Christology & the Psalter
How “Inclusive Language” Emasculates the Psalms
by Patrick Henry Reardon
The lovely title of a recent book summarizes my simple thesis in the following reflections. It is called Psalter for the Christian People, a name suggesting that the Psalms have a necessary and important place in Christian thought and worship. Indeed, such has been the persuasion of the Church from the very beginning. The New Testament tells us to address one another with psalms (Ephesians 5:19), to teach and admonish one another with them (Colossians 3:16), and to sing them (James 5:13). After the Lord’s Ascension the believers turned immediately to the Book of Psalms for guidance. The Church’s first canonical act, choosing a replacement for Judas, was explicitly based on a text from the Book of Psalms (cf. Acts 1:20). Again, two psalms were quoted and interpreted in that first sermon on Pentecost Day (cf. Acts 2:25–35). The Psalter is the Old Testament book most frequently cited in the New Testament.
The history of Christian prayer also bears witness to the distinct dominance of the Psalms. For example, in prescribing that a monastic community is to pray its way through the full Psalter each week, Chapter 18 of the Rule of St. Benedict, in the sixth century, recalls that the monks at an earlier and more devout period had accomplished that task every day. Simplifying the Daily Office for the layman at a still later date, Archbishop Cranmer continued to maintain a major place for the Psalms in The Book of Common Prayer.1
But why the Psalms? Why should Christians not simply stick with what seem to be more explicitly Christian prayers, such as the various canticles of the New Testament and other primitive Christian literature? To what purpose should we Christians burden our worship with so many culturally strange images and themes from the Psalter, such as kingship, city walls, blowing ram’s horns, blood sacrifice, bows of bronze, cries for vengeance, harp music, sword battles, and oil dripping down on somebody’s robe? Doesn’t this sort of thing tend to make our prayer a bit unreal?
The origins of this Christian attachment to the Book of Psalms go far back. It was the risen Lord who taught the first Christians to discover “in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms” the Spirit-given references to himself (Luke 24:44). It was in that very first gathering on Easter that the Christian Church began to discern the significance and the importance of the Psalms in their thought and worship. Put simply, the Psalter is a book of Christology; it is Christology in prayer form. This is the reason why, if Christians are to engage in truly Christian prayer—prayer “in Christ”—then the Psalms must be an integral and important element of that prayer. Thus, in what appears to be our first extant example of the use of a psalm in Christian worship, one observes that its impulse and interest are entirely Christological (cf. Acts 4:24–30 quoting Psalm 2). Prayer “in the name of Jesus” (cf. Acts 4:30 again) readily takes the form of psalmody. So has it been from the beginning.2
It is truly remarkable to note how this steady theme of Christology in the Psalms was shared by Christian authors who were otherwise so diverse: Eustathius of Antioch, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Gerohus of Reichersberg, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Martin Luther. Just to limit ourselves, for now, to the last name on that list, we observe that Luther so consistently interpreted the Psalms in the light of the New Testament and Christian theology that sometimes this approach even determined how he translated them into German. He insisted on reading the Psalms precisely as a Christian and not following some “misleading Jewish slant.”3 All the other writers on that list would have agreed with him.
The Identity and Victory of Christ
Although all of the Psalter refers to Christ and is properly to be prayed within the context of that reference, certain passages of the Psalms have from the beginning enjoyed a special prominence. A ready example is the opening line of Psalm 109 (Hebrew 110): “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand.” In the traditions reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, Christians remembered that Jesus had cited that verse in controversy with some of his rabbinic opponents (cf. Mark 12:36; Matthew 22:44; Luke 20:42) and that the context of his citation was the decisive and great kerygmatic question, the question of the Lord’s identity: “What think ye of the Christ? Whose son is he?” In those few words of the Psalter, “the Lord said unto my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendent but also his pre-existing Lord. He is the son not only of David, but of God.4
Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, that same line of the psalm then goes on to speak of his triumphal enthronement. Scarcely any words of any psalm were more beloved of the first Christians than “Sit thou at my right hand.” They were quoted in the first sermon of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:34) and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2).
Then, that same verse of the psalm goes on to refer to those who oppose the victory of Christ: “Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” Once again, those few words were to lay the basis for important dimensions of eschatology in the New Testament (cf. Acts 1:35f; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 10:12f; and perhaps 1 Peter 3:22).
The remaining lines of this same psalm speak of still other grand dimensions of Christian doctrine. Most specifically, this is the psalm that identifies Jesus as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” and this identification is made the major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews, our psalm cited repeatedly throughout the development.
With so much Christian theology concentrated in a single psalm, and so much of it in the very first line of that psalm, it is no wonder that Psalm 109, the Dixit Dominus, rather quickly assumed a notable place in Christian worship, particularly on the Lord’s Day. The use of this psalm as the solemn opening of Sunday Vespers, a feature still prevalent in the Western Church, seems to have its roots in the third century.5
Christ in His Mysteries
To treat adequately the place of the Psalms in Christian prayer would be the work of several lifetimes, one suspects. It would involve, for example, a lengthy discussion of the Psalms in Christian meditation on the Passion of the Lord. Jesus himself died with words of the Psalter on his lips (cf. Mark 15:34 quoting Psalm 21:2; Luke 23:46 quoting Psalm 30:6) and was imitated in this respect by the Church’s first martyr (cf. Acts 7:59). Images and even whole lines from the Book of Psalms are found within the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s sufferings. The Psalter speaks of the vinegar and gall (Matthew 27:34 from Psalm 68:22), the dividing of Jesus’ garments (Matthew 27:35 and John 19:24, citing Psalm 21:19), the distance of his friends (Mark 15:40 from Psalm 37:12), and the blasphemies of his enemies (Matthew 27:39–44, citing Psalms 21:8f; 108:25). Since the believer’s daily routine of prayer tended almost universally to be related to the various events comprising the Passion of the Lord,6 it is not surprising that psalmody early became the daily bread of Christian piety.
The Tradition of the Church also associated various psalms to the Sacraments. Of particular importance in this regard was the Good Shepherd Psalm, twenty-two in the traditional Psalter but popularly known now as Psalm 23. Ancient Christian use and exposition of this psalm found in it references to the initiatory Sacraments of Baptism (“He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul”), Chrismation (“Thou anointest my head with oil”), and the Eucharist (“Thou preparest a table before me . . . My cup runneth over”). It was employed extensively in the patristic catechesis associated with those rites. Indeed, words and images from this psalm found their way into the rites themselves.7
The Christocentricity of the Psalter is not simply a matter of identifying certain select passages as “messianic.” Rather, the Tradition of the Church regards Christology as the proper key to the whole Psalter. This appropriate Christian attitude toward the Book of Psalms is the fruit of daily praying those Psalms within the Church’s worship, centered around the Sacraments. Praying the Psalms as Christians means praying them with the “mind of Christ” and illumined by the Christian Mysteries. Correct (“orthodox”) understanding of the Psalms (or, indeed, any other part of the Bible), then, always involves Christ. Thus, whether interpreting all or only part of the Book of Psalms the older Christian commentators spontaneously looked at each psalm through the lens of the “life in Christ.” It is no accident, then, that those exegetes who were not disposed to adopt a sustained christological interest in the Psalms, such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrus, were ultimately judged to have a defective Christology.
The Anthropology of the Incarnation
Among those who speak and write about the Book of Psalms, it has become a commonplace to mention the great range of human emotions and conditions that are expressed there. In this respect the Psalms lend themselves to a definite anthropological interest. Indeed, such comments about the Psalter, which are undoubtedly valid, were also made occasionally by the Fathers of the Church, notably St. Athanasius.
A certain anthropological preoccupation in the Book of Psalms would seem to be established from its opening line: “Blessed is the man.” This “man” appears repeatedly throughout the Psalter, and it would seem important to identify just who he is. Christian Tradition does not regard him as just anyone but as a very specific man. As we have seen, the proper key to the understanding of the Psalter is Christ. So St. Augustine, in his Enarrationes on the Psalms, commenting on those opening words of Psalm 1—“Blessed is the man”—said simply and directly: “This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Augustine then went on to pursue this theme through the rest of his magnificent work on the Psalter. The only valid anthropology for Christians is . . . well, Christian anthropology, and Christian anthropology begins with Christ, of whom the Creed says: “who for us men and for our salvation . . . became man.”
The question “what is man?” is asked in the Psalter itself, specifically in Psalm 8: “What is man that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”
Just what man is the psalmist talking about here? The earliest extant Christian commentary on these lines leaves no doubt. The Epistle to the Hebrews quotes these very verses of the psalm and sees them as descriptive of the person and work of Christ: “For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we do see Jesus, who was made for a little while lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Hebrews 2:6–9).
For the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Incarnation of God’s Son (cf. chapter 1 passim) is the source of Christian anthropology. In assuming our humanity and experiencing the depths of its mortality, the Son of God shares his life with us. This is the burden of the second chapter of Hebrews, which was to be one of the major doctrinal texts for the christological developments of the fourth and fifth centuries. Citing yet another psalm, the author of this work continues to speak of Christ’s solidarity with us by reason of the Incarnation: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren; in the midst of the Church I will sing praise unto thee” (Hebrews 2:12 and Psalm 21:23). Taking our nature (Hebrews 2:16), becoming a partaker of our flesh and blood (2:14), sharing our temptations (2:18) and tasting our death (2:14f.), Jesus is made our High Priest and reconciles us to God (2:17). That is the only New Testament answer to the anthropological question “what is man?”
The Present Impiety
Necessarily brief, I hope my comments have nonetheless demonstrated my initial thesis: the Psalms are Christology in prayer form and the reason we Christians pray them is that they speak of Christ and are a Spirit-given means of praying “in Christ.” It appears to me that the authoritative Tradition of the Church speaks on this matter with one voice.
I began these reflections by citing the lovely title of a recent book: Psalter for the Christian People.8 It is now my sad responsibility to say that the only thing lovely about that book is its title. Motivated explicitly in the interests of gender-inclusiveness (another crippled offspring of contemporary feminism), it is the most recent of modern translations that seem as though systematically and of set purpose, to destroy any semblance of Christology in the Psalter. That is to say, they render the Psalms, in varying degrees, unfit for Christian prayer.
Emulating the anemic Psalter in that version of The Book of Common Prayer used by the Episcopal Church since 1976, these new translations (a word very loosely used here) differ among themselves only in detail.9 Whether by the elimination of nouns like “man”10 and masculine pronouns generally,11 or by the insertion of female names to provide “balance”; whether by making the word “lord” optional,12 or by exiling it completely, or by doing most of these things simultaneously,13 such efforts uniformly produce translations that would be unrecognizable to any New Testament author, Father of the Church, or Protestant Reformer.
By way of briefly demonstrating the systematic exclusion of Christology from these recent translations, I will limit my remarks to Psalm 8 which, as we have seen, was a major, formative text in Hebrews 2 and in the whole history of christological and soteriological development: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that thou visitest him?”
In Psalms Anew of 1984, this line of Psalm 8 became: “Who are we that you should be mindful of us, that you should care for us?” The next year saw the publication of the now popular New Jerusalem Bible,14 in which this same verse was rendered: “What are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him?” Then, in the so-called Grail Psalter of 1986 15 it was phrased: “What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” And most recently the Psalter for the Christian People gives the verse as “What are human beings that you should be mindful of them? mortals that you should seek them out?”
Now we are dealing with a line of the Psalms of which the Christian meaning is not in doubt, because it is specifically and explicitly interpreted in the New Testament. But in each of the translations just given, one observes that the choice of words has been determined by considerations of “political correctness,” with no reference to a Christ-centered reading of the text.
Quite simply, the psalm in question is not being presented in a Christian way, because Christ has been eliminated in the interests of an alien ideological agenda. The Arians learned this lesson early: if you want to change Christian doctrine, to alter the thinking and religious experience of Christians, to vary or avert their vision, just tamper with the wording of their prayers. Now to corrupt the prayers of Christian people, to remove Christ from those prayers, is an evil thing to do.
Besides this, however, a loving reverence for the institutions that have traditionally served the prayer-life of the Church renders it extremely painful to read the copyright inscription of this new Psalter for the Christian People. It says “The Order of St. Benedict.”
1. A brief but useful discussion of psalmody in primitive Christian worship can be found in Josef Jungmann, The Early Liturgy (Notre Dame 1959), pp. 167f., 278–287. In the present article, I will follow the Church’s ancient custom of citing the Psalms according to their numbering in the Septuagint and Vulgate versions, which is most often one digit lower than in the rabbinic text and its various translations.
2. Notwithstanding a grateful reverence for my fascinating professor of yesteryear, I must dissent from Norbert Lohfink’s view that “In Christian worship the psalms were first used at the end of the second century” (“The Psalter and Christian Meditation,” Theology Digest 40:2, Summer 1993, p. 134). His conclusion rests solely on the relative silence of the scanty evidence, but Acts 4 is a clear testimony to the contrary. Fr. Lohfink is also impressed by the fact that the Psalter saw very little use in the public worship of Judaism at that time, but surely the christological themes perceived in the Psalms by the early Christians would have given them a special reason for adopting psalmody in their worship very early. Indeed, this curious inattention to Christology is the real problem I have with Fr. Lohfink’s otherwise helpful article.
3. Cf. his 1531 “Defense of the Translation of the Psalms,” Luther’s Works, Volume 35, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), pp. 209–223, more specifically p. 219; cf. also his 1545 “Preface to the Psalter,” ibid., pp. 253–257.
4. Cf. Demetrios Trakatellis, Authority and Passion: Christological Aspects of the Gospel According to Mark (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987), pp. 80–82, 198f.
5. Cf. Jungmann, vol. cit., p. 107.
6. Virtually from the beginning Christians paused during the day to pray at certain fixed times associated with specific events of the Lord’s Passion. This discipline is spoken of in Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 36; Tertullian, On Fasting 10.7f.; Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer 34; The Apostolic Constitutions 8.34; Basil, Greater Rules 37; John Cassian, Institutes 3.3. I have long suspected that the Markan Gospel, which ancient Christian testimony universally assigns to Rome, is already a quiet witness to that practice. Like Hippolytus, another writer of the Church at Rome, but unlike the literary tradition as a whole, Mark fixes the crucifixion of Jesus at the third hour or 9 a.m., thus dividing the drama of the Passion into sections that are easily recognized as Nocturns (Mark 14:32–42), Matins (15:1), Tierce (15:25), Sext (15:33), None (15:34), and Vespers (15:42). It would seem, then, that Mark, about A.D. 66, is our earliest witness to what are later called the “canonical hours” of the Daily Office. If this is so, it is a striking example of how the New Testament Scriptures had their origin, and thus find their proper context, in Christian worship.
7. To be convinced of this, one may read a truly inspiring section of Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, 1956), pp. 177–190.
8. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993.
9. A favorable evaluation of six such translations of the Psalms was made by Sr. Eileen Schuller, “Inclusive Language Psalters,” The Bible Today, 1988, pp. 173–179.
10. The Psalms: A New Translation for Prayer and Worship. By Gary Chamberlain. Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984. A Methodist pastor’s contribution.
11. Psalms for All Seasons: From the ICEL Liturgical Project. Washington: Pastoral Press, 1987.
12. An Inclusive-Language Lectionary. New York: Pilgrim Press,1987. An effort of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
13. Psalms Anew: A Non-Sexist Edition. By Sr. Maureen Leach and Sr. Nancy Schreck. Winona, Minnesota: St. Mary’s Press, 1984. This is the most extreme distortion of the Psalms known to me.
14. The New Jerusalem Bible. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985.
15. The Psalms: An Inclusive Language Version Based on the Grail Translation from the Hebrew. Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, 1986. (Note that this is NOT the real Grail Psalter of 1963.) This particular “inclusive” version has come precariously close to being adopted by the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States for liturgical use in this country. On December 15, 1993, it was announced to the Catholic News Service that 150 bishops voted in favor of it and 98 opposed it, so that it failed to receive the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. That three-fifths of those bishops did approve it, however, is truly alarming.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Christology & the Psalter” first appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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