Walter Brueggemann’s essay Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function  initiated nothing less than a new paradigm of psalms interpretation. It has much to commend it. In particular it has been adopted by others because of its strength in bridging the often wide gap between scholarship on the Psalms and their contemporary devotional and liturgical use. What Brueggemann aims to do from the outset is to ask questions about the function of the Psalms. He considers the parallels between their original context in ancient Israel and in faith communities today. Much scholarship from the last century has focused largely on questions of literary form and ancient setting. Brueggemann sees no a priori antagonism between his method and the form-critical and cult-critical approaches, like those of Gunkel and Mowinckel. Rather, he suggests that there is ‘a convergence of a contemporary pastoral agenda with a more historical exegetic interest [original emphasis].’  His guiding assumption is a positivistic hermeneutical one; that anthropologically the differences between humanity, across the ages, are narrowed by the extremes of joy and despair.
Whilst others have gone on to use his approach at a subjective, perhaps almost pre-critical level, e.g. , Brueggemann attempts to substantiate his convergence of contemporary and ancient function with reference to the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur argues for ‘the dynamic of life as a movement, dialectic but not regular or patterned, of disorientation and reorientation.’ Brueggemann argues that key form-critical categories of psalms seem to match contexts of disorientation and reorientation. In the case of disorientation most notably we have the categories of personal and communal laments. For reorientation we have songs of thanksgiving and those hymns classified by Westermann as declarative hymns. Brueggemann posits orientation as the place to and from which the dialectic movement of life shifts. Here the hymns, which are termed by Westermann as descriptive praise, are placed in this scheme. Other categories of psalms also fit under these three headings, for example, Brueggemann draws attention to Psalm 1 as a psalm of orientation. This aspect of Psalm 1 is something which will hopefully be explored in a later post.
Brueggemann’s typology of function proposal is undoubtedly highly attractive in that it offers a serious attempt at closing the gap between scholarly consideration of the Psalms that has centred on form-critical approaches which have a tendency to focus so strongly on the ancient form and Sitz im Leben (situation in life) so as to create a gulf with much historical and contemporary liturgical, pastoral and devotional use of the Psalter. It is also broadly convincing in its analysis of the two poles of disorientation and reorientation (what Ricoeur refers to as “expressions of limit”) in terms of texts which offer a means to respectively a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of recovery.
At one level Brueggemann’s approach legitimises what has been the practice of people of faith since the formation of the Psalter. Having a scholarly approach, that can bridge ancient and modern horizons is a vital complement to some academic approaches which offer no way forward from ancient text to life giving Scripture. This is not to suggest that approaches, such as form-critical approaches are illegitimate, but rather a recognition of what is an obvious limitation to appropriation if the Psalms for the life of faith today. Brueggemann is to be commended for addressing this problem.
Other approaches have challenged the domination of form-critical approaches which had prevailed into less than 30 years ago. In particular recent scholarship has drawn attention to the purposeful editing of the Psalter. When such editing is taken seriously this has implications for how the Psalms are read. The Psalter functions as a whole. Such a view not only complements form-critical approaches and their fragmentation of the book of Psalms into individual psalms, but it also complements Brueggemann’s approach too, which also has the potential to break-up the Psalter into a collection from which psalms are selected in a consumerist manner to address an identified need.
A future post, or two, will in due course carry forward this consideration of the strengths and limitations of Brueggemann’s exciting approach to the Psalms.
1. Brueggemann, W., ‘Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function’ in P. D. Miller (ed.), The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, 3-32.
2. Page 6 of 1.
3. Firth, D. G., Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality of the Psalms, Calvert, Derbyshire: Cliff College Publishing, 2005.