Early Medieval Reading and the Derivative Charge

I wrote this chunk of text this morning for the Cassiodorus books. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s fully decided what argument it’s tackling and I have the feeling that it might be astride two related but different topics. In any case, I thought I’d float it out here…

My middle-school aged daughter plays a literary game with her friends. One person will write a paragraph, then they will pass the paper along to the next person. They, then, write the next paragraph of the story before passing it to another. As young, undisciplined writers, each person often only brings their own ideas and preoccupations and ideas about what makes a story good or fun or funny. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long at all before the evolving story becomes quite silly! Characters appear and disappear at a whim and act with no consistent motives or plans. The attempted tale is usually a disjointed band of paragraphs whose unity is largely based in the fact that they occupy the same sheet of paper, not because of any true storyline or coherent idea.

On the other hand, I used to play that same game with some of my English-major friends in college. One would start with a paragraph and hand it off to the next—just as in the middle-school version. But what happened next would be quite different. A new paragraph would appear, yes, but its construction would arise from the paragraph before it and would interweave themes or structures or details from the previous paragraphs grounded in a knowledge of the previous allusions and intentions and based in a familiarity with the person passing round the page. Sophisticated narratives would arise within minutes as each person brought depth, insight, and an awareness of where the other people were coming from. Not simply a game, these could be experiences of surprising intimacy as we shared our own thoughts and sought to blend our own ideas and feelings with what had gone on the page before us.

The difference between the middle school version and the college version is intentionality, sensitivity, and skill. In both cases each subsequent author is building on the work that has come before. The middle school version usually disregards what has come before or engages it in a cursory fashion—the authors are usually more interested in shaping the story according to their own ideas and desires. The college version allows the plot to unfold as it will, and skillful authors will temper their desires to put their own mark on the story by discerning where the communal plot seems to be taking it, and permitting it to flower in that direction.

Early medieval scripture interpretation is often accused of being “derivative.” That is, it is simply copying that which came before, usually the works of the Church Fathers which are conventionally defined as the writers of the first 500 years. Sometimes the last of the western Church Fathers is identified as Gregory the Great, the reforming pope who died in 604. Others reckon the final Western Father as the Venerable Bede who died around 735.

Is this a fair charge? Well—there’s derivative and then there’s derivative… Some early medieval authors were little more than copyists. And before we dismiss copyists, we’ll remember again that the work of preserving the wisdom of former times was an essential activity in a time where the only books that would survive were those that got copied in the first place!  Others were editors. Yes, they might only have copied down the words of others, but they made intelligent decisions about what material to copy and for what purpose. A skillful digest or extract can preserve the genius of an earlier authors work in far less space particularly if that writer had a tendency to ramble. Cassiodorus recognized his contemporaries Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus in his own day as doing this kind of work. However, other early medieval interpreters had the skill and sensitivity to enter into the work of their earlier partners in reading. They communicated what they found there but also allowed the flowering of the plot line of holy Scripture that their predecessor had noticed.

Relegating early medieval interpretive work to the derivative bin is a modern judgment based on the modern condition. Merely communicating things that other people said is not necessary in our time and place. We can always go back to the original text or look it up on the Internet. There was no such luxury in the early medieval world.Communicating wise things that other people said will always have value. Identifying something profound and bringing it to the attention of others is an important work of communication. In the early medieval world, such work prevented wisdom from being lost when the destruction of written documents was a real danger. In the modern world, careful curation prevents wisdom from being drowned out in an environment of constant communication where the noise-to-signal ratio conspires to fill our ears with the static of frivolity or venality. But building intelligently off the work of our forebearers is just as essential now as it was then. In order to do this well, though, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of our forebearers, test the wisdom against our own insight and our own repeated experiences of reading and prayer, and then allow the plot of holy Scripture to unfold and flower according to its ways, rather than attempting to force it in the direction we would have it go.

If the modern world accuses the early medieval of being derivative, the early medieval world would charge the modern with the error of novelty: that we are constantly coming up with something new simply for the sake doing something new. In our lust for the new and different, we frequently fail to take deep stock of what has come before us and to consider why some paths were taken and others avoided, which avenues will lead to human flourishing and the flourishing of our actual embodied communities rather than games that serve only for intellectual diversion. It’s the difference in attentiveness between the paragraphs of middle schoolers who can’t wait to put their own mark on a narrative rather than a more mature and substantial reflection to see where the plot is unfolding of its own accord.
When we look at early medieval writing, we have to see it against its own environment and understand the pressures that conspired against the handing on of wisdom. We must judge the works we have received with an awareness of the challenges of the time. But—more than that—studying these writings will attune us to that sensitivity of spirit that enters into the forebearers’ works and continue them rather than simply introducing novelty into the discussion for novelty’s own sake.

This is the struggle that faces us and—in truth—the task that I invite you into. As readers of the Scriptures, as interpreters in our own right, we will read better, clearer, deeper, when we learn how to do two things. First, we must learn to listen to our own voices as readers and interpreters, and trust our own abilities to hear with sensitivity the Word within the biblical text itself. We can be channels for the Holy Spirit and to fail to listen to our own interpretive voices may be an unintentional means of muffling the voice of the Spirit echoing within us. Second, we must engage the tradition we have inherited in such a way in order that our own insights will confirm, strengthen, and clarify the directions in which the plot of Scripture—the relationship between God and God’s people—is unfolding in our own places and times. Not coming up with something new for the heck of it or presenting a novel interpretation for its shock value and its ability to scandalize the faithful (a game in vogue in the twentieth-century academy), but building on the generations and generations of faithful witness before us for the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.

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St Bede Psalmcast Episode 13: Psalm 66:1-9

Here is Episode 13 of the St. Bede Psalmcast on Psalm 66:1-9! And if you manually enter the psalm into your bulletin from the Prayer Book, you might want to listen to this before you make 400 copies…

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St. Bede Psalmcast Episode 12: Psalms of the Passion

I took advantage of the fact that Psalm 22 was appointed to go back and cover a topic I’d originally intended for Holy Week…

This week’s image comes from Walters Ms. W.435, a book of hours here at the Walters Art Museum.

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Augustine and Cassiodorus as Authors

Here’s a chunk from volume 1 where I’m talking about the apparent relationship between the respective works on the psalms of Augustine and Cassiodorus and the difference between them as authors. There’s quite a bit more to be said on this topic, though…

Cassiodorus and Augustine have a fascinating literary relationship. If you take Cassiodorus at face value, then he is doing nothing but a straightforward excerpting of Augustine’s great commentary on the Psalms. He says as much in his preface. After referring to his own perplexities on first seriously encountering the psalms, he finds all of his answers in Augustine: “So mindful of my own weakness, through the grace of God’s mercy and in brief summary I turned into shallow streams the ocean of Augustine which wells from the springs of certain psalms; so I have embraced in one volume the wide range of topics which Augustine marvellously unfolded in his fifteen decades.” (ExPs Pref., 23) In an environment where extracts from Augustine’s writing were common, it would not at all be a surprise to see Cassiodorus doing just that. Indeed, in his Institutes he expressly recommends to his readers a volume by Peter of Tripoli where the African abbot has “annotated the epistles of St. Paul with examples from the short works of the blessed Augustine. He declares the secrets of his own heart with the tongue of another and he has fitted these examples so suitably to individual passages that you might think that the whole had been accomplished rather by the effort of blessed Augustine. For it is remarkable that one author has elucidated the text from another commentator in such a way that he seems to have expressed the desires of his own heart without adding a word of his own” (Institutes, 1.8.9, 129). With such praise for this style of work, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just what Cassiodorus has done with the Psalms—but the truth is that he has done something else quite different.

While Augustine and Cassiodorus were commenting on the same material and often saying similar things, they were two very different kinds of authors. Augustine was first and foremost an orator. He was a preacher. And, sure enough, the commentary on the psalms that we have from him is a collection of sermons on individual psalms delivered and collected over the course of decades. While reading Augustine’s commentary, it’s easy to form a mental picture of his compositional style: Augustine has walked into the pulpit holding nothing but a psalter and is expounding on it line by line before an eager crowd while a scribe in the first row is feverishly scribbling down his words into a tablet for review and transcription onto parchment later in the day. Augustine doesn’t cite authorities, he doesn’t rely on a great deal of prior research—the effect is listening to a man who has been reading and pondering the Scriptures for years standing up before you speaking off the cuff, indulging in digressions, and making the connections across the canon that occur to him on this particular day. This impression is only reinforced on the occasions where Augustine’s commentary contains two or three different sermons on the same psalm. A different day brings a different message on the same text.

Modern scholar James O’Donnell in his biography of Augustine contrasts the African preacher with Jerome: “[Augustine] did [interpretation] as a performer, not a scholar. The pulpit and its extemporaneity offered the focus for his biblical interpretation. While his contemporary Jerome was dictating volume after volume of careful biblical commentary in his study, sometimes following Greek authorities and sometimes simply translating them, Augustine the exegete shied away from that practice as time went by. He only turned his hand to writing formal Scriptural commentary a half-dozen times, and only once as a bishop, and never used an authoritative source or sources” (O’Donnell, Augustine, 133).

Cassiodorus, on the other hand, was a completely different kind of author. If Augustine was an orator, Cassiodorus was a composer. His writing shows clear, logical, organized composition both at the level of the individual psalm and across his work as a whole. His work on the psalms is not a collection of individually gathered elements. Rather, it is planned whole, carefully charted out, logically structured, with consistently executed internal logic and cross-references. Cassiodorus was not standing in a pulpit by any stretch; he was sitting at a desk with several open volumes before him—Augustine’s commentary, yes, but also reference works by Jerome, possibly the sermons of Hilary, and several wax tablets of his own notes. Some of these bore notes on the specific psalm at hand, others related to the work as a whole identifying groupings of psalms categorized by theme, topic, and theological import so that after the treatment of each psalm, its placement in the group could be identified and the other members in the group cross-referenced.

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Staging the Psalms

Here is another chunk for volume 2; the beginning portion refers to a discussion of Cassiodorus’s reading, pointing out that one of his strategies for interpreting the Psalms is drawn from the interpretation of classical drama. In this section, I’m picking up this notion and discussing how modern people can tap into this idea as a reading strategy for the psalms as well.

Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers ask us to listen for voices when we read the psalms. I can see several different ways in which this practice can enrich our engagement with the psalms.

First, at the most basic level, we need to be attentive to voices and the change of voice that occurs on the purely grammatical level. As we read each line of the psalms, one of the automatic questions that goes through your mind should be “who is speaking here? Is it the voice of an individual or of a group? To whom are they speaking? Are they speaking directly to God or are they speaking to the congregation around them?”

One way to visualize this is to follow Cassiodorus’s lead and to think of the roles in classical drama. In a Greek tragedy, there were a few major characters and a chorus. The chorus would usually make general comments, react to what was happening on stage, and fill in the audience about important action that had happened off the stage. The characters, then, would either interact with one another or would sometimes speak directly to the chorus. If we were to cast in our minds the classical dramatic production of a psalm, we can imagine there are always at least three major characters: the Psalmist, the Congregation, and God. The Psalmist or perhaps more properly The Voice of the Psalmist is the character who most often uses “I.” At this point, we’re not going to worry about the identity of this “I” (we’ll get into that in a second…). The Congregation is the chorus of fellow believers; frequently they get referred to as “you (plural)” but sometimes speak as “us” or “we” or even “I” as well. I chose the term “Congregation” because of the frequency with which this phrase appears in the psalms themselves. Two Hebrew terms can be translated as “congregation” or “assembly”—qahal and (adah; together they show up 17 times in the Psalms referring to a religious assembly with which the Psalmist interacts or to whom the Psalmist speaks. The Congregation is a chorus part and is almost always favorably inclined towards the Psalmist. (I hedge that because sometimes the Congregation seems to be portrayed as neutral rather than friendly as in some of the Psalms of Abandonment.) God is, of course, God. I imagine God always being on stage whether the Psalmist is speaking directly to God or not. Sometimes the Psalmist does speak to God, sometimes not—but God is always there listening nonetheless. Now—some psalms will indicate some additional characters. We can have an Anxious Chorus as in the opening of Psalm 11 or even a Bad Chorus as in Psalm 109. There is even the Betraying Friend in Psalm 41 (although whether he receives a speaking part or is simply referred to depends on how you stage it in your head!)

As you read through the psalm, consider: which lines are connected with which speaker? What does the grammar tell you about who is speaking to whom? While this may sound complicated, it’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you pay attention to the pronouns.

If you remember back to grammar class, we analyze pronouns in terms of person and number:

Singular Plural
First Person I/my/me We/our/us
Second Person You/your You/your
Third Person He/She/It/his/her/its/him They/their/them

We can see how this works when we take the first line of the familiar Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Clearly we are dealing here with the voice of the Psalmist. We know this because we see the use of “my” and “I”. But to whom is this “I” speaking? We have not been introduced to a major cast of characters yet so we can assume three: the Psalmist, God (aka “the Lord”) and the ever-present Congregation chorus. Since the Psalmist refers to God in the third person (that is, “the Lord”, not “you” or “O God”), then it is safe to assume that in this line the Psalmist is speaking to the Congregation.

We can move through a more fulsome example with the relatively brief Psalm 108. Again, we imagine our three main characters on stage. The Psalmist begins with direct address to God: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and make melody” The use of “My” and “I” clarifies for us that this is the Psalmist’s voice. The use of the vocative—direct address—in “O God” lets us know to whom the Psalmist is speaking. The Psalmist continues through verse 6. I assign these lines to the Psalmist rather than the Congregation because we see some intimate and inward thoughts more appropriate to an individual than a group. Then, verse 7 begins “God spoke from his holy place and said…” Perhaps we can see this as a line from the chorus as the Psalmist recedes and God steps to center stage? Then, from verse 7b through verse 9, we hear the voice of God. God speaks in “I” language and declares his victories over the inhabitants of the lands around Israel.

The crux of the psalm is verse 10: “Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom?”

Who speaks this line? (Remembering that quotation marks are modern editorial decisions and not original to the psalms!) Is this a continuation of God’s address? In Ancient Near East battles, images of the gods were carried as military standards: is this line the voice of God asking who will bear his image or the Ark of the Covenant representing him into Edom? Or, conversely, is this either the Psalmist or the Chorus replying in response to God’s preceding boast of power? That is, if God is so victorious over the other nations, is God going to give assistance right here and right now in the present crisis?

If we hold off on making a decision and move on to the next verse, we see that question does become more pointed: “Have you not cast us off, O God? You no longer go out, O God with our armies.” There is direct address to God again with the vocative “O God” and “You”; however, the shift from a singular to the plural makes me think that the Chorus has come in—or perhaps even better the Psalmist and the Chorus singing together. Given that the question in verse 10 continues and becomes more pointed in verse 11, we can place verse 10 in the mouth of whomever we decide speaks verse 11. Verse 12 continues the address to God from the group, and then the final verse 13 moves from addressing God to addressing a listening audience, shifting references to God from the second person to the third person: “With God we will do valiant deeds, and he shall tread our enemies under foot.” The language of “God” and “he” clarifies that the Chorus is now speaking about God rather than to God, and this final declaration of hope serves as a challenge expressed as an answer to the question posed in verse 10.

This strategy of mentally staging the psalm as a classical drama in your head is a helpful means of helping you pay attention to the variety of voices and the shift of voices within the psalms. I like to think of this as an initial stage of reading. Once we have accomplished this staging, Cassiodorus will invite us to imagine who the various characters might be: Is the Psalmist David? Is it Christ? Could it be the personified Church? We’ll turn to this next…

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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.

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Other Stuff Other Places

  • Busyness continues, but I’m learning some really cool stuff I never knew before about the guts of WordPress!
  • My latest piece went live at Grow Christians yesterday. It’s a musing about the relationship of respect to what it means to behave “appropriately” thinking specifically around kids in church.
  • Also, the new Summer edition of The Anglican Digest is out digitally. This whole issue focuses specifically on favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer; my reflection is the first one after Catherine’s Letter From the Editor.
  • Coming attractions… It’s not on Amazon yet, but my new book from Forward Movement has  a Library of Congress number, and a small number of physical advance copies are in the process of being printed!!
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St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 11

I posted this episode on Saturday morning but completely forgot to make mention of it here—so here you are…

This episode tackles Psalm 30, the psalm appointed for Option 2 for Proper 5 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. We talk a little bit about lectionary mechanics to explain what all that means before we get to the psalm itself.
The book referred to in the show is W. Kelly Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt, available at Amazon and other retailers.

The image for today’s episode is from an Egyptian memorial stele in the Manchester Museum and is in the public domain here.


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Psalmcast Episode 10 Transcription



Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to Episode 10 of the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. We had a bit of an unexpected hiatus from Holy Week through the Easter season. This was due to my wife taking a new position as rector of a congregation and all of the various shifts in our family routine that that caused, but also because several major projects I have been working on have reached some major milestones. The two big ones here are a new recode of the St. Bede’s Breviary which is up on my test site now, and also the finishing work on my next book on the spirituality of the Prayer book coming out from Forward Movement next month. So—check out the new release of the breviary if that interests you; I’ll put a link in the show notes—and keep an eye out for the book, and I’ll let you know when that shows up on Amazon and other places. Before that happens, though, we need to get on with this episode of the psalmcast!  Today we’ll be talking about Psalm 8, the psalm appointed for the Feast of the Holy Trinity which this year falls on May 22nd, 2016.


Lectionary Context


So, why is this psalm appointed here for this day?

Clearly, the Feast of the Holy Trinity is different from an ordinary Sunday. This is a feast that celebrates a doctrine, so all of the lectionary selections are referring in some way to the interrelations between the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Now—here’s the thing… The doctrine of the Trinity is one that flowed fundamentally out of Christian experience. They had powerful spiritual experiences and through these gained the solid conviction that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all divine in the same way; but figuring out exactly what that meant and what that means for us was a pretty complicated task.

Some people criticize the doctrine of the Trinity and the Creeds which define this for us and point to it as a real departure from the simple faith of the Palestinian peasant Jesus. They’ll point to the creeds coming out of councils convened by the Emperor Constantine and the Greek philosophical terms that get all thrown around in those debates and say, “Ah! This is what happened, this is where it all got messed up! This whole notion of the Trinity is where the simple faith of Jesus got high jacked by Empire and philosophy and dogmatism and where everything went to pot.”

The best response to these sort of critiques—or even allegations—is to go back to the starting point. The truth of the Trinity flows out of Christian spiritual experience. So, all of the apostles, Mary, all the disciples as good Jewish believers would have regularly recited the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” However, they soon began to feel the continuing resurrection power of Jesus in their lives and also the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding, directing, and purifying them. So, they were working with the data of their spiritual experience. God is one as the Scriptures and the Jewish confession insists. However, there were these three persons who impacted them in powerful and important ways.

So—now at this point—the early Christians then went back to the Scriptures to see if they could find clues hidden away in the Old Testament and in the New to help them make intellectual sense of their spiritual data. So, starting with a conviction about the Trinity, they dug back into the texts. Also—at the same time—the Church engaged all of tools that they had—including philosophy—as a means of wrapping language around this mystery that they were all experiencing together. And that’s where the Greek philosophy comes to all of this: it was the framework that they had in order to try and wrap language around this experience that they were having.

Don’t ever think that Constantine sat a bunch of bishops down and said, “Now—think up a new idea that we can use to destroy the simple faith of Jesus and do something else with instead.” No—it didn’t work like that. And this is pretty clear for several reasons: the first and most obvious is that if a bunch of guys had sat down and dreamed this up out of nothing—it would have made a hell of a lot more sense! It would have been easy and clear and straightforward—but it’s not… And that’s not because some guys made some stuff up; rather it was because they started not with thinking, but with the data of Christian spiritual experience.

Alright—why did I just go on that big tear; wasn’t I supposed to be talking about the other lectionary readings grouped around our psalm? Yes, yes, I was. But! We had to get that out of the way so that we would understand properly what it is that we are looking at in our lectionary readings.

The first reading comes from Proverbs 8. Which, looking at it historically, really doesn’t seem like the best choice at all. So. Proverbs 8 is one of several creation stories that are sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Yes, we’re most familiar with the one at the start of the Bible, but actually we have two different ones slammed together there, on in Genesis 1 and then a different on in Genesis 2-3. This shouldn’t bother anybody—just like it didn’t bother our Hebrew and Jewish ancestors in the faith. None of these stories were intended to be scientific accounts; instead they are all spiritual metaphors that get across the main point—God made everything, God is in control of everything, and everything was made both well and good. That’s the key here.

Hence, our Old Testament reading is Proverbs 8. Basically, it tells the creation story from the perspective of Wisdom. Now—given the placement of the reading and what it says, the *assumption* is that Wisdom here must be a member of the Trinity, and many readings assume that. Wisdom is a major focus of and a recurring character within the Bible’s Wisdom literature and is personified as a woman. The key reasons for this are because in Hebrew (and also in Greek), the word wisdom (hochma or sophia) are grammatically feminine, but also because the literature sets up wisdom as an object of desire for the male scribe or sage who is seeking after it. Modern Feminist theology has made an identification between Wisdom or Sophia and the Holy Spirit and thus in parishes like the one I attend, you’ll often hear people refer to the Holy Spirit as “she” or “her” and that’s why.

However, in the early Church, wisdom was understood to be Jesus and so in direct reference to this passage and especially the image in verse 27 of “drawing a circle on the face of the deep” there’s a famous manuscript illustration of Christ the architect with a compass, drawing the circle on the face of the deep. The reason why this is such an odd reading for Trinity Sunday is because verse 22 was one of the chief prooftexts for the Arian heresy that argued that Jesus was a created being rather than being God. That Jesus was the very first and the very best of all creatures, but still a creature. Orthodoxy, said, no, Jesus is God and always was God, and therefore isn’t a creation of any kind.

Ok—so that’s Proverbs 8. We could say a lot more about this reading but this is a podcast about the Psalm and we haven’t gotten there yet. The reason why I went into such detail here is to give you a sense of this search for the Trinity that the early Church undertook that will be important in talking about our psalm, and to show you the mindset of the church as it read the psalter.

Real quick, the Romans 5 passage talks about the confluence of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we experience justification and the growth of virtue into sanctification. The Gospel is John 16—again. And, yes, your preacher is probably running out of things to say about this passage too because we’ve been working in it for the last half of Easter it seems.


Interpretive Context


Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on? 


You’d think not after everything that I’ve already said, but no! There’s some other stuff that we’ve got to talk about now… The key thing we need to address at this point is inclusive language. I consider myself a feminist which I would define as the radical notion that women are people too and deserve to be treated as such. I have a wife who is a priest and I’ve seen people and institutions treat her in ways that they would never treat a man. I’ve seen her asked questions that would never be asked of a man. I have two daughters, and I firmly believe that their gender should never be an artificial barrier to what they want to accomplish, nor should they have to live, work, or play in an attitude of fear because of a society that hides or ignores violence against women which is a reality and that we need to address in some pretty major ways. So—let’s get that out of the way at the beginning.


You run into discussions about two particular topics around inclusive language in the church. The easiest way to say it is that there’s horizontal inclusive language and vertical inclusive language, there’s inclusive language about people and there’s inclusive language about God. I regard these two as separate. That is, we’re dealing with different sets of issues when we consider each. Today we need to look at the first, not the second. That is, we’re looking at inclusive language around people—the horizontal perspective—not inclusive or expansive language about God.


The Bible was produced in a patriarchal culture. Men were the ones who could read and write. They were the ones who could be priests and scribes. As a result, the basic, flat assumption was that literate culture was about men writing to men. So you see “he” and “the man” or “men” or “brothers” all over the place. Horizontal inclusive language recognizes that this isn’t our world or our experience anymore. Literacy is not restricted to men. And while some authors might intend the term “men” to be inclusive and to be synonymous with “humanity,” it’s not on a basic plain-sense reading of the text by a modern American used to modern texts. Thus, when the traditional-language version of the creed says that Jesus became incarnate “for us men and for our salvation”, it’s not intending to exclude women, it assumes women are in there, but you can see how a regular American reader off the street might read it that way.


There are two ways to address this. One is education. We teach people to realize that references to men are, for the most part and in most cases, simply generic references to human beings. That’s how I read our traditional language, Rite I service; that’s how my girls and my wife read it—and, yes, they like Rite I as well. The other way to address it is to edit the scandal out while retaining the intention. So, when Paul—who was actually quite progressive on women’s issues for his time—says “brothers” we know he is addressing the whole congregation so it’s still within the intention of the text to translate it “brothers and sisters.” This is the tack taken by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (the NRSV) which is the most widely used Bible in the Episcopal Church and most mainline denominations. The prayer book usually uses this approach as well. “Brothers” becomes “brothers and sisters” and the generic use of “the man” in order to refer to an individual gets turned into a plural. So instead of “the man” and the subsequent use of “he,” you get “they”.


Hence, Psalm 1. The King James starts: “Blessed is the man”, the NRSV has: “Happy are those” while the prayer book has “Happy are they.”


Psalm 112. The King James has “Blessed is the man”, the NRSV has “Happy are those”, and the prayer book has “Happy are they.”


Alright—now we get to the point. Take a look at verse 5 of our psalm. The King James has “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” The NRSV has “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” The prayer book has: “What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out?”


Where the prayer book usually utilizes inclusive language and typically makes a move to the plural, in this case it doesn’t. And this is really important. The translators of the prayer book psalter made an informed theological decision here. This has absolutely nothing to do with a wavering commitment to inclusive language, rather, it points to a broader awareness of Christian Scripture.


I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it again: It’s really hard to overstate how important the psalms are to early Christian thinking about Jesus. When we alter the words of the psalter we alter not only what is read but what can be read and how we understand what other people read. Most Christians aren’t terribly familiar with the Letter to the Hebrews. It’s a letter of the New Testament stashed at the end of Paul’s letters because while it has a vaguely Pauline vibe going on, it’s not from Paul, and does different things from what Paul typically does. The first few chapters of Hebrews in particular are a running discussion of the “elementary doctrine of Christ” (Heb 6:1) as read out of the psalter. Thus, chapter 2 of Hebrews opens with a discussion of Psalm 8 and in particular give us this passage; I’m quoting from the RSV here: “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man that thou art mindful of him,

or the son of man, that thou carest for him?

Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels,

thou hast crowned him with glory and honor,

putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb 2:5-9)


So, Hebrews is making a connection between “Son of Man” drawing from the Book of Daniel and from the title used throughout the Gospels, with this psalm and Jesus. This works if the psalm is making reference to “a man” and leaves the phrase “son of man” intact. It works in the RSV. It fails miserably in the NRSV. The whole argument in Hebrews is fundamentally altered and misread in the NRSV because they retain the inclusive plural both in the psalm and then try to inject that into the argument in Hebrews. It simply doesn’t work right!


So, that’s a really long—and potentially contentious—way of saying that Psalm 8 has historically been read in the church not only as a statement on the dignity of humanity, but more particularly in relation to Christ and the status of Christ—which then (finally) is why we get this particular psalm appointed for us for the Feast of the Holy Trinity.


I realize that was rather long and tortured, but I hope you could follow it…


Incidentally. Psalm 1 which we hit up there was classical read about Jesus as well—when it says “blessed is the man” that was seen as the first psalm introducing the theme of Christ which would then run throughout. In a modern version when we read “Blessed are those” or “Blessed are they” that’s not even a potential reading and lops off centuries of Christian interpretation.


So to just wrap up the inclusive language tangent, I see nothing at all wrong with the use of the NRSV and other translations that use inclusive language in the public assembly and as a way to get people into Scripture without the burden of an apparently patriarchal perspective. However, my personal preference for private devotional use when I’m using English is the RSV because I understand that it’s referring to women as well as men and because that way I don’t have that filter between me and the language of the text.


Historical Readings


Since we’re not the first Christians to read the psalms, what insights have others found within this text before we came along?


This is typically the section where I’d start talking about Cassiodorus and Augustine, but—honestly—I’m going to skip them today. If you’ve spent any time with this podcast, you know where they’re going: this text is right in their wheelhouse. Obviously, the man, the Son of Man is Jesus so they follow the lead of Hebrews and see this as the voice of the Church praising Christ. Just a few quick notes, then—Cassiodorus sees this psalm as one of a group of 8 other psalms that specifically focus on the two natures of Christ and emphasize the humanity of Jesus alongside his divinity. Also, at the very end of his thoughts, Cassiodorus makes reference to and quotes from Ambrose’s Christmas hymn Intende qui regis Israel better known from its second verse, Veni redemptor gentium which we have as numbers 54 and 55 in our hymnal.


Thematic Reading


How do we read this psalm on this day?


The way I read this psalm is that we have a strong interpretive center of gravity around verses 4 to 7 which is then bookended by an internal antiphon that starts and ends the psalm. Thus, the theological center is these verses:


When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *

The moon and stars, you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him?

The son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels;

You adorn him with glory and honor;

You give him mastery over the works of your hands;

You put all things under his feet.


Now, there are two major approaches to hearing and pondering these lines. The first is the classical approach, the approach Hebrews takes, the approach the fathers took and to see the references to “man” and “son of man” as being references to Christ. The second is to understand these as generic references to humanity. Now, I believe that there is a single correct answer here, and that answer is: both! We get the fullest sense of the text and the fullest revelation and insight into who God is and who God is for us, when we see that these two methods reinforce and strengthen one another. Thus, you get more meaning and better meaning when you read them together than if you try to go with either one or the other.


Let’s tease out the first option first, reading son of man as a Jesus reference and play with that for a little bit. I think our natural starting place is to see the speaker of the psalm addressing God the Father. In this sense, then, we move from creation to the notion of incarnation. We start with the heavens, then we move to Jesus. What is man, the son of man? Well—he is one who took on our flesh and is indeed a figure singled out from amongst all creation. In his self-emptying humility (be thinking Philippians 2 here) he has willingly taken upon himself the limitations of flesh and humanity for the purpose of transforming humanity and the human experience with exaltation as a result. And, as Episcopalians, we shouldn’t be able to hear verse 7 here without a line from Eucharistic prayer B rattling around in our heads: “In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ…” That’s what we’re talking about here.


Now, let’s play with this angle a little bit. Cassiodorus puts this psalm in mouth of the Church. So this is us singing our praise to God. Great, that’s fine. But—as a thought experiment—how does it change what we hear, if we hear this psalm in the voice of Jesus rather than the church? What if we hear this as Christ’s own words and ponderings to the Godhead? Clearly as an observant Jew and as who prayed the psalms, this is one he must have prayed, particularly given his apparent fondness for night-time vigils. I’m not trying to make a point here—I’m just raising the question: how does it change the way we hear this if we hear him speaking it?


Now let’s do one more transformation on it… We’ll get into some potentially confusing territory here so let’s define some terms: the ontological Trinity is a statement of the persons of the Trinity be means of the dominant metaphors by which they are known to us in Scripture and in the Tradition and that’s the familiar : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then there’s the economic Trinity. This has seen a lot of us in recent years, but much of that use has been imprecise or potentially misleading. The economic Trinity is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, but if we’re going to use it we need to get one thing straight up front. This is not the same as the other. Because this refers to core functions carried out by the whole, united, Godhead. Let me say this another way. These are the three core things that the Trinity does together, not three separate roles or modes or jobs done by the three separate persons. What does that mean? The easiest way to say it is like this: When we look at Scripture we see places where God the Father is creating. We get this in Genesis 2 and 3. We see Jesus the Son creating: We get this in John 1 with the notion of the Logos as the fundamental structuring device of all of Creation. We see the Holy Spirit creating in Genesis 1 as it moves across the waters of chaos. We see God the Father redeeming when the Israelites are led out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. We See Jesus the Son redeeming in his work on the cross. We see the Holy Spirit redeeming In Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones… The point I’m making here is that while we might see one person doing one of these things, these are done by the whole Trinity and are not unique to one person and that’s the problem with the way that it so often gets used as a non-gendered replacement for the ontological Trinity. If we’re not taught correct we can fall into thinking that the Father is the Creator, the Son is the Redeemer and the Spirit is the Sustainer. But that’s not what the Church teaches and that matters because of the ways that we encounter, experience, and consider the Trinity working in our own lives. We can’t and shouldn’t compartmentalize.


The reason I even dared to enter these waters is just this: What if we see this psalm as the Church’s words addressed to Christ? The moon and stars are no less the works of his hands than God the Father’s. And what we get when we consider this angle is the kind of paradox that see in hymns like Quem terra pontus: “The Word whom earth and sea and sky adore and laud and magnify, whose might they show whose praise to tell, in Mary’s body deigned to dwell.” (That’s hymn 263 in the ‘82 Hymnal.) And then, this hits back to the Proverbs 8 reading a bit based on however you decide to read that.


Now—if we change up and read the psalm talking man and son of man as generic humanity, then we get another interesting set of things to ponder. The people of the Ancient Near East lived in a far smaller and much more compact universe than we do. That is, conceptually, their grasp of how the world was made and its boundaries were miniscule. The habitable portion of earth is this little bubble of air  suspended in the waters above the firmament and the waters below the firmament. That’s it. We know so much more. We know about solar systems and galaxies, and clusters and things that defy the imagination to try and wrap our understanding around the scope and distances involved. If they looked up and were amazed at the immensity of what they saw, how much more should we be amazed at what we see and can’t grasp? The night sky now, as then, gives a glimpse of our cosmic insignificance. The lifespan of our entire planet, billions of years old is literally a blip on the screen of cosmic time. We aren’t the center of the universe, in fact we’re nowhere near it, we’re in a minor arm of a minor galaxy.


Which just puts more punch behind verse 5: “What is a person that you should be mindful of me, of humanity that you should seek us out?” As someone who approaches thing from a very intellectual angle, verse 4 is easy for me. It’s easy to see and consider a transcendent God who sits in the center of these great cosmic mechanisms and keeps everything spinning. That makes sense to me. I don’t have to stretch to consider that. But that’s the rational, Deist, clockmaker God. Verse 5 cuts at what’s hard: the immanent God who loves, who knows who cares, who is present to and for a minor person of a minor species living in the minor arm of a minor galaxy. Opening ourselves, our minds and hearts to that truth, that’s mind-blowing. And, it’s precisely at that intersection that the line from the Creed is so important: who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.” For you; for me. This is Christ for us.


And then in verse 6 we get a biblical humanism. We are not God. We are so far from God. And yet we are not without dignity. We possess a dignity from our creation in the image of God and in that Christ has taken on our form and our experience and that the Holy Spirit chooses to dwell within us and guide us. We can speak of a positive humanism that sees us and our efforts and useful and meaningful in light of God’s activity with us.


The last point we need to touch on—briefly—relates to then how we read verse 7 and the mastery over creation. Real quick, it’s pretty easy to get an ecological theology out of the psalms. The starting place is Psalm 89: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The earth, the creation belongs to God and any mastery humanity has is a form of stewardship. Furthermore, the psalms hasten to remind us that the various elements of creation are all fellow witness with us of and to the glory of God. When we destroy or despoil the creation, we are silencing witnesses to God’s own grandeur and greatness—and that ought to make us all take pause. There’s a lot more we could say on that but we’re running a little long as it is…


So—to sum up: Psalm 8 gives us an interesting perspective on the Trinity. Reading it from one perspective gives us a meditation on a God who is simultaneously transcendent, the distant creator and maintainer of the great cycles of creation and the cosmos, yet who is also imminent and present with us in a variety of ways. From another perspective, we ponder Christ who honored human nature with his incarnation and who reveals to us a Trinity eager to know and be known. On this Feast of the Holy Trinity, this psalm reminds us that for us the Trinity is foremost and experience and then secondarily and based off of that a doctrine. We believe it because it helps us wrap our words and our minds around what we have first experienced to be true of God.





So—that’s what we have to say today about Psalm 8 as the psalm appointed for the Feast of the Holy Trinity in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.  If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes. You can find more of my thoughts at www.StBedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter (and there’s a link you can follow on my blog and in the show notes.) Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions.


The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it.

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St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 10

The 10th episode of the St. Bede Psalmcast is now up! It’s a wide-ranging discussion of Psalm 8, the Scripture appointed for the The Feast of the Holy Trinity, that gets into a number of hot-button topics and unexpected places. If nothing else, this episode gives credence to my dictum that the psalms provide the perfect starting place to get into almost any branch of Christian theology and practice!


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