“Take and Read” Good Books to Strengthen Pastoral Ministry, Issue 105

March 7, 2017 by Presbyterian Foundation

The First 50 Psalms

  • Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50: Sighs and Songs of Israel. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Ellen Charry, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary, has provided the church with a marvelous theological commentary on the first 50 psalms, part of the Brazos Theological Commentary series. William Brown of Columbia Seminary writes in his Forward that, “Ellen Charry’s commentary on Psalms is like no other … Her keen interest in ethics and historical theology, matched by her command of the Hebrew language and Jewish tradition, have equipped her well for engaging these highly charged texts … Charry has produced a theologically robust, morally nuanced honest-to-God kind of commentary.”

In the not too distant past, Reformed Christians were characterized by their love for the psalms. But Presbyterians began to neglect the Psalter a generation or two ago. We do not ignore them, but they are usually consigned to place fillers in worship – responsive readings and paraphrased metrical psalms. Psalms are no longer “the prayer book of the church,” central to Reformed piety.

Charry’s commentary rescues the psalms from historical-critical treatments that restrict them to long ago and far away Israel. Each psalm is treated by exploring its canonical context and themes, structure and dynamics, and theological pedagogy. At each point, Charry enables us to “read the poems in their own theological integrity and also engage them through later Christian images, texts, and criteria, not to domesticate them but so that the soul-piercing questions that the poets raise in lament, supplication, and imprecation can expand Christian piety beyond conventional answers.” Note: expand Christian piety, not mastery of the text. The greatest strength of Ellen Charry’s commentary is that it enables us to pray the psalms, not merely read them.

I have found that reading a psalm a day, followed by carefully reading Charry’s commentary on that psalm (3-5 pages), then reading the psalm again, enables me to make the psalm my own in prayer. Such a disciplined practice will enrich any pastor. I can only hope that commentaries on Psalms 51-150 will follow.

It is worth mentioning (and recommending) Ellen Charry’s wonderful book, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. Its treatments of representative voices from Scripture, Patristics, medieval piety, and 16th century reform show how Christian doctrines aim to be good for us by forming or reforming our character. Theology, like Scripture itself, is too often treated by pastors as an object to be mastered in order to preach and teach, rather than as a teacher and guide to lead us to deeper love of God and others. Ellen Charry’s books help to renew pastoral minds.

Lenten Commentary: Dying and Rising in the Church

“Dying is part of transformation, of course, and 2016 was full of it. The deaths of public personalities seemed to hit us all almost weekly,” writes Rev. Lee Hinsion-Hasty. “This all makes me think that “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” said on Ash Wednesday is pretty heavy stuff.

“Over 80 percent of the currently active ministers of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) will be eligible to retire in the next 13 years. I wonder will there be enough pastors called into ministry and prepared for service to fill the pulpits and positions they retire? Will those positions still be there?” Read the full commentary

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