Isaiah 7:14—Would the Messiah be “Virgin Born”? – Part 1

By: Dr. Walter Kaiser; ©2002
Part one of a paper delivered by Dr. Kaiser on the “single-meaning hermeneutic” [interpretation] of Isaiah 7:14. Even if you have no idea what that means, you will still enjoy reading Dr. Kaiser’s comments!


Isaiah 7:14—Part One

(This paper was given at “The Ritter Lecture for 1987” at the Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. It is reproduced, with permission, in our book, The Case for Jesus the Messiah, which Dr. Kaiser co-authored.)

The Promise of Isaiah 7:14 and the Single-Meaning Hermeneutic [Interpretation]

“Probably no single passage of the Old Testament has been so variously interpreted or has given rise to so much controversy as the prophecy contained in these verses (sur­rounding Isaiah 7:14).”[1]

Almost every interpreter of this text echoes a similar conclusion; in fact, so divergent are the views and so intractable are the component parts of the historical events that make up the background for this text that Brevard S. Childs opined, “It seems unlikely that a satisfac­tory historical solution will be forthcoming without fresh extra-biblical evidence.”[2]

I. The Hermeneutical Issues

But the most severe problem of all revolves around the chronological data pertaining to the birth, reign and the northern Israel and Assyrian synchronisms of the Judean King Hezekiah. H. H. Rowley, that nestor of Old Testament bibliography, exclaimed: “This is one of the most tangled problems of the chronology of the monarchy, and an extraordinary variety of dates for the reign of Hezekiah will be found amongst scholars.”[3]

As if all of this were not enough to exacerbate matters, total pandemonium is introduced when the issue of the dual nature of biblical revelation is introduced, i.e. Scripture is at once a divine and human product. For many, this dual authorship of the text of Scripture would seem to imply that a given passage could have more than one meaning or alternatively, a meaning known only to God and distinct from that known by the author of the text. According to this evangelically popular way of handling predictive passages in the Old Testament, the human author could have a meaning which was restricted to the events proximate to his own day while God, the divine author of the text, could transcend those values with meanings which went far beyond or even dramatically differed from that of the human authors.

Isaiah 7:14 becomes a crux interpretum in this exceedingly important, but difficult, debate. Briefly stated, the issue is this: what meaning did Isaiah and God intend for Ahaz when they gave the declaration of Isaiah 7:14 and how does that meaning relate, if at all, to the meaning Matthew derived from that same text, presumably God’s fuller meaning, when he pointed it towards the Messiah in Matthew 1:23?

The hermeneutical case of Protestant orthodoxy, as I understood it is this:

God’s meaning and revelatory-intention in any passage of Scripture may be accurately and confidently ascertained only by studying the verbal meanings of the divinely delegated and inspired human writers…. That single, original verbal meaning of the human author may be ascertained by heeding the usual literary conventions of history, culture, grammar, syntax, and accumulated theological context.[4]
No definition of interpretation could be more fundamental than this: To interpret we must in every case reproduce the sense the Scriptural writer intended for his own words. The first step in the interpretive process is to link only those ideas with the author’s language that he connected with them.[5]

Very few evangelicals object to these definitions: divine meanings can be expressed in human words. But that agreement quickly dissolves when this question is asked: “Could God see or intend a sense in a particular text (which is) separate and different from that conceived or intended by his human instrument?”[6] The key words here are “separate” and “different,” for this certainly would introduce double or multiple meanings.

No one denies that texts may legitimately have consequent extensions into later times, cultures and settings. Normally we refer to these extensions of the single meaning of the text as applications, or implications of the general principle (or the universal term) that comes from the author’s single meaning. The point where our differences arise comes when we ask if the extension of that meaning, which we obtain from exercising the normal rules of grammar, must be applied by a continuous extension and from an application of something which is in the same sense, or may the implications announced also be different and separate from the grammatico-historical meanings?[7]

When this “consequent sense” is a different and an additional meaning, allegedly in­tended only by God, but expressed in words of the author without the author’s awareness of their meaning, then we do have an instance of sensus plenior. Raymond Brown[8] modi­fied his earlier definition of sensus plenior by affirming:

Let us apply the term sensus plenior to that meaning of his text which by normal rules of exegesis would not have been within his awareness or intention but which by other criteria we can determine as having been intended by God…. We insist that a vague consciousness of this richer meaning may or may not have been present, and that such vague consciousness has no integral place in the definition of the sensus plenior either as necessary or as inadmissible.

Surely Brown places this meaning on a different level and uses separate criteria from those exercised in “the normal rules of exegesis.” What could these separate criteria be? They turn out to be threefold: 1) the development of God’s further revelation, 2) the New Testament use of the Old Testament tests, and for Catholic exegesis 3) the tradition and magisterium of the Church and the church fathers’ use of Scripture. The only caveat intro­duced in the application of these three criteria is this: the fuller sense must not distort or contradict the obvious literal sense of the text; there must be a general resemblance be­tween the fuller and the obvious literal sense which can be checked by comparing this fuller sense with the general direction of Scripture as spelled out in its literal sense.

Now we have very little debate with those who like Professor Donald A. Hagner would go just this far:

To be aware of sensus plenior is to realize that there is the possibility of more significance to an Old Testament passage than was consciously apparent to the original author….”[9]

But when Hagner continues: “…and more than can be gained by strict grammatic or histori­cal exegesis,” we must demur. The mistake here becomes clearly stated when Vern Poythress argues on the analogy of the same words being used by two different speakers in separate speeches. He correctly concluded that the same words said by two human authors may yield two separate interpretations.[10] But he appears to stumble when he applies this analogy to Scripture and presses his argument into the mystery of the tri-unity of the Godhead. What the Son says, the Father also says by speaking through him as does the Holy Spirit, explains Poythress. He then applies this truth to the divine/human paradigm of Scripture:

In Christ’s being, there is no pure mathematical identity of divine persons or identity of two natures, but harmony. [This we agree with.] The result is that there is no pure mathematical identity in the interpretative product. That is, we cannot in a pure way analyze simply what the words mean as (for instance) proceeding from the human nature of Christ, and then say that precisely that, no more, no less, is the exhaustive interpretation of his words.[11]

What must we believe, then, about the success of divine revelation in Scripture? Are we not reduced on this view to adopting either: a) a mechanical view of inspiration in which the author is unwittingly used by God to say and record things which surpass any legitimate views of human instrumentality, or b) a new view of biblical authority which consistently attributes divine authorization for what can be garnered from the whole of Scripture, while the parts may only represent the viewpoint of the human author or, at least, a subspecies of divine authority’?

Such a differentiation between the levels of authority has already appeared in the evangeli­cal essay by Raju D. Kunjummen. Using the ideal of “intrinsic genre” found in E. D. Hirsch,[12] (“that sense of the whole by means of which an interpreter can correctly understand any part of its determinacy”), Kunjummen also appears to argue for more on the basis of this concept than he should. Indeed, we ourselves have also affirmed, “No meaning of a text is complete until the interpreter has heard the total single intention of the author.”[13]

But we cannot agree with Kunjummen, who is even bolder than Poythress. Said he:

The idea of confluence in authorial intention is not a biblical one, though it may be a Thomistic one. Coppens has stated that some object of sensus plenior because it is contrary to the Thomistic notion of the inspiration whereby Scripture and all its meanings are the result of the joint operation of God and His instrument….’ This it seems that some evangelicals [apparently this writer] begin with a construct of scholastic philosophy and then attempt to accommodate the phenomena of biblical revelation to it.[14]

This search for normativeness and authority which in some way is at least partially free and autonomous from the human author who stood in the council of God and originally received that revelation from God is illustrated in the Jesuit Scholar Norbert Lohfink. As we have recorded elsewhere,[15] Lohfink rested his case for biblical authority on what the bible as a whole taught. (Previously he had restricted it to what the final redactor of the text taught.[16] Thus for him, in addition to the original sense of the biblical statement there was something above, behind, and beyond what the individual contexts of the bible had to say.

But what could the whole or unity of Scripture teach which could not be found in its parts and individual authors? Lohfink, trapped by his own logic, fled to a “fuller sense” intended by God; yes, a sensus plenior. However, Bruce Vawter brilliantly slammed the door shut on sensus plenior:

If this fuller or deeper meaning was reserved by God to Himself and did not enter the writer’s purview at all, do we not postulate a Biblical word effected outside the control of the human author’s will and judgment… and therefore not produced through a truly human instrumentality?… does not the acceptance of a sensus plenior deprive this alleged scriptural sense of one of its essential elements, (and) to that extent… it cannot be called scriptural at all?[17]

Kunjummen opposes Vawter’s contention that “whatever has been produced apart from the will and judgment… of the human author… has not been brought about precisely through human instrumentality.”[18] Instead Kunjummen found that “Scriptural evidence seems to militate against an emphasis which inseparably links human will and judgment to prophetic instrumentality or the human authorship of Scripture.”[19] II Peter 1:21, in his view, spoke against the active function of the writer’s will in the production of the Scripture. Kunjummen focussed on the prophet’s pheromenoi, “being borne along” by the Holy Spirit, and therefore he stressed the passivity of the writer’s involvement.

This makes Peter’s point somewhat lopsided. He had said in II Peter 1:19-21:

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is [a matter] of one’s own loosing [my translation of epiluseos]. For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but Holy men of God spoke as they were moved [borne along] by the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s point is not that the prophets were passive or that their “more sure word of prophecy” was a case of their speaking better than they knew. As we have already argued elsewhere: Had Peter’s logic been, “Give heed to the light shining in a dark place because no prophet understood or could even explain what he had said [i.e. making epiluseos mean “explanation” or “interpretation” since that meaning does occur in Mark 4:34] but he wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit, then that “light” would have been darkness. How could any, including the prophet, then, have given heed to such an enigmatic word?… Had that communicating ability (of the prophets) not been the case, we would have been forced to ask for a second miracle—the inspiration of the interpreter.[20]

The substantive epilusis in its classical usage means a “freeing, loosing” and only second­arily did it come to mean “to explain, unfold, interpret,” as in Mark 4:34. Even if this secondary meaning were intended by Peter here, would not even the advocates who claim that the proph­ets were passive or that they at times “wrote better than they knew” hesitate to say this about all prophetic writings? However, that appears to be the scope of this Petrine word, for the Church is called upon to give heed to this “more sure word of prophecy” as a “light shining in a dark place.” The “light” offered to the modern readers of the prophecies that came in “old time” was possible because God had spoken by these “holy men of God.”

What Peter denies is that the product of Scripture may be attributed solely “to the will of man.” The initiative, the source, and content of what was revealed to the prophets be­longed distinctively to God. But to then argue with Kunjummen that “Human instrumentality in delivering the word of God is frequently depicted in such a way that it does not demand the full participation of the speaker’s will and judgement”[21] clearly exceeds the biblical data.

In fact, that nexus of the divine source and the human instrument is so close that Paul describes it in I Corinthians 2:6-16 as a sharing of “the deep things of God,”’ which “things were freely given to (the apostles and prophets) by God.” These “deep things of God” were so intimately united with the human authors that there was a veritable living assimilation of the truth ‘taught’ by the Holy Spirit (v. 13). Since Paul chose to use the word “taught” (didaktos), all mechanical or totally passive ideas of revelation are certainly excluded. Moreover, by “combining spiritual things with spiritual,” the apostle teaches us that his Spirit-revealed truths were also clothed in Spirit-taught language, thereby combining what was spiritual in substance with what was spiritual in verbal form.[22]

We conclude, therefore, that it is improper to erect a dual meaning or a multi-tiered level of “readings” to a prophetic text like Isaiah 7:14. We are, however, willing to grant that in addition to what is “in” a text, many texts will sustain “relations”[23] to earlier and, yes, even to later texts. However, recognition of the fact that the subject to which a text contributes is almost always larger than any particular contribution to that subject is not tantamount to saying that “things partially equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” This would be to turn exegesis into the systematic theology: a confusion all too frequently evident in many evangelical methodologies.



  1. Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 1-XXXIX, Cambridge Bible, Cam­bridge: Cambridge University, 1905, p.60.
  2. Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis, London: SCM, 1967, p. 120.
  3. H. H. Rowley, “Hezekiah’s Reform and Rebelion,” in Men of God: Studies in Old Testa­ment History and Prophecy, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1963, pp. 111-12.
  4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Single Intent of Scripture,” in Evangelical Roots: A Tribute to Wilbur Smith, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer, Nashvile: Nelson, 1978, p. 138.
  5. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.,“Legitimate Hermeneutics,” in Inerrancy,ed. Norman L. Geisler,Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, p. 118.
  6. Walter C. Kaiser. Jr., “A Response to ‘Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation’,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, p. 442 (italics my own).
  7. See our essay “A Response to ‘Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation’,” ibid., pp.441-447. Note also the seminal articles on this topic by C. F. DeVine, “The ConsequentSense,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 2 (1940): 145-55 and Rudolph Bierberg, “Does Sa‑cred Scripture Have A Sensus Plenior?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 10 (1948): 182-95.
  8. Biblical Quar­terly 25 (1963): 268-69.
  9. Donald A. Hagner, “The Old Testament in the New Testament,” in Interpreting the Word of God, ed. Samuel Schultz and Morris Inch, Chicago: Moody Press, 1976, p. 72 (Italics ours).
  10. Vern S. Poythress, “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 48 (1986): 255.
  11. Vern S. Poythress, Ibid., p. 263.
  12. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in interpretation, New Haven: Yale, 1967, pp. 61-2.
  13. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Legitimate Hermenuetics,” p. 127.
  14. Raju D. Kunjummen, “The Single Intent of Scripture—Critical Examination of a Theologi­cal Construct,” Grace Theological Journal 7 (1986): 100. The citation of Joseph Coppens is found in his essay, “The Different Senses of Sacred Scripture,” Theological Digest 1(1953) 18.
  15. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Towards an Exegetical Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, pp. 109-110.
  16. Norbert Lohfink, The Christian Meaning of the Old Testament, tr. R. A. Wilson, Milwau­kee: Bruce, 1968, pp. 32-49.
  17. Bruce Vawter, Biblical Inspiration, Theological Resources, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972, p. 115. Also see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Fallacy of Equating Meaning with the Reader’s Understanding,” Trinity Journal 6 (1977): 190-93.
  18. Bruce Vawter, “The Fuller Sense: Some Considerations,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26 (1964): 93.
  19. Raju D. Kunjummen, “The Single Intent,” p. 99.
  20. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New, Chicago: Moody, 1985, pp. 75-6.
  21. Raju Kunjummen, “The Single Intent,” p. 99 (italics ours).
  22. See our extended discussion of this extremely important teaching passage on this doctrine: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “A Neglected Text in Bibliology Discussions: I Corinthians 2:6-16.” Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1981): 301-19: especially pp. 315-18.
  23. A point accurately made by Vern Poythress, “Divine Meaning,” pp. 273-76. Beautifully he declares, “Hence, scholars are correct in taking care to distinguish what comes from the psalm itself and what comes from the psalm seen in the light of the whole Bible.” I would just delete the second “comes from the psalm.” But Vern goes on to spoil this division of labor by affirming, “God does say more, now, through (Psalm 22) than he said to the OT readers. The ‘more’ arises from the stage of fuller revelation, and consequent fuller illumination of the Holy Spirit, in which we live” (p. 275). Apparently we believers have a revelation of interpretation parallel to the revelation of the words which the au­thors received.


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