Is the Psalmist a Protestant?
September 19, 2015
I have been re-reading portions of Berkouwer’s Faith and Sanctification, a volume from his dogmatics series. It is superb and easily among my favorite volumes, from the five or six that I have read or consulted. As I wrote a few years ago, “Berkouwer is such a well-balanced theologian that it’s hard to ever find anything to dispute.”
A particularly helpful discussion is about the Psalms, namely those Psalms with a certain “sense of self-esteem” and “in terms almost indistinguishable from those used by the Pharisees” (p. 125). You know them. And hopefully you have been perplexed as well. Berkouwer highlights Psalm 26:
Judge me, O Jehovah, for I have walked in mine integrity…I have walked in thy truth. I have not sat with men of falsehood; neither will I go in with dissemblers. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I will wash my hands in innocency.
Yeah, me! Hurray for me! Is that what the Psalmist is doing? Berkouwer repeats the problem, “Is there not a striking similarity here with the words used by the Pharisee in the parable?”
To the Protestant, nothing is more abhorrent than being a Pharisee. In fact, we are at our most Pharisaical when we are being anti-Pharisaical. The most judgmental people I know are the most anti-Pharisaical — always keen to spot the judgmental “splinter” in another’s eye. But that’s another topic for another day. What to do with this Psalm and others like it? Here is Berkouwer’s response:
Let no one jump to conclusions. There is in this psalm a definite center to which all these utterances are related. The poet trusts in the Lord, whose lovingkindness is before his eyes. In God’s truth he has walked. He compasses the altar of Jehovah and loves the habitation of Jehovah’s house. He makes the voice of thanksgiving to be heard and tells of all God’s wondrous works. And finally: In the congregation will I bless Jehovah.
Each of these statements undercuts Pharisaism. The expression of joy over the mercy of God and distinguishing self from others are naturally related; they find their point of convergence on the altar of reconciliation.
[Faith and Sanctification, p. 125]
Berkouwer then summarizes Eduard Köning’s objection as: “People who talk like the psalmist are the healthy people who need no physician.” Berkouwer then continues with his response:
In this manner an injustice is done to what Psalm 26 says about the mercy of God, about his altar and habitation. The whole is a song of praise. It is possible, of course, for a Pharisee to absorb the mercy of God and the altar into his own nomistic scheme; but it is also possible that in the psalms the voice of a believer speaks of the righteousness which is not subversive of the grace of God. …
Whoever gives an abstract moral interpretation to these Old-Testament expressions of righteousness is bound to distort the Scriptures. He would make of Israel’s religion and the Covenant of Grace a purely nomistic salvation. The holiness of the righteous could then be only an ethical ideal and the mercy of God becomes irrelevant.
I love that. Earlier in this chapter, Berkouwer criticizes some of Barth’s comments about sanctification in his early writings, being (as Barth was) under the sway of a too strict dichotomy between the eternal and temporal wherein the dichotomy as such holds interpretive sway. I wholly agree with this criticism, and I’m pretty sure that Barth would too. That is also another discussion for another time. Berkouwer closes this chapter with an approving reference to Barth — “Never, according to Barth, can the believer claim his good works as his own possession and contrast them with the non-possession of another man” (Römerbrief, 204) — and then a quote from Calvin:
We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. On the contrary, we are God’s; to him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions. We are God’s; towards him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed. O, how great a proficiency has that man made, who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken the sovereignty and government of himself from his own reason, to surrender it to God!
[Institutes, III.6.1; Berkouwer, ibid., p. 130]