Book Review

The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential By N. T. Wright

John J. Bombaro
N.T. Wright
Monday, December 30th 2013
Jan/Feb 2014

I find it impossible," says N. T. Wright, "to imagine a growing and maturing church or Christian doing without the Psalms. And that is why (to be frank) a fair amount of contemporary Christian music has worried me for some time" (165).

In this latest offering from Tom Wright, both individual Christian devotion and corporate worship are subject to redirection by the Word of God in the Psalter. But this is not your standard appeal to the Psalms for pointers on biblical worship, or a plea to increase spiritual intimacy by way of the Bible's poetic devices. Instead, Wright's book brings a surprisingly fresh approach to the Psalms through a range of covenantal considerations, narrating the history of the divine work of redemption in Jesus Christ, utilizing an articulation of the overlapping dimensions (earth/heaven, time/eternity, matter/spirit) of our one reality as a foil by which to call the church to dwell in the crossroads where the Lord stands for us.

The book itself is the result of a plenary address presented at the 2012 Calvin College Symposium on Worship (available on YouTube). It begins with a conceptual approach to presenting the suitableness and efficacy of the Psalms for saving, sanctifying, and liturgical graces by arguing that the Psalms entreat us to live at the crossroads where human time, space, and matter intersect with God's time, space, and matter. Wright puts it this way: "The Psalms, I want to suggest here, are songs and poems that help us not to just understand this most ancient and relevant worldview but actually to inhabit and celebrate it’this worldview in which, contrary to most modern assumptions, God's time and ours overlap and intersect, God's space and ours overlap and interlock, and even…the sheer material world of God's creation is infused, suffused, and flooded with God's own life and love and glory" (22). Consequently, God's Word and the sacraments matter deeply, but so does everything else that takes place in the worship environment and the individual Christian's devotional and vocational life. Wright has a masterful ability to convey these weighty theological truths through memorable turns of phrase easily digestible by nontechnicians and even children. Readers will find the "time, space, and matter" device convincing and effective in conveying the worldview content of the Psalms and how that worldview is in fact our reality, notwithstanding the dictates of competing philosophies.

Subsequent chapters unfold the mystery of living an authentically human life in the midst of the crossroads where God himself is present speaking and acting through the Son but also the Spirit. The psalmists are persons seeking grace, longing for mercy, basking in the presence of God, and struggling with sin, anger, pride, loneliness, and a myriad of other emotions and states of mind. The Lord ministers to us through divine hymnody: "The Psalms give every indication that they stand intentionally at the intersection of God's time and human time, with all the tensions that brings as well as the yearning for resolution" (29). The resolution is life in Christ.

Christ is the resolution. Christ is the solution. The christocentrism of The Case for the Psalms is altogether laudable: "[The Psalms] resonate with Jesus because he was the one who stood, by divine appointment, precisely at the intersection of God's time and ours, of God's space and ours, of God's matter and ours" (30). Wright boldly reiterates the Jesus hermeneutic of Luke 24:44 and John 5:39, arguing that the story the Psalms tell is the story Jesus came to complete. Indeed, they are most properly understood as the story of Jesus Christ himself representative of Israel as their rightful king, but also all those who come under the scope of his sovereign dominion. There is no shortage of scriptural substantiation to Wright's presentation of the Jesus hermeneutic. He guides the reader through approximately one hundred of the one hundred and fifty psalms through which we see that God's (re)solution to the human predicament is the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Applied to the believer, Christ challenges the reader of the Psalms to a different way of understanding’namely, living within the narrative of the crossroads that he occupies.

Early in the book, Wright juxtaposes an Epicurean depiction of "god" so prevalent today that does not at all comport with the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian theology. The God of the Bible is not an aloof Epicurean concept or deist ideal. YHWH makes himself known as the orchestrator God, not an interventionist. He is presently active in the world today, supremely in the church, applying the means of grace, and sanctifying his saints. Readers will be inspired by Wright's articulation of the doctrine of divine providence and then be directed to worship and the means of grace.

The Case for the Psalms addresses devotional and liturgical dimensions of Christian thinking and living and is to be used in both areas. But it is also substantially theological in categories that resonate with Lutherans and Calvinists. Wright makes a proper distinction between worship as a response and duty (law) and what the Lord does for us (gospel). So, too, Reformed theological categories of covenant are amply present and, indeed, set the framework for Wright's presentation of Jesus' fulfillment of Adam's covenantal responsibilities, as well as Israel's.

Wright concludes with an autobiographical account of his own history with the Psalms, testifying to the effect that they have been formative at daily and key junctures within his life. They only could be so, he says, because the rhythm of his devotional life revolves around engaging the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in and through the Psalter, and that practice was encouraged, reinforced, and exemplified through corporate worship: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith).

To be sure, this is a welcome addition to his recent general reading audience publications under the HarperOne imprint, including the commendable Simply Jesus (2011) and How God Became King (2012). Laypersons, pastors, and neophytes to Christianity will find it useful, tasteful, and undeniably inspirational.

Monday, December 30th 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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