Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72

The reformers use restraint in their allegory.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72
Editor: Herman J. Selderhuis
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 561

In reading Old Testament VII: Psalms 1-72, the latest in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, I am immediately faced with how psalms should be interpreted. In the introduction, Editor Herman J. Selderhuis addresses what is meant by the “literal meaning of Scripture.” The definition has changed over time. “Today by the ‘literal meaning of Scripture’ we mean its meaning according to the constraints of grammar, history and literary method,” he writes (xlvi).

Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, the author of an influential Psalter, saw a twofold meaning in the literal sense: the simple and the spiritual. He defined the simple like the literal sense is defined today. The grammatical, historical and literary aspects of the actual words of Scripture are the focus. The spiritual seeks understanding in light of the full form and content of Scripture. The two are distinguishable but inseparable. The simple is viewed as serving the spiritual, which has priority. This is the approach affirmed by the reformers. “Luther was particularly insistent that Scripture’s substance, Christ, is the interpretive key for all its words” (xlvii).

The reformers used this approach to evaluate the frequent use of allegory. When it did not conform to the rule of faith it was rejected. On the positive side, when it did not go beyond the bounds of Scripture it could “not only enrich doctrine but also console consciences” (xlviii).

Selderhuis goes on to discuss the spectrum of views that reformers had on this subject. Luther and his followers tended to quickly jump to the spiritual meaning, whereas on the opposite end, Calvin spent more time on grammatical and historical considerations before moving on to Christological or ecclesial interpretations.

Today it seems like modern commentators tend to focus more on the technical aspects and less on spiritual meanings. To some extent this is probably a reaction against the abuse of allegory in the past. This trend can lead to greater accuracy, but on the downside, modern commentaries may not be as strong when it comes to connecting the material to Christ and the Church.

That is definitely not a weakness of this volume or any others in this series. Every page is rich in meaning and application. Technical considerations are in the background. The emphasis is on the spiritual meaning of the psalms, which makes for excellent devotional reading, though it may be a bit wordy at times.

One distinctive that I appreciate is a theology of suffering. The doctrine of the reformers is cross-centered. We triumph in the same way as Christ through love and sacrifice. We should not think it strange if we are mistreated and experience trials. It is a comfort to know that this is not unusual. Our exaltation is not fully realized here.

In contrast, a theology of glory, might lead one to believe that pain and hardship are not normal. Taken to an extreme you approximate a health and wealth gospel, where it’s all about prospering now. Suffering is an anomaly, something to be avoided. It may even be seen as a sign of God’s disfavor.

The reformers might think it strange and alarming that such views could be seen as valid. In commenting on Psalm 5, Nikolaus Selnecker writes, “In this life, things generally go well for the wicked; they flutter about in great honor. They are powerful and rich; they also possess such names and titles that intimate that they are holy, pious and honorable people. The pious, however, and in fact the whole church of God, must suffer in this life and we are subject to crosses on every side. They must also continue to bear such names that intimate that they are unruly rebels and heretics among whom no peace or order can be maintained. Now this is painful. And it causes great offense and grieves the hearts and conscience of many pious, godfearing people and teachers. Against this, we must arm ourselves not only with the Word or with teaching with which we confront the godless, but also with somber, incessant prayer to God, that he would rule and protect his inheritance—that is, his church and believers—against false teachers, fanatical spirits and tyrants” (46). Such is the depth found in the reformers.

Each psalm is reproduced in the English Standard Version followed by a brief and helpful overview by the editor. The comments, which are drawn from different ancient writings, are grouped in sections under a verse or verses. Whether it is a verse or comment, each section has a heading that summarizes the content.

Unlike more technical commentaries, some verses, phrases and words are not specifically covered. Usually the commentator gives more of a general sense of a passage. Those looking for detailed exegesis of every verse will not find it here. 

As I have said about some of the past volumes in the series, this is worth reading just to get the comments of people like Luther and Calvin. Those from lesser or unknown reformers are just as valuable. I recommend all of these books. The perspectives here are unique, unlike what you find elsewhere today. 
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