Book Review: St. Augustine’s Interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent

Book Review: St. Augustine’s Interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent

—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 144–147

Gerard McLarney, Adjunct Professor at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, has written a monograph on Augustine’s interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent, contributing to the field of theological exegesis (p.4). He argues that Augustine uses a hermeneutic of alignment, aligning “the listeners and the text within this unfolding narrative,” a narrative chronicling a journey of salvation spanning from Abel to Augustine’s present (p.37). Augustine’s alignment hermeneutic allowed his audience to participate “in the life of the text” (35).

McLarney demonstrates his thesis with an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The monograph’s title, however, unsuccessfully describes the book’s contents. It is only in the fourth and fifth chapters that McLarney directly deals with Augustine’s interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent, meaning that the first 122 pages describe introductory and related issues. Chapter 1 describes patristic exegesis of the Psalter in general, while the second chapter details how the Psalms of ascent were delivered and transmitted. The third chapter addresses the social, cultural and ecclesial context of the homilies.

Even though the monograph’s title may not accurately describe its contents, the first three chapters provide a learned introduction to issues surrounding Augustine’s use of the Psalter. The skill with which McLarney wields both primary and secondary sources in, for example, the third chapter’s discussion on Augustine’s context bestows upon readers a wealth of measured knowledge that will inspire junior scholars and will inform interested readers.

McLarney’s monograph on Augustine also aids Christian ministers. For example, Augustine’s alignment hermeneutic implies that preaching a text’s original setting is insufficient; a text’s meaning must be interpreted in the local church. The text and reader are the place or context of interpretation (p.34). In other words, Augustine advocates contextualizing Scripture to bridge the gap between the “then” and “now.” Whatever one’s conviction is on the issue of contextualization, McLarney confronts readers with relevant issues of the day that shine from the past.

Additionally, McLarney provides rationale for why Augustine interprets a particular Psalm in the way that he does. Readers of ancient texts know that discerning an author’s rationale or assumptions behind an interpretation can be quite difficult. McLarney details such assumptions when, for example, he speaks of Augustine’s interpretation of Ps 119 (Eng: 120) in which Augustine interprets the Psalm as “a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem” (p.148). “The Bishop’s rationale,” writes McLarney, “is based on his interpretation of the superscription, and other biblical references, in addition to his theological presumptions about the fallen human condition, the interiority of the ascent, and the salvific descent and ascent of Christ” (p.148).

Due, in part, to his careful reading of Augustine that takes into account his rationale for interpretation, McLarney’s monograph also contributes to the retrieval movement, a movement that aims to recover earlier Christian tradition to reinvigorate the church. Augustine’s theological exegesis of Psalms challenges modern conceptions of exegesis. Even though few modern scholars will adopt Augustine’s model of the theological exegesis, awareness of the bishop’s thought and of early Christian exegesis will allow scholars to become more aware of their own situatedness and the situatedness of their interpretations.

Consider, for instance, Augustine’s interpretation of Ps 121 (Eng: 122). He argues that the city being built in Ps 122 is the heavenly Jerusalem, not the earthly city. Immediately, one may suspect Augustine to have allegorically read the text, but actually he “appeals to authorial intent” (p.172). After weaving together texts that furnish a biblical-theological understanding of the city, Augustine explains that the Psalmist wrote of Jerusalem which is (a) being built (aedificatur) (b) like a city (ut civitas). The bishop reasons that the passive present participle (“being built”) cannot be David’s city, which already has been constructed but it must be another. Indeed, the Psalmist’s Jerusalem is only “like a city.” Thus, the Psalmist himself engages in a figural reading akin to Peter’s words in 1 Pet 2:5 where “Christians are to be built ‘like living stones, into a spiritual house’” (p.172).

Such an interpretation combines grammatical and theological exegesis into an undivided whole, and McLarney’s presentation of it rejects a fine distinction between historical and spiritual exegesis. From a twenty-first century point of view, such interpretations appear at first blush allegorical. But McLarney makes readers aware that Augustine uses grammatical and theological reasoning to derive his interpretation, exposing the situatedness of readers who might otherwise dismiss Augustine’s reading as non-historical and invalid.

McLarney’s monograph deserves to be read by Augustine enthusiasts and those interested in patristic interpretation in general. Indeed, the breadth of McLarney’s scholarship lends itself to history, textual criticism, and hermeneutics, making his volume valuable to different sorts of readers.

Bibliographical Information

Gerard McLarney. St. Augustine’s Interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014. Pp. xviii + 244. ISBN: 978-0-8132-2703-0. $65.00 [Hardback].
About the Author:
Wyatt A. Graham

Wyatt A. Graham is a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Seminary and currently serves as Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Canada.

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@wagraham

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