Christological Controversy and the Psalms

I’ve been doing a lot of work on my books on Cassiodorus and the psalms. So far, most of my effort has gone into the first volume. The first volume is a more-or-less straightforward historical and exegetical description of what Cassiodorus does when he reads the psalms and transmits the patristic tradition to his readers. The second volume is the “where do we go from here?” book that tries to explain what the Cassiodoran perspective (and the perspective of the rest of the Church Fathers) has to do with us and our spirituality. Here’s a snippet from the second book. To set this in context a little, I’m writing these books in a non-linear fashion, that is, they’re outlined, but I’m not starting with chapter 1 of the first and writing to the end, then starting chapter 1 of the second and so on. Rather, since I know the big picture, I’m writing chunks and fitting them into place, and will smooth over the cracks later in the process.

This was a chunk that popped into my head last night as we were driving home from NYC after dropping the older daughter off at Joffrey for a week of ballet camp.

For readers familiar with my discussions of Trinitarian theology, some of this stuff will likely seem familiar. However, it’s still important especially in relation to the psalms.


Cassiodorus spends quite lot of time finding theological concepts in the psalms, particularly things relating to Trinitarian theology and Chalcedonian Christology. Indeed, modern readers may find it odd the amount of time that he spends harping on these issues. Our first thought may be to wonder why he would work so hard to find find doctrine in the Scriptures—why go to this effort? One reason is because he would not have seen “doctrine” as being something separate and distinct from “biblical interpretation.” For those used to the modern university or the way that seminaries divide up subjects, there is a great gulf between the study of the Scriptures and instruction in theology or doctrine. In the world of the Church Fathers, however, the two topics were intimately related to one another: doctrine flowed from Scripture and doctrine was identified in Scripture even if the connections being drawn seem strained to us.

Trinitarian and christological theology shows up so frequently in Cassiodorus’s psalm commentary for a couple of reasons. One of the great controversies of his time revolved around the way that God the Father and God the Son related to one another and what kind of being Jesus was. While an ecumenical council held at Chalcedon had defined the orthodox Church’s understanding of the matter, the rival Arian position was still quite common within and—more importantly—outside of the empire. The main difference here was whether Jesus was God or whether Jesus was a creature. The position of Chalcedon insisted that Jesus was both fully God and, at the same time, fully human. The Arian position argued that while Jesus was the first and greatest of all of God’s creations, he was just that—a creature (albeit a really important creature!). To sort out why this matters and why it matters for the psalms, we need to dip into this debate for a minute, going through the theological to the real heart of the matter—the pastoral difference.

For too many people, theology is a bad word. It conjures up notions of doctrines and rules, and tortured intellectual arguments about things that no one can really ultimately prove on this side of heaven. Theology is seen as something abstract and speculative. But it shouldn’t be… Good theology, important theology, matters because it has practical implications: it helps us understand how we correctly live out our lives. Real theology is connected to real life. Trinitarian theology in particular gets a bad rap, usually because it is taught as a system of ideas without reference or recourse to why and how it matters for us.

Here’s a key point around which you need to orient everything about Trinitarian theology and its various christological controversies: The doctrine of the Trinity and the Natures of Christ didn’t grow out of theological speculation. That is, a bunch of old guys didn’t sit themselves down together and just make this stuff up (and that is one of dominant images we have thanks to Dan Brown novels and other misinformed media…). Indeed, if people had sat down and thought all of this up it would make a whole lot more sense and be much easier to understand! Rather—and this is the key—Trinitarian theology grew out of the attempt to wrap words around Christian spiritual experience. The first followers of Jesus, as proper Jewish believers and God-fearing Gentile converts, would have known the Sh’ma, the Jewish creed, and recited it three times a day: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). So they knew there was only one God, the God they knew revealed in the Scriptures as the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. However, based on their experiences of resurrection power, they believed that Jesus was somehow God too. Furthermore, their charismatic experiences of the Spirit’s inspiration led them to confess that the Holy Spirit was also tied up in this God thing as well! If, as Scripture said, there was only one God, how could they explain what they were feeling and experiencing? The theology, then, grew out of the attempt to wrap words around this experiential phenomenon in a way that people could agree on.

Generally speaking, the approach that gained favor is the one that lived best, that is, directed people to lead their lives in the manner most consistent with Scripture and the example of Jesus, was the definition that came out of the four great councils of the Church and that favored holding up the mystery of God’s inter-relation rather than settling for a more philosophically plausible approach. Thus, they upheld the idea that God is one Being that is made up of three distinct but inter-related and equal Persons and that Jesus is, at the same time, fully human and fully divine. Most of the various Trinitarian and Christological errors arise when somebody comes up with a scheme to try and make this formula make more sense.

So why does any of this matter? Why would the Chalcedonian solution make more sense and live better than the Arian answer? The reason is simply this: Does God—the grand omnipotent Creator of the Universe—know what it feels like to be you? The Arian position says “no.” This position which makes Jesus the oldest and greatest of God’s creations draws a line of divinity between Jesus and God. The best that God has to go on, then, is to imagine what it would be like to us. The Chalcedonian formula on the other hand—that Jesus is fully God and simultaneously fully human—answers: “yes.” God does know what it means and feels like to be human. He knows it from the inside. He knows exactly what you are going through when you feel happy or sad or betrayed or angry—because he’s felt it too. In the person of Jesus, God has felt every human emotion and lived through a great swathe of human experiences including (let’s not forget) being betrayed, imprisoned, and executed. God doesn’t have to imagine anything here: he’s felt it. God knows what it feels like to die. And, furthermore, God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a child.

This is what gets lost in the Arian formulation: the intimate knowledge of just what it’s like to be us and to really know from the inside what it is to be one of us.

Now, I came of age in the eighties and early nineties, and every time I go through this theological logic, I hear a Joan Osborne song floating through my head… The lyrics go, in part, like this:

“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

Just tryin’ to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome”

Here’s the thing—whether she knew it or not, Joan (and the songwriter, Eric Bazilian) created the perfect song to explain the heart of Chalcedonian orthodoxy against the Arian position! Because the Chalcedonian definition believes that they’re right on: God does know what it feels like to be one of us! The theology that they reject—of a distant sterile God divorced from the nitty-gritty of human experience—is simultaneously the doctrine that Cassiodorus, the Church Fathers, and the church councils rejected as well.

Now, at this point, it must feel like we’ve gone pretty far afield from the psalms. But that’s actually not the case at all—we’re just looping around to them from the back side. Instead, the upholding of the Chalcedonian definition is at the heart of how Cassiodorus and the Fathers read and understand the psalms. Remember what Athanasius wrote about the whole expanse of human emotion being revealed in the psalms? This is where we see it: if we read the psalms in and through the mouth of Jesus, this is where we hear and feel the whole span of human emotion uttered from divine lips, where we see God incarnate expressing everything from the pain to the joy we feel. This is God at home in the feelings we know.

The pastoral implication, then, of Trinitarian theology and this means of reading the psalms is the assurance that God knows exactly what it feels like to be us and that, in the psalms, we hear his own divine expression of what it feels like to be human.

2 Replies to “Christological Controversy and the Psalms”

  1. Derek, thank you for this clear and succinct statement of the importance of Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy. It’s how I have always tried to teach and preach the doctrine of the Trinity, but you are clearer and more succinct!

    Athanasius and his gang are often accused of messing up biblical Christianity with Hellenism, but it seems to me that’s exactly not the case. Arius was the Hellenist, and Athanasius more solidly Hebraic. If the Logos/Christ is a creature, divine but less so than God the Father, then we fall into Greek polytheism; and in fact Arianism makes perfectly good sense to the ancient Greek mind. Athanasius et al. understood the Scriptural witness that God is God and creatures are not. It’s binary. Either the Logos (made flesh in Jesus Christ) is God, or he is not. And if not, then we are still in our sins.

  2. Wonderful. I cannot but help of the line from Evelyn Underhill: “If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshipped.”

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