Monday, September 27, 2010

Theodicy and the Psalms

Sept 23, 2010 High Noon: Bill and Dirk face each other
Presenter: Bill Bellinger (Baylor) left
Respondent: Dirk Human (Pretoria) right
Very cheerful looking folks to have to take on this subject.

Both speakers were clear and interesting. Strangely, this section was not as much about theodicy as about the shape of the psalter as we find it today, i.e. about what I have been posting on over the last 8 weeks - and here I found some helpful critiques, notably that I must examine each book on its own for its own coherence (e.g. Psalm 107 and 140 to 143, also 146 with the perspective on the poor). Writers like Wilson and Bruggemann have identified their pivotal psalms (89 and 73 respectively) - 89 the great lament about the failure of the Davidic monarchy, 73 an individual confession of continuing faith, and so divided the psalter in two. This is helpful if a bit oversimplified.

Some lovely phrases arose in the talks. From Bill: a hermeneutic of curiosity within the acceptable practices of form critical studies, Childs' canonical approach, and reading the psalter as a whole. Many scholars who have written books on the psalms were mentioned: Wilson, Bruggemann, David Mitchell, McCann, Nancy de Claissé Walford (tomorrow's lecturer on translation), Hossfelt (tomorrow's wrap up lecturer) and David Zenger (d 2010).  I browsed an Eerdmann publication today by Samuel Terrien with some very nice diagrams and moves on prosodic structure. And what about Susan Gillingham, John Day, or Goldingay, or Allen, or Crenshaw, or Holladay, The Psalms through 3000 years (which I also browsed today and which has much detail on Qumran of which more later when we deal with the shape of the psalter on its stages through history). The difficulty with having a lecture that is a list of books is that if you haven't read them, they go in one ear and out the other. (But tomorrow I am going to find Childs and start reading.) What I learned was that there was an overwhelming amount of knowledge present in the room.

Some questions were posed: what is the impact of the shape of the book on the reading community? Example - (which comes up later in Elizabeth Solopova's lecture on medieval practice) - the division of the psalms into three groups of 50 with Vulgate numbering  is a very different structure from the focus on a single pivot or the 30-line summary I posted two weeks ago. Instructively- 3 50s is a hermeneutic of simplicity which takes faith and practice for granted. The careful intellectual analysis is still in reaction against a post-enlightenment hermeneutic of skepticism, not exactly curiosity.

I noted some other claims:
  • that the psalter's core is the royal sequence from 93, and 96-99. 
  • that the sequence from 102 to 106 confirms coming to terms with exile and suffering.
  • that 73-89 make the exile very present.
I remain unconvinced of the adequacy of these statements. That יְהוָה is king is evident, but the royal responsibility of those to whom יְהוָה has shown mercy is also evident with the emergence of the chasidim. The closing sequence of book 4 is much greater than the exile. Exile unifies books 2 and 3 - not just book 3. The corporate lament of psalm 44 has been noted before. Exile in book 5 is limited to Psalm 137 - a reminder and a closing bracket. Psalm 107 was noted as reflecting the exile, and it could be related to it, but it seems to me to have a more general reach to all sorts and conditions of trouble that people get into through various means.

More authors mentioned: Robert Cole, Why and How Long (is that a book?) honest dialogue that persists through the process. Crenshaw - Defending God (available at UVIC - a good read), Tilley - evils of theodicy - no theory required. Need an emphasis on protest - work in process and experiment.

And that was just the end of Bill's lecture. Dirk responded more briefly - at least my notes are briefer: He began with Leibnitz who coined the word theodicy, and who said that God had created the best of all possible worlds. (Maybe there's where we went astray - is 'good' enough?) Another author noted: Lindstrom re God and the petitioner - is God doing something? is God inactive/silent? Psalm 93:5 Nice short psalm ending with verse 5:
your testimonies are very faithful
holiness fits in your house יְהוָה
to the end of days

Book 5 is hymnic at the end has a liturgical orientation and emphasis on David. Psalm 73 is the 'Job' of the psalter. Psalm 150 has 10 imperative summonses - praise carries the scars of life. (Reminds me of Valiant for Truth from Pilgrim's progress - my marks and scars I carry with me, a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder) - If you got this far there is a reward.
  1. Issues of theodicy are not always clear
  2. lament as a protest vehicle stimulates catharsis - need further motivation IMO
  3. maybe the relationship between lament and hymns need more reflection
  4. God is not justified in the psalter for his absence - kingship is very much greater than all other powers
  5. we are invited to participate in this kingship (be wise O ye kings ...)


  1. Good to see my teacher, Bill Bellinger.

    As to your comment on this not being about theodicy per se but the shape of the Psalter, yes, for Bellinger that is correct. Bellinger has told me he is beginning to work through thinking of the Psalter as "theodicy writ large." I trust (and hope) that will help make sense of his presentation.

  2. John - congratulations on your graduation - and the first year of work too - bravo. Re theodicy - we had a spirited conversation at lunch - I am not convinced that it is a useful term - needs a post though.

  3. Thanks, Bob. If you can help me land that elusive tenure track job, please do be of assistance! ha!

    Bellinger is a delight! I am not too familiar with where Bellinger is going with theodicy in the Psalter, so I am curious to see some publications on it.