Friday, July 28, 2006
The Book of Isaiah by Edward J. Young (or Tendencies in Older Evangelical Commentaries)
I recently finished the three-volume work The Book of Isaiah by Edward J. Young. This work is a major benchmark for conservative, evangelical commentaries from a non-dispensational perspective on this important and interesting Old Testament prophet. I benefited greatly from plowing through this large work. However, while I was reading it, two issues presented themselves to me about this commentary in particular and other commentaries as they share some common features.
The first thing that struck me from the opening pages of the commentary was the format. I have noticed that many older commentaries, and a few more recent works, treat the text in an atomistic, verse by verse manner. I think this is unhelpful for several reasons. First, it is poor hermeneutical practice to treat a text piecemeal, sentence by sentence. No one would chop up a story by Dickens, or a treatise by Locke and examine the work a sentence, or a phrase at a time. The proper manner to analyze a text is by those natural divisions of thought found in paragraphs or larger sections which encapsulate a single or related set of thought. Second, this method obscures the structure that may be found in the work or the section under consideration. At times in the Hebrew Bible, this structure is important in understanding a section, or the work as a whole. For example, in certain sections of Jeremiah particularly near the beginning, oracles are grouped around a common word or a common theme. Without noticing this pattern of attraction of common words or themes, one may easily misunderstand or misinterpret these oracles. The fact that they one is earlier in the book does not necessarily mean that they are historically earlier; nor does the fact that two oracles are juxtaposed imply that they have anything other than a accidental thematic similarity- the actual occasion of the two sayings may be widely divergent. Following the chapter and verse division of the English Bible obscures the actual patterns found within the text itself. Third, this method destroys the unity of the text. No author sat and wrote a series of loosely connected statements. They wrote thoughts, and these thoughts were related to each other- and these were related to his goal and his reason for writing. It is the larger thought which has priority, and informs the meaning and significance of the details (Of course I am not denying the fact that the parts inform the meaning and significance of the whole). Thankfully, this method has generally fallen out of favor; but this poor format obscures the insight and the value of some older works.
The second thing that struck me was how much this was a “Christian” commentary. While I think that Isaiah has great significance for the Christian this side of redemptive history, I also think he likewise had great significance for those before Jesus. Dr. Young, and many other conservative evangelicals focus on the meaning of the text in light of Jesus; but in so doing, leave little or no meaning for those before the formation of the New Testament church or before Christ. Thus, there are passages which speak of Israel as the servant of God, or as a light to the Gentiles, which Dr. Young says must refer to Jesus or the church in the New Testament age. Passages which seem to clearly have reference to the return from exile and the restoration of life in Palestine have reference to the Gospel and the inclusion of the remnant of the Jews and of the Gentiles in the church. As a Christian, I cannot deny the basic truth that redemptive historically the eschaton inaugurated by Christ fulfills the figures and the expectation found in the prophets. But I likewise cannot deny that Isaiah had significance and had a message for those in his own days. For me, this is why the sensus plenior is such a wise method- holding in tension the meaning for the original audience and also its fuller, redemptive-historical meaning in Christ and those united to him by faith. From both an exegetical standpoint, and in order to do justice to our brothers and sisters before the advent of Christ, I believe conservatives must pay more attention to the original meaning and situation of the Old Testament writings.