Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

The Christology of Israel's Psalter

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

The Christology of Israel's Psalter

Article excerpt

Is the Old Testament a Christian book?

Although the catholic tradition of the church typically answers this question in the affirmative, a study of church history reveals the presence of occasional dissenters, some of whom were quite vociferous in their rejection of the Christian character of the Old Testament (e.g., Marcion). In our own day, negative responses to this question are typically understated, often assuming the form of neglect rather than outright hostility. This is especially evident in the worship life of the contemporary church, where New Testament readings from the lectionary, whether gospel or epistle, typically form the basis for Sunday morning homilies or sermons. It is not too much to say that Old Testament preaching has fallen upon hard times, and this is due in no small part to the church's uncertainty when it comes to affirming the Old Testament's relationship to Jesus Christ. Can one say that the Old Testament not only points to Christ, but that it also mediates Christ, both to us and to the Israel of its own day? For many in our day, Christianity begins with the incarnation; ergo, reading the Old Testament as Christian scripture is little more than a hopelessly anachronistic exercise, grounded in a form of uncontrolled allegory or "spiritualizing." After all, there were not multiple incarnations, but one (John 1:14).

But to acknowledge, along with John, that the Word is not yet made flesh in the Old Testament economy is not the same as saying that the Word is not yet made visible, for Christ the eternal Word revealed himself to Israel "at many times and in diverse ways," through the figural form and Christ-shaped witness of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, prior to his revelation as the incarnate Son (Luke 24:44; cf. Heb 1:1). Not only the individual psalms of the Psalter, but also its larger shape and message, may therefore be rightly construed as "christomorphic" in character. Just what does it mean to say that the Psalter is christomorphic in character? The answer is not overly complicated. The Greek term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is often glossed in English as form, and a form is something visible. (1) To say that the Psalter is christomorphic is to say that there is a morphological fit between the literary shape and theological message of the Psalter, on the one hand, and the earthly life and ministry of the incarnate and risen Christ, on the other. By virtue of this "accordance" or morphological fit between Christ and the witness of Israel's Psalter, (2) Jesus the Christ is made visible to Israel in a time of promise.

In light of these preliminary reflections, one may perhaps comprehend more fully the interpretive guidelines offered by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians. There Paul exhorts the church at Colossae: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (Col 3:16). While it is clear from his other letters that "the word of Christ" includes more than the book of Psalms, and in fact encompasses the entirety of Israel's scriptures, in this verse Paul clearly links "the word of Christ" with the book of Psalms. The Greek terms Paul uses to speak of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" are all used as titles for psalms in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Psalter. (3) In addition, many of the psalms make use of words and phrases drawn from Old Testament wisdom traditions. (4) When we keep in mind that Israel's scriptures formed the authorizing matrix for his teaching on the gospel of Christ, it becomes clear that for Paul, the "wisdom" embodied in the teaching or instruction ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the psalms is nothing less than "the word of Christ" he speaks of in Col 3:16.

But just what does this say about Paul's understanding of the Psalter? In what sense may the psalms be said to be "the word of Christ"? …

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