Daily Office: Wednesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe), 1/27/16

Morning Prayer: Ps. 119:49-72 | Gen. 16:1-14 | John 5:19-29
Evening Prayer: Ps. 49, 53 | Heb. 9:15-29

Psalm 119 is, for me at least, a rather hard psalm to love. It’s just so, so very long, for one, and it exemplifies a piety based on the law that is difficult to me to really identify with – perhaps an unsurprising outcome for someone raised Lutheran! For me, as, I think for many Protestants, raised in a tradition that opposes the law to the gospel, and sees the law as that which kills, convicts, indeed threatens to induce despair in the sin-sick soul, it is striking and maybe even a little alien to read the Psalmist saying “Your statutes have been like songs to me” (119:54a) or “my delight is in your law” (119:70b) or “The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver” (119:72). Now, of course, even the most traditional Lutheran reading does not entirely deprecate the law; it functions vitally to preserve the peace of sinful human communities, to show God’s perfect standard to sinful humans and thus instill a sense of guilt and an awareness of the need for grace, and to guide the moral behavior of mature Christians. Yet (and this is supposition; I might well be wrong here) it’s hard to imagine a Luther penning these lines, or even a St. Paul, except in the most dialectical manner (i.e., just as one might call the Fall of Man a “happy fault,” one might call the law beloved or delightful because the very guilt and terror it instilled led to one embracing the freely given grace of God). What’s more, from the perspective of much of the Christian tradition, it’s even somewhat difficult to imagine Jews delighting in the law in such a manner; it’s hardly controversial to note that Christian readings of Judaism from the New Testament on tend to describe it as narrowly legalistic, almost neurotic in its joyless, disciplined obsession with meeting the stringent demands of the Divine Lawgiver — a foil to a joyful Christian freedom (see, say, Galatians 3-4 here).

Given all this, these passages of Psalm 119 remind me first of all that Jewish piety in antiquity was much more complicated and joyous than many Christians have given it credit. I’m also struck by the resonance of the passages here with the vision of the ethical life laid out by virtue ethics in its pagan and Christian forms alike. For virtue ethicists, broadly speaking, the goal of the moral life is not, say, a curbing of the will and appetites in order to do the good that a universally-disclosed reason demands, as in Kant, but rather a lifelong cultivation of the good habits that lead one to desire the good or the moral – to love the law! For Christians, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to see parallels between the ethical trajectory of gradual, painstaking growth in virtue which virtue ethics lays out and the theological concept of sanctification. One might say that the goal of the Christian life, ethically speaking, is to move from hating the law to loving it, to actively desire to do the good until, like the Psalmist, we can say “your statutes have been like songs to me.”

N.B.: I could justly be accused here of a slippage between the commandments of the Torah and morality as such! But such is a conversation for another time, i.e., when I am actually equipped to handle it. In my defense I might note that Paul and Luther might be accused of the same thing, so at least I’m in good company…

Daily Office: Wednesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe), 1/27/16

The Literal Sense is a Tricky Thing!

In this post on today’s (1/26/16) Daily Office Psalms and Lections, I suggested that Psalm 45, the psalm appointed for Morning Prayer, was a particularly good example of the value of allegorical exegesis because the literal sense of the psalm, as a marriage anthem of sorts, has in itself little religious meaning. I wondered, then, what the Reformers, given their suspicion of the old medieval fourfold sense of scripture and prioritization of the plain or literal sense, did with psalms like these.

Good news! I found a book, G. Sujin Pak’s The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms, with some purchase on this exact question. Basically, Pak (a professor at Duke Divinity, if you’re curious) looks at Luther, Calvin, and Bucer’s interpretation of the eight Psalms most crucially used in the New Testament to refer to Christ, Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 72, 110, and 118 – what she calls the “messianic psalms.” Pak precedes this with an account of the medieval interpretive tradition of these psalms and closes with an analysis of a late sixteenth-century dispute over Calvin’s interpretation of these psalms between a Lutheran who accused Calvin of “judaizing,” that is to say, failing to acknowledge certain Christological teachings in the psalms in question, and a Reformed theologian who defended him.

I might write up a little bit more on Pak’s conclusions, but for me, the most striking finding in the book was that each and every one of the commentators in question would have taken profound issue with my matter-of-fact statement that “the literal sense of [Psalm 45] is nearly devoid of religious meaning.” Rather, for the medieval interpretive tradition, broadly conceived, the literal sense of this psalm was a prophecy of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, and his relationship to the Church (see Pak 13-20)! This is worth stressing: for many medieval commentators, this psalm and the rest of the eight Pak identified did not refer in any meaningful way to Kings David or Solomon or to the history of the Hebrew people but were actually, literally messianic prophecies! Now, of course, the medievals were not univocal on this point — Nicholas of Lyra does note a connection between Psalm 45 and the marriage of Solomon to the pharaoh’s daughter, but even he suggests (enabled by his advocacy of a “double literal sense” of scripture) that the psalm is better literally understood as a messianic prophecy. Again, just to be clear, if I am reading Pak correctly and Pak is reading the medievals correctly, it is not (as I suggested in my earlier post) that a religiously unhelpful literal sense can, through the wonders of allegorical interpretation, take on profound religious meaning. It is not that the King of Israel is a type for Christ. No: the literal sense of this psalm is not about the marriage of Solomon at all; it is a prophecy about the coming Messiah ultimately fulfilled by Jesus Christ!

Now, Pak has some interesting things to say about the evolution of this medieval consensus in Reformation exegesis and its consequences for confessional formation and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The short version is basically this: Luther essentially follows the medievals in reading these psalms as literal Christological prophecies, while Calvin allows a figurative Christological reading but tends to suggest that the literal sense has to do instead with David, Solomon, and Hebrew history, Bucer is somewhere between the two.

But what I am most struck by is the striking reminder that sussing out the “literal sense” of scripture is always in itself an interpretive exercise. My own rather unthinking equation of the “literal sense” of scripture with a particular sort of historical reading would have been utterly rejected by the vast majority of the Christian tradition, for whom the literal sense of this psalm was a messianic prophecy. Indeed, for medievals and early Protestants alike, the denial of that reading was in fact an anti-Christian exegetical move characteristic of those like Jews who denied the divinity of Christ! Now, of course, one could make the classic liberal Protestant move here – one related, if distantly so, to early Protestant suspicion of Catholic allegorizing – and suggest that the medieval position here is so much superstitious, precritical nonsense, and that scripture read aright (i.e., using the tools of higher criticism) does indeed disclose a universally demonstrable “plain sense.” But for someone like me with a great deal of respect for the “precritical” exegetical tradition and a profound suspicion of hermeneutical strategies which purport to establish for one and for all the final “true” meaning of a given text, the answer is not quite so simple. I have no real conclusion here, except the historian’s joy at the utter otherness of the past and the reminder that establishing “what the Bible clearly says” is never an easy task and always one which depends on a wide variety of often implicit reading strategies.

The Literal Sense is a Tricky Thing!

Daily Office: Tuesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Timothy, Titus, and Silas), 1/26/16

Morning Prayer: Ps. 45 | Gen 15:1-11, 17-21 | John 5:1-18
Evening Prayer: Ps. 47, 48 | Heb. 9:1-14

Psalm 45 is a psalm quite nearly begging for a typological or anagogical reading. The literal sense of the psalm is nearly devoid of religious content – the note in my Bible suggests that it was likely an ode for a royal wedding – yet when read figuratively, given its resonance with Christian tropes of heaven as marriage-feast and the marriage relationship as figure for the relationship between Christ and the Church, it is rich indeed. Indeed, such a reading of this psalm goes back to the beginning of the Church — Hebrews 1:8-9 refers verses 7-8 of the psalm to Jesus. The King, in this allegorical reading, is Jesus Christ, “anointed” by God; the princess is the Church — so the psalm can be read to depict the relationship between Christ and the Church, or better yet, the final entry of the Church Triumphant into heaven at the end of days: “with joy and gladness they are brought, and enter into the palace of the king.” The point here is not that the psalm is really about Christ and the Church, but simply that it can be and has frequently been read as such. Indeed, such a reading strategy has been key to Christians making devotional use out of the psalms, and is particularly helpful in finding religious value in some of the more difficult ones (the history of monastic interpretation of Ps. 137:9 strikes me as a particularly good example of this). I wonder what the scholarship is on early Protestant interpretive strategies for dealing with the Psalms. On one hand, Protestants, especially Reformed ones, made great liturgical use of psalmody, yet Protestant suspicion of Catholic scriptural hermeneutics and focus on the “plain sense” of scripture seems like it would limit their interpretive options. Something to look into, at any rate.

Update: Turns out that the vast majority of the Christian tradition would have strongly disagreed with the notion that the literal sense of Psalm 45 is short on religious meaning! See The Literal Sense is a Tricky Thing.


Daily Office: Tuesday in the Third Week After the Epiphany (Timothy, Titus, and Silas), 1/26/16

Daily Office: The Conversion of St. Paul, 1/25/16

Morning Prayer: Ps. 19 | Isaiah 45:18-25 | Philippians 3:4b-11
Evening Prayer: Ps. 119:89-112 | Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10 | Acts 9:1-22

The account of the conversion of St. Paul is one of the most  famous conversion narratives in the history of Christianity, and with good reason: Saul of Tarsus, sworn enemy of the nascent Christian Way, bound to Damascus with the authority to cleanse the synagogues of Christian heretics, encounters none other than the Risen Christ in the form of a heavenly light and voice. From that moment on, Paul becomes the greatest Christian evangelist, travelling throughout Asia Minor and Greece and ultimately to Rome, spreading the Jesus movement beyond its base in Judea and Galilee to the Jewish diaspora and Gentiles as well.

In appropriate fashion, given Paul’s theology — or at least Paul’s theology as interpreted by Augustine and the Reformers — his moment of conversion is one marked by a sort of irresistible grace, an irruption of the Divine into his life. At portrayed in the the Acts of the Apostles and as Paul himself recalls (see Galatians 1), there is no question of Paul desiring such a profound reorientation of his life – he was on the road to Damascus to rout the Christians from the synagogues there! – or participating in it in any particularly meaningful way; he is literally “cast to the ground” by the power of the Resurrected Jesus, able to utter nothing more than a terrified “Who are you, Lord?”. There is no spritual quest here. No Augustine, moving from Manicheanism to Neo-Platonism to Christianity, driven by an urgent desire for wisdom and peace. No Luther, obsessed by his sinfulness, wracking his brains for ever-more-trivial sins to confess to an exasperated and concerned confessor until at last stumbling onto the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace.  No: we simply have a zealot who is quite literally knocked off his path by God.

What, then, does this mean for how we should be? For someone like me without the experience of a profound, nigh-instantaneous conversion, this story is at first glance difficult to relate to beyond the reminder that God can work in unexpected and even disconcerting ways. To be sure, this passage could be enlisted to do some work for a doctrine of God or of grace or of election, but it is rather hard to divine a moral lesson from the Road to Damascus, unless one seeks to read a (dubious, in my opinion) profound openness to God’s reorienting work in Saul’s exclamation “Who are you, Lord?” Saul is a passive agent here; he doesn’t really do anything so much as have things done to him.

If one is looking for a moral examplar in this story, the person who springs most to mind is not St. Paul but rather Ananias. Saul, remember, is headed to Damascus to persecute Ananias and those like him. Small surprise that Ananias is originally none-too-pleased about the notion of going to see Saul to heal him from his blindness. He had plenty of reasons to feel that way. Ananias may simply have been concerned about his own survival. Stephen’s martyrdom must not have been far from his mind — could one fault him for imagining a similar ending to his encounter with Saul? Or perhaps, looking at things pragmatically, he figured that Saul was likely the greatest enemy of the church and a blinded Saul was a less effective persecutor than one with full use of his senses — so , if through simple inaction, morally blameless by any typical standard, he could save his fragile community, few would fault him and many would praise him. Yet he goes. Goes to the house of the man who was likely his greatest enemy, a man he had good reason to be fearful of and a man he had no reason to aid, and prays that he may be healed and that the Holy Spirit may come upon him, trusting in the God who improbably promised him that Saul “is a chosen instrument” of His.

There are, to my mind, several lessons to take from this. All of them are rather difficult, especially for someone like me with a rather belligerent politics and a suspicion of the ways in which the preaching of Christian love of enemies by rich to poor, whites to blacks, and so on have aided in legitimating an unjust social order. The first and most basic lesson has to do, simply enough, with loving your enemies. It is remarkable to me, and a testament to both his trust in God and his charity, that Ananias consented to do good to Saul at all, given his numerous good reasons for wishing him ill.  Now, the application here is not necessarily straightforward; the question of the sort of aid you are obligated to render your enemies, particularly when your enemies are more powerful than you and when providing certain kinds of aid may put you and your community at risk is a complicated one. It’s worth noting that Ananias does not go to heal Saul until he is told by God that Saul is His instrument to spread the Gospel. But regardless it is clear that Ananias is willing to love his enemy.

This love of enemy goes beyond simply wishing him well (hard enough for me!) and even doing well by him (yet harder!). In praying that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, Ananias goes beyond caring for his persecutor to welcoming him into his own community. In my experience, people who have suffered for their politics or religion are often less than gracious at welcoming newcomers, particularly former opponents of the community. There’s often a sense that these newcomers haven’t paid their dues, or that they’ve won the benefits of belonging without the blood, sweat, and tears of their predecessors. Certainly I have felt this way over my organizing career. Now, even on a purely pragmatic level, this is clearly a self-defeating attitude. Any good trade unionist will tell you that over the the course of a union drive or a contract campaign, you’re going to need to win over workers who were originally tepid on the union or opposed to it, and many have treasured stories about formerly staunchly anti-union workers who became union militants. Yet it is one thing to recognize it as a self-defeating impulse, it is quite another to conquer it. But Ananias does. I want to be part of a church and part of a labor movement that, like Ananias, has conquered this impulse, has figured out how to genuinely welcome enemies (be they enemies of the Gospel or of the Movement) into our parishes and locals. Repentance and conversion are important, of course, but so is a joyous welcome on our part rather than suspicion or petulance. We don’t want to be like the obedient son angry at the welcome the prodigal is returning; we should seek to be like Ananias.

To conclude, I want to move briefly from the moral sense to the typological (I believe — I’m a little rusty on my types of Biblical allegory!). Be aware that this is a bit less tightly argued — I’m riffing here! — and will focus on Saul’s blindness and sight in relationship to the trajectory of his conversion. The motif of blindness to sight in which this story in the broadest sense fits is a common one in depictions of the spiritual life (“I was blind but now I see,” etc.). But even the more specific trajectory of Paul’s vision — first, seeing normally, next seeing God and being struck blind, and then having his sight restored — is one not without precedent. The experience of both darkness and light in the encounter with God (or, better put, a journey from the normal light of human reason into the darkness of God – often a darkness caused by God’s brightness – and perhaps through the darkness into light) was a commonplace in the medieval theological tradition, especially those aspects of it we now (rather unhelpfully) call “mysticism” or “mystical theology.” To the best of my knowledge, however, Saul’s blindness was not usually used as a type for the spiritual journey in medieval theology; the ascent to Mt. Sinai (where God appears in the darkness of a cloud) was much more commonly used. (I would be excited to be proved wrong on this point, though!) Non-Christian theological and philosophical systems also make use of the motif: think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where once the man ascends from the cave (where he can see, he thinks, normally) into the light of the sun, he is blinded by its brightness and only gradually retains his sight.

In light of all this (see what I did there?), I want to offer a rather loose typological account of the Conversion of St. Paul: Dramatic irruptions of the Divine into human life occur. They may tend to occur to disciplined religious practitioners (Saul was certainly an expert practitioner!) but, as the unearned, unpredictable gift of God, they can occur to anyone (Saul was an enemy of Christ!) and certainly are due no one. One cannot earn them (think The Cloud of Unknowing here). Yet by themselves, these experiences simply produce blindness. Staring God face-to-face does not actually help you make sense of the cosmos and your place in it, and  perhaps even fails to help you make sense of God — in the face of God’s awesome divinity, the most natural result is to be overcome, to be blinded, to be cast down on the ground. It is through the ministrations of the Church (as represented by Ananias) that sight can be restored; a community of faith, especially one that includes spiritual elders, is  needed to make sense of ecstatic, ‘mystical,’ experiences, to integrate them into the story of the work God is doing in the world and to equip the ‘mystic’ to tell her or his story for the edification of the Church and the evangelization of those outside it.

Daily Office: The Conversion of St. Paul, 1/25/16