The Performative Nature and Function of Isaiah 40–55 (LHBOTS 448). By Jim W. Adams


Pp. xvi, 259 . New York and London : T&T Clark International , 2006 , £70.00 .

Adams' published PhD thesis from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2004 is a rewarding exemplification of the value of speech act theory for biblical interpretation, as applied to Second Isaiah. In fact, it is almost two books in one, since each half of the project requires mastery of a forbidding array of specialist literature, hardly any of which overlaps to the other half. There are thus two kinds of readers who will benefit here: those with a theoretical interest in aspects of performative hermeneutics, and those interested in the interpretation and function of Second Isaiah.

With regard to the first part, this reviewer must declare an interest, since my own work on the subject of speech act theory in biblical interpretation is one of the three main resources which Adams utilises for his analysis. In essence, he offers a summary of speech act theory and the ongoing discussion of how it might best be harnessed to the concerns of biblical interpretation. This involves a rehearsal of the key ideas and categories concerned: the performative nature of language, the specific significance of the ‘illocution’ (i.e. what is said in the uttering of the words, rather than the broader rhetorical notion of what is said by way of the utterance – the perlocution), and then he also explores the notion of ‘self-involvement’ whereby illocutionary language requires the speaker (or in this case the interpreter) to take on the commitments and entailments implied in the successful reception of and engagement with the illocutionary acts represented in texts. Adams' review is wide-ranging, judicious, and patiently attentive to the details of this (sometimes arcane) debate. His main dialogue partners are Donald Evans, Anthony Thiselton, and myself, and he is in my judgment both fair and constructive in his analysis of the various views which have been put forward, in large measure in agreement with the current debate as it stands. A brief second chapter goes on to review ‘utilizations of speech act theory in OT interpretation’, and shows clear mastery of the literature without unearthing anything particularly exciting, which was indeed my own experience in this area.

The second half of the book opens with a chapter containing an overview of the issues in interpreting Isaiah 40–55, before focusing on a particular thesis: that much of the language here is performative, and that ‘the central message of these chapters is a call to return or turn to Yahweh… for the addressee to forsake sin, acknowledge and confess Yahweh as God alone, and embrace the role of his servant.’ (p. 91)

There then follows the fourth and final chapter, constituting nearly half the book, in which the four ‘servant passages’ are analysed in considerable detail. Adams rightly dismisses the notion that they are separate servant ‘songs’, and while accepting that they have some common subject matter he is surely right to focus on interpreting them in context in Second Isaiah. Agreeing with the line taken by his supervisor, John Goldingay, he draws attention to the notable degree of anonymity present throughout this section of the book, and then suggests that this opens the way for the reader to take on a self-involved identification with the portrait of the servant in these passages.

Each passage is freshly translated, followed by copious notes explaining the interpretive decisions taken. Then the structure and genre is considered, and then a verse-by-verse interpretive analysis undertaken. Brief conclusions are offered.

It will be a rare reader who can follow the detail and degree of argumentative depth in both halves of the book. To this extent Adams has offered an imposing work, but he is right to draw attention to the strong possibilities inherent in speech act theory as one tool among many for the biblical interpreter. He will not perhaps convince all commentators on Second Isaiah that more is at stake than the repackaging of interpretive insights in speech act terms (though he is always upfront about occasions where his point is not new even if the conceptual framework is), and arguably one of the great strengths of his approach is slightly lost to view in the close analysis, concerning the fact that he is taking seriously the multi-dimensional performative force of the texts and not restricting them to flat referential puzzles where the interpretive key is to identify the speaker, or the servant, or the historical conditions behind the text. The conclusion has helpful things to say regarding on the one hand the fulfilment of these passages in Jesus, and on the other their ongoing availability for self-involvement to the attentive reader today.

There is much of value in this book both for hermeneuts and Isaiah scholars, and it may be hoped that it will play a part in continuing to develop an integrated approach to questions of how biblical language draws the reader in to judgments required by and appropriate to the texts in hand. Second Isaiah's servant passages offer considerable scope for exploring confessional and declarative texts, and Adams' reading brings alive the self-involving dimension of these texts with freshness and clarity.