Theology and the interpretation of Isaiah 53

Mon, 21/06/2010 - 17:24

I have, for some time, had a bee in my bonnet about the penal substitutionary atonement debate. There are those, on the one hand, who think it sits right at the indigestible core of a sound understanding of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death; and there are those, on the other, who think it sucks. To my mind there is a solid alternative that emerges when we put on our dogmatic-noise-cancelling ear-phones and sit and read the Scriptures as historical narrative, which in the broadest and simplest sense is what they are.

I came across a discussion on Derek Flood’s Rebel God blog, which got the bee buzzing furiously again. In his post Derek is primarily concerned to refute a penal substitutionary reading of Isaiah 53. I think he is quite right to say that ‘this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice’, but I’m not sure that this makes the word ‘penal’ redundant. There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law). It seems to me that the best argument for a narratively limited and historically informed (that is a crucial qualification) doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross in anticipation of the punishment of Israel by the instrumentality of the besieging Roman armies, who crucified Jews willy nilly.

But with a previous post on putting the theological cart before the biblical horse in mind, it was this statement in an attached discussion with Josh Rowley that caught my attention:

I am convinced that a theological interpretation of the Bible needs to prioritize a Christological reading over a historical-critical one, that is: the way the OT is read by the authors of the NT in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ trumps the original intent of the OT author.

This makes us take a step or two back from the debate. It raises a couple of pertinent questions.

First, are we sure that we have understood the New Testament passage correctly? Just as it is possible to read the Old Testament in the light of the New, it is also possible to read the New Testament in the light of subsequent theological developments that are more or less disinterested in the original meaning of the text.

Then secondly, does the hermeneutical principle of prophetic ‘fulfilment’ have to prioritize the (supposedly) divergent New Testament understanding over the ‘original intent of the OT author’? Why do we so willingly accept that canonical unity must take precedence over exegetical integrity? Why do we have so little confidence in the internal coherence of Scripture? Why do we offer so little resistance to the assumption that our theology may be at odds with the biblical texts? Why do we as Protestants or post-Protestants not have the courage of our biblical convictions?

I would argue, in the first place, that the need to prioritize a christological reading here arises largely from the fact that both Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and New Testament citations of and allusions to the passage have been misunderstood; that this misunderstanding is the consequence of reading scripture from a post-biblical perspective, burdened by the weight of Christendom theologies; and that the issue of fulfilment is much less problematic when Scripture is read on its own terms as a historically constrained Jewish narrative.

Derek insists, in fact, that a theologically contentious verse such as Isaiah 53:10 has to be read in context, as part of a larger narrative – otherwise, it is very easy simply to ‘plug in our preconceived doctrinal understandings onto the words and phrases we see in those little verse snippets’. That’s true. But in this instance (as in most instances) the narrative from which the statement that it was the ‘will of the Lord to crush him’ has been snipped concerns the restoration of Israel following the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile. For some reason that contextual detail gets ignored. Flood writes, ‘Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones.’ But the servant suffers because of the transgressions of ‘my people’ (Is. 53:8); and it is correspondingly Israel that is healed by this ‘atonement’. The passage at no point suggests that the servant suffers because of the sins of the nations. The nations are cast only as spectators at the drama of Israel’s salvation.

Now the question is whether the New Testament respects or disregards the constraints of this story. These, I think, are the main texts to consider:

1. When Matthew claims that Jesus’ healing of the sick and demon-possessed constituted a fulfilment of Isaiah 53:4 (‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’), there is no reason to suppose that he has universalized the narrative framework (Matt. 8:17). Sickness, of course, is common to all humanity, but in the biblical setting we should recall that sickness is a consequence of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:20-22). So when Jesus heals the sick, it is to be understood as a sign that the curse is being lifted, that forgiveness is being offered to Israel – this is the point of the story of the forgiveness and then healing of the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8). It is this covenantal argument, rather than any post-biblical hindsight, that provides the proper theological frame for the interpretation both of Isaiah 53:4 and Matthew 8:17.

2. If Jesus’ statement that the Son of man ‘should suffer many things and be treated with contempt’ (Mark 9:12) alludes to Isaiah 53:34, all he has done is fuse two narratives about the redemptive value of the suffering of a righteous individual or group within Israel. Daniel’s figure ‘like a son of man’ stands for the righteous in Israel against whom the pagan oppressor makes war, but who remain faithful to the covenant (Dan. 7:13-27).

3. Philip no doubt understood Isaiah 53:7-8 as a fitting description of Jesus’ quiescent suffering in the face of injustice, but I’m not sure that this prioritizes a christological reading over the original sense of the text (Acts 8:32-35). At most we have analogous narratives: Philip interprets the injustice of Jesus’ suffering as a consequence of Israel’s transgressions in the light of Isaiah 53.

4. Paul thinks of himself as an apostle who will make known the suffering and vindication of Jesus to the nations according to the terms of Isaiah 52:15: ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’ (Rom. 15:21). But this is still the story of one who ‘became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness’ (Rom. 15:8) – that is, it is the story of the reconciliation of rebellious Israel through the vicarious suffering of a righteous martyr.

5. Paul also speaks on behalf of Israel – as part of an argument about the advantages and prospects that the Jews still had prior to AD 70 – when he says, presumably with Isaiah 53:5-6 in mind, that Jesus ‘was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25).

6. Finally, 1 Peter 2:22-25 uses the language of Isaiah 53 to account for Jesus’ willing suffering: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’ But the Letter is almost certainly – despite Ramsey Michael’s rather perverse argument to the contrary1 – addressed to Jewish Christians, ‘elect exiles of the dispersion’ (1 Pet. 1:1), who naturally identify themselves as errant Israel, healed through the wounds of Jesus.

Isaiah 53 is a frustratingly difficult passage to interpret from a historical-critical point of view, but that doesn’t license us to abandon the historical perspective altogether in favour of some poetic or abstractly theological reading. It remains lodged firmly in a story about the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem; and even if we feel that it transcends its immediate historical context, there is no basis – historical, biblical, poetic, theological or otherwise – for removing it from an intrinsically Jewish narrative about the salvation specifically of Israel in the sight of the nations. It is on that premise that we must address questions both of how it is ‘fulfilled’ in the New Testament and of to what extent it may be used as the foundation for a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.

(Further discussion can be found under a post on Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment on Derek’s blog.)

  • 1. J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (1988), xlv-xlvi.

Comments

Hi, Andrew--

Thanks for adding your wisdom to the conversation Derek and I have been having. I confess that I often fall into the PSA "sucks" camp. However, the atonement theory I question is quite different from the version of penal substitution (if it can be called that) that you articulate in your second paragraph. I question the notion, commonly held in the Reformed tradition of which I am a part, that God punished Jesus instead of us. Of course, this notion is sometimes articulated less crudely; but questionable ideas that include the reduction of Christ's atoning work to the cross, the direct punishment of Jesus by a wrathful deity, and the replacement of sinners on the cross by Jesus are present to some degree in most if not all articulations of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

What you are here calling "penal substitutionary atonement" is an interesting contrast to traditional Reformed doctrine. You write, "There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law). It seems to me that the best argument for a narratively limited and historically informed (that is a crucial qualification) doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross in anticipation of the punishment of Israel by the instrumentality of the besieging Roman armies, who crucified Jews willy nilly." You make clear that the penalty (death) suffered by Jesus was not directly inflicted by God, but by Romans; in Jesus, God does not inflict violence, but suffers violence. Unclear to me is how this theory is "substitutionary." Did Jesus hope that his suffering would serve to warn Israel and lead it to repent, thereby avoiding suffering at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE?

The common theme throughout your six exegetical points seems to be that both Isaiah 53 and the New Testament's use of Isaiah 53 are focused on the salvation of Israel. It seems to me that this claim (which you make convincingly) impugns efforts to find in Isaiah 53 support for the penal substitionary atonement theory--as traditionally understood. This theory does not focus on Israel's salvation, but on the salvation of the individual: Jesus died for me in my place so that I will not have to die.

Hi Josh,

I take your point about the mainstream Reformed understanding of PSA. I have not been particularly concerned to address it head on – it seems to me that the right approach is to articulate clearly and consistently an alternative narrative, one that can be shown both to do justice to Scripture as a text that wrestles with the contingent reality of its history and to enable a credible and honest self-understanding for the church today. But doesn’t the clause ‘God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice’, which I took more or less from Derek’s post, get close to the heart of the Reformed doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement?

Unclear to me is how this theory is “substitutionary.” Did Jesus hope that his suffering would serve to warn Israel and lead it to repent, thereby avoiding suffering at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE?

That’s a very good question. We can get so hung up on the penal part, which tends to cause the most offence, and overlook the substitutionary part. Perhaps the best commentary is provided by Caiaphas when the Pharisees discuss in very pragmatic fashion what to do with Jesus:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (John 11:47-53)

That is at least one way of making historical sense of the substitutionary aspect. It is a thoroughly political calculation: they will have Jesus executed in order to avoid destruction of the whole nation by the Romans. Of course, it didn’t work, but the argument shows how the ‘theology’ of PSA can be anchored historically. In fact, it’s similar to your suggestion.

But I think the more general point would be that Jesus died so that the people of God, the family of Abraham, might live – that is, might survive the coming destruction of ‘Israel’ as a ‘nation’. I think we need to add to that narrative the faithful suffering of the community of Jesus’ disciples, who were baptized into his death and resurrection, who walked the narrow path of suffering in the belief that the Father of their Lord Jesus Christ would likewise vindicate them. The simple historical fact was that the survival of the people depended on the willingness not of Jesus alone but of many to suffer. But there is no suggestion that this communal suffering, this imitation of Jesus, had the same atoning effect – as Paul puts it, Jesus is the righteous one who dies for unrighteous Israel, himself foremost among them (cf. Rom. 5:6-21).

Andrew:

I'm not sure why you ended the first paragraph of your reply to my comment with the question you did. I think you fairly summarized Derek's post, and I think the notion that God punishes Jesus in order to satisfy justice (or to placate God's wrath) is prominent in PSA theology. My main point above was that your articulation of penal substitution would not be recognized as such by PSA proponents (as evidenced by a comment made by Peter W. in this thread).

Having said that, I also want to say that I find your articulation intriguing. I had forgotten the Caiaphas comment in John. Yes, the thought he expresses there is similar to the thought expressed by my question above. And although the death of Jesus did not avert the destruction of Jerusalem, it did show the Jesus-community (which, as Peter W. suggests, can be understood as Israel reconstituted) the way to survive Israel's judgment.

This move leads to atonement theology that takes the suffering example of Jesus seriously (as you seem to suggest in your last paragraph). I agree with you that the following or imitating of this example is not atoning in the same sense that the setting of this example is atoning; but I also think that one of the weaknesses of PSA thinking is its dismissive attitude toward moral example or influence atonement theology (and this attitude despite the fact that 1 Peter's use of Isaiah 53 is made in the context of an argument for following the example of Jesus). This dismissiveness has terrible ethical implications, as it gives the sense that God's people are simply replaced (substituted for) by Jesus. Yes, we are saved by grace through the gift of faith. Yet do we not participate in the gift of salvation?

The notion that Jesus replaces God's people (whether Israel or us) may be more problematic that "penal" language. It seems to me that the death of Jesus was clearly a penalty; death is the penalty of sin (Roman 6:23). The death of Jesus does not need to be understood as his direct punishment by God; in fact, this understanding is ahistorical, as it dehistoricizes the crucifixion--it was Roman soldiers, not God, who wounded Jesus.

As for substitution, Romans 6 provides us with an alternative--namely, sharing. The language of participation, not substitution, can be heard throughout Romans 6. Jesus Christ shares in our life and death so that we can share in his death and (resurrected) life.

I also think that one of the weaknesses of PSA thinking is its dismissive attitude toward moral example or influence atonement theology…

Josh, I fully agree with you here – indeed, I would argue that it is a failing of Reformed and evangelical theology more generally that the death of Jesus is treated as a unique event that can be isolated (almost metaphysically isolated) from the realities of communal existence.

I would argue that the NT sees a critical, practical, experiential connection between the faithfulness of Jesus and the faithfulness of those who very deliberately identify with him, imitate him, emulate him, in his dying and being raised to life. There is much more to this language of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection than a metaphor for conversion. I think the point of Romans 3:21-26 is that Jesus’ faithfulness anticipates or preempts the faithfulness of the community that would sooner or later have to live through the wrath that will come first on the Jew, then on the Greek.

Incidentally, in response to your final point, we can now see a distinction between a penal substitutionary atonement for sinful Israel and a concrete participation of redeemed Israel (in the form of the disciples) in the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication. There are two different dynamics here. On the one hand, Jesus suffers so that the people of God may not be totally destroyed; on the other, given the eschatological circumstances, the small communities of redeemed Israel, to which Gentiles are also now being added, must be willing to walk the same path. The future of the people of God (which is what is at stake in Romans) was dependent not on Jesus’ death alone but on the faithfulness and obedience, on the concrete lived out trust, of believers such as those in Rome, who would soon be subjected to Nero’s savagery.

Hi Andrew, I initially began by responding to your proposal for a historically informed view of penal substitution, but by response got way to long for a comment and I decided instead to post on my blog. To cut a long story short: I disagree with you, and attempt to explain why by tracing a narrative from the OT to the NT as well.

Here I wanted to respond to your comments on hermeneutics. It seems that your main complaint is carelessly superimposing Christian doctrine onto OT texts. I agree with you. I think we need to have a historical understanding of a text as a starting point. I just would not want to stop there. I want to take it and run with it. After all, if it is only a book about some long dead people in a far away land, why bother reading it at all?

You criticize me for saying in a comment about Isa 53 that ‘Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones.’ because in its original context this referred to Israel, not to us gentiles like me. That's true of course. From a historical perspective you are completely correct. But again if it is only history, who cares? It needs to also become my story too. So I transpose myself into the “we” of Isa 53, just as I read Paul speaking to me in Romans. I am not an Israelite, nor am I from Rome. I certainly don’t think either of these books were really written to me. I also don’t think Mick Jagger was thinking of me when he wrote “Wild Horses” but that song can still apply to my life in a way that Mick never imagined.

In short I appreciate your concern for folks to be informed about history. I think this is deeply important. But I think you also may be missing the motivation that is behind a lot of the theological interpretation of Scripture which has an awful lot to do with ethics. I do absolutely want to put the ethical horse before the biblical cart. So when I speak of a "Christological reading" (perhaps it would be better to call it a "cruciform reading") I do not mean making every text be about Jesus, I mean putting every text (and myself) under Christ. 

The problem now is knowing where to reply. I’ll start here.

After all, if it is only a book about some long dead people in a far away land, why bother reading it at all?

But again if it is only history, who cares? It needs to also become my story too. So I transpose myself into the “we” of Isa 53, just as I read Paul speaking to me in Romans.

Yup, this gets to the heart of the matter. I fully understand the need to write ourselves into Israel’s story for the sake of finding present meaning in the texts; but I am concerned about how this process seems invariably to reduce or distort the text, about the risks of imposing inappropriate categories upon our own self-understanding (penal substitutionary atonement, for example), and about how it contributes to a highly selective and subjective reading of Scripture.

I’m not sure we have to come to the conclusion that the historical reading alienates us from the text in the way that you suggest. It certainly challenges the dominant hermeneutical paradigm that says we can simply read meaning directly off the page for ourselves, but a narratively-constructed community ought to be able to live in relation to its past in much more life-giving and informative ways. I think this is a task worth pursuing further. I don’t think we should have to override the historical meaning of the text in order to get theological relevance from it.

I am not an Israelite, nor am I from Rome. I certainly don’t think either of these books were really written to me. I also don’t think Mick Jagger was thinking of me when he wrote “Wild Horses” but that song can still apply to my life in a way that Mick never imagined.

Yes, but ‘Wild Horses’ is not part of, does not engage with, a historical narrative in the way that or to the extent that Isaiah 53 or Romans was (or did). Is it, therefore, really a valid analogy?

But I think you also may be missing the motivation that is behind a lot of the theological interpretation of Scripture which has an awful lot to do with ethics.

Maybe, but still, it makes a considerable difference, both theologically and ethically, to locate the idea of penal substitutionary atonement within the confines of the narrative about Israel. To say that it makes sense – and perhaps only makes sense – on the specific and limiting premise of the Mosaic covenant with national Israel has obvious implications for how we understand ourselves today to be beneficiaries of Jesus’ death.

I do absolutely want to put the ethical horse before the biblical cart.

The problem with this is that you are putting your late-modern ethical horse before an ancient biblical cart. I don’t think that’s entirely illegitimate – it’s what the theological enterprise typically does; but I think it betrays a fundamental distrust of Scripture, which we deal with by harmonizing or homogenizing it. The category of (historical) narrative, it seems to me, allows us to acknowledge the intrinsic contextual force of the text, while at the same time forcing us to think seriously about our own context as a coherent extension of the narrative.

Hi Andrew,

I find myself agreeing with much of what you say.

I fully understand the need to write ourselves into Israel’s story for the sake of finding present meaning in the texts; but I am concerned about how this process seems invariably to reduce or distort the text

Yes, that is a valid concern. So I guess we would need to figure out a way to do both. It seems to me that it just may be that we are both trying to get to the same place, but are approaching it from different angles. You emphasize the importance of understanding historical context, I emphasize the importance of engaging a text ethically. Is it possible do both at the same time? I think so.

I think this is a task worth pursuing further. I don’t think we should have to override the historical meaning of the text in order to get theological relevance from it.

Agreed. But sometimes we may need to also wrestle with the texts historically understood for ethical/moral reasons. I’d say that this wrestling with the texts is a deeply Jewish way to interpret Scripture that I see in Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, the Talmud, up to today in Rabbinical Judaism. The idea is not to be unaware of, or to simply ignore history imposing our new meanings, but to critically engage it (i.e. with our moral radar intact) understanding ourselves to be part of a historical trajectory.

The problem with this is that you are putting your late-modern ethical horse before an ancient biblical cart.

I’m sure to some extent I do that (how could I not?), but I am also, and hopefully primarily, taking Jesus as my ethical starting point and reading backwards and forwards from there. He is the “crux” of the whole narrative. Like in a novel, you need to know what happened before to get the turning point in the story. So you begin reading on page 1. But when you get to that turning point in the narrative arc, the twist in the plot, you then go back through the story and with that new piece are able to see things you had missed before. That’s how I see the NT authors reading their Bibles, and how I try to read too.

I think you’re right. It feels very much like we’re working towards the same conclusion from different and not necessarily incompatible directions.

The only thing I would add here is that starting ethically and theologically with Jesus can still be problematic. I see a strong tendency among writers today to filter out from the Gospels the harsh side of Jesus’ message, as though he had nothing to say about judgment and wrath. He is just as convinced of impending judgment and destruction for Israel as any of the OT prophets or John the Baptist. But he offers a constructive alternative to the broad path leading to destruction, which is a way not merely of grace but of suffering under the eschatological conditions of the wrath of God. In other words, suffering as a consequence of divine judgment against Israel first and then, as Paul would add, against the Greeks.

Yes I agree that we should not filter out the harshness. More specifically we need to be willing to face the reality of evil in our world, and to own up to our own ugliness and hurtfulness. We are not just victims. That's why grace is so powerful. 

I'd want to say that there is a shift that happens in Jesus:

The old covenant was: do good and live, do bad and die... now Jesus bids us all to die so that we can live.

The old covenant says we can avoid suffering if we are good... Jesus says that if we are good we will suffer for the sake of righteousness.

So (righteous) suffering is the result of our identifying with the least.

It's all upside-down from what we'd expect.

Derek's comment on Isaiah 53 in particular and OT sacrifices in general might be summed up in his statement:

"sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment (sacrifice is the alternative to punishment) and everything to do with cleansing - that is with sanctification."

I think this is playing with words, especially when in Isaiah 53 we have language like: "stricken by God, smitten by Him and afflicted"; and then the connection between "transgressions" and "iniquities" (53:5a), and "punishment - - - upon him" (53b).

But neither do I find that Andrew clearly spells out how penal substitution works in his own theory of the meaning of Jesus's death on the cross. What does it really mean to say that Jesus's death was "in anticipation of the punishment of Israel by the instrumentality of the besieging Roman armies?" Andrew is clearly struggling himself to provide an explanation, and penal substitution (theological language to which he is averse) gets lost along the way.

The train-crash for the anti-PSA lobby (of all persuasions) lies in the oversight of, or denial of, trinitarian thinking. From the trinitarian viewpoint, the death of Jesus on the cross was not victimisation, cosmic child-abuse or whatever, but God bearing suffering, punishment, death in himself - he alone and no other. Of course, there are alternative viewpoints, but none provides such a complete and satisfactory explanation.

To come back to Andrew's interpretation within a narrative historical framework. Oddly enough, I was also re-reading Isaiah 40-66 yesterday morning. It didn't take me several hours though. It's amazing how quickly it can be read, and how satisfying to read it all as one unfolding drama - though the tone changes in Isaiah 56a-59, and then again in Isaiah 60-66. It is for me, quite simply, the pinnacle of Old Testament writing. It is symphonic - like a great Beethoven symphony, in which subtle modulation rests within the overall urging towards the home tonic.

So what is Isaiah describing in 40-55 and onwards? There is indeed historical background, with the return of Israel from exile swirling around the towering figure of Cyrus in 44 and 45.  But the account introduces fulfilment of key biblical themes (second exodus, forgiveness of sins, worldwide blessing of the gentiles) which bring into question whether the limited historical event of the return can really provide the fullest satisfactory explanation.

Biblical prophecy must also always be in conversation with historical events in which it might find fulfilment, and although the history of Israel's return from exile in Babylon provides an initial historical anchorage, the description is couched in language which far exceeds the partial, incomplete and disappointing event of the return itself, as presented in Haggai, Ezra and  Nehemiah. Forgiveness of sins, second exodus, worldwide impact, were not to be associated fully with that sixth century BC return, and the intertestamental centuries that followed.

Within this account comes Isaiah 53. Again we are looking at how various interpretations compare with each other, and which provides the most satisfactory explanation. The heart of Andrew's theory is that both Old and New Testament, and the significance of Jesus in particular, have to do with the historically circumscribed history of Israel, and cannot be directly applied to situations and lives beyond that history. As the person (corporate or individual) described in Isaiah 53 was to Babylon, so must Jesus be in relation to Rome. Andrew says:

"It remains lodged firmly in a story about the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem; and even if we feel that it transcends its immediate historical context - - -" (it must remain so lodged).

How firmly was Isaiah 53 circumscribed to a historical relationship between Israel and Babylon? At that time, there was an Israel which suffered in the way that Isaiah 53 decribes (our infirmities, our sorrows, our transgressions, our iniquities - 53:4-5). Clearly, there was not yet a redemptive 'He' (53:2-12) who contrasted with the 'we' of 53:1-6. The interplay of 'He' and 'We' takes us out of events which can find an explanation in the sixth century B.C. alone.

Did Jesus come then to fulfil for historic Israel alone (not for us) what was foreshadowed in Isaiah 53? It is here that I find it strange that Andrew does not see how the historic narrative suggestively leads us into universal significance and application. There was an Israel which did not benefit from the redemptive suffering of Jesus, and there was an Israel that did. The Israel that did benefit was the Israel reconstituted in Jesus's followers - represented symbolically by the 12. The way of the cross was the way of suffering - as an example. Yet the cross was also the place (and the person) where God's punishment, and redemption, was experienced. That the suffering was more than exemplary can be seen in the exchange which Isaiah 53 suggests: he was pierced/crushed/afflicted/oppressed/cut off/stricken etc; "we" (whether Israel or wider) are brought peace and healed (Isaiah 53:5b). 

At various places in Isaiah, we are reminded of Abraham, and Israel as the instrument through which the worldwide promises of Abraham were to be fulfilled. While Israel attempted to exclude the world and keep the promises to herself, there was a voice which kept reminding her that the promises were for the world. That voice keeps appearing in Isaiah. What happened to Israel was always of significance for what God wanted for the world - and this is true of Isaiah 53.

There is a "generation" ("descendants" - NIV) of Isaiah 53:8 and "seed" of verse 10, the one bringing to mind the racial, ethnic descent of Israel, but the other recalling the promise to Abraham, which would exceed natural descent, and fill the entire earth (Genesis 13:16; 15:5 etc). And who are the "many" of verse 11, if not, in the light of the New Testament, those outside Israel who benefited from the death of Jesus - directly, as the verse describes.

Interestingly, the NT authors do not take up Isaiah 53, as an interpretation of the cross and the death/resurrection of Jesus. This must remain a weapon in the armoury of those who insist that its affirmation of penal substitutionary atonement is either non-existent (a misinterpretation), or eisogetic (a mis-reading).

Peter,

"Interestingly, the NT authors do not take up Isaiah 53, as an interpretation of the cross and the death/resurrection of Jesus."

What about 1 Peter 2:22-24 where he quotes Isa 53 twice?

Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed."

Perhaps Peter meant to indicate that the NT does not interpret Isaiah 53 as penal substitution. In 1 Peter 2:22-24, Isaiah 53 is used to argue for following the example of Jesus--an example that includes a willingness to suffer and die.

I would not describe the NT's interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a "weapon"; but I do think the fact that the NT's use of Isaiah 53 does not include any PSA interpretations is a strong argument against using Isaiah 53 to support the PSA theory.

Josh - I think there is both moral example and PSA in 1 Peter 2:22-24 (and thank you Derek for your correction). 

1 Peter 1:21-23 illustrates Christ's example - which in context is an encouragement to slaves not to retaliate when they are unjustly treated (vs 18-20).

1 Peter 1:24 illustrates something only Jesus could do:  "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree". Penal suffering is particularly highlighted by the use of the word 'tree', associated with the curse for disobedience (Gal 3:13, Deut 21:23). The reference to Isaiah 53:5b in 1 Peter 2:24b, and to Isaiah 53:6 in 1 Peter 2:25 takes us back to the penal language of Isaiah 53 (see above). 

Hasn't the problem been that PSA is often presented in a very crude and oversimplified way? Eg a wrathful God takes vengeance on an innocent human substitute, fulfilling a blood lust for human sacrifice. But apply the trinitarian lens for understanding what Jesus was doing on the cross, and the crudity simply evaporates, in the face of God doing himself what nobody else could do on our behalf. The suffering of the cross then goes far beyond judicial punishment, and plumbs the depths of the mystery of suffering which Job experiences, for instance, and includes moral persuasion, Christus Victor, and all the other images which are used to describe it.

I still think, by the way, that Andrew's version of PSA contains all the difficulties associated with a non-trinitarian understanding of the cross, in what it says about who God is.

At random...

Why N.T. Wright's narrative of Jesus is not narrative enough (reflections on the inaugural lecture) In his recent inaugural lecture at the University of St Andrews Tom Wright talks about his leading concerns about the state of Gospel studies. In particular, despite generations of redaction criticism and narrative criticism, he remains...
What does it mean to be “born again”? When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again” in order to see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3), does he have in mind the Protestant doctrine of personal regeneration? Or is he saying that Israel, represented by the devout Pharisee...
Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: What Do We Do About the Church? The second part of A New Kind of Christianity is called ‘Emerging and Exploring’: a number of mental doors have been opened in the first part of the book; now it is time to pass through and see what is on the other side. The sixth question...