On the speech of Christ in the Psalms


Tomorrow morning I am giving a lecture to some undergraduate students at Baylor University; the lecture's title is "Unlike Any Other Book: Theological Reflections on the Bible and its Faithful Interpretation." The lecture draws from four different writings: a dissertation chapter, a review essay for Marginalia, an article for Pro Ecclesia, and an article for International Journal of Systematic Theology.

As every writer knows, reading your own work can be painful. There's always more you can do to make it better. But sometimes you're happy with what you wrote. And I think the following quotation from the IJST piece, especially the final paragraph, is one of my pieces of writing I'm happiest about. It both makes a substantive point clearly and effectively, and does so with appropriate rhetorical force. Not many of you, surely, have read the original article; so here's a sample taste:

"[S]ince the triune God is the ecumenical confession of the church, it is entirely logical and defensible to read, say, the Psalms as the speech of Christ, or the Trinity as the creator in Genesis 1, or the ruach elohim as the very Holy Spirit breathed by the Father through the Son. Perhaps some Christian biblical scholars will respond that they do not protest the ostensible anachronism of such claims, but nonetheless hesitate at encouraging it out of concern for the humanity of these texts, that is, their human and historical specificity. In my judgment, this is a well-meant but misguided concern...

"[T]he motivations behind the concern for the humanity of Scripture are often themselves theological, but these are frequently underdeveloped. A chief example is the ubiquity in biblical scholarship of a kind of reflexive philosophical incompatibilism regarding human and divine agency, rarely articulated and never argued, such that if humans do something, then God does not, and vice versa. More specifically, on this view if Christ is the speaker of the Psalms, then the human voice of the Psalter is crowded out: apparently there’s only so much elbow room at Scripture’s authorial table. And thus, if it is shown—and who ever doubted it?—that the Psalms are products of their time and place and culture, then to read them christologically is to do violence to the text. At most, for some Christian scholars, to do so is, at times, allowable, especially if there is warrant from the New Testament; but it is still a hermeneutical device, in a manner superadded or overlaid onto a more determinate, definitive, historically rooted original.

"But the historic Christian understanding of Christ in the Psalms is much stronger than this qualified allowance, and the principal prejudice scholars must rid themselves of here is that, at bottom, ‘the real is the social-historical.’ On the contrary, the spiritual is no less real than the material, and the reality of God is so incomparably greater than either that it is their very condition of being. All of which bears two consequences for the Psalms. First, God’s speech in the Psalms in the person of the Son is not in competition with the manifold human voices of Israel that composed and sung and wrote and edited the Psalter. God is not an item in the metaphysical furniture of the universe; one and the same act may be freely willed and performed by God and by a human creature. This is very hard to grasp consistently, and it is not the only Christian view of human and divine action on offer. Nonetheless it is crucial for making sense of both the particulars and the whole of what Scripture is and how it works.

"Second and finally, to read the Psalms as at once the voice of Israel and the voice of Israel’s Messiah is therefore not to gloss an otherwise intact original with a spiritual meaning. Rather, it is to recognize, following Jason Byassee’s description of Augustine’s exegetical practice, the ‘christological plain sense.’ This accords with what is the case, namely, that ontologically equiprimordial with the human compositional history of the texts is the speech of the eternal divine Son anticipating and figuring, in advance, his own incarnate life and work in and as Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus uses the Psalmists’ words in the Gospels, he is not appropriating something alien to himself for purposes distinct from their original sense; he is fulfilling, in his person and speech, what was and is his very own, now no longer shrouded in mystery but revealed for what they always were and pointed to. The figure of Israel sketched and excerpted in the Psalms, so faithful and true amid such trouble from God and scorn from enemies, is flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and not only retrospectively but, by God’s gracious foreknowledge, prospectively as well. It turns out that it was Christ all along."

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