The Hermeneutics of Biblical Lament (Part 1)

Article by   July 2016
What is the fruit of biblical interpretation? For example, in interpreting anceint texts such as the Psalms, should our primary goal be to reconstruct the ancient Psalmist's meaning?  Or, for Christians, should it be to receive the Psalms as prayers, to be prayed by the Spirit, in Christ?

There are many dynamics lurking behind these questions. They make us face disputed questions: should we read scripture by a functional "rule of faith" -- which assumes that scripture is the Spirit's instruments for conforming us into Christ's image? Or, is a trinitarian account like the "rule of faith" always the conclusion, rather than starting point of Christian biblical interpretation?

Both New Testament scholars and theologians have divergent responses to these questions. For example, in recent years Richard Hays has made the case for early creeds and confessions as helpful pre-understandings for approaching the Bible as Scripture, generated historically from deep engagement with scripture (see "Knowing Jesus" in Jesus, Paul, and the People of God). In contrast, N.T. Wright has repeatedly argued that the historical and synthetic task of biblical theology displaces a "rule of faith" of faith as a pre-understanding. On the one hand, Wright affirms the basic content of early creeds. Yet, in How God Became King he argues that they should not be pre-understandings for biblical hermeneutics. That role is reserved for the historical task of biblical theology. Indeed, as he notes in The Meaning of Jesus, the church's basic teaching and practices need to defer to this historical task. "The Jesus I know in prayer, in the sacraments, in the faces of those in need, is the Jesus I meet in the historical evidence - including the New Testament, of course, but the New Testament read not so much as the church has told me to read it but as I read it with my historically consciousness fully operative." Wright approaches the biblical text with faith, but "history, then, prevents faith becoming fantasy. Faith prevents history becoming mere antiquarianism." (The Meaning of Jesus, Borg and Wright, 26).

In a similar way, many evangelical biblical scholars and theologians assume something similar to N.T. Wright. For example, D.A. Carson endorses and adapts from Graham Cole the notion that there are "four levels of interpreting biblical texts."

At the first level, the Bible itself must be understood exegetically, within its literary and historical contexts, with appropriate attention devoted to literary genre, attempting to unfold authorial intent so far as it is disclosed in the text. At level 2, the text must be understood within the whole of biblical theology, including where it fits into and what it contributes to the unfolding storyline and its theology. At level 3, the theological structures found in the text are brought to bear upon, and understood in concert with, other major theological emphases derived from Scripture. At level 4, all teachings derived (or ostensibly derived) from the biblical text are subjected to and modified by a larger hermeneutical proposal (e.g., Trinitarian action, God's love and freedom...)

After presenting this, Carson gives his own assessment that "Traditional interpreters of Scripture who hold the Bible as the Word of God tend to operate at levels 1 and 2, with the strongest of them making excursions now and then into level 3." Indeed, "One should indulge in level 4 only with the greatest caution, and only after the writer has done a lot of work on the first three levels" (Carson, "Theological Interpretation: Yes, But..." in Michael Allen, Theological Commentary, 206-207). Carson suggests that there is a priority to the grammatical, linguistic and historical task of biblical exegesis. Systematic theology, engaging with the Trinity, sanctification, and so on, should be a type of "later step" after the task of biblical exegesis and biblical theology.

This four-part series will enter into this ongoing debate in a relatively novel way. Here is my thesis: the primary goal of Christian interpretation of the Psalms of lament should be to enact them in prayer and worship. In this enactment, the church should approach these ancient texts according to the rule of faith -- namely, that they are God-given instruments for conforming the church into Christ's image by the power of the Spirit.

Does this inquiry have implications for other genres of scripture as well? Yes. But lament has a particular advantage as an example for focus. Why? Because it offers a counterexample to the notion that we can do grammatical, literary, and historical exegesis, and then "add on" its application to theology and ministry. A New Testament scholar can give a descriptive and synthetic portrait of Paul's theology and then say "believe it, obey it, inhabit it." But as I seek to show, with the genre and content of the Psalms of lament, that simply does not work. Laments are not a collection of discursive teachings to be affirmed, though they certainly have implications for doctrinal theology. But numerous (scholarly and popular) approaches to the Psalms of lament today fail to account for how they can function as Christian scripture, ultimately obscuring the way in which they can be prayed and sung as scripture, formative in Christian practice. In contrast, approached within a functional rule of faith, we can be directed to the spacious yet specified territory of interpreting the Psalms of lament as Holy Scripture.

I will also consider this in light of my own rediscovering of the Psalms of lament after my cancer diagnosis in 2012. While I have offered reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in Rejoicing in Lament, I did not give an account of the hermeneutical issues that I encountered with the Psalms. That is the focus of this series. In my second post, I consider the particular challenges in reading the Psalm's laments in light of the rule of faith. In the third post, in light of this positive vision, I consider: how exactly has lament become subverted in the church and academy today? In the final post, I give specific examples of moving forward -- on how to pray the Psalms of lament in Christ. In all of these posts, I seek to probe our assumptions about what it means to read the Bible as Christian scripture -- and whether approaching the Bible with a rule of faith can help to bridge the unfortunate chasms between biblical studies, theology, and ministry.


Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This series is adapted from a plenary lecture delivered to the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Grand Rapids, MI): March 11, 2016.


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