Reading the Psalms with the Reformers
By Timothy George
In the fourth century, St. Athanasius wrote a letter to a certain Marcellinus, who was likely a deacon in the church in Alexandria. During a long illness, Marcellinus had turned to the study of the Bible and was especially drawn to the Book of Psalms, striving “to comprehend the meaning contained in each psalm.” Athanasius commends this desire, claiming that the Psalms are an entire Bible in miniature—“the perfect image for the soul’s course of life.” The Psalms, he says, offer therapy and correction for every human emotion. St. Augustine was no less eloquent when he described the benefits he had received from the Psalms. “How my love for Thee, O God, was kindled by those psalms! How I burn to recite them, were it possible, throughout the world.” The nineteenth-century Anglican bishop, J. J. Stewart Perowne, who knew this tradition well, wrote about the importance of the Psalter in the life and liturgy of the church through the ages:
We cannot pray the psalms without realizing in a very special manner the communion of the saints, the oneness of the Church militant and the Church triumphant. We cannot pray the psalms without having our hearts opened, our affections enlarged, our thoughts drawn heavenward. He who can pray them best is nearest to God, knows most of the spirit of Christ, is ripest for heaven.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century can be understood in various ways, but it was in essence a biblical revolution, at the heart of which were the Psalms. After he received his doctorate in 1512, Luther’s first lectures on the Bible were on the Latin text of the Psalter. At the time, Luther did not know Hebrew but soon taught himself to read this biblical tongue with the help of Johannes Reuchlin’s On the Rudiments of Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible had found its way into print decades before Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in 1516. Luther’s translation of the Tanakh from Hebrew into High German would not be completed until 1534, but a decade earlier he had already brought out Der Psalter Deutsch, his first published edition of the complete psalter.
Luther once said that the Psalms “are not words to read, but to live.” Every Christian should take the Psalms to heart, memorize them and ponder their meaning. “In short, if you would see the holy Christian church pictured in living color and form, as in a small portrait, pick up the Psalter.”
As important as Luther is, though, for understanding the biblical renaissance of the sixteenth century, it is good to remember what the Vatican librarian Monsignor Charles Burns once said: “Not everything on the Reformation is in a shoebox labeled ‘Luther, M.’” This is evident when one picks up the recently published Reformation Commentary on Scripture volume on Psalms 1-72. (Psalms 73-150 is forthcoming.) In this impressive volume from InterVarsity Press, Herman J. Selderhuis, a distinguished Reformation scholar from The Netherlands, has brought together a well-chosen catena of exegetical comments on the first part of the Psalter.
Luther is well represented in this anthology, but so are other “greats” of the Reformation including Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer, Erasmus, Beza, and Cranmer (through the Book of Common Prayer). Some of the richest exegetical insights, however, come from lesser known figures, “reformers in the wings,” as David Steinmetz called them. These include the Lutheran theologians Nikolaus Selnecker, Johannes Bugenhagen, and Tilemann Hesshus, the Reformed pastors Rudolf Gwalther and Wolfgang Musculus, and the Scottish scholars David Dickson and Robert Rollock. The Anabaptists are not absent from the collection (Menno Simons, Dirk Phillips, Hans Hut), though their focus on the New Testament and the fact that they lived on the margins of sixteenth-century society with little opportunity for producing commentaries leaves them with a muted voice. The estimable Katharina Schütz Zell, the “church mother” of Strasbourg, is represented by two selections. She published a commentary on Psalms 51 and 130 in 1558. The inclusion of Catholic commentators such as Cajetan (Thomas de Vio), Luther’s inquisitor at Augsburg, and Jacopo Sadoleto, with whom Calvin sparred, add texture to this anthology. Reading Protestant and Catholic commentators side-by-side often reveals a surprising exegetical confluence across confessional lines.
In a well-crafted introductory essay, Selderhuis places Reformation exegesis of the Psalms within the wider context of biblical interpretation. It is well known that the reformers focused on the literal, grammatical, and historical meaning of the text, an emphasis found already in the early church in St. Jerome and reinforced during the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra. But the sensus literalis must not be understood in a reductionistic way that excludes Christological readings of the text. Across the board, Protestants no less than Catholics discovered a “Christological immediacy” in the Psalms. Their commentaries and sermons resonate with Augustine’s statement that
. . . it is Christ’s voice which ought by this time to be perfectly known and perfectly familiar to us in all the psalms—now chanting joyously, now sorrowing, now rejoicing in hope, now sighing in its present state, even as if it were our own. We need not then dwell long on pointing out to you who the speaker here is. Let each one of us be a member of Christ’s body and he will be a speaker here.
Another way to say this is that for sixteenth-century exegetes, like the early Christian writers and medievals who preceded them, the interpretation of the Psalter must be “ruled.” The rule in question here is “the rule of faith,” that is, the Trinitarian and Christological scope of the content of Scripture itself, the redemptive-historical metanarrative, if you will, found in summary form in the consensual creeds of the church.
This does not mean, however, that there is complete interpretive harmony among the reformers. Far from it. One of the advantages of the RCS format is that we are allowed to see the resulting exegetical melee when contrasting voices are placed side-by-side in comment on a given text. One example here is the meaning of “infants and sucklings” in Psalm 8:2. Luther thinks this has nothing to do with real infants who lie at their mother’s breast but rather makes good sense when interpreted allegorically: “Therefore the word infants excludes all human reason and matters of faith; the word sucklings excludes all adulteration of the Word and false addition of human thoughts.” Calvin, on the other hand, refuses “to torture David’s words,” as he puts it, with such a figural reading. No, those are real babies in Psalm 8:2, and David is teaching here that “the speechless mouth of infants is sufficiently able to celebrate the praise of God.”
The Psalter is the church’s prayer book, and the reformers saw it as an inspired document able to teach believers both how to praise God with “hallelujahs” and how to receive comfort from God when the soul is distraught and cast down. Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery Dominican preacher who was burned at the stake in 1498, barely made it into the RCS commentary series by the skin of his teeth. But his comment on Psalm 42:7, “deep calls to deep,” is worth reading:
The deep of misery calls to the deep of mercy; the deep of transgression calls to the deep of grace. Greater is the deep of mercy than the deep of misery. Therefore let deep swallow deep. Let the deep of mercy swallow the deep of misery.
The singing of the Psalms became a staple in the public worship of Protestant Christians, especially the Calvinists. But the use of psalms was not restricted to formal religious meetings. As Scott Manetsch has noted, in the decades and centuries that followed the Reformation, the Psalms served as “the distinguishing mark of Reformed worship and the cri de coeur of embattled French Protestantism.” They were “sung in the marketplace, intoned by martyrs on their way to the scaffold, and even chanted by armies as they marched into battle.” The attenuation of the Psalms in the worship and daily life of most Protestants today is an index of how far from the vitality of the reformers their spiritual heirs have fallen.
Published at First Things, 4.18.16
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.