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!