There are 3 thoughts on “An Other Approach to Isaiah Studies”.

  1. Credit is due the Interpreter for publishing this excellent response to the Donald W. Parry review of the Joseph M. Spencer book on Isaiah. Joshua M. Sears does a superb job of carefully working through the key points of the review and discussing valid alternative interpretations while maintaining an even, scholarly, respectful tone.

    Spencer is a most careful reader of the Book of Mormon; his analysis of the text consistently brings forth insights worthy of close consideration. Though I do not always agree with his conclusions, they are consistently arrived at through thorough analysis of the text and context. When Spencer states “Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah,” I read the phrase aware that he clearly knows what Nephi writes in 2 Nephi 11 about Isaiah and about the coming of Christ. Sears does us an invaluable service by walking us through relevant quotations from Spencer’s book, providing ample evidence that the author is explicit about how he intends that phrase and about how he himself sees the Savior in the words of Isaiah.

    Unfortunately, I am one who cannot read Hebrew; I cannot speak to which reading of an Isaiah passage is the most accurate. Perhaps such a limitation on my part, however, makes me all the more appreciative of Sears’ section on “Interpreting Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6” since he does know Hebrew and yet also finds value in what Spencer has to offer (while recognizing “places where Spencer’s arguments do deserve further exploration and even some serious critiques”).

    Most important in this section, in my view, is Sears’ acknowledgment that Spencer is taking “many of his cues regarding where to locate Christ from none other than the prophet Nephi.” Spencer’s book is, after all, a book about Isaiah in Nephi’s record. It is not a book about how Isaiah is to be interpreted as found in the Hebrew Bible, or even within the context of the Old Testament, but in Nephi’s record.

    I can’t vouch for Spencer’s knowledge of Hebrew, but I do think he’s one of the finest Book of Mormon scholars we have. From all that I can see, Spencer loves the Book of Mormon, he believes the book and believes in the book, and he studies it with great care, thought, intellect, and faith. With that in mind, while recognizing no author or book is without flaws, I think Sears’ response has helped us better recognize Spencer’s authorial intent. That is an invaluable contribution to this discussion.

  2. I think the crux of the issue that neither side seems to be articulating very well is the contrast between Isaiah crafting his words in a way that has present meaning but greater fulfillment in Christ (Parry’s approach) vs. Isaiah’s words having only present meaning but then being “likened” by others in later circumstances (Spencer’s approach). Sears makes a passing comment that this difference exists but dismisses its significance: “Parry describes the fulfillment in Christ as the ‘greater fulfillment’ and the fulfillment in Isaiah’s day as a ‘lesser fulfillment,’ in contrast to Spencer, who focuses on the immediate fulfillment as the primary meaning and the fulfillment in Christ as a likening given later by the Holy Spirit. However, that distinction in their approach is not nearly as incompatible as the review makes it out to be that it is” (p. 10).

    Sears also says: “To be clear, I think there are places where Spencer’s arguments do deserve further exploration and even some serious critiques. For example, Spencer asserts without explanation that it is unlikely Isaiah himself would have understood Isaiah 7:14 or Isaiah 9:6 to have been pointing ahead to Jesus. But why couldn’t Isaiah have understood the fuller meaning of his prophecies, even if his contemporaries saw only the immediate application? It is regrettable the [Parry’s] review did not engage Spencer’s actual arguments in more detail, or some of these points could have been explored more fully” (p. 11-12). It would seem, however, that this is the very point that Parry is actually trying to make.

    Those who bracket faith when it comes to writing about or interpreting scripture will naturally diminish Isaiah’s prophetic voice to only a present meaning. However, prophetic call narratives in the Latter-day Saint cannon of scripture claim that prophets are given panoramic understanding of the whole plan of salvation through visions or reading/consuming divine books. The instruction conveyed in these moments include the Messiah’s central role in the plan (e.g. see 1 Nephi 1:19). Nephi states explicitly that Isaiah saw the Messiah: “for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him” (2 Nephi 11:2). But if you are bracketing faith, such a panoramic understanding is not possible for Isaiah to have and is only possible in the Book of Mormon because it can be viewed as Joseph Smith’s post-Christ “likening.”

    Spencer’s penchant for bracketing faith in his academic discourse seems to be influencing his writing to Latter-day Saints, and this seems to be to what Parry is reacting. If Isaiah really did see the Christ, but Spencer is suggesting that we should read Isaiah through the lens of “no prophecy” only later “likening” will likely mute Isaiah’s Christ-centered terminology and confound his full meaning. This creates a faith-language that is very different from those who are open to writing about Isaiah’s prophetic ability to craft his message in ways that have their ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, but reflect present circumstances. In an ironic twist, Isaiah may be cleverly “likening” what he knows of Christ in the future to his present circumstances.

    Consequently, the views or approaches of Parry and Spencer when addressing Latter-day Saint circles are actually opposite one another, and I think the effect these differences can ultimately have on our faith-community is much bigger than Sears would have us believe.

    • John,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. A quick thought in reply: I do not believe that Bro. Spencer at any point in the book “brackets faith.” “The Vision of All” is a book written by a believing Latter-day Saint to other believing Latter-day Saints. The book accepts the reality of God, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, a historical Book of Mormon, and the existence of predictive prophecy, and there is no part that implies otherwise. The entire premise of the book is that Nephi saw our day and was using the prophecies of Isaiah to speak to us today. You are correct that Latter-day Saints accept the reality of prophets receiving panoramic understandings of the whole plan of salvation, and Bro. Spencer’s book spends a great deal of time analyzing Nephi’s 600 B.C. vision in exactly those terms. Nowhere in the book does he attribute the Book of Mormon’s interpretations to “Joseph Smith’s post-Christ ‘likening.’” Joseph is consistently described as the translator of an ancient record.

      Another book where you can see Bro. Spencer’s beliefs is his recent “1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction,” published by the Maxwell Institute at BYU. There he describes 1 Nephi as “the careful work of a seer who gave his life to writing as plainly as possible about the extraordinary visions granted him by God.” He also writes, “Nephi has made me feel God’s love for his children in ways I couldn’t have experienced without him…. I long for God in part because of how Nephi has taught me to see him. And so I thank God for Nephi.” Those are not the words of someone bracketing faith.

      With regard to something like Isaiah 7:14, it is true that Bro. Spencer, as I wrote, “focuses on the immediate fulfillment as the primary meaning and the fulfillment in Christ as a likening given later by the Holy Spirit.” But I do not find this to be a faith-less interpretation. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland frames the situation in the same terms: “The most immediate meaning [of Isaiah 7:14] was probably focused on Isaiah’s wife, a pure and good woman who brought forth a son about this time, the child becoming a type and shadow of the greater, later fulfillment of the prophecy that would be realized in the birth of Jesus Christ.” (“Christ and the New Covenant,” p. 79.) We can debate, of course, whether Isaiah himself understood the long-term implications of this particular prophecy, but just because Bro. Spencer suggests he did not in THIS specific case is different from saying that Bro. Spencer denies Isaiah’s knowledge of the future Messiah or the reality of predictive prophecy.

      I am not making a blanket defense of everything Bro. Spencer says; there are certainly important ways in which he and Bro. Parry disagree, and in many of them I personally agree with Bro. Parry against Bro. Spencer. But I maintain that if we’re going to critique Bro. Spencer, let’s at least be careful to critique him for what he actually wrote.

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