N.T. Wright Makes the Case for the Psalms

32540The prolific writer, churchman, and biblical scholar N.T. Wright is out with a new book, and yes, it is titled The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential.  And in an interview about his new title, Wright was asked a number of questions.  Here are two (you may read the entire interview at Christianity Today here):

1. Why would anyone need to make a “case for the Psalms”?

Over my lifetime, I have watched churches that used to sing the Psalms in their weekly worship cease to do so and often substitute modern worship songs. There is nothing wrong with modern worship songs. But I have seen the Psalms get a little neglected, then ignored altogether. At the same time, many churches that retain the Psalms use them in a way that fails to do justice to their richness and depth.

2. Why is this fading significance so problematic?

The Psalter is the prayer book Jesus made his own. We can see in the Gospels and in the early church that Jesus and his first followers were soaked in the Psalms, using them to express how they understood what God was doing. For us to distance ourselves from the Psalms inevitably means distancing ourselves from Jesus.

The Psalms contain unique poetry expressing the biblical faith in God as Creator, Redeemer, judge, lover, friend, adversary—the whole lot. There is nothing like them. The Psalms go right to the depths of the human emotions—they don’t just skate along the top. They explore what the great promises of God mean and what we do when those promises do not seem to be coming true.

Having prayed through and meditated twice on the Psalms already this year, I do appreciate where N.T. Wright is coming from.

Yes, something should be said for the fact that Jesus, his disciples, and the early church prayed and sang the Psalms.

And yes, it is true that the praying and the singing of the Psalms is neglected by a great deal of evangelical Christians.  But there are other Christian traditions who have been praying and singing the Psalms.  The Eastern Orthodox comes to mind, as well as Wright’s own Anglican Communion.

In his The Psalter Reclaimed, Gordon Wenham makes some of the same arguments that Wright is now making (see my review here).

Now if Wright wants us to take his message seriously and read his latest book, there are other ways to do it than saying, “For us to distance ourselves from the Psalms inevitably means distancing ourselves from Jesus.”

Yes, Jesus made the Psalter his prayer book, and yes, he and his disciples were soaked in them, but the Psalter is not Jesus, nor is the Psalter the Gospels or the rest of the Bible.

But I’m all for the use of the Psalms for their richness and depth.

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21 Responses to N.T. Wright Makes the Case for the Psalms

  1. Simon says:

    This is another point in favour of traditional high church corporate worship. From the Latin Mass, to the BCP (largely based on the Latin Mass), to the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, all make space for the singing/praying of the Psalms.

    There’s no reason as to why we can’t also have new Christian era songs. Indeed, Christ has come, which he had not when the Psalms were composed, and in fact, all the traditional liturgies have hymns based on the New Testament as well. So we mustn’t overreact, as some have, and say that only Psalms are meant to be sung in Church. But there must be a place for them in worship I believe.

    One of the great strikes against Calvinistic worship is it’s austerity and neglect of the proper use of Scripture in worship. The decline of the Psalms in worship can be traced directly to Reformed influences on Christian worship. Wright is right to make a case to rediscover their proper use.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      TC,

      I’m actually reading it on my Kindle at the moment. Apart from anything else, Wright is a brilliant writer.

      As for the Psalms, as well as your comment on an earlier post about being a Baptist who appreciates liturgy – ditto, brother! I use the “Liturgy of the Hours” for my daily prayers. It is a magnificent resource that among many other things takes you through all the Psalms every four weeks. Although Roman Catholic, it is intended as a prayer book for the whole Christian Church.

      By the way, if you’ve never come across it, you may be interested in Scot McKnight’s book, “Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today”. He is clearly enthusiastic about the subject, and covers the various prayer-books of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Celtic traditions. The advantage of using one or more of them is that you really are praying with the Church, rather than merely as an individual.

      God bless.

      • TC says:

        Simon: yes, something should be said for those Christian traditions which have continued with the Psalter in the life of the church. Regarding the influence of Calvinism, you are mistaken. Have you forgotten the Regulative Principle among those Reformed who champion only the singing of the Psalter?

        Jon: you beat me to it! Sweet. I actually viewed a lecture by Wright on praying the Psalms here and here. Yes, I would love to read the Anabaptist McKnight’s work. Thanks for recommending it.

  2. Simon says:

    Yes you’re right Jon.

    I wonder whether we are starting to see the decline of “rock n roll” type low church worship services with a stand up comedy act instead of a homily. Or the decline of the four white walls and a lecture of Calvinism. People are seeing the beauty of the traditional liturgies, as well as their theological robustness. As well as the discipline that using a prayer book gives us. And of course, these are prayers that the Church has prayed for centuries. You do really feel part of something bigger than yourself when you participate in the prayers of the Church.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Simon,

      The irony is that the typical rock n roll low church comedy act type of congregation believes that THEY are the ones who have the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the dry formalism and dead religion of more traditional expressions of the faith. Perception is everything!

      I hope you’re right about the decline of the former. It never ceases to amuse me how the strumming of a guitar is somehow an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Bring in a drum kit and you’re really on fire.

      As for the four white walls and a lecture of Calvinism, I’ve been there. Couldn’t stay there though.

  3. Simon says:

    TC, I was looking at the influence of Calvinism on formal worship in general. There may have been some in Calvinism who wanted to preserve the place of the Psalter in worship. But the general trend that the Reformed branch of Protestantism brought to worship was that of an emphasis on the pulpit and not on other aspects of worship. There was also an assault on physical beauty – Reformed iconoclasm, based on their conviction that this was idolatry. So this is where I was coming from.

    I think what Calvisnitic worship became was not something that Calvin himself intended. Of course his own worship program included the Psalter and the creeds etc. There are some very nice aspects to Calvin’s worship service – including the response “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) to each of the ten commandments. It is the trajectory that Calvin started that was worrying. What Protestant worship later became was something that seemed to downplay use of scriptural prayers including the Psalter in favour of spontaneous prayers and songs that are made up. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if you go too far then it does become problematic. As if you go too far the other way. Yes you should sing the Psalms in public worship. But they aren’t the only things that you sing. Christ has come, which he had not when the Psalms were composed. So you can and you must sing according the revelation of the Gospel in the Person of Jesus Christ. So I would also disagree with those who say that the only hymns we must sing are the Psalms.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Simon,

      You’re absolutely right in saying that there was an assault on physical beauty.

      I’l never forget a holiday my wife and I enjoyed in Holland in 2010. We took a boat trip from one fishing village to another across a lake. The first one was ‘Catholic’ (full of life, colour, flowers, hustle and bustle of people coming and going); while the second was ‘Protestant’ (drab, every house painted in the same dull, dark green). The contrast was incredible. Purely anecdotal, I know. But there is some truth to the notion of an austere Calvinism.

      A friend of mine used to live in Amsterdam, and described how these Dutch Calvinistic types actually take pride in keeping their front living room curtains open so that passers-by in the street can look in and see how sparse their way of life is!

      A fruit of Calvinism is indeed an assault on physical beauty. How different from our creative God who delights in what His hands have made.

  4. Jon Hughes says:

    One can only imagine what the church services were like in these circles!

  5. TC says:

    Simon and Jon: I really don’t put much stock into physical beauty, when it comes to places of worship. Such is immaterial to me.

    I find it interesting that while we’re pointing out John Calvin’s appropriation of the creeds and the Psalter in the life of the church, we are at the same time able to say that Calvinism has made an assault and undermined and so on…

    If anything, we need to point out the departures from Calvin’s thought. This is more accurate. Simon, while I admire much of the high church worship services and the like, I remain a Baptist. I am not Orthodox, as in your tradition. ;-)

    • Jon Hughes says:

      TC,

      What’s strikes me as significant is when Reformed churches go out of their way to be bare and drab for theological reasons. It’s not immaterial to them ;-)

      • TC says:

        Jon, I don’t know if for theological reasons, except just part of the Reformed resurgence that has taken place. It’s part of the wave, if you will.

  6. Simon says:

    TC, indeed Reformed worship seems to be immaterial quite literally – having marginalised the place of physical beauty. That’s the worrying thing. An essential part of being truly and fully human are our material bodies. Worship must be embodied and material, not only intellectual. Spirituality, likewise, involves the use of our bodies and our senses. Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy. God is a reality who is to be communed with, not talked about.

    • TC says:

      Simon, I second everything that you say here. But you missed the point about worship being embodied and “God is a reality who is to be communed with” when you juxtaposed all a “place of physical beauty.”

    • Jon Hughes says:

      @Simon: “Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy. God is a reality who is to be communed with, not talked about.”

      As a conservative evangelical, I can accept that this is a significant problem with conservative evangelicalism. Calvinism is certainly a philosophical system, and being right about doctrine is invariably the overriding concern across the board.

      Taking the husband/wife analogy, it would be exceedingly strange were I to spend all my time and energy talking about my wife in abstract terms without actually enjoying intimacy with her. There is such a thing as being overly cerebral :)

      • Simon says:

        Jon, Indeed. Not only Calvinism, but Western Christianity in general – even Catholicism. We called to commune with the Holy Trinity and let that encounter shape our the lives we live. Lord have mercy on us, save us and keep us by your grace.

  7. TC says:

    Simon, you seem to think where we worship, a physical structure, is important to proper and true worship. I couldn’t disagree with you more. I hope this is clear now. ;-)

    • simon says:

      No that’s not the point I was making. However, physical places of public worship are essential in my opinion. And it is only natural that those who worship would make those places beautiful. having a place of worship is essential because we can’t have community with sharing a physical space. We are embodied, physical creatures. Therefore we need a physical space to commune with each other and with God. This is does not constitute “true” worship in and of itself. But it is essential to true worship. Worship must include physical aspects. Even Scripture itself is manifest as a physical and material object ;)

      For the record, I think true worship necessarily includes correct doctrine. But how we come to know correct doctrine is through the grace of God as communicated through the sacraments, in Church, in Scripture, in the Creeds, through iconography… in other words, I would want to affirm the whole life of the Church. There is so much ugliness in the world around us. The Church stands as a beautiful refuge from all this ugliness. and there is the Truth in the beauty of God.

      • TC says:

        What then is your point? I do agree with how we come to correct doctrine, but of course not everything in your list. ;-)

        Yes to Word and Sacrament!

  8. Jon Hughes says:

    @Simon: “Not only Calvinism, but Western Christianity in general – even Catholicism.”

    This reminds me of an amusing quote I came across recently: “All Protestants are Crypto-Papists” (Alexis Khomiakov)!!!

  9. Simon says:

    Jon, Great quote!

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