Goldingay’s Commentary on the Psalms: A Methodological Critique

I’ve been working with John Goldingay’s 3-volume commentary set on the Psalms for a while now.  I haven’t read every part (and I’m not overly familiar with Goldingay’s other writings, though I know he’s some stripe of an open theist, which is a whole other subject), but I have read and utilized it enough to register a concern about his hermeneutical methodology, that is, the way he interprets the psalms.

I’ll give some examples of this in a second.  The main point of my critique is that he purposely removes the messianic bent from the Psalter.  He does not read the psalms in a christological way; in fact, he tries hard not to see Jesus in the Psalms.  Goldingay’s interpretation of the Psalter is exactly opposite of what you find in Geerhardus Vos’ excellent essay, “The Eschatology of the Psalter.”  Here are some quote from Goldingay to show his methodology.

From the introduction: “…[I do not] make the NT the filter or lens through which we read the Psalms.  A modern aspect to the commentary is that I want the Psalms to speak their own message and to let them address Christian thinking, theology, and spirituality, rather than being silenced by a certain way of reading the NT that fits modern Christian preferences.”

From his “Theological Implications” section of Psalm 8:

“It is…important for us to reflect on its inherent meaning and not simply read it through NT spectacles.  It does not look forward to a new age…. It does not refer to the Messiah.”

From the same section of his comments on Psalm 18:

“Psalm 18 offers no indication that it refers to something God will do in the future; it is not eschatological…it is not messianic.  It offers no indication that it points to Jesus of Nazareth; it is not christological.”

From the same section of his comments on Psalm 22:

[The Messiah is not] “the primary referent of the text.  It is not a prophecy.  The NT use of psalm ‘wrenches out of its setting.'”

Concerning Psalm 89, Goldingay says,

“…In the psalm itself there is no indication that the understanding of Yhwh’s reign is coming to be understood eschatologically or that the understanding of the human king’s reign is coming to be understood messianically.”

Similarly, when discussing the implications of Psalm 110, he writes,

“The text’s theological implications…do not lie in its application to Jesus; that is to ignore its meaning.  Its application to Jesus is part of NT study.”

He ends this little section on the implications of Ps 110 in an odd way, almost contradicting his earlier words:

“Canonical interpretation must mean letting different parts of Scripture have their say, not silencing some by others that we prefer.”

You can even see his methodological approach when you look at the scripture index in the back of the volumes – there are just a few NT passages indexed (about half of a page – sometimes less than his Qumran references).

In my opinion, this is why Goldingay’s commentary on the Psalms is flat and uninspiring.  The commentary sections often seem like a textual discussion with some application tacked on the end.  And, as is consistent with his methodology, the application jumps over the cross to today’s context.  This leaves the reader with some mundane application and even odd points of meaning for today.  I’m not sure how one can, for example, comment on and apply the faithfulness of Yahweh without mentioning the work of Christ – the messianic work we already see glimmers of in the Psalter.

While this commentary set might be useful for some things (Hebrew notes, textual variants, ANE references, etc.), overall I don’t think they’re worth the seventy some dollars I put down for them.  I may sell them and use that cash to get something better.  For me, they do not cultivate that Christ centered apostolic hermeneutic for which I strive – in fact, this commentary set hinders it.  Along the same lines, one thing that has helped me here is Carson and Beale’s (editors) fine commentary on the NT’s use of the OT, along with Vos’ work I mentioned above.

shane lems

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7 comments on “Goldingay’s Commentary on the Psalms: A Methodological Critique

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Yeah, that’s the same methodology he uses in his Old Testament Theology. He specifically contrasts his approach with the typical Reformed approach (“covenantal”), accusing the latter of forcing a particular form (covenant) onto the matter of OT faith and practice. Presumably he would likewise find problems with Barth’s equally emphatic use of a Christological hermeneutic throughout Scripture. As a result, Goldingay’s work is, like you said, not especially inspiring, though full of great information.

  2. Dante Spencer says:

    D.A. Carson isn’t keen on Goldingay, either.

    I looked at how Goldingay handled the Abrahamic covenant when his OTT came out. It looked like he was influenced by his former colleague, Dan Fuller, and denied faith alone.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I just preached on Psalm 8 and once again I was turned off by Goldingay’s Christless theological interpretation of the text. I felt like shouting at the book, and wrote a few things in the margin expressing my frustration.

    A good resource that I would recommend to your readers that is the antithesis of Goldingay’s method is, “The Messiah in the Psalms: Preaching Christ from All the Psalms,” by Richard P. Belcher Jr. You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/2c929kx. . .really good, inspiring stuff.

  4. Andrew says:

    The funny thing with how some evangelicals do OT theology is that they almost do a full Biblical theology without mentioning Christ and some NT categories explicitly. Their reflections turn out to not be very historical (for it they were, their comments would look more straight-ahead historical-critical), not very Jewish (since there is no interaction with the Rabbi’s or early Jewish literature), nor very Christian (since any and all typology and eschatology is gone).

    They seem to want to talk about what the “ancient Israelite” would have actually believed, but they end up depicting that ancient Israelite as some sort of proto-Christian or proto-Jew, full of all the right conceptual categories of soteriology and messianism (and so forth), but just lacking the stuff to fill those categories. Their “ancient Israelite” reader looks more like a Christian who just doesn’t know their NT very well!

    [Side note: For a great example, skim the book “Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narrative and Contemporary Portraits” sometime. You’ll find that it is intentionally non-historical-critical, making it useless for any significant historical work into the way ancient Israelites or Judeans would have read these texts. In addition, it does not interact with the NT at all, making it useless for any Christian reflection on Genesis and gender issues. I suppose *if* there was a religion out there that just used the OT as scripture (minus any further development as found in Christianity and Judaism), this might be a useful book.]

    Exegesis really needs to be done in stages. Brevard Childs’ Exodus commentary in OTL is an amazing example in this regard. (I’m not as familiar with his Isaiah commentary, but I’ll bet its along the same lines.) If one wants to talk about the historical readers of a Psalm, then they need to do some robust critical and historical investigation into that Psalm. After that, they can move into how later communities *received* that particular Psalm, or at least how they received similar Psalms. How do the Pseudepigrapha talk about these things? The Apocrypha? The Midrashim? As Christians, of course, we let the NT be our ultimate hermeneutical guide, but we can’t simply mute the complexity of how these ancient texts were received, even by the apostolic church! Such muting is often done by assuming the Psalmist was a sort of pre-Christian (i.e., had all the right dogmatic categories already, just lacked the details about Christ’s work and the insights of Paul’s letters).

    If one wants to talk about what a purported ancient Israelite might have believed, they should go at it full steam. They just need to be careful to not be too jarred by how foreign their categories and theology might sound compared to Christian categories. (As Vos taught us, revelation is progressive!) If one wants to to talk about how the Psalm functions as Christian scripture, however, they need to read it Christianly! Goldingay’s approach is sort of an artificial historical approach. It sounds “old” because it doesn’t mention Christ, but it isn’t really all that old because it sounds too comfortable (i.e., it has Christian-sounding soteriological and eschatological categories).

    (Semi-coherent rant over….)

    • Reformed Reader says:

      Kevin and Dante – thanks for the comments; they were helpful. Brian – thanks for the better alternative for a book on the psalms. And, Brian, I was just using it again and share your sentiments – it is just plain gospel-less interpretation and application, which makes it almost worthless, even in the textual comments. Actually, I just wrote up a critical review for Amazon (which some will hate, no doubt!) and am selling my set b/c it is too frustrating. I’d rather read (as Andrew hints) a higher critic liberal.

      Andrew – great comments. You said it better than I can! “Artificial historical approach” nails Goldingay’s unhelpful and un-messianic methodology.

      Thanks for the interaction.

      shane

      • Andrew says:

        The funny thing here (for me) is how much I like other aspects of Goldingay’s work. He’s a prolific scholar and frankly, Fuller is really lucky to have him. But as far as my hermeneutical convictions go, I find this aspect of his work pretty wanting and frustrating.

  5. […] of Biblical Theology by Brevard Childs in this book.  This is far better than what we saw in Goldingay’s commentary on the Psalms; I’d even prefer Childs’ approach to that of Greg Beale’s (though the two would […]

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