Language for All Seasons of the Soul
By Andrew J. Schmutzer, David M. Howard Jr.
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2013 Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard Jr.
All rights reserved.
Biblical Theology of the Psalms Today
A Personal Perspective
BY BRUCE K. WALTKE
The Consultation's steering committee has asked me to focus on the biblical theology of the Psalms, specifically consisting of three parts: "my story" with the Psalms, what I have especially learned about the Psalms, and my reflections on the future of Psalms studies. This paper has essentially these three parts, though the first receives the lion's share, and the last two are treated much more briefly.
MY STORY WITH THE PSALMS
The First Step: Teaching Exegesis
My story with the Psalms can be analyzed in nine metaphorical steps. I took my first step in 1963 when, upon my return from Harvard University to Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), I began to teach second-year Hebrew students the science and art of exegesis. As is well known, exegesis consists of multiple spiral-like processes, beginning with the parts of a text entailed in the grammatico-historical method and ending with a reflection on the text's whole message, refined with each rereading of the text.
In short, a text's message depends on the parts (e.g., historical context, philology, figures of speech, prosody) and the message provides the literary context in which to interpret the parts. To develop exegetical skill the student must repeat that spiral exercise several times. Problematically, the extended nature of most of the Old Testament literature does not allow a second-year student, who has limited reading skills, to see the parts of a text in light of the whole. The psalms, however, are short, restricted texts, allowing the student to rework the text in light of the whole, and so they are ideal specimens for teaching the principles of exegesis.
The Second Step: A Plenary Lectureship
I took my second step in 1967. Knowing of my exegetical work in second-year Hebrew, the seminary administration asked me to teach the book of Psalms to the entire DTS family. Dallas Seminary annually devoted four plenary two-week sessions for the exposition of important biblical books. They did this so that students would "catch" the art of expository preaching. Usually DTS asked a well-known, popular Bible expositor to teach a book, but in the spring of 1967 the administration made an exception and asked me to give the plenary lectureship on the book of Psalms. In preparation for the lectureship I researched the relatively recent history of Psalms studies. From that research I analyzed the commentaries on the Psalms into five approaches:
1. The traditional-historical approach, which accepted the veracity of the superscription and is best represented by Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890).
2. The literary-analytical approach, which dated the Psalms to the second-temple period and is well represented in the International Critical Commentary by C. A. Briggs (1841–1913).
3. The form-critical approach, which, having rejected the credability of the superscripts, sought to reconstruct a psalm's Sitz im Leben by its genres (Gattungen), and is best represented by Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), the originator of this approach.
4. The cult-functional approach, which, while employing form-criticism, sought to interpret the Psalms in light of the first-temple cultus, and is represented most notably by its founder, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1965).
5. The eschatological-Messianic approach, which interpreted the Psalms in light of Christ's first and second advents, and is best represented by Christ and his apostles.
As for the historical approach, philology, ancient translations, and ancient Near Eastern hymns support the notion that the superscripts are historically reliable. As for the form-critical approach, I nearly fell off my chair when, in connection with my researching for another project, I read 1 Chronicles 16:4. There the chronicler distinguishes what I had already judged as legitimate forms three of the five forms of psalms that had been identified by Gunkel: petition/lament, confession of answered petition, and praise of God as Creator of the cosmos and Redeemer of Israel. Of the many commentators since Gunkel using the form-critical approach, I found Claus Westermann's Praise and Lament in the Psalms most helpful. As for the cult-functional approach, the references within the Psalter to sacred personnel—especially the king—sacred sites, sacred seasons, and sacred institutions validated Mowinckel's correction of Gunkel's approach, albeit not his theory of an Enthronement Festival as part of Israel's cultus. As for the eschatological-messianic approach, the New Testament use of the Psalms validates this approach.
The Third and Fourth Steps in My Interpretation
In 1980 I advanced two steps in my interpretation of the Psalter. The third step came about through Brevard Childs' canonical approach, as argued in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. My understanding of this approach was enriched in my writing the article on the canonical process approach for the Feinberg Festschrift (1980). In this article I argued that as the canon developed, the incipient Messianic Psalms were reinterpreted more precisely with reference of the Messiah.
James Kugel's work The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History pushed me to my fourth step. Unfortunately I read Kugel's landmark work while on an airplane, traveling to deliver a lecture on Hebrew poetry. When I stepped off the plane, I realized that my prepared lecture, which was founded on Lowth's analysis of Hebrew poetry, was wrongheaded and passé. When I later stepped behind the lectern, I jettisoned my prepared notes and précised Kugel's work.
The Fifth Step: Reading Alter's Biblical Poetry
The fifth step occurred as a result of reading The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter. His study prompted me to add the rhetorical approach to my exegetical toolbox, which now included a whole new vocabulary, including "inclusio," "janus," and "chiasm."
The Sixth Step: Understanding Anthologies like Psalms, Proverbs
The sixth involved two doctoral dissertations: the Yale doctoral dissertation by the late Gerald Henry Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, and the University of St. Michael's College doctoral dissertation by Raymond Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25–27. These two dissertations convinced me that anthologies, such as the book of Psalms and the book of Proverbs, are intentionally arranged to give semantic depth to the individual psalm or proverb. According to this thesis, editors collected and consciously arranged songs or wisdom sayings to give them semantic depth. The notes by the late John Stek in the NIV Study Bible are at the cutting edge of this approach to the book of Psalms.
Wilson argued, convincingly to me, that the editors of the Psalter succeeded in achieving a sequential "theological intentionality" in the Psalter's current shape. According to this thesis, there is a historical movement reflected in the arrangement of the Psalter. For example, Books IV and V are a response to Psalm 89, a psalm that complains that the Davidic covenant failed, redirecting among things Israel's reliance on an earthly monarchy to the appreciation of I AM's eternal kingship, the message, for example, for Psalm 90.
The Seventh Step: Comparative Studies at Westminster
The seventh step was taken in connection with teaching a doctoral-level course on the Psalms at Westminster Theological Seminary (1989). My own comparative studies of the Psalms with ancient Near Eastern hymns convinced me that Thirtle (1904) rightly divided the so-called superscripts into both superscripts and subscripts. Thirtle based his argument on Habakkuk 3, a psalm in isolation. Here the editorial superscript at the beginning of Habakkuk 3, "a psalm of Habakkuk," pertains to genre and authorship, and the subscript at the end of chapter 3, "for the director of music," pertains to musical directions. I observed the same division of superscripts and of subscripts in ancient Near Eastern texts from Mesopotamia to Egypt. In the book of Psalms, however, there are no subscripts. Rather the editorial musical notations, "for the director of music," often with other musical notations, always precede the editorial notations about genre and authorship.
This internal evidence from the Psalter, the external evidence of Habakkuk 3, and the extrabiblical data from the ancient Near East persuaded me that there was a massive, early textual error of the book of Psalms, namely, that in fifty-five psalms having the notice "to the musical director," the prose subscript of a preceding psalm became confounded with prose superscript of the following psalm. In an article entitled, "Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both" (1991), I argued the case that the superscripts pertained to a psalm's composition and its subscript to its performance. An anonymous external referee of that critical journal scrawled on the article, "Excellent," and no scholar since then, to my knowledge, has refuted it. Disappointingly, however, scholars since 1991 have mostly ignored it. Perhaps this is so both because of my reputation as an evangelical conservative who tends to accept the biblical claims of its own authorship until proven otherwise, and the article's strong inference that the superscripts are an integral part of a psalm and historically creditable.
The Eighth Step: Teaching Hermeneutics
I took my eighth step forward when in 1991, upon my return from Westminster Theological Seminary to Regent College, the college assigned me to teach hermeneutics, the only required course in the college. Until then I had not forged a reasonable link between spiritual discernment and scientific exegesis, though I knew experientially that both were necessary. I vividly recall, upon my return from Harvard to the Dallas classroom, a student asking me their linkage, and my inability to give a cogent answer. About thirty years later the Regent course on hermeneutics compelled me to forge a reasonable link between the role of the Holy Spirit's illumination and of the scientific method.
I found the linkage through reflecting upon Paul's succinct statement regarding the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture: "all Scripture is inspired of God" (2 Tim. 3:16, author translation). Let me explain the linkage that works for me.
Every object has a logic to its composition, and so to understand an object one must first discern that logic. For example, to study the stars, one must first perceive their distance from earth and in that realization craft a telescope to see them better. By contrast, to understand a microorganism, one must first perceive its smallness to realize the necessity of crafting a microscope to study the organism. Likewise to understand the Bible we must first understand its logic to craft a reasonable method for its study.
The subject, predicate, and modifier phrase of 2 Tim. 3:16, "all Scripture is inspired of God," provides an insight into the Bible's logic: (1) "of God," a genitive of authorship, identifies God as a text's Author; (2) "inspired" implies a human author; and (3) "all Scripture" denotes a text. Each of these three demands that the exegete craft the proper instrument (i.e., method) for understanding a biblical text, albeit they must be used together because the three components are combined in a unified text. The first two factors pertain to personal authors and so demand a spiritual commitment on the part of the interpreter, and the third demands approaching the text with the detached objectivity of a scientist. To understand the divine Author the interpreter needs the spiritual illumination of the Holy Spirit, an illumination contingent on the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love.
J. A. Ernesti, the product of the so-called scientific Enlightenment, pitted the scientific method against this spiritual method. He denied the proposition "that the Scriptures cannot be properly explained without prayer, and a pious simplicity of mind." By contrast, Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana demarcates clearly that the principles of theological inquiry and the claims for truth are distinctive, when they are "Christian." Augustine contrasts Christian scholarship with classical scholarship in important ways, even when classical procedures for rhetoric are still imitated, and then modified. This quote by Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 320–367/8) illustrates vividly how the early fathers understood the necessity of a devotional approach to the Psalter, as indeed all Scripture: "God can only be known by devotion," he wrote. Elsewhere Hilary says that God requires "warmth of faith." According to this church father, the knowledge of I AM begins with the receptivity of the eternally precedent Being, God. Thus, "only in receiving can we know."
As for the human author, the author's personal dimension demands an appropriate psychology for understanding him. Superior intellectual talent and superb education, though not to be despised, cannot render one fit to interpret the Scripture. To understand an author, a reader must encounter the author with sympathy, not merely empathy.
As for the text, the interpreter must exercise the grammatico-grammatical method of interpretation. That scientific method demands various kinds of criticisms: historical criticism (in the derived [i.e., bastardized] sense of understanding a text's historical context), literary criticism, form criticism, rhetorical criticism, and so forth. These tools were unknown throughout most of the church's history, but Providence has given them to the contemporary exegete, and he or she has a responsibility to honor that Providence and not to ignore the tools God has given us.
Taking these three factors into consideration enabled me to see the connection between spiritual illumination and scientific exegesis and to modify intellectually my mostly lip service to spiritual interpretation in contrast to my de facto commitment to scientific exegesis.
The Ninth Step: Writing a Psalms Commentary
After taking these eight steps I now felt ready to take my ninth step and actually write commentary on the Psalms. The material appears in The Psalms as Christian Worship and in Psalms as Christian Lament by James M. Houston and Bruce K. Waltke. Professor Houston is the founder of Regent Collegeand formerly an Oxford lecturer on the history of geography and a recognized specialist in the history of ideas. I originally intended to write a commentary on selected psalms, but Professor Houston persuaded me that I should include for each one a history of the psalm's interpretation. I recognized the legitimacy of his concern and also my limitations in that connection. So I suggested we co-author the work with my hearing the voice of the psalmist and his hearing the voice of the church in response.
Our interaction profited me immensely. For the first time I listened to the voice of the church from apostles to the present and that voice enabled me to hear more clearly the prophetic voice of the psalmist in his hope for Messiah. Now I met firsthand such great churchmen as Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, the remarkable Herbert of Horsham (1120–1194), and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).
These pre-Reformation commentators, who center on Christ with piety and passion, are in fact more biblical than academics who dispassionately and scientifically explain the text both without considering its canonical context and without passion and devotion to Christ. The Christ-centered piety and devotion of these commentators before the recovery of the plain sense by the Reformers should be treasured, not trashed. Although some of their interpretations appear to moderns as ridiculous and silly, for the most part they stayed within the parameters of orthodoxy—that is to say, within the parameters of the apostolic traditions as they found later expression in the creeds of the early church, especially the Nicene Creed. (Continues...)
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