Archive for August, 2011

Thirtle’s Theory

August 26, 2011

I have been among those who committed the error of publicly reading a psalm and omitting to read the title. I reasoned that these titles probably belonged in the same category as the chapter and verse numbers of our Bibles: helpful, but by no means inspired.

I’ve since been divested of that view, and now see these titles as God-breathed, like all Scripture. One sees evidence for this in several ways. For example, the title of Psalm 18 is found within the text of 2 Samuel 22:1, showing the psalm title’s authenticity. It was not a later rabbinic interpolation. Further, some of the psalm titles (e.g. 46 & 58) were merely transliterated by the translators of the Greek Septuagint (c. 300-250 B.C.). This suggests that their meaning had already been lost by the time of the Septuagint, which in turn suggests great antiquity. They are much older than a post-exilic rabbinic commentary. Finally, Scriptures like Luke 20:42 quoting Psalm 110) take the title as true, for nowhere else is it stated that David himself wrote the psalm.

I was recently introduced to the fascinating theory of James Thirtle regarding the psalm titles. To quote the ISBE, Thirtle’s hypothesis is that

…both superscriptions and subscriptions were incorporated in the Psalter, and that in the process of copying the Psalms by hand, the distinction between the superscription of a given psalm and the subscription of the one immediately preceding it was finally lost. When at length the different psalms were separated from one another, as in printed editions, the subscriptions and superscriptions were all set forth as superscriptions. Thus it came about that the musical subscription of a given psalm was prefixed to the literary superscription of the psalm immediately following it. 1

Thirtle’s justification for his theory was a study of passages such as Habukkuk 3. In verse 1, a superscription of authorship is given, while in verse 19, a musical subscription is given. The same thing is seen in Isaiah 38:9-20. Thirtle gave evidence for this being the pattern in Hebrew poetry: personal and occasional historical information given at the beginning of the psalm, and the musical instructions given at the end.

In other words, many of our Psalm titles are unfortunate combinations of the musical subscription of the previous psalm, and the superscription of the following psalm. That is, superscription of Psalm 3 is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” However, the musical subscription is found in most Bibles as part of Psalm 4: “To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments.” The superscription of Psalm 4 ought to simply read “A Psalm of David”.

When you follow this theory, it has very interesting, possibly corroboratory, results. For example, Psalm 55:6 speaks of David’s desire to have the wings of a dove. If this theory is true, then the musical subscription of Psalm 55 is “To the Chief Musician. Set to ‘The Silent Dove in Distant Lands’”, while the superscription of Psalm 56 is simply, “A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.”

Another example is seen in Psalms 87 and 88. The tone of Psalm 87 is exceedingly cheerful, while Psalm 88 is among the most mournful in all the psalter. Should Psalm 88 really be entitled “ A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the Chief Musician. Set to “Mahalath Leannoth [Dancings with Shoutings]”? It seems this tone of rejoicing belongs to Psalm 87. Further, this solves the apparent contradiction in the title of Psalm 88 which seems to have the psalm belonging to both the sons of Korah as well as Heman the Ezrahite. Instead, the superscription of Psalm 88 is simply “A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite.”

Thirtle’s theory becomes illuminating as you begin to apply it when reading the psalms, and see a number of places where it truly seems to fit. Practically speaking, if we take this to be true, then it does affect how we would publicly read the psalm titles. After all, they’re inspired; the numbers before or after them are not.

1. John Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book of,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 5 vols., ed. by James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 4:2487-94.


Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 21 – Imagination and Shaping the Affections

August 19, 2011

Many of the pastors I have met are unwitting moderns. I should know, for I am also a pastor, and a recovering modern. That is, I am someone who believed the lies of scientism: that the way to know reality is by fact-collecting, and that humans are capable of being completely objective in their fact-collecting. To put the lie another way, point the microscope, stethoscope, telescope or some other instrument towards the universe, and you will find out a pure, brute fact about what is. If you collect enough of these facts, you might be able to construct a big picture of what is.

Many spiritual leaders apply something similar to Christian discipleship. In their view, if you collect enough theological facts from the Bible you will be able to construct the whole picture. Therefore, their aim in ministry is to discover and then supply people with these facts. All else is peripheral, matters of preference, taste, or, in their words, ‘subjective’ matters. Lucky for their people, they’re ‘objective’, and deal mostly in supplying objective brute theological facts.

As I say, I am recovering from my modernism, for it still infects much of what I do. However, a biblical mindset understands that the Truth precedes the facts, and that even our understanding of Revelation goes through a grid. That is what leads conservative Christian pastors to pay attention to the imagination.

The imagination is that part of us which gives us an intuitive feeling about the nature of immanent reality. It is our grid, our map of reality to which we refer all the ‘facts’ we encounter. It is built over years, and supplied with an aggregate of symbols from our culture(s). Those symbols, as discussed in the last post, supply the sense of proportion and measure toward all things. This is what largely shapes a person’s affections toward God, himself and the world.

The cognitive aspect of the Christian faith cannot be divorced from the affective aspect. Indeed, as we’ve just seen, there is a sense in which they are dependent on one another.  This is the aspect of the Christian faith that does not seem to be given the attention it requires: how the imagination informs how we feel about the truth. It is our ongoing response to the truth.

We can sing of God in funny limericks, or in stately hymns. We can think of the Flood like this, or like this. We can imagine the experience of encountering God like this, or like this. We can compare sin to ‘Stinky Sox’ or to a curse. We can ‘theme’ the Christian life after treasure hunts, race-car driving, detective-sleuthing or cowboys and Indians, or use the biblical imagery supplied by the apostles. We can sing benedictions like this or like this. We can imagine the event of corporate worship (and therefore the setting for it) like this, or like this. We can dress up the faith in games, fun, material rewards, or in the motives Jesus gave. The list could go on. Whatever you decide about these differing visions, there is little doubt that these examples illustrate that Christians can and do have contrasting, even opposing, visions of how one should respond to the truths of God’s Word.

What we must not miss is that in these matters, we might have total agreement on the content (and perhaps meaning) of the theological facts under discussion. However, the form in which we teach them demonstrates how we imagine these truths ought to affect us. This is the difference between the modernist and the Christian: the modernist cannot see how the form of things shapes the sentiment towards the truth, which can ultimately shape the whole view of truth.

All of these matters are, in a sense, pre-cognitive. They provide a sensibility, a sentiment towards the facts under discussion. If the cognitive tells us who God is, the imaginative tells us what He deserves. If the cognitive supplies us with ideas to be known, the imaginative tells us how we ought to respond to those ideas.

And since Christianity is a religion of worshiping an invisible God, we are heavily reliant on these matters of the imagination to teach us a sensibility toward the truth. Therefore, the pastor who wishes to see affections properly shaped in his people must think carefully about such matters as the poetry in the lyrics of our songs, the music used in worship, the religious artwork we use (in our Sunday School material, for example), the themes or motifs adopted in our children’s discipleship, the motives we give for people (young or old) to serve Christ, down to how we design our place for corporate worship. These are not merely decorative, stylistic matters, they provide precisely the kind of analogies we spoke of previously. Form is formative. If our analogies are not serious, it is likely that the sentiment towards the things of God will not be serious. If the analogies provoke narcissism, it is likely that the sentiment towards worship and discipleship will be narcissistic.

Shaping the affections goes beyond providing facts. It goes to considering carefully the form in which ideas are presented. It considers how the entire worldview and sensibility towards the things of God is shaped by the analogies we give the imagination.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 20 – More than Cognitive

August 12, 2011

The cultivation of ordinate affection depends on several areas we have already covered in this series. A pastor determined to conserve biblical Christianity will be conserving several areas, each of which affect the others. Bear with me as we tie several elements already discussed to the shaping of the affections.

Since regeneration is essential to ordinate affection, a conservative Christian church preserves and propagates the biblical gospel. Apart from the heart being given an entirely new disposition, it will always love creature more than Creator, and therefore become more warped in its affections.

Since a right understanding of God, ourselves and the world is essential to right loves, a conservative Christian church conserves and teaches a comprehensive biblical and systematic theology. Without a systematic exposition of God’s Word, with practical submission to it, no one will love what God loves and hate what God hates.

Since example and exposure are necessary for the shaping of appropriate loves, the conservative Christian church conserves biblical worship, and understands one of its roles as a ‘catechism of the affections’. Corporate worship, with its forms, order and structure provides a lesson in proportion, decorum and appropriate responses. Corporate worship is the opportunity for adjusting the sensibilities of the worshipers, so that a common sentiment towards God, the world and ourselves is developed. It is not meant to be a venue for competing sensibilities to all find expression in the name of personal taste and Romans 14.

Since sanctification is essentially re-ordering our loves to bring them in line with God’s, the conservative Christian church gives much attention to teaching personal piety, and encouraging discipleship relationships. When Christians observe ordinate love for God, mankind and the created order, it is often caught. Therefore, piety is to be encouraged in the life of the individual and the family. Practical obedience is to be stressed as essential to knowing and loving God.

Since understanding a biblical view of man is crucial to loving God ordinately, the conservative Christian church gives time to teach on the importance of the affections, the nature of the affections, and their application: what ought to be loved and how. A pastor who gives himself to all these things is well on his way to shaping ordinate affection in his hearers.

However, all of the above is not sufficient. The conservative pastor must become aware that the affections are not only shaped by regeneration, sound doctrine, sound worship, true piety and teaching on the affections. My point in the previous post was to illustrate how God shaped the affections of His people, and it was not only through information and obedience. He filled their lives with a large variety of symbols, ceremonies and rituals. These did more than regulate health and civil life in Israel. They dressed up the mere material existence of God’s people with the drapery of symbol, metaphor and analogy. Notice, God did this in addition to the moral imperatives of the Law. God knows that while our hearts can be partly shaped by what our minds know, and by what we choose, the heart’s responses are primarily affective responses, taught by analogy. Affective responses are essentially about proportion: an object deserves a particular kind of love. There is a response to an object or person that is proportionate to what it is in reality. This kind of proportionate response or just sentiment, is not taught cognitively. It is taught through analogy, wherein the analogy provides the sense of proportion. The symbol, if correctly chosen, contains the kind of affections required for the observer to correctly respond to the realities behind the symbol. Seeing an animal die at the altar evoked certain affections commensurate with repentance for sin. Comparing God to a captain of an army called for certain affections proportionate to His nature. Conversely, the high places with their analogies of sexual potency and fertility evoked inordinate affection.

All of this is to say that the pastor who wishes to shape ordinate affection in his people must become aware of how our knowledge of God and ultimate reality is analogical knowledge, and therefore our affections are shaped by the right analogies. Since God cannot be seen, how can we know how to love Him justly and appropriately? When our affective responses are responses to biblical or well-chosen images, analogies, metaphors, symbols, and signs, they will be correctly proportioned. In other words, the conservative Christian pastor must give attention to the imagination, and to form. This we will examine next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 19 – Culture and Cultivation of the Affections

August 5, 2011

Much has been said everywhere about the decline of religious belief; not so much notice has been taken of the decline of religious sensibility. The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. A belief in which you no longer believe is something which to some extent you can still understand; but when religious feeling disappears, the words in which men have struggled to express it become meaningless. – T.S. Eliot (On Poetry and Poets, London: Faber and Faber, 1957, 25.)

The Israelite had a large aggregate of symbols in his life. Everything from Israel’s ceremonial laws, to the corporate worship, to the ordering of domestic life gave the Israelite a large collection of metaphors that enabled him to understand ultimate reality. These communicated not so much the truth statements contained in the Tanakh, but a sensibility, an appreciation, towards those truths. To put it another way, his culture shaped his affections. Moreover, it shaped those of his fellow Israelites, creating common sentiments toward God.

When we think about the situation we find ourselves in today, we must ask, what kind of common set of symbols, traditions, routines and rituals shape the sensibilities of the people arriving in our churches, so that we share a common sentiment toward God, the world and ourselves? The answer is that no such shared sensibility exists any longer. The fragmentation of any kind of cultural consensus is a part of modern life. Existentialism, humanism, positivism, relativism, narcissism and others isms make up the fragmented and often self-contradictory worldviews of modern Western people. This does not produce anything like a shared set of tastes, attitudes and values. Instead, everyone has an eclectic set of prejudices and sentiments, which he usually defends as vehemently as Laban looking for his idols.

Further, the church has been steadily secularized over the last 200 years, meaning that it accepts and contributes to this fragmentation. Instead of expecting or trying to cultivate shared affections toward God, the modern church caters to completely divergent sensibilities toward God by holding traditional and contemporary services at different times, or by combining them in blended worship services. In short, every Sunday proves the truth of Eliot’s words.

In light of all this, how does a pastor or spiritual leader desirous to shape ordinate affection respond?

The first thing will be to adjust his expectations for ‘success’. If the loves of broader secular culture, along with those of the average secularized church and the average secularized family shape those of the average church attender, then we can begin to perceive the magnitude of the problem. Loves are grown over decades, over a lifetime. They cannot be changed by merely pointing out what ought to be loved, or enforced by diktat. Someone who has learned to love the trivial, the debased and the sentimental cannot unlearn those loves in a day. Nor will he do so easily, for your loves are just that – the things you love, and which seem to be a part of yourself. Not easily are our idols torn from us. If there is one thing most moderns will not accept, it is the idea that some of their loves could be wrong, inappropriate, malformed, or inordinate. The matter of shaping and forming the affections is a task that belongs also to the common grace found in entire cultures, not only the special grace found in local churches. If our culture is apostate, there is a sense in which our successes in shaping ordinate affection will be very small, and it will take a very different kind of shepherd to navigate his church in a Dark Age.

This kind of realistic outlook should not be mistaken as pessimism. Pessimism is unbelief in God’s power to ultimately bring about the hope of believers or fulfill His promises. We have faith that the miracle of regeneration begins the process of reforming the loves. We know that the Word of God preached and practiced will partly reform the loves. We know that examples of ordinate affection and pious living will partly reform the loves. If God wishes to, He may choose to bring about another Reformation. Ultimately, we have every expectation that Christ will impose His victory and glorify Himself. What we do not expect is that the current Western culture will bring forth a flowering of true worship to God, since the affections of most are radically deformed by its sensibilities, and all too many churches exacerbate the situation, rather than attempting to counter it. Our expectation is to have (smaller?) churches in which we will make our best efforts to encourage ordinate affection in our members. There is a chance for limited success with our adult members, and perhaps a higher chance of success for the children that grow up in churches devoted to cultivating ordinate affection (assuming they trust Christ when they are able to). Part of our task may be to keep some things alive and available for future Christian generations who will be better prepared to receive and appreciate them.

Given this realistic expectation, the pastor or spiritual leader is no defeatist. He actively labors to encourage a church ‘culture’ that cultivates, to a certain degree, ordinate affections. Some suggestions to that end will be the subject of the next few posts.