Sunday, August 31, 2008

Book Review: Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding. Reading the Psalms with Augustine.

This week, I've come to the end of my last official 'summer' reading book, Jason Byassee's Praise Seeking Understanding. Reading the Psalms with Augustine. I've already blogged on Byassee's attitude to historical/critical scholarship's relationship to the literal level of Scriptural reading. Now, I want to discuss Bayasse's book in more detail, especially the nature of the project he pursues in this book.

Byasse's main concern in this book is to recommend Augustine (especially demonstrated in his Ennarationes in Psalmos) as a resource to teach us to read Scripture more allegorically. In this sense, he challenges the current scholarly wisdom both about the centrality of historical/critical scholarship as a (or the only?) resource to understand the Bible and about the arbitrary and inferior quality of allegorical exegetical approaches to the Bible. He places himself firmly in the tradition of recent scholars like Andrew Louth, Nicholas Lash, David Steinmetz, Stephen Fowl, Lewis Ayres and Robert Wilken, who have, in their own ways, champion or championed a return to allegorical readings of the Bible. There has been a recent revival in interest in 'theological exegesis' and Bayasse's book should be understood as contributing to this conversation.

The core of the book deals with four main issues: the Christological emphasis of Augustine's exegesis of the Psalms, the issue of beauty and aesthetics in Augustinian exegesis, the charge of anti-Semitism levelled at Augustine (and the other Fathers) and the value of multi-sense exegesis. I won't summarize all of these sections (otherwise, why read the book?), but I want to make a few observations.

One of the more striking discussions in the book is Bayasse's discussion of aesthetics in Augustinian exegesis. This will, I think, strike many of my readers, even those initiated into patristics for some time, as an odd emphasis. For many of us who read the Fathers, the Fathers are a mine of information about how the early Church operated, came to the doctrinal decisions that they handed down to us and a touchstone of orthodoxy which brings with it an authority greater than any other Christian writing, except the Bible. What Byassee reminded me was that the Ennarationes and, in fact, most other patristic works, were rhetorical works intended, as the rhetorical handbooks of the age noted, to "instruct, delight and move". We moderns are excellent at discovering the instruction, but delight and inspiration fly right over our head. Bayasse argues that we need to recover this delight to appreciate what Augustine was doing and to apply it in our own exegesis. Byassee argues that allegory served these purposes by revealing unexpected meanings in the Biblical text (filtered and, hence, bounded by the Rule of Faith). These meanings instruct us, to be sure, but they, hopefully, also delight us and move us to greater faith. Bayasse suggests that even some of the more unusual interpretations need to be seen in this light, rather than merely dismissed as irrelevant and silly. No doubt, patristic authors can get wearing sometimes, but I think that we all need to recover the aesthetic sense of the Fathers and enjoy them as much as we learn from them. I feel that I've barely begun, but this is a direction that I'm inspired to investigate.

A second point that Bayasse makes is his emphasis that allegory, especially Augustine's use of allegory, is not as arbitrary as it has been alleged, at least, since the Reformation (and more so after the Enlightenment). He points out that at no time did the Fathers (even Origen) view allegory as a way to escape the text, but rather it tightly controlled by the Rule of Faith (early versions of the Creeds). The Rule of Faith limited the possible allegorical readings of Scripture and, deriving from the same source as the New Testament (the apostolic testimony), it served as a check on attempts to use allegory to get around uncomfortable passages. This is important to remember because this has always been my concern with Bibilcal allegory and the reason why I've had problems with it in the past. Yet, in the hands of a master, it can bring light and explain elements of Scripture that other approaches can't. It is particularly use for the reading of the Old Testament and, of course, the Psalms. It certainly informs Augustine's basically Christological reading of the Psalms in the Ennarationes.

A third interesting point about Augustinian exegesis which struck me is that Augustine (and the other Fathers) took Scripture so seriously that even its apparent errors served a purpose in God's self-revelation in Scripture. This point interests me in the light of the good sized industry in both scholarly and popular religious writing to find the errors of the Bible and use them to discredit all, but what the author has as his/her vision of Christianity. We've all seen books like this, so I don't think I really need to list examples. What is striking about Augustine's attitude to these 'error's is that he understands them as opportunities to delve deeper into what God is doing in the Bible. Since he found it incomprehensible that God could make a mistake and because he believed firmly in the inspired quality of the Bible, Augustine argued that these 'mistakes' were there so that we would be encouraged to read carefully and deeply into Scripture, rather than merely use it as a rulebook or reference work on the Christian life (this is paraphrased, of course). These 'errors' mean something and it is the challenge of the Scriptural exegete to delve into their meaning.

What I like about this observation is that it neatly jumps over the inerrancy debate. It affirms that sometimes things can look wrong in the Bible on a literal level, but that God uses even these apparent errors. It isn't that God is being sneaky and planting mistakes to mislead someone (on the analogy of burying dinosaur bones to mislead an unfaithful humanity into believing evolution as some creationists have argued), but that God's power to inspire is so great that He uses the 'human' errors of the writers. In that sense, Scripture is both inerrant and inspired, even if the authors were only the latter. I don't know what to do with this idea, but I'm floating it to see if this is a legitimate interpretation of Augustine's point. I wonder.

A last thing that I think is important out of this book. Bayasse spends a lot of time emphasizing that he isn't dismissing historical/critical readings of the Bible. He argues that they are useful for understanding the literal level of the Bible and have a place in any exegesis of the Bible. Nor does he argue that only allegorical readings should be used in Biblical exegesis. He argues that the Bible bears interpretations on various levels at the same time and that it impoverishes our understanding of the Bible if we privilege one level over the other. The fact that we have done so in modernity (the literal level, ironically) has meant that our exegesis is too shallow. We need to deepen it with the other level of exegesis. In the end, that is the core of Byassee's project.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone who is discontent with how the Bible is read today. It is a challenge to read the Bible more deeply and it is a challenges which has started me thinking about how to apply it in my own study and reading of the Bible. Byassee's plea for new communities (almost a new monasticism), I think, is a hard one to achieve and is primarily aimed at seminaries. My own question is how do ordinary Christians learn to read the Bible more deeply. That is something that I'm sure I'll return to in the near future.

I really must get an editor. It appears that not only did I give the wrong first name to the author of this excellent book, but I persistently mis-spelled his last name. My apologies!


Weekend Fisher said...

Oddly, after I read this, I was re-reading part of Augustine's confessions and came across some relevant parts. Apparently he became fond of this approach from Ambrose of Milan, and particularly about parts of the Old Testament that he found problematic. He put it like this: "So he (Ambrose) would draw aside the veil of mystery and explain in a spiritual sense the meanings of things which, if understood literally, appeared to be teaching what was wrong." (Confessions VI.4)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Phil Snider said...

Bayassee likes this passage as well because it connects well to Augustine's approach to the Old Testament. It certainly is a very telling passage.


Anonymous said...

I am teaching Latin Psalms AND I've finished all 3000 pages of the Ennarationes in Psalmos, so I would like to contact Phil for some Latin help. how do I do this ?

Phil Snider said...

Hi Anon;

Sorry for the delay, but I hadn't checked the blog out for awhile. Just send a quick message to .