Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets (Studies in Theological Interpretation). By Christopher R. Seitz


Pp. 264 , Grand Rapids : Baker Academic , 2007 , $22.99/£14.99 .

Chris Seitz has written a significant book which operates at the very heart of a changing of paradigms for Old Testament scholarship. One way of characterising it, indeed one which he acknowledges herein, is that he has written a book explaining why he could not write an ‘introduction to the prophets’ as that genre is currently conceived. In the process, he develops further some of the lines of thinking already present in his earlier collection of essays Figured Out (WJKP 2001), particularly with regard to the appropriate conceptualisation of time and situatedness of the interpreter of the Christian canon. How does the prophetic word ‘enclose our times’ and in what sense does the character of God ‘train us to obey him and so find life’? (p. 24)

Seitz provisionally characterises his approach as ‘canonical-historical’ (p. 219), thereby acknowledging two approaches with which he is in grateful dialogue without fully wanting to follow them. On the one hand, this is a book deeply informed by canonical analysis in the manner of Childs: questions regarding the final form (or at least the appropriate form) of the canon and its implications for interpretation, especially of the book of the twelve, are present throughout. On the other hand, von Rad emerges as the giant of the scholarly tradition who saw through his hermeneutic darkly the true shape and nature of the prophetic literature. Von Rad, says Seitz, was hampered by his tradition-historical approach into operating with a disconnected diachronic model, but his theological sharpness saw him still see the OT witness as ‘thrusting forward violently’ into the NT. Half-true, Seitz suggests, since it is not so much that a build-up of tradition-history reaches forward to Jesus, but that the completed Christian canon refigures the forward-reach inherent in the canonical construction of the prophetic texts themselves, to be seen as comprehending God's revelation in Jesus: ‘The tradition-historical bridge that von Rad sought to build … the canonical presentation was already seeking to establish’. (p. 50) Seitz discerns in von Rad's final writing (his revision of the first 11 chapters of his Genesis commentary) a recognition of the role of canonical coherence, in the way in which he begins to ascribe to Genesis 1 a character determinative of some of what follows, a point in tension with his approach as marked out in his celebrated ‘The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch’.

One can see from this summary that this book is deeply engaged with revisiting and re-evaluating the scholarly tradition in order to get clear on what is at stake in writing about the prophets. (Seitz even revisits publishers' decisions, noting the cost of separating out von Rad's The Message of the Prophets from its role as part 2 in a tripartite (though 2-volume) Old Testament Theology which ended with discussion of the New Testament. As a result, shelves are stocked today with books on prophetic literature which operate relatively independent of the rest of the canon.) Scholarly reconstructions of the text according to some criteria brought to bear then serve to distort the material: ‘What portions of the canonical witness best serve to illustrate [contemporary contribution] are precisely those materials taken up for comment’ (p. 115) – a perceptive point explaining the distribution of coverage in much writing on the prophets.

The path Seitz wants to take is to ask how the canonical shaping of the prophetic literature builds-in an intentionality which requires figural handling rather than historically-reconstructed handling. His major focal point for this more constructive half of the book is recent research into the canonical shape and function of the ‘book of the twelve’, on which much has recently been written regarding its status as a single book (of a comparable length to the three other ‘major’ or ‘latter’ prophets). Some of the reflections on the twelve have the character of reporting work being done elsewhere and perhaps a reader not abreast of such scholarship may find some of the summaries either a little hasty or requiring further comment. Not all of the examples adduced by Seitz are self-evident, though all are thought-provoking, and in many cases he refers the reader to fuller discussion elsewhere. In conclusion he notes that ‘Figural integration is the achievement of the final form of the prophetic witness of the Twelve’ (p. 249). The case of the Twelve is probably the simplest example available in support of Seitz's thesis (and it is not that simple!), though his earlier writing on Isaiah has worked comparably, and in principle the other prophetic books would be susceptible of similar arguments.

The feel and structure of the book is determined by its self-conscious role in attempting to reorientate what counts as ‘introducing the prophets’. This is a deceptively complex project, deceptive because it looks at first glance as if he is simply arguing over how to write an introduction, whereas on reflection what turns out to be at stake is the very nature of appropriate interpretation of scripture. If asked ‘appropriate to what?’, Seitz's answer seems to be that it must be appropriate to the canonically-figured witness which scripture provides to the God of Israel who is also the God of Jesus Christ. The way ahead is not through historical-developmental studies, for all their insight, nor through a return to ‘prediction and fulfilment’ schemas, for all their attempt to capture an important point. The way ahead is to look for how the canon offers a figural connectedness between text(s), God, and reader(s), in a meaningful whole.

A further book is promised on Canon and Theological Interpretation, taking on the project outlined here. Readers of this book may find some repetition between chapters originally published in various places (the material on von Rad repeats points often, and the examples from the book of the twelve are given in many places with some overlap), but to some extent this works in Seitz's favour because it is the shifting framework which is key in the argument, and coming at the same core points from various angles helps to give a feel of the vision for scripture which he is after.

The book will not be without its critics, especially those for whom exegesis is a self-evident exercise in ‘reading the text in its historical context’ (and these critics will be both conservative and sceptical in their evaluations of the abiding value of the text on such readings). Nevertheless, it should provoke any reader of the Old Testament prophets to revisit basic and far-reaching questions concerning the nature of Old Testament prophetic writing, and of the Christian canon as a whole. One looks forward eagerly to the promised continuing development of Seitz's project.