fruit of post-Easter faith; its roots lie rather in Jesus’ own understanding of his mission and death. He himself adopted the general messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 current in early Judaism.

We need not survey the detailed defense of this point offered by Stuhlmacher. It is sufficient for our purposes to note the conviction of the early church, whether originating with Jesus or not, that the song of the suffering servant in Isa 53 applied to Jesus in a way hitherto unparalleled. Stuhlmacher again:

Jesus’ appearance in history and his messianic understanding of his mission, which was oriented towards Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (as well as Isa. 43:3–4; 52:7; 61:1–2), present a decisive new development in the history of interpretation and influence of Isaiah 53. Given Jesus’ own understanding, the Easter witnesses were able for the first time to relate the whole Suffering Servant text to an individual historical figure and to interpret Jesus’ sufferings soteriologically from this text.

The pattern of interpretation established in the NT was taken up in the patristic literature, notably by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho and also by Clement of Rome. These two authors, so Christoph Markschies observes, represent two different models of patristic interpretation of Isa 53, the exemplary model and the christological model. The former is represented by Clement, who assumes that the servant of Isa 53 is Jesus Christ but appeals to the text, not primarily for christological reasons, but rather to urge the divided church in Corinth to keep the peace. Clement quotes the full text of Isa 53 but leaves out Isa 52:12–15 because he wants to impress upon the church in Corinth the need for humility rather than triumphalism. Attending to his own context, Clement pleads that the lowliness and suffering of Christ the servant be taken heed of rather than his exaltation. The pattern of behavior urged upon the divisive Corinthians is that of Christ, who “did not come with the pomp of arrogance or pride” but “in humility” just as the Holy Spirit previously spoke concerning him in Isa 53 (1 Clem. 16:2). This “exemplary” reading of the servant in Isaiah takes it as self-evident that the text refers, or is applicable, to Christ.
In The First Apology, Justin Martyr cites Isa 53 in support of his contention that the prophets foretold both the advent and the saving work of Christ, and that Jesus is indeed the hoped-for Messiah. The conformity of Christ’s life to the pattern foreseen by the prophets is taken as proof that “having become man for our sakes, He endured to suffer and to be dishonoured, and that He shall come again with glory.”43 Further quotation of Isa 53 occurs in ch. 13 of the Dialogue with Trypho and here the purpose is more polemical against Jews. The atonement accomplished by Christ the suffering servant is said by Justin to surpass the sacrificial system of the Jews and to render obsolete their religious observances. Isaiah 53 is cited again in response to Trypho’s allegation that “this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.” Shortly thereafter, Justin accuses Trypho of “not [having] understood anything of the Scriptures.”45 The assumption, now clear enough, is that Christians know better than Jews how to interpret Isa 53. It is in reference to Jesus Christ, allegedly, that the true meaning of the prophetic text is to be discerned.
The anti-Semitic nature of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho and his use of Isaiah in support of that cause is a pattern that is repeated in John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies against the Jews. Chrysostom writes,

But let me return to the topic which I proposed to discuss and prove, namely, that the Jews are enduring their present troubles because of Christ. It is time now to bring in my witness, Isaiah, who spoke these words. Where, then, did he say this? After he spoke of the trial, death, and ascension, after he said: “His life is taken from the earth,” he went on to say: “And I shall give the ungodly for his burial, and the rich for his death” [Isa. 53:8–9]. He did not simply say “the Jews,” but “the ungodly.” What could be more ungodly than those who first received so many good things and then slew the author of those blessings?

That the suffering servant is Jesus Christ, and that the servant’s ungodly persecutors are the Jews, is taken as self-evident by Chrysostom. The text originating from the sixth century BC is thought to speak unequivocally of events occurring half a millennium later, and then, a further three centuries on, is turned against the Jews of Chrysostom’s own day. Elsewhere in the Homilies, the Jews are accused of behaving like drunkards (Isa 29:9), and as resembling the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa 1:10). Chrysostom is not alone among Christian authors in using Isaiah in the cause of anti-Semitic polemic51 but most Christians are now likely to say that in such cases the text has been wrongly heard.
The assumption that the servant figure of Isa 53 refers supremely to Jesus of Nazareth likewise continues throughout much of the Christian tradition as is apparent, for example, in Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah. Commenting, for instance, on Isa 53:11—“See my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted”—Calvin proclaims, “Having spoken of the restoration of the church [sic], Isaiah passes on to Christ, in whom all things are gathered together. He calls Christ my servant on account of the office committed to him.…”
Interpretations by Christians of Isa 53 have not gone unchallenged by Jews, of course. Some scholars claim to have detected in Tg. Isaiah 52:13–53:12, likely to have originated between AD 70 and 135, a polemic against the Christian identification of the servant with Jesus. A much clearer example, however, is the Sefer Ḥizzuk Emunah (“Faith Strengthened”) of Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham of Troki. Isaac ben Abraham was a Lithuanian Jew of the sixteenth century whose cosmopolitan and multi-religious home city of Troki was a center of inter-religious dialogue between Jewish scholars and various Christian groups. Stefan Schreiner explains that “[t]he immediate occasion for Isaac’s compiling the [Sefer Hizzuk Emunah] was the conversion of an apparently considerable number of Lithuanian Jews … who chose for whatever reasons to live as members of Christian society.” Isaac sets out to answer “the objections that the Christians raise against us [and our biblical interpretation] and the proofs they cite [from the Hebrew Bible] for their faith.”57
Chapter 22 of the work is devoted to a consideration of Isa 53 and begins with a summary of Christian interpretation of the passage before moving to refute the Christian ideas. Thus Isaac writes,

“See my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high” (Isa. 52:13). From this verse, as also from the following verses from “Who has believed what we have heard?” (53:1) until “and he made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12), the Nazarenes argue that Isaiah the prophet, peace be upon him, prophesied these verses about Jesus the Nazarene, for it is about him that he said, “he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (52:13b). For this saying applies to him and to him alone.

Isaac then proceeds to explain why these verses cannot be applied either to the Messiah in general, or to Jesus of Nazareth in particular.

This argument of theirs is not valid.
(a) For where the text says, “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, etc.” (52:13), how can they apply this to Jesus of Nazareth, since they themselves, according to their own absurd tenets, assign to him deity, and how could God in any prophecy be called a servant?
(b) It must in addition be remembered that the words “he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” were not fulfilled in him, since he was condemned to death like any other common man among the people.
(c) Nor was the prediction “he shall see his seed” (53:10b) ever fulfilled in him: he had no seed; and it cannot be said that his disciples are here meant by his “seed”, for we never find disciples termed “seed” but only “sons.” …
(d) Similarly we do not find that “he shall prolong his days” (53:10b), for he was put to death when thirty three years old.…
(e) Then, again, of whom will they interpret the verse, “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty” (53:12a)? Who are the many and the mighty that are made his equals, and with whom, as they imagine, is he to divide the spoil?

Isaac’s argumentative strategy is clearly evident in this brief excerpt, as is the contention that Christian interpretation of Isa 53 is mistaken. The implication here is that the legitimacy of diverse readings of the text is strictly limited. Those limits have been violated, moreover, in the case of the “Nazarenes.” I will return to this claim below.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s own account of the meaning of the text is of interest. We shall limit our discussion to his identification of the servant. In company with a venerable tradition of Jewish exegetes, Isaac favors a collective interpretation of the servant. “The truth is, the whole parashah from ‘See my servant shall prosper’ (52:13) with the following verses until ‘and he made intercession for the transgressors’ (53:12) was spoken prophetically to Isaiah … with reference to the people of Israel, who were enduring the yoke of exile, and who are called ‘my servant,’ in the singular, as frequently elsewhere.”
Schreiner explains that “for Isaac the Servant is … not the people of Israel absolutely, but the people of Israel suffering in exile. This means Israel in the Babylonian exile, first of all, but then also, every generation of Israel that suffers in exile. The Babylonian exile (גלות) is understood to prefigure all other exiles (גלות).” According to Isaac’s account, the text of Isa 53, while clearly tied to the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century BC, speaks with equal poignancy to every subsequent generation of Jews who find themselves exiled from the promised land. “The general design, then, of the prophecy contained in the parashah ‘See my servant shall prosper, etc.’ is to confirm and encourage us in the assurance that although by our exiles we are exceedingly depressed and brought down, even to the dust, there is still hope for us hereafter, that through the Lord’s compassion on us we may again be ‘high and exalted.’ ”64
Not only comfort is offered through these verses, however. Isaac explores at length the call upon Israel to suffer vicariously for the nations, and looks forward to that day when, as anticipated in Isa 52:15, the nations will acknowledge the suffering Israel has borne on their behalf. The servant role of Israel is a continuing one, according to Isaac. The text speaks of and to the present day.

What are we to make of the hermeneutical diversity evident even in the very small sample of interpretations of Isa 53 surveyed above? Is it legitimate to take texts from antiquity and to find in them a meaning arguably unintended by the original author and/or redactor, or should we regard this practice as a violation of the integrity of the texts themselves? The question is of particular interest to those who hold the Bible to be the Living Word of God and a means, therefore, by which God continues to speak to his people today. The author of Daniel apparently had no qualms about treating the text in just this way, reappropriating it for his own times and finding a new subject to bear the title of Yahweh’s servant. Likewise in the NT, Jesus himself apparently set a precedent for the [re]interpretation of Isa 53 as the prophetic anticipation of his own vicarious suffering, death, and resurrection. But how far can this practice be allowed to go? Are there limits to hermeneutical freedom of this sort; and if there are limits, how might they be defined? Can it be possible, furthermore, to uphold the legitimacy of divergent readings that in some respects conflict with one another, as, for instance, in exilic Israelite and christological interpretations of Isa 53?
According to the policy of determinate interpretation described above, hermeneutical plurality is simply illegitimate. If Isa 53 refers exclusively to Jesus Christ, then it must do so on account of the inspired prophetic vision of Deutero-Isaiah, who could not, after all, have been referring to a historical figure of his own day or enjoining the people of Israel to recognize their appointment as a vicariously suffering, servant people. Conversely, if exilic Israel or the prophet himself were the original referent of the servant of Yahweh, then the christological interpretation of Isa 53 should be abandoned. From a theological point of view, determinate interpretation combines the considerable virtue of respect for authorial intention with the yet more considerable fault of failing to recognize the sovereignty of God over his revelation. It denies, effectively, that God, through scriptural texts, might speak a new word for our time not wholly envisaged by the authors of those texts.
Anti-determinate interpretation, on the other hand, has no objection to the plurality of interpretations. It is, as Fowl puts it, “dedicated to continuously opening texts to further interpretation.” As noted above, such a strategy warns against the presumption of mastery of the text and resists attempts to exclude or override interpretations that differ from one’s own. If there are no limits to interpretive freedom, however, as anti-determinate reading would have it, then there are no grounds for opposing errant readings of a text, such as, for example, anti-Semitic readings of Isa 53.
Fowl therefore proposes instead an “underdetermined” hermeneutic that allows for a measure of hermeneutical diversity, while precluding the absolute freedom that provides no safeguards against error. Although I concur with Fowl’s intention, I am not persuaded that the way to achieve that end is to abandon the notion of textual meaning as Fowl recommends. I shall argue, by contrast, that consideration of the “meaning” of a text is a helpful means of safeguarding both the legitimacy of hermeneutical diversity and the limits to interpretive freedom.
We must begin with an account of what “meaning” means. Fowl and Stout think that the problem begins here. Because “meaning” can mean so many different things, it would be better, Fowl suggests, simply to specify which of those things in particular we are interested in rather than retaining the slippery and ill-defined concept of meaning. I suggest, however, that a conception of “meaning” is available that is precise enough to set boundaries to what we are looking for, yet rich enough to accommodate the multifaceted character of textual meaning. According to this conception, the meaning of “X” is the role that “X” plays in its context. This applies equally to a word in a sentence, a sentence in a book, a text in a historical and social context, or indeed, a text in a whole religious tradition. The meaning of a text so conceived is a function of both authorial intention and reader reception. Particularly in respect to the macro levels of historical, social, or religious context, the text may have multiple meanings corresponding to the changing contexts in which the text is heard. The meaning of Isa 53 in the context of the ministry of Jesus, or of exilic Jews in the medieval world, therefore, need not be the same as but should rather be congruent with the intentions of the author in the context of the Babylonian Exile.
In each context, the text may play a different role, and so its meaning will change accordingly. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that for the Babylonian exiles, the Isaianic claim that the suffering servant of Yahweh has borne the sin of many and made intercession for transgressors meant that Deutero-Isaiah himself became a scapegoat for Israel’s faithlessness, and that his intercession contributed to Israel’s deliverance from exile and restoration to righteousness. The meaning or role of the text in this context would thus be to testify to what the prophet has done and especially to what God has done through him. The same may be true in respect to Jesus, and again in respect to later generations of Israel as it endures suffering and persecution at the hands of other nations. The text plays a different role in each of these situations, and yet, in all of these cases it serves to testify to the saving economy of God. It is this last point that establishes congruence with the author’s original intention and secures the legitimacy of at least that degree of hermeneutical diversity.
If, as we may suppose, it belonged to the intention of the author of Isa 53 to bear witness to the divine economy, then it is in keeping with this intention to interpret the text as bearing witness in new ways to the singular divine economy in many different contexts. Let me clarify what is here proposed. The meaning of a text, in this case Isa 53, is a function of its location within a particular context. That context is not just the narrative context—though this is clearly important—but also its historical context, which is to be conceived theologically as the terrain in which God is bringing about his purposes. The meaning of a text is thus a function, ultimately, of the role(s) it serves in the divine economy. If we accept that the biblical texts were written with the intention of bearing witness to the divine economy, we can then specify the ways in which authorial intention may be violated and the limits of legitimate hermeneutical freedom exceeded. This occurs first, when the text is isolated from this theological context and is treated merely as a literary artifact or as a historical curiosity; second, when the text is adapted to a mistaken construal of the divine economy, about which I will say more below; and third, when it is pressed into the service of some cause other than the working out of God’s purposes for the world.
Several features of this account are to be noted. First—and here I follow the lead of John Webster—just as, under the doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, the writing of Scripture is to be understood as an episode in the divine economy, an episode through which God establishes a witness to his creative and redemptive work in the world, so too the reading of Scripture, and the apprehension of its meaning, are further episodes in the divine economy that are likewise dependent on divine inspiration. Webster’s position here accords with Brevard Childs’s recent observation, made after extensive study of the Christian hermeneutical tradition, that, “[a]ccording to traditional Christian theology, the Bible is ‘God’s means of telling God’s story.’ ”71 Thus, as Webster argues, “[t]he texts are that which they are appointed to become, namely instrumental means of gracious divine action. The being of the canonical texts is determined by their divine use.” So too, I believe, is their meaning. Discerning the meaning of Scripture is, on this account, a pneumatic event in which God sounds his word afresh. This again agrees with the Christian tradition of interpretation summarized by Childs: “When the early church spoke of the coercion or pressure exerted by the biblical text on the reader, it was a formulation grounded in the conviction that the written Word possessed a voice constantly empowered by God’s Spirit.”73 The hermeneutical diversity that I wish to allow for issues from the fact that God continues to speak through Scripture and continues to establish a role for it in widely varying circumstances. The limits to that diversity, on the other hand, are determined by the fact that Scripture is a witness to the being and acts of God and not something else.
Second, the proposal here set out assumes that the location of texts within the biblical canon is hermeneutically significant. The relation of particular books of the Bible to the other biblical books is not merely arbitrary so far as their interpretation is concerned but sheds light on what the individual texts may be said to mean. Such a position owes much, of course, to the method of canonical criticism developed by Brevard Childs. Childs contends that the final form of a text and its location within a body of material shaped by a particular religious community is of fundamental hermeneutical importance. The biblical texts are not to be treated as discrete fragments having only incidental relation to their canonical and religious context. They are characterized, rather, by a canonical unity brought about by their shared witness to a common object. “Biblical theology,” Childs writes, “attempts to hear the different [biblical] voices in relation to the divine reality to which they point in such diverse ways.” I have suggested that the object to which the variety of voices bears witness is the God who creates the world, who establishes within it a covenant people to be his instrument and witness, and who, through Word and Spirit, is active within the world in order to bring about his purposes. Childs adds more-explicit christological specification:

The dialogical move of biblical theological reflection which is being suggested is from the partial grasp of fragmentary reality found in both testaments to the full reality which the Christian church confesses to have found in Jesus Christ, in the combined witness of the two testaments.… [B]oth testaments bear witness to the one Lord, in different ways, at different times, to different peoples, and yet both are understood and rightly heard in the light of the living Lord himself, the perfect reflection of the glory of God (Heb. 1:3).

The common object to which the varied texts bear witness determines the primary and normative context within which the texts are set. Attention to this common object is a necessary condition if the meanings of the texts are to be “understood and rightly heard.”
Third, the account of textual meaning here set out accommodates a range of views on the authorship of biblical texts. Whether God himself is to be regarded as the author of the text, or whether he calls forth from human authors a testimony to himself, the meaning of the text remains bound to the authorial intention to announce and explore the saving economy of God.
Fourth, this understanding of textual meaning is consonant, I submit, with both Jewish and Christian understandings of Scripture as the Word of God. God remains the Lord of revelation and uses particular texts, or not, in the working out of his purposes. That means that particular biblical texts may sometimes and in some places have little meaning for their readers while in other contexts they will be given fresh vitality as instruments in God’s communicative economy. The history of particular texts in the divine economy is characterized by an ebb and flow of significance. Some texts had particular resonance at the time of the Reformation, for example, others in the midst of the holocaust, and so on. Their meanings, for the time, were bound up with these historical circumstances and were established at God’s behest. It is the same whenever the people of God in their own historical contexts open the Bible and read with the prayer that God will make known his Word.
Fifth, it has been stressed above that, however diverse may be the historical contexts in which the text is heard as a word of God, there are limits to how far the diversity of meaning may extend. The limits are defined by the divine economy, of which we learn in Scripture itself. Scripture is interpreted in the light of Scripture. Christianly understood, the divine economy is Christ-shaped, so that when it is claimed of a text that it has a particular meaning—a particular role to play in the divine economy—the test of that, for Christians, will be whether the meaning claimed accords with what God has made known of himself through Christ. The use of Scripture in defense of apartheid, for example, will be ruled out, as will the bending of Scripture to serve a “prosperity gospel.” Anti-Semitic readings of OT texts will also be excluded, as is made clear by Paul in Rom 11. Attention to the gospel of Jesus Christ reveals that it is not the prerogative of Christians to exclude Jews from the saving work of God, or to claim that Israel has been superseded by the church. Paul will have none of that, but urges humility in light of the irrevocable dependence of Christian existence upon the divine economy as it is worked out through the election of Israel. That principle applies also to the Christian reading of Israel’s Scripture. The meaning of the text is irrevocably bound up with Israel’s existence, even when understood christologically. Moreover, Christians have no business denying that Jews have truly heard the Word of God when, in the midst of exile still, or in the midst of their present-day struggles, Jews read Isa 53 and recognize again that God has made them to be a servant people for the world. Christians can only agree, while confessing that of one Israelite in particular the claim is especially true.
For Jews, of course, the essential and consistent features of the divine economy are identified through another set of biblical coordinates, most especially God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. This story, retold every year in the Passover Haggadah, functions for Jews as a rule of faith that both is drawn from Scripture and also offers guidance in turn for the reading of Scripture afresh. The meanings of Scripture must, for Jews, be consonant with the story thus told of God’s deliverance of his people from bondage. We see this within the OT itself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Therefore.…” The divine economy, briefly recalled, is the context within which Israel is to understand the Word of God now spoken anew. Because Christianity draws its life still from Jewish roots, Christian readers are not at liberty to ignore this and other key Jewish markers of where God is at work in the world. Christian readings of Scripture bear an irrevocable responsibility to Jewish accounts of the divine economy and are bound to be congruent therewith, even while telling the story of the new thing that God has done.
The notion of the divine economy as the key framework for forms of biblical interpretation that are faithful both to authorial intention and to the Jewish and Christian understanding that God somehow communicates his own Word in and through the biblical texts does not provide us with a foolproof means of detecting the definitive meaning of a text in any given context. In this, as noted above, I side with Stephen Fowl’s plea for an underdetermined hermeneutic. There will continue to be debate about how the divine economy is to be construed and about the role that a particular text might play in that economy. What I have offered, however, is a proposal about how to read the Bible on its own terms as witness to and instrument in the saving of economy of God. Commitment to such a principle is a conditio sine qua non of faithful reading among the people of God, both Jewish and Christian.
Further work then needs to be done, of course, in specification of the divine economy itself. Diversity of opinion on this matter is also to be expected but only within certain limits. For Christians, the limits are christological. For Jews, they will be determined principally by the Exodus. In the Exodus and in Jesus Christ, so Jews and Christians respectively believe, the creative and redemptive purposes of God have been disclosed. Faithful reading of Scripture must take its point of departure from these definitive manifestations of the divine economy. We are not free as Jews or as Christians to impose an alien criterion upon the texts. The hermeneutical proposal suggested here does not provide a means of settling all hermeneutical disputes. What it does, rather, is to identify a hermeneutical framework within which the reading of biblical texts must take place if it is to be faithful to the distinctive theological character of the texts themselves.
What has been offered is a sketch of a hermeneutical logic. It is a logic according to which the meaning of a text is the role it plays in its context. There are many layers of context—historical, literary, Jewish, Christian, and so on—but each of these has its place within the larger context of the divine economy to which Scripture itself bears witness. That the divine economy should be regarded as the overarching context for the interpretation of Scripture and as providing the logic according to which the meaning of Scripture is to be discerned cannot be established from a point outside Scripture itself. It is a logic that is internal to Scripture and that is sounded forth in the declaration, “Thus says the Lord.…” When the texts of Scripture are read prayerfully, and so with God’s help, then, in ways congruent with their original Sitz im Leben, they continue to be the means by which God makes known his Word.
I conclude by returning once more to Isa 53. The account of scriptural meaning here offered allows for a plurality of meanings of this text. The meaning of a text, we have said, is the role it plays in its context. The fourth servant song as it is now placed within Deutero-Isaiah was clearly intended to announce both God’s intervention to end the Babylonian Exile and the renewal of Israel’s righteousness. In time, however, the text is read in other contexts and takes on new meanings somewhat removed from the meaning it had for Deutero-Isaiah himself. These meanings are congruent with that of Deutero-Isaiah, however, and are therefore also legitimate instances of hermeneutical plurality, so long as, under divine guidance, they bear witness truly to where God is at work in the world. This is especially true, Christians believe, of Jesus of Nazareth, of whom the text may be taken to speak with a particular poignancy. Christians need not claim this, however, as the determinate interpretation. It is no threat to the christological reading of Isa 53 to recognize that God has also used this text to comfort Israel in exile and in holocaust. These too are episodes in the divine economy, congruent, Christians can say, with what has been revealed in Christ. Such recognition should engender humility among Christian readers of the OT, a humility borne of gratitude that through Israel and its witness God continues to make known his Word.
Hays, R. B. (2007). Reading the Bible with Eyes of Faith: The Practice of Theological Exegesis. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Volume 1, (1–2), i–45.


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