Distinguish, Not Divorce:
One Christian Exegete's Take on His Task
George C. Heider

To the honored memory of my parents, George C. Heider, Jr., and Doris H. Heider.

The most famous as well as the most influential professorial lecture in the history of biblical studies was delivered 227 years ago, on March 30, 1787, by Johann Philipp Gabler as his inaugural address for a chair of theology at the University of Altdorf in Germany. He spoke in academic Latin, as befit the times and occasion, under the title “De justo discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus,” that is, “An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” As one ­twentieth-century scholar put it: “If philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, then Old Testament theology is a series of very expansive footnotes to Gabler” (Ollenberger, 489).

In a nutshell, Gabler argued that one must draw a clear distinction between the historical study of what the biblical text meant in its day—what he termed biblical theology—and theology as it may be applied and taught in diverse times and places by given theologians—that is, dogmatic theology. Understanding why he sought such a distinction is not hard. Only a century earlier, armies representing differing Christian persuasions had so devastated northern and central Europe in the Thirty Years’ War that many thought the apocalypse truly was now. During the subsequent century, continental biblical scholarship had been driven by dogmatic agendas, attempting to lay the axe once and for all to the root of opponents’ positions. Gabler’s proposal sought to clear a space for a more objective and dispassionate exegesis, or biblical interpretation.

The irony is that it was, in fact, the title of Gabler’s lecture, more than what he actually said, that has secured the place of his address in the history of biblical scholarship. The specifics of Gabler’s proposal were deeply influenced by the German idealism of his era and by his own Protestant (specifically, Lutheran) faith commitments, as, for example, in his focus on the individual theologian at work to the near-exclusion of any corporate voice or tradition of the church. But the idea of a “scientific” biblical scholarship, focused above all on the original meaning of the text, swept the field of biblical studies over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it continues to enjoy status as the default approach in the preponderance of the academy. For many, Gabler’s perspective achieved what I will call, with deliberate irony, “canonical” expression in Krister Stendahl’s article on biblical theology in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), where he insisted on the necessity of maintaining a clear distinction between “what a text meant” and “what a text means” (1:419–20).

The continuing attraction of Gabler’s distinction is both evident and understandable. It is evident in the very division of scholars of theology into two large guilds, the Society of Biblical Literature for biblical scholars and the American Academy of Religion for everybody else. The distinction’s continuing attractiveness is understandable for a number of reasons, among them:

It has allowed scholars holding a wide variety of religious convictions—or none at all, for that matter—to communicate civilly and contribute fruitfully to the academic study of the biblical text with their authority as scholars weighed solely by the quality of their insight into the text and their mastery of fields that they bring to the study of the text.

It has also tied the biblical text indissolubly into the real world of time and space, rather than into a timeless realm of myth or an omnipresent “now” of the reader, who- and whenever that may be. This is in keeping with the Bible’s own claims regarding the interaction of the divine and human in real time and space. Depending on the scholar, precisely which world a given text is teaching us about may be the world described in the text (that is, “the world of the text”) or the world that produced the text (that is, “the world behind the text”), but it is a span in the history of our world, all the same.

Similarly, Gabler may be credited with having delegitimized once and for all the methodology of “proof-texting,” whereby individual passages were cited apart from their historical and literary contexts in an attempt to establish points of doctrine or ethics. This is not to say that all such efforts have ceased, only that their appeal is now limited to those who are already persuaded of the point under debate on other grounds.

To the extent that Gabler’s understanding of biblical theology can be identified with an effort to discern what a text’s original author intended in his (or perhaps her) own time and place—that is, with what we may refer to in shorthand as the “­historical-critical method”—his proposals may fairly be said to have entered the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. As one of my own teachers put it, one can seek on dogmatic grounds to be anti-critical, as is true of some especially traditionalist theologians, but it is simply impossible for us to be pre-critical in the manner of Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. To give but one obvious example, none of us can read Psalm 113:3 (“From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised”) and think of the sun’s motion from east to west as anything but metaphorical. Between us and what I’ll call a “natural” reading stand Copernicus and Galileo; more broadly, between us and pre-critical interpretation stand Spinoza, Kant, and all the giants of modernity.

Still, in recent decades numerous ­non-traditionalist voices have been raised in objection or at least qualification of Gabler’s approach. Quite a number of these concerns have arisen from the epistemology of post-modernism, viz., those who argue that the objectivity by which Gabler and others sought to overcome sectarian strife was false, representing nothing more than the hegemony of a white, male, Euro-centric set of background assumptions concerning historical and literary method.1

For my part, I give voice to a different concern. Gabler sought, as he said in his lecture’s title, the proper distinction between biblical and dogmatic theology, but the fruits of his labors have been all-too-often an unholy divorce. At the core of my concern is that the Bible purports explicitly to be not merely a work of history—however understood—or of literature, but of theology. That is, it claims to speak both about God and for God. In arguing that we must take account of these claims, in no way do I seek a return to the days of either intellectual or physical violence in the name of God, and I understand that the burden is mine to show how a fully and fairly theological reading of the Bible can be accomplished without a concomitant return of these side-effects, particularly in a world where “by this sign conquer” remains a mantra for all too many (employing a variety of signs, to be sure). Nor will I propose some facile cutting of the Gordian knot through a common-sense, universal reading of the text. Fundamentalisms of the left and of the right have each, by turns, wreaked unspeakable havoc well beyond the walls of church and classroom. Yet at the nub of my concern is this: that to seek some kind of absolute and clean distinction between ancient meaning and modern application of the biblical text cuts against the grain and the express intent of the very text that we purport to study and interpret. Otherwise put, we may well end up with a text that has been analyzed to philological, historical, and literary perfection, but what then lies before us on the dissection table can still be dead, rather than what it claimed to be at the outset, the viva vox Dei, the living voice of God.2

Because this is such an important point in my argument, please permit me an extended quotation of another scholar, using a somewhat less-grisly metaphor. I quote from the final words of R. W. L. Moberly’s recent work, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture:

A recurrent note that has been sounded in recent hermeneutical discussions is that the interpretation of the biblical text can be in significant ways analogous to the interpretation of a play or a musical score. Numerous kinds of scholarly activities can usefully be carried out on such texts and scores. For many a scholar the establishment of, say, a good critical edition of a dramatic text, or an illuminating contextualization of a musical score within the oeuvre of its composer, can be a satisfying end in itself. However, the more the text or score is classic and resonant and loved, the more there is a widespread sense that the crowning achievement of extensive scholarly activity is when it takes on a kind of behind-the-scenes role whereby actors and musicians, that is, practitioners, are enabled to put on a fresh performance—a performance that brings the drama or the music to life and communicates its content in a fresh way, such that eyes and ears, even if already familiar with the content, are newly opened.

So too I would argue that the crowning achievement of a theological interpretation of Scripture should be performance, that is ways of living, on the part of believers and those sympathetically interested, who are enabled to realize more fully that wholeness of life to which God calls. I hope that the content has intellectual interest and coherence for those who may have no desire to perform it. Nonetheless, performance is the ultimate goal of this study of the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. (287–288)

In sum, it may seem the height of arrogance for a newly-designated professor at a smallish university in Indiana to devote his own inaugural lecture to substantive, critical engagement with Johann Philipp Gabler’s epochal address. Yet such is what I mean to do.

First, let me list briefly several reasons that do not animate my concern with Gabler and the work of those who have followed in his train.

I do not resist Gabler’s program on the grounds that it is inappropriate to bring to the ancient, sacred literature that we call the Bible the tools of literary, historical, and social-scientific criticism. To borrow the categories of Aristotle and Aquinas, biblical theology à la Gabler is necessary but not sufficient to the object of its examination.

I recognize the force of the argument of those who would foreground what they call “the world in front of the text,” that is, what a given reader brings to the text as a given, either genetically or culturally or by some combination of the two. This is, in a nutshell, the great contribution of post-modernism. Still, I would largely side with Gabler in granting to the original sense of the text a hermeneutical priority, even as I readily learn from the perspectives of those who differ from me by way of conviction or social location and readily concede that I need always to test what I may consider the “assured results” of my interpretive work against what others hear with differently situated ears.

At no point do I discern in Gabler, or in any who have followed in his path, intent to steer the conversation down unproductive rabbit trails or away from what, in good faith, they believe to be fresh and fruitful avenues of inquiry. In fact, I would go further and volunteer that, for at least the past two hundred years, some of the most dramatic insights in biblical interpretation have been offered by those who attained expertise both in the Bible and in some other field of inquiry and then brought the latter to bear on the former (e.g., the work of my colleague in New Testament studies, Richard DeMaris, with ritual studies).

What I am proposing, in a nutshell, is an application to biblical studies of the wisdom of Jaroslav Pelikan, writing of the development of the Western university: “In that two-front battle, the distinction between knowledge and faith was fundamental. It was a distinction, not an identity, but it was also a distinction, not a separation” (39).3

A carefully distinguished critical and theological reading of a specific text can bear rich interpretive fruit, and the remainder of this essay is intended to illustrate how. In taking this tack, I acknowledge the profound influence on me of the inductive approach taken by Moberly in his recent work, Old Testament Theology, from whose epilogue I quoted at some length a moment ago. Moreover, by dealing with a specific text, rather than with more general issues of interpretive theory, I would hope to contribute in some small way to what I see as my life’s work for the time remaining to me as a teacher/scholar, namely, to reinvigorate the intergenerational—indeed, cross-millennial—conversation over the actual biblical text between biblical scholars and the church.

The selection of that sample text was easy, but neither easily nor facilely undertaken. Some connection with Valparaiso University seems à propos. Moreover, it seems only fair, if I am to claim some contribution as the result of my labors, to select a passage that has occasioned debate or even perplexity among prior interpreters. Upon reflection, one passage leapt out as apt on both counts, Psalm 36, especially verse 9b:

:בְּאוֹרְךָ נִרֽאֶה־אוֹר

Or, as we know it better at Valparaiso University from Jerome’s Vulgate: “In luce tua videmus lucem” (“In thy light we see light”), our university motto.


Let us begin, in the manner of many a film, with a broad shot and then narrow in on the specific focus of our interest. On the whole, there is little question that the most fruitful scholarly angle on the psalms has been provided by the modern scholarly approach known as form criticism, that is, a consideration of where the psalm might reasonably have fit into life in ancient Israel. (A corresponding example from our own lives might be a story that begins, “Once upon a time”: the culturally-literate hearer knows that a fairy tale is beginning.) In the case of Psalm 36, we appear to have a combination of cultural speech forms. On the one hand, the strong contrast drawn between the ways of wickedness and righteousness calls to mind what are often called “Wisdom Psalms.” In fact, Psalm 36 reads something like a photographic negative of Psalm 1, which begins with a description of the way of life of the righteous, then briefly speaks of the contrasting lifestyle of the wicked, and then juxtaposes by contrast their respective, anticipated fates in its final line: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”4 Psalm 36, by contrast, starts with wickedness and then proceeds to righteousness, but with another significant difference from Psalm 1. The description of righteousness begins not with human righteousness but with God’s righteousness, which provides life and abundance to its beneficiaries, both human and animal (v. 6).

Yet there does seem to be some mixture of genres here, as at the very end of the psalm there is a plea for God’s deliverance of one who is at very least in some danger from the wicked (v. 11). In this respect, Psalm 36 takes a turn toward what form critics label an “individual lament.” Think of Psalm 22, for example, beginning with the unforgettable line “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Other analysts categorize various elements of the psalm in still other ways, leading to widespread quotation of Mitchell Dahood in his commentary on Psalms: “The coexistence of three literary types within a poem of thirteen verses points up the limitations of the form-critical approach to the Psalter” (218).

For my part, I see no great problem in the creative combination of the wisdom and lament forms, although this may argue for a relatively late date for Psalm 36 (if one assumes that complexity implies development over time, which is not necessarily so). What I take away as more significant from these form-critical observations is that the author of Psalm 36 is of the same mindset as the author of the second creation story back in Genesis 2–3, wherein it is the knowledge of good that is both life-giving and the gift of God, while the knowledge of evil leads to alienation from God (v. 1) and from life (v. 12). The choice of the latter—of evil—evidently has some attraction, according to the psalm’s opening verses (vv. 1–4), and the wicked have some potential to do real harm to others (v. 11), but the final verse (v. 12) makes clear that there is no future in that path. By contrast, the psalm argues, God actively intervenes on behalf of those termed in v. 10 “those who know you” and “the upright of heart.”

It is at this point that I call attention to the potential value of a large body of interpreters whose work has largely gone into eclipse in scholarly circles for the past two centuries, namely, the rabbis who first molded and then read the text within the Jewish tradition and the fathers of the early, medieval, and Reformation eras of Christianity, who for their part first defined orthodox Christianity and then mined the two testaments for what they taught of God. These writers come from that pre-Copernican world from which we are forever cut off, and much of what they saw in the Bible seems ludicrous to our eyes. But it is worth recalling two things: first, that the Bible, too, is from a pre-Copernican world—that is, their world, not ours; and second, that the God whom they sought is, according to both Jewish and Christian confession, the same God then and now.

Thus, if I may introduce a fairly innocuous example, we read in v. 6: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.” The sense seems plain enough, even attractive to our ecological sensitivities, as we seek to resist what some have termed “speciesism,” the notion that any use of the world or its inhabitants is fair game, so long as humans benefit. Yet Martin Luther sees here a reference to Jews as humans, “because they had the knowledge of God and the words of God were committed to them,” and to the Gentiles as “‘beasts,’ because they were only concerned with the burdens of this life and expected nothing from the future” (171–172). I provide this example, not to hold up Luther either as paragon or for ridicule, but to illustrate the thoughtful creativity with which pre-critical interpreters often approached the task, as well as to show that not every comment on an Old Testament text by an earlier Christian interpreter saw a reference to Christ there.5

 “In thy light we see light”: again, it is hard to escape an intertextual recollection of the creation story. The text itself appears to warrant this, as the preceding verse reads:

They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights. (v
. 8)

The word for “delights” is the plural of עֵדֶן or “Eden,” the very name of the primeval garden watered by a river, according to Gen 2:10. Moreover, in the alternative, preceding narration of the creation in Genesis, God’s very first act of creation is light (Gen 1:3). “In thy light we see light”? Well, light is all there is to see, until God creates more on the second day. Maybe such light is enough, or at least the very best that can be seen by the human eye, even aided by the divine.
Such, at least, is the suggestion of Dante, who concludes his Paradiso (in Canto XXXIII) with a vision of God that rings a series of changes on “Light Supreme,” “Light Eternal,” and “High Light.”

Here it is worth noting what still earlier readers made of this talk. The rabbis saw Light and Darkness (or Righteousness and Wickedness) as personified forces, which spoke with authority to their respective followers (Berlin and Brettler, 1321).6 As for the church fathers, their witness is both united and divided: united, in holding that both “thy light” and the light seen thereby are a vision of and enabled by God; yet divided, in that some hold that we see God by the light of Christ (so, for example, Origen and Jerome), while others hold that it is the Spirit that enables us to see both God and Christ (so Theodoret of Cyr). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Athanasius even manages to find in the verse a cudgel with which to smite Arius. However, the patristic view that most caught my eye was offered by Sahdona, a seventh-century Syrian monk who, it seems, had trouble making up his mind about exactly how to understand the two natures in Christ and so bounced back and forth between the East and West Syrian Church. His remarks on this passage are distinctive:

Without the light of the Scriptures we are unable to see God, who is Light, or his justice, which is filled with light. The effort involved in reading the Scriptures is thus greatly beneficial to us, all the more so since it causes us to become illumined in prayer. For anyone whose soul, after having labored in reading and been purified by spiritual meditation, is fervent with love for God will pray in a luminous manner when he turns to prayer... (Blaising and Hardin, ad loc.).

Sahdona’s interpretation strikes me as worthy of reflection for several reasons. First, unlike most of his patristic peers, he does not leap to the New Testament in one bound for a referent to God’s light. While I shall argue in a moment that it is not illegitimate for the Christian interpreter to bring the New Testament into the conversation about the verse, Sahdona shows that it is not necessarily a modern move to decline to start there. Secondly, Sahdona refuses to intellectualize the seeing of light that is enabled by God’s light, which he identifies with the light of the Scriptures. Seeing light “cashes out,” as we might put it crassly these days, in an enriched life of prayer. This insight, it seems to me, is very much in keeping with the character of the book of Psalms, which was first and most of all ancient Israel’s prayer book, as shown by its very title in Hebrew, Tehillim or “Praises.” By Sahdona’s reading, the center of life becomes something like the medieval lectio divina, a back-and-forth dialectic of reading and prayer centered on Scripture and bordering on its tactile consumption. In the words of Jeremiah:

Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts. (15:16)

Indeed, at the risk of overpressing the point, the affirmation of the centrality of an element of the created order—light—to the life of the faithful speaker of this psalm is reminiscent of the numerous ways in which God makes use of the created order to convey God’s gifts. In the Old Testament there is the clothing provided on the way out of the Garden, then Noah’s rainbow, circumcision, the tabernacle and temple and their accoutrements—to name but a few. For the Christian this affirmation reaches its climax in the Incarnation and redounds from there in the sacraments and for the Eastern Orthodox in icons, in all of which God uses visible means to convey an invisible grace, visible thanks only to God’s prior gift of light, of course. Otherwise put, there is no question that God warned his people in both Old Testament and New regularly against the misuse of the physical—idolatry, in a word—but, if anything, it is Gnosticism, with its deprecation of the role of the created order in God’s dealings with the world, that has proved the more serious problem over the ages. We dare never forget that we do not control God magically or otherwise in or with ­physical things. God works, as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (Article 5) says, ubi et quando visum est Deo (where and when it pleases God), or, to quote C. S. Lewis with regard to his Christ-figure, Aslan, “He is not a tame lion.” But we ought to be able to manage a little mystery when it comes to the ways of God and the physical world: if nothing else, particularly in view of the text at hand, consider the scientific paradox of light’s simultaneous existence as waves and particles. Meanwhile, these words stand as promise and claim: “In thy light we see light.”


How, then, can the Christian reader appropriate this passage as part of a Bible that includes a New Testament, particularly given Jesus’ claim, according to John’s Gospel: “I am the light of the world” (8:12)? As we have already seen, this and similar passages are all that some of the church fathers required to read “In thy light we see light” as directly Christological, with the only issue to be settled being which Trinitarian person to identify with which mention of light. I am enough of a modern to doubt that the psalmist had Jesus Christ in mind when first he uttered these words, but I am enough of a Christian theologian to insist that the interpretive matter does not end there. In fact, if anything, I would challenge the church fathers for not having gone far enough. All too often, it appears, those who would read the two testaments of the Christian Bible have a single directional arrow in mind: the Old Testament points forward to some form of fulfillment in the New. Using such a trajectory, in this case, as in the fathers, what the psalmist meant by “thy light” and “we see light” becomes apparent once we have deciphered the identity of “light” using John and other New Testament passages.

But I have become persuaded that a fully adequate reading of the Old and New Testaments requires the interpretive arrow to go in both directions. In the case at hand, let us not forget that, for the Jew named Jesus of Nazareth, the Psalms were his prayer book. As my colleagues Fred Niedner and Walt Wangerin have reminded us, it was with a child’s night-night prayer on his lips that Jesus died in Luke’s Gospel: “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 31:5a). Just maybe, when he said (or, if you insist, when John said that he said) “I am the light of the world,” the content of what he meant by that was at least in part informed by the passage “In thy light we see light.” That is, whether Jesus saw himself as God’s gift of illumination (i.e., “in thy light”) or as what God wanted people to see (i.e., “we see light”), we may gain insight into his intended meaning by juxtaposing that light with the surrounding images from the psalm: “the abundance of your house”; the Edenic “river of your delights”; and “the fountain of life.” Certainly the fourth evangelist seems to have gotten the connection, as in his prologue: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3b–4). Certainly we may gain understanding of John’s persistent use of the light/dark dichotomy, as in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3, if we understand it as related to or even inspired by the contrasts drawn between righteousness and wickedness in wisdom psalms, including Psalm 36. No New Testament passage—not Romans, not Galatians—could be clearer than Psalm 36 that all that is good comes from God. So much for Marcion and his Old Testament God of Wrath and the notion of works-righteousness that have haunted Christian theology and Jewish-Christian relations since the second century of our era.

Yet one thing more, as I have sought to avail myself of the wisdom of the Mishnaic (i.e., early Jewish) fathers regarding text study: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it” (Pirqe Avot 5:25). The very earliest commentary on this psalm (predating even the insertion of written vowels in the text) is a superscription that appears in the Hebrew as v. 1: “To the leader. Of [or to] David, the servant of the Lord.” Presumably, “To the leader” is some kind of rubric or stage direction aimed at the choir director. “Of [or to] David” could conceivably be a dedication, or a claim that the psalm somehow related to David’s life (as some other psalms cite a specific incident), or it might be an ascription of authorship, as traditionally held. The phrase of interest to me is “the servant of the Lord,” presumably a descriptor of David. Interestingly enough, this descriptor occurs only one other time in a psalm superscription, in Psalm 18, where the first verse goes on to claim that David sang it when God delivered him from all his enemies, and specifically from Saul.

Now there is nothing terribly remarkable about calling David “the servant of the Lord.” The phrase occurs several times in the narrative books that deal with David, with particular concentration in 2 Samuel 7, the so-called Dynastic Oracle, where God promises David an eternal dynasty on the throne in Jerusalem. In that chapter, David as God’s “servant” occurs three times (vv. 5, 8, 26). I take that in the first place as a sign of great comfort: given all we know about David’s feet of clay (and if all you know about is the Bathsheba affair, you don’t know the half of it), that David can still be called “the servant of the Lord” by anyone with a straight face is incredibly reassuring, given what I see in a mirror.7

In fact, however, such generous inclusivity in the ranks of his servants on God’s part is by no means limited to David. His only rival in terms of frequency of the title is Moses, whose response to God’s call to service was something other than “Here am I: send me!” To provide but a brief and admittedly selective list of other sketchy characters who bear the title, there are Jacob (Ezek 28:25), Job (1:8), and Jonah (2 Kgs 14:25), to name but three. For the Christian reader, however, a reference to “the servant of the Lord” cannot fail to call to mind the enigmatic figure who is featured in four poems in the exilic portion of Isaiah. That servant is explicitly identified as Israel (Isa 49:3), and the servant’s function is to take God’s salvation beyond the bounds of the chosen people to all the world: God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isa 49:6). In God’s light, in Israel—we might paraphrase—all people will see light.

Those who are familiar with this portion of Isaiah (what scholars call “Second Isaiah”) are well aware that what follows bids fair to be the most complex and controversial issue in the Christian reading of the Old Testament. As the prophet continues to describe just how it is that the servant brings God’s light to the world, the portrait of the servant himself becomes darker, both in form and in content. The servant will suffer terribly and finally die in the execution, as it were, of his mission. And the question of the identity of the servant will grow exponentially more complex, as by the fourth and final “servant poem” the description seems clearly to be of an individual, not a nation, whose death is only retrospectively appreciated as having been for the speakers’ sakes:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isa 53:4–5)

Yet in the end the servant knows vindication: “Out of his anguish he shall see,” reads the standard Hebrew text (Isa 53:11). Or, as both the Greek Septuagint and the Great Isaiah Scroll (in Hebrew) from the Dead Sea caves add: “Out of his anguish he shall see light” [emphasis added].

Historically speaking, it was a division of opinion over the identification of this suffering servant that proved one of the flash points in the division of Jesus-Judaism from rabbinic-Judaism in the late first and early second centuries of our era.8 But what has any of this discussion of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah to do with Psalm 36? Simply this: whether the phrase “of (or to) David, the servant of the Lord” was intended as an ascription, dedication, or something else, very, very early in the interpretive history of this psalm a servant of the Lord was heard calling, in the words of this psalm, for God’s aid in extending salvation—described as food and drink and life and light—to all the world, human and animals (whether we understand the latter literally or, with Luther, as a reference to us Gentiles). Taken together with the Isaiah poems, the servant understands both that this task is his to do, whatever the cost, and beyond his capacity to undertake alone. God’s servant is a light to the nations, but only in God’s light can the servant or the nations see light.

This, in fine, is what I see as the reward of keeping what Gabler termed “biblical” and “dogmatic” theology properly distinguished, but nevertheless in conversation with one another: the one God who stands as both subject and object of the biblical witness provides a “red thread” to the canon that yields both depth and nuance to our understanding of a given passage in the light of both other passages and the witness of the generations who have both worshipped with and wrestled with these words in subsequent centuries. It is the Reformation principle of Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres (“holy Scripture interprets itself”), but sung in a different key than in the sixteenth century. It is now not a weapon to employ on those who argue for an authoritative role for tradition in theology; rather, it is an invitation to enliven (yea, enlighten) our interpretation by broadening our understanding of what constitutes the proper context for the interpretation of Scripture, beginning with Scripture itself.

Human speech—and especially human speech set to music—can be marvelously evocative, as it enables and even compels our minds to think on more than one track at a time. I confess that such has been the case with me, as I have reflected at length on how I, as a Christian student of the Old Testament, can most fruitfully read our university motto. All along, another motto has been insistently there, playing in the back of my mind, the motto of both my own college alma mater and my seminary,9 taken not from Scripture, but indubitably drawn from it: ͗΄Ανωθεν τὸ φῶς, “the light from above.” A particularly gifted professor at that seminary named Martin Franzmann, whom I was privileged to meet only once before his death in 1976, wrote a hymn based on that motto. For six stanzas he rings numerous changes on the theme of God’s light in ways that came constantly to mind as I prepared these remarks. His penultimate stanza strikes me as a near-paraphrase of parts of Psalm 36. Note in particular its repeated usage of the one Hebrew word that everyone in the room surely knows, chiefly from its usage in other psalms, namely, Hallelujah, “Praise the Lord.” Let Prof. Franzmann, then, have the last word today:

Give us lips to sing thy glory,
Tongues thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats that shout the hope that fills us,
Mouths to speak thy holy name.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
May the light which thou dost send
Fill our songs with alleluias,
Alleluias without end!


George C. Heider serves as chair of the Department of Theology at Valparaiso University. This article is a revision of a lecture that he delivered on Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014, in observance of his promotion to Professor of Theology.


End Notes

1. Thus were born feminist, womanist, black, Latino, Asian, liberationist, post-colonialist, queer, and numerous other ideological approaches to biblical interpretation (or “hermeneutics,” to use the fifty-cent term). The response of the scholarly establishment has, by and large, been to provide these perspectives with a place at the table by way of distinct sections within the structure of the Society of Biblical Literature, if not—at least yet—to grant them much representation on the tenure-track.

2. To be sure this is no new concern: Brevard S. Childs cites John Calvin as having affirmed the “living voice” (221) of God to the current discomfiture of both historical-critics and post-modern interpreters.

3. Those who are aware both of my own intellectual background and of the debate that I have been describing will be well aware of the degree to which much of what I have argued to this point grows out of the work of my revered and now sainted teacher, Brevard Springs Childs, formerly of Yale, and my classmate and fellow-student of Childs, Christopher Seitz, now of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. Even where further study and reflection have led me in different directions from theirs, I remain in their debt for the very frame within which I work. Yet it would serve little purpose beyond providing a possibly more digestible form of their sometimes frankly abstruse arguments were I to pursue simply a critical summary of their views, perhaps combined with parrying the learned and yet, I believe, often misdirected criticisms of opposing scholars such as James Barr (on which see Driver, ch. 7).

4. New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

5. In passing, I might also confess that I threw in a reference to Luther at this point because, so far as I can tell, he did not address himself explicitly to our university motto in v. 9b. Much the pity.

Moreover, while I am digressing from the explicit task of interpreting Psalm 36, Luther’s reference to Jews and Gentiles provides a convenient point at which to address another sticky issue from which Gabler’s “proper distinction” sought to deliver us, namely, the inevitable differences that will enter the conversation when committed Jewish and Christian scholars approach a text that both affirm as authoritative Scripture, but in very different ways. Gabler sought to avoid conflict by bracketing out the theological, in something of a “least common denominator” approach (although he surely had varieties of Christians, not Christians and Jews, in mind). One specific outcome of this move is that it has become commonplace in my field of study to speak of the “Hebrew Bible” as the object of examination. The problem is that neither Judaism nor Christianity recognizes an entity by that name as its Scripture. Judaism—at least in its normative, rabbinic form—is above all the Torah, supplemented by the Prophets and the Writings, and read through the Oral Law recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. Its authoritative form developed concurrently and somewhat dialectically with early Christianity, which first saw itself as a rival for the title of “authentic Judaism” and then, having lost that struggle, went its own way, centered in a Bible ­consisting of an Old Testament and a New Testament. I want to wrap up this digression quickly, so let me conclude it by opining that scholarly conversation between people of different convictions need not choose between the bracketing of all differences and the Thirty Years’ War. Rather, we would do well to make our cases honestly, irenically, and with humility, as has been recommended winsomely and repeatedly by Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Jewish Studies, Jon D. Levenson (in both 2001 and, specifically on exegetical issues, 2012). Or, to return at last to the text before us, we may well see in God’s light, but we most emphatically do not see with God’s eyes.

6. Some rabbis saw two competing forces (or “yēṣers”) at war within the human, based on the extra yodh in wayyîṣer, “and he formed,” in Gen 2:7.

7. See recently Baden. While there are points at which Baden is excessively harsh or skeptical, in my judgment, the overall portrait of David seems both accurate and damning.

8. See Sommer (890–891) for a concise and fair summary of the debate from a Jewish perspective.

9. These are Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, respectively.


Works Cited

Baden, Joel. The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. New York: HarperOne, 2013.

Berlin, Adele, and Brettler, Marc Zvi. “Notes to Psalms.” In Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford University, 2004.

Blaising, C. A. and C. S. Hardin, eds. “Psalms 1–50.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (DVD). Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010.

Childs, Brevard S. The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalms 1–50. Anchor Bible 16. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

Driver, Daniel R. Brevard Childs: Biblical Theologian for the Church’s One Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Levenson, Jon D. Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University, 2012.

_____. “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” Commentary. Vol.112, No. 5 (2001): 31–37.

Luther, Martin. Lectures on the Psalms I (1–75). Luther’s Works 10. H. J. A. Bouman, trans; H. C. Oswald, ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1974.

Moberly, R. W. L. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Ollenberger, Ben C. “Theological Synopsis.” In The Flowering of Old Testament Theology: A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology, 1930-1990. B. C. Ollenburger, E. A. Martens, and G. F. Hasel, eds. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 1; Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1992.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Idea of the University: A Re-examination. New Haven: Yale, 1992.

Sommer, Benjamin D. “Notes to Isaiah.” In Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford University, 2004.

Stendahl, Krister. “Biblical Theology, Contemporary.” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. G. A. Buttrick, ed. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.

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