Archives For Walter Brueggemann

I have not read the Psalms through in quite some time and am rather glad. This is because I have always read the Psalms in an uncritical and purposeless fashion. For me reading the Psalms went something like this:

… Blah, blah, blah… the fool says in his heart there is no God… blah, blah, blah… My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… blah, blah, blah… The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want… blah, blah, blah… The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it… blah, blah, blah… (Taken from Psalms 14, 22, 23, 24)

The “Blah, blah, blah” represent all the bits that didn’t compute with my concept of God or my theology, nor do they fit neatly in my high view of Scripture.

I think for example of Psalm 18:24:

The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness.

That sounds very Pelagian to me. Are not our righteousness like filthy rags? Isn’t there no one righteous, no not one? Or how about this one:

I hate those who cling to worthless idols. (Psalm 31:6)

What?! Are we not to “love the sinner but hate the sin”? This Psalm does not just tell us to hate the idol worshipping, but even the person performing the idolatrous act. Or how about this one:

You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale… All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. (Psalm 44:12-17)

Here the Psalmist is blaming God acting unjustly, frivolously selling them for “pittance” all the while not only did they do nothing wrong to deserve such injustice, but in fact they went above and beyond by remaining faithful to God’s covenant! “Yet” the Psalmist continues, “for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughter” (Psalm 44:22). In other words, God! This is your fault because you are unjust!

Ya, I would have skipped over many, many of the Psalms in previous years. But two works of recent years have influenced my current readings of the Psalms, the first is The Message of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann and the second is Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright.

Orientation to New Orientation – Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann sees – broadly, he admits – a theological pattern which can be loosely traced throughout the Psalms which are reminiscent of that most famous Christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. He calls this pattern “Orientation”, “Disorientation” and “New Orientation”.

[Orientation] Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that invoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing… [Disorientation] Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death… [New Orientation] Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when Joy breaks through the despair. [The Message of the Psalms, p.19]

Consider how this plays out in the life of Christ in the classic Christian hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:

Orientation: “Though he was in the form of God…”

Disorientation: “[He] emptied himself.”

New Orientation: “Therefore God has highly exalted him…” [p.11]

The same pattern is emblematic of the larger biblical narrative, Creation, Fall, Recreation. Christians told this story in song, the Christ Hymn. This story may be seen in the Psalms as well.

Representative Psalms of Orientation are Psalm 2; Psalm 16; and Psalm 23.
Representative Psalms of Disorientation are Psalm 3; Psalm 6; Psalm 10; Psalm 26; and Psalm 44.
Representative Psalms of New Orientation are Psalm 18; Psalm 27; Psalm 31; Psalm 40 and Psalm 45.

Creation and Covenant – Wright

There is another theme, another story which the early Christians knew well because like the Psalms, the theology of early Christians was sung in another great Christological hymn, Colossians 1:15-20. The theology embedded in Christian song – and in Jewish song before it via the Psalms – is the theme of Creation and Covenant. Wright explains:

First the covenant is there to solve the problems within creation. God called Abraham to solve the problem of evil, the problem of Adam, and the problem of the world… But, second, creation is invoked to solve the problems within the covenant. When Israel is in trouble, and the covenant promises themselves seem to have come crashing to the ground, the people cry to the covenant of God precisely as the creator. – Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 24

Wright explains how Colossians 1:15-20 is more or less divided into two halves: verse 15-17 reminds the reader of God the creator all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” through Jesus Christ who is the very image of the invisible God. But then (verse 18-20) the text turns and appeals to God the covenant maker: “He is the head of the body, the church… and through him to reconcile to himself all things…”

Psalms 19 is a perfect thematic example of how this same theology motif was embedded in the great songs (i.e. the Psalms) of Israel’s tradition. Psalm 19 is also more or less broken up into two halves. Psalm 19:1-6 reminds the reader from the start that God is the God Most High (not just another “god”): “The heavens declare the glory of God”. But then (Psalm 19:7-14) the Psalm turns and reminds the reader not just that God is “God Most High”, but more specifically that God Most High is in fact their God; he is the God who established a covenant relationship with Israel.

Other thematic examples of Psalms of “Covenant and Creation” aside from Psalm 19 (which may be the most convenient to point out) are Psalm 9; Psalm 24; Psalm 29; Psalm 33; and maybe Psalm 37.

I found the theological insights from these two scholars very helpful in guiding me to read the Psalms with purpose. To look for deep rooted theological themes embedded within Israel’s tradition which bleeds through their worship hymns.

[P.S. You’ll notice that I did not source any Psalm above Psalm 45. That is because today’s post was based on Days 39 & 40 of my 90 (or whatever) day challenge through the bible: Psalm 1-45].

I suggest that if we put the question of Calvinism and Arminianism aside for a time and study God as he has revealed himself in the scriptures we will not discover Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover as Calvinism has always espoused; in fact we may not even discover God as the Arminian understands him. It may be, after seeking to discover the God of the scriptures on their own terms, that we may discover the God of Open Theism quite by accident! Not of Calvin’s Unmoved Mover, but of Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover.We will, in all probability, discover as John Sanders said, a God Who Risks. This – I believe – is the truth we all must wrestle with whether or not we embrace Open Theism.

Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost Old Testament scholars, seems quite disinterested in questions of determinism and foreknowledge – except when specific texts’ call attention to such speculation – and in the debates between Calvinism and Arminianism (and Open Theism). But in his studies of the God of the Old Testament, the “Hebrew testimony” and portrayal of YWHW, he writes: “the defining category for faith in the Old Testament is dialogue, whereby all parties – including God – are changed in a dialogic exchange that is potentially transformative for all parties… including God.” And again, “The Old Testament is an invitation to reimagine our life and our faith as an on-going dialogic transaction in which all parties are variously summoned to risk and change.” He goes on:

“When we are freed of static categories of interpretation that are widely utilized among us, we are able to see that the articulation of God in the Old Testament partakes exactly of the quality of complexity, dynamism, and fluidity that belong to the post-modern world… such an open and thick articulation of faith may be threatening to some and may require unlearning by us all”. An Unsettling God; 2009, p.xii; italics added.

What a powerful statement from a man who is not interested in sustaining “static categories of interpretation” such as Calvinism or Arminianism; neither, it is prudent to add, is he interested in Open Theism. When Brueggemann approaches the scriptures he does not ask, is the God of Calvin here or the God of Arminius or the God of Pinnock? When Brueggemann approaches the Old Testament he asks the question to the ancient Hebrews, “Who do you say that He is?” Sometimes we see the categories of Calvin and sometimes we see the categories of Arminius, this is partly what makes God “unsettling”, because YWHW cannot be made to easily fit into our “static categories of interpretation” – He is too big, and we are too fallible.

Yet it is a fearful road Brueggemann offers, it is a road of discomfort; because in asking the Hebrews and not the Greeks “Who is YWHW?” he finds himself immediately at odds with classical Christian theology.

“In… much classical Christian theology, ‘God’ can be understood in terms of quite settled categories that are, for the most part, inimical to the biblical tradition. The casting of the classical tradition… is primarily informed by the Unmoved Mover of Hellenistic thought… a Being completely apart from and unaffected by the reality of the world” [p.1]

We have come to a point – or perhaps we have always been there – where the God revealed by the Hebrew testimony is rather embarrassing to our sensibilities. The Hebrews speak of a God affected by the passing of time; a God emotionally invested in his creation and sometimes those emotions are even mixed. They speak of a God whose mind is not settled and what’s worse, they don’t seem to mind this God at all! This God repents, He laughs, He tests, He changes His mind and what’s more, He allows his creation to move Him to action and at other times, they have the power to stay His wrathful hand.

“It is common to be embarrassed about the anthropomorphic aspects of this God, so embarrassed as to want to explain away such a characterization or at least to transpose it into a form that better serves a generic notion of God…. All such embarrassments, however, fail to do justice to the scriptural tradition.” [p.2]

Again, Walter Brueggemann has called us out on the carpet; all of us! Classical Christianity cannot escape the ugly reality that we have since near the beginning been embarrassed of the Hebrew testimony of God and so silenced it. It does not jive well with our sensibilities, our Hellenistic sensibilities. But who is the guilty one; are they or are we? It is not they who are being unfaithful to the scriptures; indeed they wrote them! And instead of being embarrassed of the Hebrew testimony of YWHW we ought to be embarrassed of our selves. It will no longer do, in my mind, to dismiss the challenge of the Old Testament as embarrassing “anthropomorphic” ramblings of ancient people. Christianity needs – to some extent – to put Classical Christian Theology on trial and the judge ought not to be Aristotle, but Abraham. Classical Christian Theology is in need of purification, and its filter ought to be the scriptures.

Top 5 Reads of 2009

Derek Ouellette —  December 28, 2009

In no particular order, here are my top 5 reads of 2009: Continue Reading…