Psalmtweets: Psalms 61-70

This post continues the summary of recent psalmtweets. These psalmtweets are part of a set attempting to say something simultaneously about a specific psalm and the whole Psalter. This is working out with varying degrees of success.

Psalm 61:
The picture of eternal life in the Psalms is one of dwelling with Yahweh and worshiping Him.

Psalm 62:
The Psalms teach us that our frailty and our dependence on God are both quite normal.

Psalm 63:
We would do well to cultivate an imagination of faith which perceives God in his sanctuary.

Psalm 64:
Like the Psalter this is a journey from a place of threat and trembling to a new place of refuge and rejoicing.

Psalm 65:
Creation is full of immense bounty. Thank Yahweh.

Psalm 66:
Creation and Redemption celebrated together.

Psalm 67:
Like Jacob we can ask for Yahweh’s blessing.
Shine Yahweh shine!

Psalm 68:
As Christians we read the Psalms with new glasses;
Re-reading with 20/20 vision in Christ.

Psalm 69:
In the Psalms there are verses that yield fitting words for the nation of Israel in judgement and/or for Jesus Christ in ministry.

Psalm 70:
The Psalms instruct my prayer for those who delight in my harm.
Come Yahweh. Hasten Lord Jesus.

 

The Unexpected Voice of God?

Sometimes strange things happen and we are left wondering if God is speaking to us in the most peculiar of ways. Something like this happened to me this morning. I was walking to work, a 35-40 minute stroll through parts of North Guildford. This is something I have taken to doing for just over a year now. I fill the time with a mixture of prayer, thinking through general issues in life and reviewing what the day ahead holds. This morning I was praying about three specific things, these were:

  1. Some challenges in my job. In particular a number of things that are important to me where I keep encountering a roadblock, usually other people slowing down something that I am trying to achieve.
  2. A book I am writing on the Psalms that has come together clearly in my mind, but I am frustrated with the difficulty I am having with my style of writing and the challenge of pitching it consistently for a specific readership.
  3. Thinking about how God speaks through the ordinary in a sacramental fashion – something that I am trying to work through theologically (Yes it is a little odd I know). This connects with 2.

I was praying about all three issues with the same basic question: Should I carry on tackling the roadblocks at work? Should I persist with something I want to do, where I feel inadequate for the task? How do I open my eyes to God speaking through the ordinary?

All three of these things received an answer in the most peculiar of ways. Having prayed and thought about these things for around 20 minutes, I realised I was walking faster than the person on the path ahead. I was unsure whether they had earphones (a common problem these days) and they were squarely in the middle of path such that I could not get past easily. As the path ahead went under a railway bridge, I could see that the wider path was perfect for passing by. As I overtook the woman, without turning her head she uttered the words: “Yeah, you carry right on” in a highly aggressive, almost threatening tone, that implied I had no option but to comply. The command, as I took it to be, was articulated with such menace, angst and anger that I had a sudden insight into the pain and bad experiences that had led to this response to a passing stranger.

Three strides later, I saw that the words uttered by this person, if taken as an answer in a very different tone, had the most peculiar resonance with my 20 minutes of questions. The voice of faith tells me to run with this answer, the muttering of reason tells me I have an overactive imagination. Whichever voice wins the debate, I can testify to the fact that today I have had three dramatic encouragements regarding prayer 1 (above) and an email that has promised direct help from an expert with prayer 2. Perhaps all this together, answer prayer 3?

Musing About ‘The Road Goes Ever On’

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents a song, The Road Goes Ever On, which is said to have been written by Bilbo Baggins. It occurs once in The Hobbit and three times in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an active churchgoing Roman Catholic and I suspect that there is something of the journey of faith lying behind this song. I have known the song since I was around eleven years old, firstly from reading Tolkien’s work and shortly after from hearing the song in the BBC’s 1981 adaption of The Lord of Rings. From that time onwards, I have found the words to be haunting and almost indefinably poignant; they seem to hint at something transcendent, mysterious and rather important. This is despite the simplicity of their literal claims. There is of course a very serious possibility that I am reading my own perspective into them. I have found this song helpful in reflecting on the Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Here is the first version of the The Road Goes Ever On, from The Lord of the Rings. It is sung by Bilbo as he leaves the Shire, right at the outset of the book. He is in an emotional state of new orientation, motivated by the potential for adventure:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

You, as reader, must make an initial judgement about how poignant, sentimental, or otherwise, you find this song. Interestingly the second time this song appears, this time uttered by Frodo who is setting out to dispose of the ring of power, one word is changed. Frodo’s reluctance, and I suspect disorientation, means he substitutes ‘eager feet’ for ‘weary feet’.

The third rendition of the song is spoken once again by Bilbo, as he is about to leave Middle-Earth. This final version has eschatological overtones as Bilbo anticipates the end of his days:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

The eschatological dynamic is made more concrete by the fact that Bilbo is joining the last of the elves to travel across the sea to Tol Eressëa. For Tolkien the lonely isle was ripe with heavenly blissful overtones. We have already encountered the idea that the Psalms essentially are companions on a journey, what we have termed the life of faith. Those familiar with the Psalms and/or this blog will know that the Psalter is a journey; it has a structure that tells a story. This connection, perhaps somewhat tenuous, is a reminder that the Psalms are themselves poetry and other poetry can help us imbibe them; they are meant to be nourishing.

To conclude here is my adaption of The Road Goes Ever On:

The Psalter cycles on and on
From the Hebrew Scriptures where it began.
The Life of Faith ahead extends,
And I must follow as best I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
I journey with my God, Yahweh.
Many challenges and trials I will meet,
But I am accompanied along the Way.

Psalms for People under Pressure

Jonathan Aitken, Psalms for People under Pressure, London: Continuum (2004).

This book is difficult to classify. In part this is because of the fame of the author. It is part commentary, part introduction to praying the psalms and part biographical. Many readers, i.e. those who know something of Jonathan Aitken’s ‘fall from grace’, will read it with biographical interest. Of course this volume is not a biography, but the biographical elements are interesting. No doubt Jonathan Aitken had some difficult choices as to how to handle these aspects of the book. In my view he has made good judgement, in that there is enough biographical reflection to answer the curiosity of some readers. The biographical elements are, however, never distracting, but rather they are helpful in illustrating the relevance of what Aitken refers to as psalms for people under pressure.

It is for this latter reason that the book is I think helpful. Like a number of popular books over the last decade, or so, this book raises the profile of the large number of psalms that are concerned with the difficulties of life. That Aitken has this objective is clear from the book’s title, but unlike many who write about the Psalms, Aitken has clearly had to deal with immense personal challenges. Does the book succeed as a commentary on the selected psalms? Does it function helpfully as a facilitator to prayer?

Each of the twenty seven, or so, psalms covered are presented in the NIV. The text of each psalm is followed by sections titled: reflection, additional notes and personal comment. Each is finally followed by a short prayer. The first of these sections is what we might term a devotional commentary and the second gives concise background commentary. I found the reflections to be helpful in showing how the ancient text can ‘work’ today. In most cases I found that the additional notes to be ill-placed. In my view, the notes might have functioned better as a prelude to the more applied reflections. Of course anyone reading can choose to do this, or perhaps omit the additional notes. The personal comments are interesting; not only in the obvious biographical sense, but also in showing how readily Aitken’s experiences as a new convert resonate with the reader’s experience. This can encourage the reader in seeing the Bible’s potential for transformation. The short prayers, whether prayed or simply read, are a helpful reminder that the Psalms are meant to inspire us to pray rather than to ‘do theology’.

In summary, this book is ideal for someone who has an interest in Jonathan Aitken or wants some encouragement and direction in how to pray the Psalms. The reader who has an interest in both will find that there is a helpful synergy between these two concerns.

 

Psalmtweets: Psalms 51-60

This is a continuation of my latest series of psalmtweets which is an attempt to see how each psalm contributes to the whole. This is part of a broader experiment in using psalmtweets as a daily spiritual discipline.

Psalm 51:
The Psalms speak of the need for a broken spirit and a willing spirit, all enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 52:
Sticking to the Way ensures we flourish like a healthy sapling.
The detours threaten our very roots.

Psalm 53:
The Psalter presents a sobering picture of humanity’s inability to pursue justice, truth, community and well-being.

Psalm 54:
The Psalms show a single-minded confidence in Yahweh;
a God who has acted, is acting and will act.

Psalm 55:
There is nothing new about discord among God’s people.
Though flight is tempting, we instead need to run to Yahweh.

Psalm 56:
Trust defines the life of faith.
Dependence on Yahweh is key on the path.

Psalm 57:
The eyes of faith perceive a God of loving-kindness amidst the pain of the journey.

Psalm 58:
The Psalms help us pray against false Gods, whether ancient near-eastern deities or the trappings of Western culture.

Psalm 59:
The Psalms have an organic relationship with the Law, the Prophets and the other Writings.

Psalm 60:
The journey of communities of faith is oft times touched by pain and trial.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 8

The Necessity of Diversity within the Canon
Perhaps the strongest argument against the legitimacy of some inner canons used in a strong normative sense is that this does violence to a key aspect of the Bible. Though it is a truism of much modern biblical scholarship that dogmatic theology has no place in setting its agenda, some who challenge this creatively see a necessary diversity within the Bible, for example:

  1. Brueggemann argues that some parts of the Old Testament, particularly elements of the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, provide a countertestimony to the core testimony found within the bulk of the Old Testament narrative.[1] This is a constructive analysis of otherwise contradictory voices in the Old Testament.
  2. Wall urges a mutual criticism of texts rather than a bland mediated position between competing voices.[2]
  3. Watson identifies what he terms ‘conflict of interpretation’ in Paul and this is fruitful.[3]

Such approaches recognise implicitly the danger of capitulating to an inner canon and are a recognition of the text on its own terms. This prevents illegitimate skewing of texts or the marginalisation of uncomfortable texts contra Luther’s analogia scripturae.

Conclusions
Our exploration of the notion of a canon-within-the-canon has highlighted that the notion is not a singular one, but rather a family of notions. The diversity of both form and function implied by different scholars makes the term ultimately unfruitful. The value in the idea of an inner canon is how it points to a yet more fundamental issue, that of the presuppositions of the interpreter. Despite the long standing recognition of the role of presuppositions many controversial issues need to be considered and special attention paid to presuppositions. In such debates the use of the term inner canon is all too often just an unhelpfully veiled denial of another’s presuppositions.

Throughout this essay the author’s presupposition of the necessity of faith in interpretation will have been obvious. Such a stance is, I would suggest, a vital one and yet prone to misuse. For, as an ‘unthinking’ presupposition it can simply lead to a Biblicism which does violence to the Bible. Abraham judges that the Church has, for fifteen centuries, been in a downward spiral in seeing the Bible as epistemic norm rather than as a means of grace.[4] He arguably goes too far in counteracting a correctly diagnosed problem, but his message is a useful reminder that the canon is not just about acting as a rule. When we are open to the canon as both rule and means of grace then we are open to the diversity of its message. We need to have a hermeneutic of trust in recognising the canon as Holy Scripture and a hermeneutic of suspicion to all theologies that systematise its voice, especially those that employ an inner canon that is dictated by our own agendas.

Dunn’s identification of Jesus Christ as a canon-through-the canon seems to offer a fruitful theological insight.[5] The gracious gift of Christ from the Father implies a necessarily implicit trust in Scripture. At the same time there remains a suspicion that we cannot master the self-revelation of God himself. Might it not be the case that a presupposition of faith be the way to ensure that the Bible is not left broken by the interpretative process?

[1] See Brueggemann, Old Testament, pp.317-332.
[2] Wall, Scripture, p.539.
[3] Watson, Paul, pp.24-29.
[4] Abraham, Canon, p.1.
[5] Dunn, Canon, p.572.

Full Bibliography
Abraham, William J., Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Barr, James, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Barr, James, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament perspective, London: SCM press, 1999.
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translator: G. W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975 [original 1932].
Barth Karl, Church Dogmatics, I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, editors: G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translators: G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970 [original 1939].
Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.
Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Bultmann, Rudolph, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, pp.289-315 in Existence and Faith: Shorter writings of Rudolph Bultmann, translator: S. M. Ogden, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960.
Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
Childs, Brevard S., Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, London: SCM Press, 1979.

Childs, Brevard S., The New Testament as Canon: An introduction, London: SCM Press, 1984.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological reflection on the Christian Bible, London: SCM Press, 1992.
Childs, Brevard S., Biblical Theology: A proposal, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Dunn, James D. G., Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An inquiry into the character of earliest Christianity, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1990.
Dunn, James D. G., ‘Has the Canon a Continuing Function’, pp.558-579 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Funk, Robert W., ‘The Once and Future New Testament’, pp.541-557 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London: Continuum, 2004.
Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Jeremias, Joachim, New Testament Theology, London: SCM Press, 1971.
Koyama, Kosuke, Water Buffalo Theology, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999 [original 1974].
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [first edition 1962].
Metzger, Bruce M., The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Ng, Esther Yue L., Reconstructing Christian Origins? The Feminist Theology of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: An evaluation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.
Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A comparison of patterns of religion, London: SCM Press, 1977.
Schüssler Fiorenzia, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her: Feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins, second edition, London: SCM Press, 1996 [original first edition 1984].
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., The Drama of Doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wall, Robert W., ‘The Significance of a Canonical Perspective of the Church’s Scripture’, pp.528-540 in Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (editors), The Canon Debate, Peabody, Hendrickson: 2002.
Watson, Francis, Text, Church and World: Biblical interpretation in theological perspective, London: T&T Clark, 1994.
Watson, Francis, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Wright, D. F., ‘Creed, Confessional Forms’, pp.255-260 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (editors), Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK, 1992.
Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God, London: SPCK, 1996.
Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh perspectives, London: SPCK, 2005.

Exploring the Role of a Canon-Within-the-Canon in Biblical Interpretation, part 7

The Inevitability of Presuppositions
From the outset of these posts, it has been noted that the terms canon-within-the-canon and inner canon carry a large variety of meanings. Because of the high probability of misunderstanding in the short hand use of these terms it is suggested that neither is a very useful term. Rather more helpfully, all the multiplicity of issues can be sensibly subsumed into the bigger question of presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Whilst the idea of presuppositions is an even bigger issue than that of an inner canon, it is suggested that this plurality of meaning is more generally recognised by those who use this term.

There is an additional reason for being cautious about the concept of an inner canon. Some use the term in a much more serious sense than others, to the point where the canon is itself being questioned. If the term inner canon has a continued function it should perhaps be reserved for those who wish to organise a theological framework by giving knowing priority to a book, text or principle. Even this usage might well be questioned simply on semantic grounds as the very notion of an inner canon questions the very essence of what is meant by the canon.[1] More useful, because it is both semantically coherent and illustrative of a real interpretative choice, is the term a stepped canon which Barr uses in the light of the role of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament.[2]

In an earlier post, we argued that historical criticism can give rise to the operation of an inner canon. At a more fundamental level however modern criticism itself becomes a canon against which the Bible itself is measured.[3] This brings us to Bultmann’s question: Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible? Vanhoozer points out that the wide contemporary consensus, which follows Bultmann’s negative answer, is about the only point of current agreement in modern hermeneutics.[4] Of course such an insight was hardly novel, for example, Barth cites Ritschl as formulating such a view.[5]

The Positive use of PresuppositionsPresuppositions tend to lead to an identification of a particular form or identity of text which meets the requirements of the set agenda. So, for example:

  1. The use of Romans and justification by faith to counter a church context in which grace had been cheapened by a works righteousness which justified indulgences.
  2. The adoption by some Feminist interpreters of an inner canon of texts like Ruth or Galatians 3:28.
  3. The selection of texts in which Jesus’ ethical teaching is prevalent as an inner canon in the heyday of the Enlightenment’s impact on the academy.

It is suggested that honesty and awareness of presuppositions does not exclude the use of what might be termed an inner canon but rather makes this an open decision. Additionally, it makes possible a more thoughtful decision as to the nature and function of an inner canon. For, if inner canons are inevitable then their value, or otherwise, needs to account for both their form/identity and function.

In what sense can we hope to be informed, let alone transformed by a text, if it is such a subjective process? In the last twenty years or so a methodology known as critical realism has emerged which, it is suggested, provides a sensible way forward. Critical realism represents a middle ground between what might be termed naïve or positivistic readings on the one hand and sceptical and suspicious readings on the other.

Critical realism is honest about the fact that the interpreter has presuppositions and that these are an inevitable part of the starting point of any interpretive process. The idea is that the interpretive process does enable challenges to be made to presuppositions by the interpretive processes’ engagement with the text. Such a dynamic allows, for not only the information dynamic of the interpretive process, but a transformative role as well. This fits well with the testimony of Church History to the Bible’s transforming as well as informing role within the Church.  Such a dynamic prevents an unhelpful focus on the Bible’s epistemic value at the expense of its gift as a means of grace.  The next post will complete our look at this topic.

[1] Barr, Holy Scripture, pp.72-73 makes just this point.
[2] Barr, Holy Scripture, p.72.
[3] So Brueggemann, Old Testament, p.17 who sees Barth’s “epistemological manoeuvre” as arising from this concern.
[4] Vanhoozer, Doctrine, p.157.
[5] Barth, CD I.2 p.727.