Praise Seeking Understanding

Brian Gault Articles
Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine
By Jason Byassee
Wm.B. Eerdmans (November 2007)
290 p.

Praise Seeking Understanding on the surface seems to have great promise: Jason Byassee wants his readers to take up the Scripture--and the Psalms specifically--and read them like Augustine did, Christologically.  What evangelical, Bible-believing, church-history-aware reader could protest?  Of course we want to read Scripture like the great church father that shaped so much of the church's theology, and, if we understand Jesus' lecture on Biblical Theology on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, we also want to read the Scripture Christologically.  But beneath the surface, Byassee has an axe to grind.  He wants to use the model of Augustine's reading of the Psalms to pry us loose from the Grammatical-Historical Approach to the Scriptures (which he calls simply the 'historical' approach), from what the text 'originally meant,' and from the plain reading and literal sense of the text in order to push us towards what he calls the 'Return to Allegory' movement.


Of course, Byassee's move away from the Grammatical-Historical Approach should come as no surprise.  Byassee, who has served as a Methodist pastor and is married to a Methodist pastor, is an erudite and eloquent scholar whose work makes Augustine's Enarrationes in psalmos accessible to a new audience, but he is no friend to the reformed tradition.  He takes potshots at the doctrine of imputed righteousness [1] and the doctrine of inerrancy. [2] He redefines Scripture, not as a book or the word written, but as a communal process of reading the Bible. [3]  Against the Reformation corrective of the early church's fourfold sense of Scripture that the true sense of Scripture is 'not manifold, but one' [4] (i.e., each text has one meaning with a full value to be expanded in the Bible and then many legitimate applications), Byassee states that a single meaning based authorial intent is naïve. [5]


Byassee's move to allegory is motivated by his own frustrations with Grammatical-Historical, authorial-intent, literal-sense exegesis.  His frustrations with this 'historical' approach are several.  First, he argues that the 'historical' approach flattens meaning into the one sense intended by the human author. [6]  But for the early church fathers, God was the author of Scripture [7] and thus the text could have many different meanings--a hermeneutical approach which, by the time of Thomas Aquinas, evolved into the fourfold method of interpretation where meaning went beyond the literal sense to include the allegorical sense, the tropological sense, and the anagogical sense.  Second, Byassee argues that a 'historical' hermeneutic would make the Old Testament inaccessible for Christians.  Since the Old Testament does not refer to Jesus in its original context, only an allegorical hermeneutic converts the Old Testament to Christian Scripture. [8]  Christians have to read the Old Testament in a different sense from what was originally intended in order to make it their own. [9]  Third, he argues that the 'historical' hermeneutic creates historical and theological distance between the original author and today's audience. [10]  In sum, Byassee portrays the 'historical' approach as transforming Scripture from a living and active document to a stale, outdated text buried in another time--the true meaning of which can never be unearthed.


Whether Byassee's assessment of a 'historical' hermeneutic is a pejorative caricature or a semantic misunderstanding remains unclear.  However, the Reformation hermeneutic of a single, literal sense of the text is anything but a flattened, inaccessible meaning.  Rather, authorial intent gives the reader a starting point for understanding the full value of the text.  The text's original meaning can be traced through biblical elaborations and cultural adjustments and can then be appropriately applied to the church today.  There is only one meaning (or sense) of a text, but there can be many legitimate applications.


To close the supposed gap that the 'historical' hermeneutic has created between original meaning and today's reader, Byassee initially proposes a tradition of interpretation.  The church, which has been reading and interpreting Scripture throughout history, can stand in the gap. [11]  Of course, Byassee only selects the early church fathers to shape our interpretation of Scripture--he ignores the Reformers and the critical movement altogether.  More specifically, he flattens our interpretation of Scripture into the pattern of one early church father in particular, Augustine.


Augustine reads the Psalms allegorically, but his allegorical 'control,' if you will--that which both directs and limits his allegory--is Christ.  The heart of Augustine's exegesis is his Christology.  Byassee argues that Augustine is merely following the allegorical Christological model established by Jesus and Paul. [12]  But Augustine's Christological allegory may not be what we would expect.  Byassee refers to Augustine's exegesis as a 'christo-ecclesiological' model, based on the totus Christus (i.e., Christ is both head and body, both a person and the church), [13] which reads the ideas of Christ and the church together simultaneously as almost indistinguishable entities. [14]  For Augustine, Christ is both head and members, both a person and the church, in such a way that Christology and ecclesiology become blended and confused. [15]  For example, Augustine can read Psalm 3 through for the first time with reference to Christ and then turn around and immediately read it a second time with reference to the church. [16] With this surprising 'christo-ecclesiological' model, Byassee argues that Augustine is simply applying Paul's head/body metaphor (e.g., 1 Cor 12:12ff; Rom 12:4ff) literally. [17]


After encouraging the 'Return to Allegory' movement and arguing for the 'restoration of Christian figural reading' (p.54), Byassee shockingly labels Augustine's hermeneutic 'christological literalism.'  Byassee had argued that allegory was the only way to read the Old Testament Christianly, but now he argues that 'The primary sense of a passage from the psalms is always Christ, the whole Christ, head and members, as we have seen.' (p.224)  If Christ is the primary sense of a psalm, then why do we need allegory to return to a Christological reading of the Psalms?  Byassee himself acknowledges this, and asks, 'If the letter of the Psalter is always already about Christ, what is there left for allegory to do?' (p.219)  Byassee's answer to this question is 'that allegory involves the application of texts to the lives of readers.' (p.230)  In other words, for Byassee, Augustine's allegory comes through his application of totus Christus to each text, reading for both head and body.  Augustine reads each psalm first literally, on the lips of Christ, and then allegorically, in reference to the church.  In this allegorical reading, as Augustine substitutes the church in the place of the psalmist, Augustine provides a vehicle for the application of the text to the lives of readers.  As a result of the fact that the church is united to Christ allegorically and that Christ is in the text literally, now the church is in the text.  In this way Byassee believes Augustine has closed the gap and made the Scripture accessible for the Christian.


To strengthen the connection between Christ and his church in the reading of the Psalms, Byassee uses Augustine's understanding of kenosis and theosis.  In Byassee's terms, because Christ's kenosis (emptying of himself) enables our theosis (becoming like God) all Christians should pray the Psalter through Christ. [18]  Byassee argues that if we are members of Christ's body through the exchange of our sinfulness for his divinity, then isn't it true 'that the remainder of our lives is a working out of this divine theosis in response to Jesus' kenosis?  If so, must we not also read in some manner quite similar to Augustine?' (p.91)  In other words, Byassee argues that Christ's kenosis and our theosis unite the head and the body in totus Christus, thereby once again making the Scriptures accessible to us.


However, when all is said and done, it seems Byassee uses Augustine's hermeneutical model to solve a false dilemma that he has created.  Byassee wants to avoid a sermon on the Exodus that becomes 'a discourse about the event's historicity' (p.245); [19] he wants to be able to apply it to us today. [20]  However, a Grammatical-Historical, plain-reading, literal-sense hermeneutic does not need to distance today's reader from the text of Scripture.  As we take the original meaning of the text through biblical elaborations and cultural adjustments we see that the full value of the text has many legitimate applications to us today.  Using the Grammatical-Historical method, the Exodus teaches us about a God who delivers his people from bondage and rescues them from destruction as they take refuge behind the blood of the Passover lamb, just as today, Christ, our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), rescues us as we take refuge in the blood of the New Covenant.  While the history of exegesis can be a helpful guide, neither the church's tradition of interpretation nor allegory are necessary to close a gap between reader and text that does not exist.


Neither do we need Augustine's allegorical hermeneutic to read the Psalter Christologically.  A messianic reading of the Psalter was the intent of its final form.  The Psalter reached its final form between 516 (completion of the second Temple) and 250BC (translation of LXX) at a time when Israel was not a nation and kingship was a relic of the past.  So, at a time when there is no king on Israel's throne, the very fact that kingship is included in the Psalter at all--not to mention as a dominant theme--requires an eschatological rereading of the Psalter.  That is, when the Psalter reached its final form, the worshipping community had no human king in their history that had fulfilled the aggrandized portrait of kingship and his universal rule in Pss 2, 72, 110, and 132, so these psalms were not read and interpreted as a historical reality, but as an eschatological hope--not concerning the deceased David of history, but concerning the new David who would come.  And this eschatological or messianic rereading implied by the Psalter's inclusion of and emphasis upon kingship at a time kingship was extinct in Israel is precisely why the New Testament writers read Jesus in the Psalter--both in the king's suffering and his glory--and it is why we should read the Psalter Christologically today.


So should we read the Psalter?  Absolutely.  Christologically?  Without question.  Should we apply the emotional depth and breadth of the Psalter to our own lives as a model to inform our worship?  Yes.  But need we read the Psalter allegorically like Augustine?  No.  Rather, we should read Augustine in light of the hermeneutical corrective of the Reformation which mandates reading the Psalter in its literal sense.

[1]"Christ does not merely represent us before God in any way that would suggest a caricatured Reformation view of imputed righteousness - that the unmerited gift of something that remains not 'ours.'  In Augustine's soteriology, Christ actually makes people righteous.  Or to focus on the verbs in Augustine's actual use - Christ not only 'represents' us, he also 'transfigures' us." (p.73)

[2]"Disabusing simplistic fundamentalist notions of textual inerrancy is a worthy goal." (p.244)

[3] "In Augustine's own words, Christians are to treat the Bible as 'the face of God for now.'  As Augustine makes abundantly clear throughout his work, the word 'scripture' does not refer to a book in the hand of an individual Christian, but rather to the quite communal process of slowly learning to read well, overseen by more practiced readers in the school for reading that is the church." (pp.67-8)

[4] WCF 1:9, 'the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one),'

[5] Quoting David Steinmetz, "the notion that a text means only what its author intends it to mean is historically naïve." (p.23)

[6] "My own greatest frustration with historical criticism may be that it is another example of modernity's tendency to flatten all biblical meaning into one sense - that intended by the author." (p.51)

[7] "Ancient Christian readers share with us moderns a desire for discerning the intent of scripture's author.  Yet for them, scripture's primary author is always God!" (p.22)

[8] "Of course Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 or Malachi's prophecy about Bethlehem do not 'refer' to Jesus of

Nazareth in their original context - who could claim that they do?  Yet Christians cannot give up these sorts of crucial biblical and theological claims and remain Christian.  The only hermeneutic that allows us to continue to make these sorts of claims is an allegorical one.  By that same hermeneutic the entirety of Israel's scripture can be taken to witness to Jesus.  Nothing less than that will do if we wish to continue to claim our faith to be a living thing, passed down 'in accordance with the scriptures' (1 Cor 15:4), centered on the Christ to whom Moses and all the scriptures testify (John 5:39, 45)."(p.172)

[9] "Yet our access to most of the rest of Israel's scripture - most of the whole - is by necessity allegorical, tenuous, premised on reading it according to some 'other sense' that Jews will not likely recognize or count as legitimate." (p.50)

[10] "Biblical hermeneutics has been fascinated with the problems of historical distance between current readers and the writers of scripture, trying ever more ingenious means to bridge, or leap across, the ditch between the historical record of scripture and contemporary theological reflection." (p.86)

[11] "For where there would be a 'gap,' an 'unbridgeable chasm' between us and, say, Jesus, is precisely where the church stands, handing on teaching from one generation to another, giving us access to the God who has gifted us with scripture." (p.22)

[12] "While contemporary exegetes may wish, for whatever reason, to say that 'the stone the builders rejected' of Psalm 118 or 'the Lord said to my Lord' of Psalm110 ought not be read with reference to Christ, Jesus' own exegetical practice demonstrates otherwise and so closes the case for Christian exegetes." (p.54)

"Jesus' own practice is continued in all parts of the New Testament, most impressively by Paul, whose arguments for allegory in such places as 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, Galatians 4:21-31, and Ephesians 5:25-33, made its practice a matter of course in the church for more than a millennium and a half.  It would seem, on the basis of such solid Christological, biblical, and traditional arguments, that the burden of proof should be on those who would deny the legitimacy of such figurative forms of exegesis." (p.55)

[13] "We have already seen a key verse undergirding the totus Christus in Acts 9:4 ["Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"], in which the risen Lord identifies himself with the persecuted church in his appearance to Saul.  Another to which Augustine returns with great frequency is the parable of judgment in Matthew 25 ["whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me" Matt 25:40]." (p.77)"Another source of scriptural support for Augustine's psalm hermeneutic is almost too obvious to mention: Paul's own use of the metaphor of a body to speak of the church's relationship to (might we even say identity with?) Christ in such places as 1 Corinthians 12:12ff, Romans 12:4ff, Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 4:25 and 5:30, and many more." (p.78)

[14] "Cameron speaks of the Enarrationes as the explication of a 'christo-ecclesiological' form of exegesis, premised on the totus Christus, the 'whole Christ,' who speaks throughout the Psalter." (p.63)

[15]"For Augustine, Christ is always both head and members, the church is always Christ and us, with our head at the right hand of the Father, and our members spread throughout the world...  The Donatist attempt to sever the body into pieces is, of course, an ecclesiological heresy, and just so, it is also a Christological one, for it is an attack on the whole body of Christ, totus Christus, head and members." (p.60)

[16]"In an early enarratio, Augustine reads Psalm 3 straight through with reference to Christ, and then begins again from the first verse reading it with reference to the church.  Soon he realizes there is no need to separate these two readings - for to speak of Christ as head is also to speak of Christ as body.  Cameron shows that Augustine brings to full flower a Pauline hermeneutic that would speak of Christ and the church as one 'person.'" (p.62)

[17]"Augustine is simply displaying a Pauline logic throughout the Enarrationes.  He is taking Paul's metaphor literally." (p.79)

[18] "The Psalter itself displays the great range between human deprivation and divine glory and all else in between, so humans pray each of these as part of the process of theosis, the ladder of ascent left in place for us in the descent of Christ's kenosis.  For Augustine, these arguments add up to a complete certainty that Christians cannot but read the Psalter as he does.  Christians must read the Old Testament, must pray the Psalter, and must do so through Christ." (p.90)

[19]"Yet when Christians seek to carry out biblical interpretation as Christians, historical criticism alone cannot suffice.  A sermon on an assigned text about the Exodus cannot finally be a discourse about the event's historicity." (p.245)

[20]"A 'literal' reading of the Exodus then must be shown to intersect with the particular pastoral needs of the community gathered around the text at hand.  To do is not non-literal.  It is simply a recognition of how scripture invites the baptized to read." (p.246)

Brian Gault is the Dean of Admissions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.